Viola was crying again. Elaina was beside herself. How could one little human being who couldn’t even walk be this difficult? She’d been trying for half an hour to get her into her new clothes, a pretty little yellow dress with green leaves on it and a matching hat and shoes, but to no avail.
“Now, Vi,” she said in her most motherly voice. It was the one her mother used on Elaina and all her sisters, and it had stopped them in their tracks. Viola just stared at her, scrunched up her little fists, and opened her mouth to scream.
Being ever the curious mother, Elaina counted two new teeth coming in. Oh boy! That might account for some of the yelling, but it was becoming unbearable. She picked her child up again and held her in her underthings.
“Why are you screaming?” she asked. “Don’t you know that today is a very special day? You’ll get to meet your grandparents today. And they’re the only ones you have. So maybe you should stop yelling.”
Her daughter popped her right thumb into her mouth and began to suck. Well, at least she was quiet for the moment.
“What’s been going on?” Roland asked as he flung the door to Viola’s room open and shoved his head through. “Is everything all right?”
Turning to look at him properly, Elaina wore the expression of a mother at the end of her tether. Their daughter cooed and made talking noises around her thumb. Sometimes Elaina really wanted to scream herself just like her daughter did, but usually, she kept her calm. Her daughter was wonderful, bright, and expressive. It was just a pity she was also pigheaded, stubborn, and sometimes difficult.
“She won’t wear the dress,” Elaina said plaintively.
Roland came into the room smiling. “Oh, give her here,” he said, holding out his arms to the child who turned and lunged for him.
Elaina and Roland only just managed not to drop her. Thoroughly through with dressing babies, Elaina stalked from the station house into the station itself.
It had undergone some thorough remodeling after the Redwood Gang shot it full of holes. The repairs had taken weeks of hard work, with her and Roland also pitching in whenever they could. Of course, the coaches kept coming, which was both a hindrance and a blessing. Having people walking through the areas being repaired brought in the money to do the repairs and also made it harder to do them.
Luckily, the local builders, a group of men who worked for Mr. Wallace, came and did most of the work between coaches when they could. They replaced the shattered windows and mended the walls when possible. They plugged holes, painted walls, and sanded and repaired floors. They even managed to get the stain that Jasper’s blood had left on the floor out. His and Redwood’s blood had pooled in two places, one in the entrance where Jasper had expired, and one in the parlor. Elaina still felt odd when she walked over the places where they had both died. Not that she was sad for either of them, but she figured they were both mothers’ sons, and that had to afford them some consideration, if not respect. The stains the pools of blood had left kept the event fresh in her mind and made her grateful for each day she was still breathing and for her little family.
The station was busy, and she had to wend her way through travelers buying things in the trader and heading into the parlor for a meal. There were a lot of children. For a moment, she wondered if there were more than usual. It was hard to say. People still moved through the station with surprising regularity, even though there were rumors of some home stations losing business.
It all stemmed from the railways. For the last however long, they had been creeping out West and were encroaching on the stagecoach business and everything that went with it, home stations included. Some were even closing, if the rumors that came along with the travelers were true. As the railways went to more and more places, people stopped using the coaches.
Having come out West on one, Elaina could attest to them being the least comfortable way to go anywhere. If her father had given her the choice of bumping across the country or riding in style and comfort in a train, she would have taken the train for certain. But he hadn’t, even though she could have come out partway by locomotive. But would she have met Roland then? Most likely not.
Their business being so far from the nearest railway line was still safe, but for how long? It worried Elaina to think what would happen if the coaches stopped running altogether. What would they do then? Where would they live? Rattlesnake Ridge only existed for the coaches. There wasn’t another reason for the town to be there.
She hated to think of all their friends losing their homes and businesses and being scattered to the four winds. But this was all conjecture, worrying about the future, which Roland advised her was a silly thing to do. Elaina liked to call it planning for the future, but it was just worrying. Well, mostly worrying.
Roland joked and said he could write books and she could bake wedding cakes if everything fell apart and they had to close the station. She thought he was crazy. However, after baking Julia’s and her own wedding cakes, Elaina had received requests to bake more. Some people even paid her for her troubles. Which was nice. The extra money was certainly welcome.
The stories that Julia had sent to the publisher back East had been printed in a journal for stories of that ilk. Roland had been praised for his writing, and since then, he’d been working on stories almost nonstop. He had already sent three more packs to them. She was hopeful that they might offer to publish a collection of his stories as a book on their own sometime soon. She would love one day to pull his book from the shelf and read it to Viola and be able to tell her that her daddy wrote those stories.
How proud she would be.
Moving to the porch, Elaina breathed in the warm spring air. There was still a note of coolness in it, which was good. She hated August in this place, but thankfully, it was still a way off, but she could always feel it lurking in the air.
Shading her eyes, she stared into the distance where a heat haze was sizzling on the ground. The coach was supposed to be arriving soon. She was nervous. With the Redwood Gang gone, it was certainly safer traveling around Rattlesnake Ridge and the surrounding area, but there were plenty of other things that could happen to a stagecoach.
Elaina stayed on the porch a while longer. Mickey came out with the fresh horses for the coach that was due to depart soon. He waved to her.
“You know they’re not late yet,” he said. He meant the coach her parents were on.
“I know,” she said, not adding that they weren’t early and certainly didn’t seem to be on time either. She watched him get the horses into their harnesses, and then went back inside. She wondered if Roland had managed to get Viola into that dress. He had a way with his daughter, and there was no denying it. He would smile at her, and Viola would hold out her arms to him, and that would be the end of it. He even got her to eat her peas without too much fuss. But let Elaina try, and the peas littered the walls, floor, and table.
“Looking for the coach?” Doris asked as Elaina passed her counter.
She nodded. “I guess they’re going to be late.”
“When does that coach ever run on time?” Doris asked.
It was a good question and not one that had a great answer because the answer was never. Elaina went through to the kitchen. There was still work to do. A lot. The last group of passengers had been surprisingly hungry and had eaten just about everything she had made for the day. And lunchtime was coming, and her folks were supposed to arrive just before then.
She set to work making more sandwiches and salads. Their little station garden, protected as it was from the brunt of the bad weather, had managed to keep them in food for most of the winter, and even now, the pea plants were sending their tendrils out and grabbing onto the trellis Elaina and Roland had erected for them. She was proud of the pea plants. The lettuce and tomatoes were coming up as well. And new carrots were coming along. She’d added some pots to the kitchen as window boxes and had managed to grow some plants there as well, mostly herbs.
Julia came bursting into the kitchen with her arms full of dishes. “They were a plague of locusts,” she said. “They ate everything.”
“I know,” Elaina said. “Where is Agnes?”
“With Roland and Viola,” Julia said with a grin. “You have to admit that Roland is exceptional at minding children.”
Elaina agreed. “It’s because he’s a child.”
Julia smiled. “I’m glad you only realized that after the wedding.”
It was a standing joke between them, and they both laughed. For the next hour the two women worked hard in the kitchen, washing the dishes, and making more food. Elaina decided to get dinner on the go as well. If all she had to do was pop the pies in the oven when it was closer to feeding time, then all the better for her. She’d made the pastry the day before and let it mature in the cold room, so it was a matter of letting it warm for half an hour before she could roll it out.
Julia sat down and put her feet up. She was pregnant again and tired out quickly. She also had the appetite of a locust and tucked into some oatmeal cookies Elaina had made for her.
“These are good,” Julia said with a smile, crumbs on her blouse.
“Thanks,” Elaina said, flouring the worktable before getting ready to roll out the dough.
“Mmmm,” Julia said. “Did you hear that Doris’ loan was approved?”
“No! She can build her house?” Elaina asked.
Doris Nugent, whom the previous bank manager, Mr. Blakely, had turned out of her home under the false pretext that she owed the bank a lot of money, was much better off these days. It turned out that she hadn’t owed anything. The money Blakely had stolen from her proved to be more than enough to pay her loan, and the bank had apologized and written it off.
“Yup, she is going to buy the old Wembley place,” Julia said. “It’s all set up for goat farming, and that’s what her two boys want to do.”
“Both of them?” Elaina asked.
“Yes, Henry says there’s money in sheep and goats, and they cost as much as cattle so….” she let her words hang.
Elaina considered this as she rolled the dough out. Perhaps there was hope for Rattlesnake yet. Even if the station did close one day, maybe if there was enough farming happening that the town would carry on. It seemed the new bank manager was a man with a dream. He saw himself investing in the people of this town and wanted to make them all financially successful. It was a nice change from Mr. Blakely, who only wanted to make himself financially secure.
Elaina made three pies, one was chicken, one was vegetable, and one was what she liked to call a kitchen pie. That meant leftovers went in it. It was mostly bacon and ham with some onions, potatoes, and cheese thrown in. It was a strange pie, but oddly enough, people seemed to like it.
With that done, she went to see what was happening in the rest of the station. Her parents should have arrived by now.
“They’ll be here,” Doris said as she strode out onto the porch again, nervously pacing and staring into the distance. Where were they? They were obviously going to be late. And she would worry that the coach had thrown a wheel or something.
And then she saw it. The cloud of dust down below the hill. She waited, hardly daring to think it could be them. It seemed to take an age before the coach finally appeared, and Elaina felt she could breathe.
As the driver, it was Joe this time, pulled into the yard, Elaina waited impatiently on the top step until the passengers had disembarked.
Her mother looked more rounded than she remembered. Her hair had more gray in it and her face more wrinkles, but she was unmistakably her mother. Elaina came rushing down the steps and enveloped her in a hug.
“Mother, I missed you,” she said, hugging the woman ferociously as though she meant to never let her go.
“And I missed you, Elaina,” her mother said. She pulled back, and Elaina saw she was crying. “Just look at you. You’re skinny as a rake. Don’t tell me you feed all these other people and forget about yourself?”
“No,” Elaina said. “but I am on my feet almost all day and even all night sometimes.” She gave a mirthless chuckle. “The joys of running a station.”
Her mother nodded and moved to the side. The person who took her place was someone that Elaina had wanted to speak to for a long time. He was, after all, the reason that her life had taken such a dramatic turn.
“Hello, Elaina,” her father said a little stiffly. He smiled at her and opened his arms.
For a moment, the old anger bubbled up. Would she forgive him so quickly? Well, since everything had turned out for the best, Elaina didn’t think she could be too angry. Then again, he had shipped her off like cargo.
But it didn’t matter. She had asked them to come out to see them after over a year of letters back and forth. She couldn’t be mad at him now. That would be silly. So, she stepped forward, opened her arms, and hugged her father.
“I’m so sorry,” he cried into her neck.
Oh boy, she thought. She’d never had her father in tears before.
They held each other for a while, and then she ushered them inside. Julia had met and welcomed the other guests, and everyone was going about their business as usual. Elaina took her parents through the station and introduced them to Owen, Mickey, and Doris. They found Roland in the station house with the two little ones. He had put wooden blocks on the floor on a blanket, and the two girls were playing together. Agnes was older and stacking the blocks well. Not to be outdone, Viola was trying to copy her with funny results that toppled over.
Elaina’s father shook Roland’s hand with great enthusiasm, and her mother melted over the babies. She decided then and there that looking after them was her job and her privilege, and she sat down on the blanket and started helping Viola. Vi took one look and smiled, then stuck her right thumb into her mouth and let her granny help her stack the blocks.
With things under control, Elaina and her father went to the station house’s porch and took a seat.
“I wanted to explain to you why I sent you off,” her father said.
“I already know,” she said. “Mr. Danville told me all about your gambling problem.”
Her father nodded. “I thought he might have. I’ve been working on it. I canceled the Friday night card games. No more of that, and your mother handles the accounts now. I just sign the checks.” He gave a mirthless laugh. “It’s hard, you know. Winning is addictive, and when you lose, you think that your luck will change, and you’ll win again. The problem is you never seem to win as much as you lose and that’s where the trouble comes in. That and not keeping track of the debts properly. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve learned my lesson. And I….” he hesitated. “I wanted to ask you to forgive me. Please. I didn’t mean to cause you such trouble.”
Elaina sighed. How could she explain that being shipped out West had been both the best and worst thing that had ever happened to her? How could she explain to her father that she loved Roland and her daughter with all her being and couldn’t imagine her life without them? How could she make him understand that the people who shared her life here at the home station were also her family and that she would never have met them if he hadn’t done what he did? It was impossible to put all of that into words that would make her father feel less guilty and see the good he had caused.
So, she didn’t try. Instead, she decided that for the months that her parents were staying with them, she would show them how happy she was. She would help them to see that she was happy, loved, and doing work she enjoyed. There was a satisfaction in greeting travelers and making their lives better, even if it was only for an hour. It was important, and she felt she was changing the world, one meal at a time.
Would this end someday? Sure, probably sooner than they would want it to. But she and Roland could find a way to carry on, and together, they could face anything.
“Are you hungry, father?” she asked.
Her father thought about it for a moment and then nodded. “I certainly could eat.”
Elaina smiled. “Then let’s go through to the Resting Parlor, and I’ll get you a plate.”
And there she was, changing lives one plate at a time.