“I’m headed out to the barn,” Charly told Missy the next morning.
He'd been up for awhile but she’d just rolled up onto her elbow, looking around groggily, her hair mashed up crazily against her head on one side.
“I’ll be out there for a few hours. Come in around midday. Have a meal ready and we’ll eat together.”
She scowled at him; the same stink eye she’d aimed and him the first day and he lifted an eyebrow meaningfully. She rolled her eyes and fell back onto the pillow. Charly sighed with aggravation and headed out the door. Don’t let her get under your skin. Not on a beautiful day like today.
Not after the hell of the day that had been yesterday. After the blistering her backside had endured, Charly was fairly certain he could leave her and her sour mood alone with the confidence that he'd return to find her just where he'd left her - and likely as sour as ever, if the short history of their time together was any indication.
As he stepped into the barn and breathed in the earthy, comforting smell, he told himself that this was a situation he could make the best of, that the extra pair of hands could be useful. He moved into the familiar rhythm of his routine and when he was finished in the barn, he gathered supplies and moved on to his next project: clearing a few acres on the other side of the creek. The work had begun long ago, but there was only a few weeks left before the frozen ground wouldn’t yield to his intervention anymore. And he wanted it completed before then. Wanted to be able to sit back and know that, come spring, he could plant. Charly had big plans for that field; he could already envision the golden wheat heads swaying under the sun, could feel the heat of the sheaves after harvest, and could taste the relief of turning that grain into money - insurance against the changeable nature of good fortune. He could picture the letter he'd write to the folks back home. East! Damnit! Back east! Charly kicked at a dirt clod and pictured it: a letter that they would read to their friends, that would show them all that his risk had been worth it, that would give them the itch to head west and join him. He shook his head. You don't want the crowds, Charly. You don't. You're a crotchety old loner.
He walked up to a scraggly knot of brush. No one standing over him to tell him what to do. No one looking down their noses at him for wanting to blaze his own trail. Just a whole lot of wild, scrubby prairie, challenging him, What are you going to make of it? Nobody is telling you what to do and nobody will know. But you'll know. What are you going to make of it?
Gallons of sweat and layers of blisters stood between Charly and the moment in which he'd see his vision realized and he wasn’t afraid of either one. Brush to be cleared, stumps to be out rooted, rocks to be carried off - he relished all of it. At the first fall of his ax against the base of the thorny root, he glimpsed movement by the creek and glanced over to see Missy, drawing up a bucket of water. She glanced up and narrowed her eyes at him then turned away haughtily. Charly laughed under his breath and swung again. Her black mood was powerless against the tonic of hard work and sunshine.
At midday, Charly was ready for a break. He shrugged a knot out of his shoulder and whistled as he walked back to the lean-to. He sniffed as he walked in the door, ready to enjoy a sensory preview of the meal his belly was growling for.
The only thing he smelled was coffee.
He cleaned his hands over the washbasin and sat in the chair, pulling it up to the table and waiting for Missy to turn around from where she was crouched in front of the fire. When she finally did, straightening and turning towards the table, she looked at him airily.
“Well?” Charly set his hat on the table.
She pushed a pot of coffee and an empty cup towards him. Then, as if it was an afterthought, she reached back to the fire and picked up a plate from the corner of the hearth and slid it across the table to me.
Charly looked at it with a scowl. "Jerky? That’s it? Jerky?”
She scooted a barrel up to the table and perched tenderly on its lid, pouring a cup of coffee for herself and nibbling on a piece of jerky.
He testily poured a cup and sniffed as he started gnawing on his own piece of jerky. “I had my hopes up for something just a little more rib-sticking than this,” he muttered.
She didn’t respond, just continued her haughty nibbling.
“If this is the best you can come up with, you might as well come out and help me clear the field instead of sitting in here on your fanny.”
She shifted carefully on the barrel lid.
A few quiet minutes went by as both of them worked their jaws on the tough meat. Annoyed, Charley drained the last of his coffee, stood up and grabbed another strip of jerky. “What’s it gonna be, Missy? You coming out to the field with me? Or do you think you can come up with something a little better for dinner.”
She glowered at the rough table top and then nodded once.
He trudged back out to the field, finishing the last of his jerky and reminding himself that it was certainly not the first time that nothing but coffee and jerky had carried him through the day.
He milked every drop of sunlight from the day and was grateful for the bright moon to illuminate his way back to the cabin. He would take a lantern out to the barn after dinner to do the chores. Right now, all he could think about was food.
Missy was sitting on the bed, paging lazily through the book he kept on the ledge above his bed.
Charly walked over to the hearth and looked into the pot that hung over the coals. He blinked. Porridge. Bubbling away in the center and charred black around all around the edges. “Why, you little...” he growled under his breath. He whirled around to face her. She kept her eyes on the open page, her face smug.
Charly felt the fury rising, as hot and steady as that boiling center of the porridge pot. Squaring his shoulders, he barely bothered to keep the indignation out of his voice as he took a seat and said, “I'll have a bowl, please.”
It was absolutely still for several seconds while he waited. Then there was a huff from the bed and Missy flounced over to the hearth and scooped a big, messy glop into a bowl. She walked over to him, stood right at his elbow, held the bowl over the table and then abruptly dropped it, sending porridge spattering over the rim, onto the table.
And that was the last straw.
Charly shoved his chair back from the table and reached for Missy’s wrist, throwing her over his lap and pinning her against his thigh with a forearm across her back. “It’s amazing how mouthy you can be without saying a damn thing,” he said as he once again lifted her skirt and yanked her pantaloons out of the way. He brought an open hand down hard on her already bruised rear and was gratified by her loud yelp. He landed a half-dozen more solid swats before her kicking became so emphatic that she was impeding his progress, so he swung a leg out from under her and brought it behind her knees, locking her legs in place, out of his way.
“Listen here, Missy. I’m not going to stop until you make up your mind to be more agreeable to this whole situation.” Charly resumed where he'd left off and her head shot up as she squealed loudly. “I’m sure you can find a way to let me know when you’re ready to cooperate.”
He kept up a steady pace, lecturing sternly over her yelps. “I didn’t whip you hard enough yesterday, is that it? Didn’t fully impress the futility of defying me? Here’s how it works: I tell you to stay, you stay. I tell you to work, you work. I tell you to lie down and go to sleep, then you climb in that bed, you close your eyes and you don’t make a peep.”
She bucked and curled over his thigh, her yelps pained, indignant, angry. Charly pulled his arm back further, faintly hearing his muscles complain about being fatigued, but his righteous indignation fueled him enough to persevere. Just when his palm was starting to burn fierce, her will broke and she went limp in submission over his knee, a fist gripping his trouser leg, sobbing. He gave her few more wallops for good measure, although his heart wasn’t really in it anymore; her sobbing was so pathetic.
Charly's hand came to rest on the back of her thigh. How could a girl make it this far along in years and not have learned what everybody knew was proper behavior? As he reflected on this, he thought that perhaps her being out on her own was a reflection of misbehavior that proceeded his meeting her. Perhaps she ran off in a fit of pique at being asked to help out more, just as she had today. She's uncommon stubborn, that’s what she is. Well, as long as she's with me, I’ll do her people a favor and do what they failed to do: teach her to behave. If it takes warming her backside every day, I'll do it.
Her sobs reduced to little hiccuping sighs, Charly helped her to her feet and stood her between his knees.
“Missy,” he lifted her chin, prompting her to meet his eyes, “I won’t stand for this. Now, maybe nobody’s cared enough about you to teach you to do right, or maybe they tried and just gave up too easily. Listen to me now: I mean to teach you to behave. And the sooner you learn the better, because I’m sure you’ll find my methods very unpleasant.”
She looked at him wearily, like she was already sick of the struggle that the future promised to hold.
He clicked his tongue and exhaled loudly. “Now, porridge is nothing to feed a man who’s been clearing fields all day. Didn’t you know that?”
Reluctantly, she nodded her head. Without a word, she retreated back to the fire and picked up an overturned bucket that sat on the hearth. There was something hidden underneath it. Charly craned to look and watched her bend down and pick up a dish. She looked down at it for a few seconds, considering something anxiously. Then she turned to him and held it out in one hand, the other outstretched as if to ward him off.
And Charly could see why: a perfectly delicious bowl of hearty stew - beans and salted meat and even wild greens. His face darkened again. “Are you telling me that not only did you go to all the trouble to make this perfectly acceptable meal, but you made only enough for yourself and made a separate meal of porridge just to spite me?”
Worry tugged at her features and she held out the dish to him with both hands now, like a penitent making an offering to an angry god. Like someone trying to expiate a grievous sin. She glanced up at him in fear.
Charly scowled at her sternly. “You rightly should be thrashed again.”
Her face blanched.
“But I’m not so cruel as to punish you harshly when you’re trying to make it right.” He took the dish from her. “Go to the corner. Kneel with your nose to the wall until I tell you otherwise.”
She followed his finger with her eyes, then walked to the corner and sank stiffly to her knees, clasping her hands behind her. Charly wolfed down the stew, glancing every now and then at her, noting her sniffles, her anxious fidgeting, then her sleepy swaying. He wiped his dish clean and set it on the table then stood and walked to the corner.
“Stand up, Missy.”
She obeyed and faced him, eyes downcast. Charly felt that now-familiar spark of desire blown hotly to life. He don’t know which expression filled him with more fire: her stubborn fight or her beautiful giving-in. He shook his head firmly. I shouldn’t think such things. I shouldn’t.
But he did.
He pointed sternly to the bed and then turned his back and reached for his bedroll.