Bethany House Publishers
About the Book
Twenty Years Later
Esther Spreckelmeyer hated the Fourth of July. This day above all others reminded her that everyone in the world went two by two. Everyone but her. She would have stayed home if she could have gotten away with it, but her father, the judge for the 35th Judicial District, expected his family to attend all social events.
Standing in the quiet of her family's kitchen, she determined that this year was going to be different. She had turned thirty last week and she needed a husband. Now.
She straightened the red-and-white gingham bow wrapped around her basket handle, then checked the contents one more time. Fried chicken, sweet potatoes, hominy, dill carrots, black-eyed pea wheels, deviled eggs, cow tongue, and blackberry tarts.
Cooking was of utmost importance to a man in search of a wife. Whoever bought her box supper today at the auction would need to know that with Essie, he'd be well taken care of.
Her father entered the kitchen, pulling on his light summer jacket. "What do you have in your basket this year, dear?"
She took a deep breath. "I don't want you bidding on it, Papa. Nor the sheriff, either."
Papa came up short. "Why not? What's wrong with your father or uncle winning it?"
"If the two of you bid, no one else will even try."
His gray eyebrows furrowed. "But no one has tried for years, other than that youngster, Ewing."
Essie cringed. Ewing Wortham was seven years her junior and used to dog her every step. At the ripe old age of ten, he offered two measly pennies for her basket. No one, evidently, had the heart to bid against him, and every year after he proudly bid his two cents. She could have cheerfully strangled him.
She'd received her height early and her curves late. Between that, her penchant for the outdoors, and her propensity for attracting the admiration of incorrigible little boys, her basket had been passed over more times than naught. Especially since Ewing had gone away to school.
Swallowing, she lifted her chin. "Nevertheless, Papa, I don't want either of you bidding on it."
"I don't understand."
"If neither of you bid, someone will step up to the task."
"Don't be ridiculous," her mother said, entering the kitchen and tucking a loose curl up under her hat. "No one's going to bid on your basket, Essie. Now let's go. We're going to be late."
Papa opened the door. Mama stepped through, the taffeta beneath her silk moiré skirt rustling. Essie gripped the edge of the table and stayed where she was.
"Are you coming?" Papa asked.
"Only if you promise not to bid."
He stood quiet for a long minute. It wasn't hard to understand why the people of Corsicana elected him term after term. Everything in his bearing exuded confidence and invited trust. His robust physique, his commanding stature, his sharp eyes, his ready smile.
"Come along, Sullivan," her mother called. "Whatever are you doing?"
He stayed where he was. "I'll have to leave during the auction, then, Essie. I would not be able to stand it if Ralph held up your supper and no one bid."
"That's not going to happen."
He tugged on his ear. "All right, then. Your uncle and I will slip away before your box comes up for auction --- if you're sure."
But she wasn't. And between their arrival at the park and the start of the auction, Essie's self-assurance flagged. What if someone older than Papa bid? What if someone much younger than her bid? What if no one bid?
She glanced up at the blue heavens stretching across their small east Texas town and sent a quick prayer that direction. After all, she only wanted a husband, a house, and some offspring. Was that so much to ask? The Lord commanded His children to be fruitful, to multiply, and to populate the earth, and Essie intended to do her part.
Mr. Roland stepped onto the red-white-and-blue-festooned podium, stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled. The piercing sound cut across the hum of the crowd, quieting the townsfolk as they gathered round. Essie placed a hand against her stomach to calm the turmoil within.
Boxes and baskets of every size, shape, and color covered the tables beside the podium. And though no supper had the owner's name tacked to it, everyone knew whose basket was whose, for the ribbons or doodads on a girl's box revealed her identity as surely as a stamped beehive identified Dunn Bennett china.
She adjusted her bon ton hat with its silk netting, handsome plume, and two bunches of roses all trimmed in red-and-white gingham. She had ordered it from the Montgomery Ward catalog specifically for this event, knowing it would set off her pale blond hair, which she had twisted tightly against her head.
Skimming the crowd, she swallowed. Papa and Uncle Melvin were nowhere in sight. Lillie Sue's box came up first and the bidding began in earnest, the young bucks all vying for the privilege of sharing a meal with the doctor's daughter.
Essie studied the unmarried men and widowers close to her age. There were not too many of them. Mr. Fouty, a cotton farmer from south of town. Mr. Wedick, a widower who'd outlived three wives so far. Mr. Crook, owner of the new mercantile. Mr. Klocker, Mr. Snider, and Mr. Peeples.
She cataloged every man in attendance, discounting the ones who were too old, too young, or too unsuitable in temperament or occupation. A silence descended and Essie turned to the podium.
Mr. Roland held her basket high. "Come on now, fellers, bid her up. If this basket belongs to who I think it does, you'll find something guaranteed to delight yer fancy."
No one offered a bid. Essie's stomach tightened. Her head became weightless. Blinking, she tried to see through the sunspots marring her vision.
"Now, boys. A basket like this is worth more than a pat straight flush. So, who'll start us off?"
Still no one bid.
Pretty little Shirley Bunting leaned over and whispered to her friend, "I cannot imagine why some old biddy would keep bringing her basket year after year when she knows nobody wants it. How embarrassing for her father."
Her friend nudged her and indicated Essie with her head.
Shirley turned, eyes wide. "Oh! Hello, Miss Spreckelmeyer. A lovely afternoon we're having, isn't it?"
Essie inclined her head. The girls hooked elbows and, giggling, disappeared farther into the crowd.
Someone yelled, "Where's Spreckelmeyer? Why ain't he speaking up? We're ready to bid on Betty Lou's."
Essie focused on the auctioneer, refusing to look anywhere else.
Mr. Roland scanned the crowd and stopped when he came to her. "Where's yer daddy, Miss Spreckelmeyer?"
She took a trembling breath. "He stepped away for a moment."
"Well, then, why didn't ya say so? I'll just put this here basket to the side, and when he gets back, you have him come on up and get it. I know he's good fer it."
She attempted a smile but wasn't sure it ever formed. The bidding on Betty Lou's basket commenced, followed by Beatrice's, Flossie's, Liza's, and the rest. By the time the auction finished and everyone dispersed, Essie's basket stood alone on the podium.
Slowly moving forward, she picked it up and walked home, never once looking back.
* * *
Points of Merit:
- Still has hair
- Has two young children, so our own offspring would not be too far apart in age
- Loved his wife, God rest her soul
- Tight with his money
- Drinks spirits
- Only attends church on Sundays, but not Wednesdays
- Lets the children run wild
- Doesn't like pets
- Doesn't enjoy the outdoors
Essie closed her eyes and tapped the top of her bronze Ladies' Falcon pen against her lips, trying to envision the men who had attended the picnic. Opening her eyes, she wrote Mr. Klocker's name down and proceeded to cover the ruled octavo notepaper with a list of his attributes and shortcomings.
Within the hour she had a comprehensive list of the eligible --- and attainable --- bachelors in Corsicana. She blew on the wet ink and stamped the pages with her blotter. There was something a little frightening about seeing the words in black and white.
Was this what men did when they considered whom they wanted to court? If so, what would a man list under the positive and negative columns concerning her? Whatever it was, she'd obviously come up short.
Placing her pen in its holder, she leaned back in her chair and studied the papers spread out on her desk. Father, guide me, she prayed. Show me which one.
But no answer was forthcoming.
Closing her eyes, she whirled her finger above the papers as if stirring some giant cauldron, then spontaneously landed her finger on the table. She opened her eyes.
Mr. Peeples. Leaving her finger in place, she leaned to the right so she could read what item she'd pointed to.
- Bits of chest hair poke up out of his collar
She snatched her hand away. Maybe she should sleep on it. Pray more about it. And in the morning, she would choose a man and launch her campaign.
* * *
Essie rapped on the back door of the Slap Out. It was a ridiculous name for a mercantile, but Hamilton Crook refused to call it Crook's Mercantile. Said it would be bad for business. So everyone in town had offered their suggestions until some farmer came through exclaiming he was "slap out o' rum." Followed by another fellow who was "slap out o' salt pork and powder shot."
One of the regulars had chuckled and said, "You oughta call this place 'Slap Out'!" --- never dreaming, she was sure, that the name would stick.
Essie pulled her shawl tight about her shoulders. The sun had risen, but it was too early for the store to be open. She had wanted to arrive in plenty of time to explain her idea without the risk of customers interrupting.
She knocked again and sighed. She had always hoped her married name would be something elegant, even regal. Anything was better than Spreckelmeyer, or so she'd thought.
Now she was beginning to wonder. Going from Essie Spreckelmeyer to Essie Crook had been the biggest drawback to choosing Mr. Crook as her future husband. Hard to say which name was worse.
The door swung open. Mr. Crook stood in his stocking feet, shirttail out, black hair completely mussed. "Miss Spreckelmeyer? What is it? What has happened?"
Goodness. He looked even younger than she had guessed he was. His youth was the other negative in his column, but she'd thought the gap between them was small. Now, inspecting him up close, she wasn't so sure.
A baby cried in a distant room. Mr. Crook stuck his head out the door, looking to see, no doubt, what disaster had brought the town's old maid to his back doorstep.
His gaze fixed on her bicycle propped against the building. "Has your riding machine blown a part?"
"No, no. I just need a short word with you, if you don't mind."
The baby's complaints turned from belligerent to downright frantic.
"Might I come in?" she asked.
He glanced toward the sound of the baby. "This is a rather awkward time for me. The store will be open in another hour. Perhaps you could stop by then?"
Her immediate instinct was to nod and scuttle away. But she needed a husband and she'd decided Mr. Crook would do quite nicely.
She pulled the screen door open and stepped inside, forcing him back. "No, I'm not sure that's a good idea. You go ahead and tend to yourself and the baby, though. I shall wait right here for you."
"Really, Miss Spreckelmeyer." He frowned, and already she found herself wanting to smooth down the patch of hair sticking straight out from his head. Perhaps it was a sign.
"I'm afraid I will be busy right up to store opening," he said.
"I understand. Run along now. I'll be here when you get back."
She removed her shawl and hooked it on a hall tree. "Go on with you. I'll be fine."
She had to raise her voice to be heard over the baby's screeches. After another second or two, he turned his back and disappeared up the stairs that led to his personal quarters.
The closing of a door abruptly cut off the baby's cries. A baby who desperately needed a mother. She squelched that thought for now. First things first.
She glanced around the narrow storage area. She'd never been in the back of the store before. It smelled of lumber, leather, soap, and grain. Empty gunnysacks lay piled in a corner. Shelves lined two walls and held a hodgepodge of tools and gadgets, dishes and jars, cloth and brooms. Harnesses, straps, and whips hung from ceiling hooks.
A couple of crates sat shoved against a wall with sacks of grain leaning against them. A wooden bar bolted the large barn-like door where barrels were delivered. The unvarnished plank floor beneath her feet had turned gray from exposure.
Mr. Crook's store was only two years old, the first competition the old Flour, Feed and Liquor Store had seen since opening in 1858. With the Texas Central Railroad now coming through town, businesses were popping up everywhere.
Essie moved through the curtained barrier between the storage room and the store, stepping onto the stained, varnished, and newly shined floor of the Slap Out. Sunshine seeped in around the edges of the drawn window coverings, filling the store with muted light.
She took a deep breath. This was her first taste of what her role as Mrs. Crook would be like. The large, still room invoked a sense of peace, tranquility, and rightness.
She belonged here. She just knew it. Mr. Crook might not have bid on her basket yesterday, but he needed a woman and helpmate.
That baby needed a mother. And Essie was the perfect candidate for the job.
She just wished she could remember whose basket Mr. Crook had bought, but that entire auction was nothing but a muddle in her mind, as fragmented as an unfinished puzzle.
She strolled behind the counter, her bootheels clicking against the solid floor as she ran her fingers along bolts of wool, dimity, gingham, percale, linen, and lawn cloth. She skimmed her hand across balls of yarn in every color of the rainbow, then tapped one side of a scale, setting it to swinging and causing its brass pans to jangle.
She picked up a bottle of Warner's Safe Nervine --- reading the label's claim of healing, curing, and relieving of pain --- then set it back down and scanned the vast assortment of tonics, pills, and powders. She'd have her work cut out for her learning which medicine was best for what.
Beside these items, drawers and bins stretched from floor to ceiling across the middle section of the wall, each carefully labeled compartment filled with spices, coffee, tobacco, candy, buttons, peas, and most anything else imaginable.
And if she had her way, she would soon be proprietress over it all. But first, she must slip behind the lines, learn the lay of the land, and then take over to the point where Mr. Crook would become almost dependent upon her.Where he couldn't imagine life in the store without her. Once there, advancing from helper in the store to helper in the home was just a staircase away.
She smoothed her hand up the nape of her neck. She mustn't waver from her goal. She must stay strong in her purpose no matter how nervous she felt.
Still, subtlety would be the order of the day. She didn't want to scare him off by pushing too hard, too fast. Heading to the readymade clothes section, she removed an apron from one of the shelves. Shaking it out, she tied it around her waist and mentally cataloged the boots, shoes, long johns, hats, bonnets, and handkerchiefs that lined the tables and shelves in this little nook.
She returned to the back room, picked up a broom and began to sweep the store, starting in the farthermost corner where the stove, chairs, and checkers had been set up. She was nearly finished with the entire floor when Mr. Crook came through the curtain.
His short black hair had been slicked down and parted in the middle, while square spectacles perched upon his nose. Rosy cheeks graced his oval face, making her wonder if she had been the one to put that color there.
He grasped the opening of his cassimere coat and tugged, drawing her eyes to the snappy plaid vest he wore along with a four-in-hand tie.
"Miss Spreckelmeyer? What are you doing?"
She looked down at the broom in her hand. "Oh. I just thought I'd make myself useful while I waited."
He strode forward and snatched the broom away. "That is quite unnecessary. Now, what emergency has brought you to the Slap Out at this early hour?"
She clasped her hands together. "No emergency, sir. I didn't mean to worry you."
"Then what is it?"
Stay strong. "I know things have been a bit difficult for you since Mrs. Crook's passing, and I thought I might ease your burden a bit."
He smiled warily. "Well, that is quite thoughtful of you, but Mrs. Peterson watches the baby and takes care of my meals."
"Oh no. I didn't mean that. I meant with the store. The other evening I saw you sitting at your desk burning the midnight oil, so to speak, and realized you must do nothing but work and sleep and work and sleep. I thought maybe if you had an extra hand, perhaps you could do some of that bookkeeping during the day."
He rocked back on his heels. "Are you, uh, asking for employment, Miss Spreckelmeyer?"
She gasped. "Good heavens, no. I had no intention of charging you for my assistance. I merely meant to give you a helping hand."
"I see. Well. I don't know what to say. That's very kind of you, but --- "
"No need to say anything a'tall." Smiling, she patted his arm. "I'll just finish up with this sweeping here, then start dusting the shelves."
She took the broom back and put it to work on the last section of flooring, praying he'd be too polite to refuse her offer.
He removed a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his forehead. "Miss Spreckelmeyer, I really don't quite know how to say this, but --- "
"Oh, now, Mr. Crook, no need to thank me. It's my pleasure."
"No, you misunderstand. What I was going to say was --- "
Five succinct hammers sounded on the door. "Hamilton? You in there?"
Mr. Crook withdrew a pocket watch from his vest and popped it open. "Please, miss. I appreciate your concern and your very generous offer --- "
She rushed to the door and gave the shade a good yank. It flew up, wrapping itself around a cylinder at the top, flapping as it rotated several more turns than was necessary.
"Oh, look," she said. "It's Mr. Vandervoort come for his coffee, and the beans are not even ground yet." She waved to the man outside, whose bushy gray brows rose in reply. "You go ahead and let him in," she said. "I'll do the coffee." She scurried to the bins, scooped out some beans and poured them into the mill.
Mr. Crook had not so much as budged.
She shooed him with her hand. "Go on."
Vandervoort jiggled the door.Mr. Crook glanced at him, then her, then moved to unbolt the latch.
"Wall, what's all the holdup about?" Vandervoort asked, pushing his way into the store. "Miss Spreckelmeyer," he said, touching his hat.
"Howdy, Mr. Vandervoort," she said. "We're off to a slow start this morning, but I'll have a fine pot brewing in no time."
"What're ya doin' here, woman?" he asked.
"I'm just temporarily helping out Mr. Crook. Seeing as he hardly has any time whatsoever to spend with his precious little baby girl and all."
Vandervoort harrumphed, then headed to his usual chair in the back.
Mr. Crook approached her. "Really, Miss Spreckelmeyer," he whispered. "I must ask you to stop this foolishness. I do not need any assistance."
Refusing to concede defeat, she girded herself with bravado, grabbed the grinder's handle and began to rotate the wheel. Little by little, coffee granules dropped into the hopper. "Well, it looks to me, sir, like you do need some help. Misters Richie, Jenkins, and Owen will be here any moment, and you haven't even started up the stove yet."
"That's because you threw off my entire morning."
"Pishposh. I did no such thing."
"Miss Spreckelmeyer, release that coffee mill at once."
She hesitantly let go and stepped back. "Well, all right, then."
"Thank you." He took a deep breath.
"You're welcome. I didn't know grinding up the beans was so important to you. But don't worry. I'm a quick study. I'll know your peculiarities in no time."
Without giving him a chance to respond, she bounced over to the stove and began to lay out the wood.
"Need any help with that, Miss Spreckelmeyer?"
"No, no, Mr. Vandervoort." She paused and looked up at him. "There is something you can do for me, though."
"Why, sure, ma'am. What is it?"
"You can do a better job of aiming your tobacco. That spittoon has a nice large mouth on it. Missing it smacks of sheer laziness, and I don't relish the thought of mopping up all that nastiness day in and day out."
He straightened. "Why, yes, ma'am. I'll do right better. Just see if I don't."
She reached over and gave his arm a squeeze. "You are such a dear. Thank you."
* * *
Hamilton Crook stared at the woman reprimanding his customer. She'd rolled up the sleeves of her olive-colored shirtwaist and wrapped a white apron around her grosgrain skirt. He knew his clothing, and hers were fine pieces. The shirtwaist sported the newest puff sleeves and choker collar while her skirt held tone-on-tone scrolling designs.
Her pinchback straw hat, however, was another matter entirely. With a wavy-edged top from which tulle poufs protruded, white flowers, fern and willow leaves surrounded vertically wired ribbon loops. Most impractical for store clerking.
He shook his head, peeking into the grinder to see how many beans were left. Why in the blue blazes was the spinster daughter of the district judge doing charity work in his store? What was wrong with working in an orphanage? Or sharing a meal with old Mrs. Yarbrough? Or helping out with the church bazaar?
He looked around. To compensate for the name this town had slapped on his store, he made sure he not only kept it in tip-top shape with all the goods organized and grouped, but he also kept it clean and well stocked. Had there been complaints? Or was this dogooder just a frustrated busybody who had singled him out as her next "project"?
Whatever the case, he needed to politely but firmly inform her that if he wanted help, he could well afford to hire someone. And that someone would not be an old maid who was notorious for wearing outrageous hats and who scandalized the town matrons by riding on a bicycle with her skirts hiked up to her knees.
Excerpted from COURTING TROUBLE © Copyright 2017 by Deeanne Gist. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved.
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