Hot, tired, and thirsty, Marie turned toward the passenger window of the beat-up old truck that had slowed alongside her and the boys as they walked along the dusty road.
The older woman in the truck looked at her with kindly eyes.
“Yes’m.” Marie didn’t have to think twice. It was surely the best—and only—offer they would get and the noonday sun was hot. The boys, Jack and Henry, wouldn’t last much longer and there was no shade to rest under.
The woman in the passenger seat of the truck gestured toward the back where a group of young’uns were settled. There was room for a few more. “Hop on in the back there with the rest and we’ll take you as far as the next town.” She smiled at Marie and Marie smiled back gratefully.
“This is right kind of you. Thank you.” She lifted the boys in the back and then climbed in herself, anxious not to take too much time lest the woman and her husband, who remained silent behind the wheel, changed their minds. Marie didn’t want to waste their time either.
All the young’uns in the back were quiet, but they smiled at the three of them and shifted to make room.
Marie smiled back in thanks and settled in for the ride, with one boy on either side of her. She noticed that the oldest didn’t look to be much younger than her own twenty-two years, and Marie wondered what their situation was, where they were headed to, and where they were coming from. It didn’t look like they lived in the lap of luxury—just like Marie and the boys, and the family life she’d come from.
There were so many fallen on hard times that the thought of someone else struggling didn’t give a person a small comfort, like maybe it would under different circumstances. Sort of like knowing you’re not the only one having a hard time should make you feel like you weren’t in it alone. Make you feel less sorry for yourself. But that wasn’t the case anymore. It just made you feel bad. And seeing so many people struggling made a person feel hopeless.
No, Marie wished good fortune for them. Maybe they were moving on to a better situation and things would turn around for them. The president had promised a “New Deal,” after all. And if they could do better, then there was a chance for her and the boys too.
It wasn’t long before they came upon the next town. It was small and awfully dusty, but there looked to be some people about and some places doing business. That was always a good sign for the times. Marie decided to keep her chin up.
The truck pulled into a gasoline station and came to a stop. Marie didn’t waste any time hustling the boys out of the back of the truck and going around to the front passenger side to thank those folks for their kindness.
“You just take care of yourself and them boys.” The older woman smiled kindly at her. “Better times are comin’, for us all.”
Her husband climbed back in behind the wheel as she spoke, having already put a small amount of gasoline in the truck. He smiled at Marie, and with that, the truck pulled away in a cloud of dust.
Marie and the boys waved to the kids in the back and they all waved back. Marie decided that if they could be positive with all those mouths to feed, then she could be too. Taking the boys by the hand, one on each side as had become her habit, Marie looked around at the small town trying to figure where to head next. She spied a small diner just up the road on the other side and figured she could start there.
Frank had to admit even to himself that he was starting to get a bit concerned, maybe worried even. As he looked out at the vast expanse of property that was his ranch, he tried to figure another solution to his problem, any other solution but the only one that came to mind at the moment, and the only one that was unacceptable to him.
He knew with complete certainty that he needed someone to care for Emmeline, his eleven month old daughter. Frank’s wife Ruth had passed in childbirth, leaving him with not only a broken heart, for he had truly loved Ruth, but also with a newborn baby to care for in addition to running a ranch that was—against all odds—prosperous. And there were an awful lot of people struggling these days, which was putting things mildly.
Frank was glad that his ranch did well, and he was glad that he was able to share his wealth by employing five ranch hands. Those men worked a long hard day for their pay, but none of them worked as hard as Frank. He had a hand in everything and he wouldn’t have it any other way. But he couldn’t take care of a baby and do all that, too.
When Ruth had passed, his ranch foreman’s wife, Josephine, had stepped right in and took over caring for Emmeline. At first, she had done so because Frank had been in shock and grieving for Ruth. Josephine had cooked and cleaned for him and taken care of Emme all day. Frank took care of her at night, feeding her when she woke up in the wee hours. He was grateful that she hadn’t been allergic to the cow’s milk she was fed as a substitute for her mother’s breast milk and he was relieved when she finally began sleeping through the night.
At some point along the way, Frank had talked to Ben, the foreman, about paying Josephine to keep on doing what she was doing. Ben and Josephine had agreed to the arrangement. They had no children of their own, Josephine adored Emme, and they certainly couldn’t say no to the money. It had all been working real well for months. Now it had to change.
Josephine was with child, which was wonderful news for the couple, who had been wanting children for a while now. The problem for Frank was that Ben and Josephine had decided to move to California to be near family when the baby was born. They had no kinfolk close by and their relations in California had offered Ben a job and them both a place to stay till they got on their feet there.
Frank was glad for Ben and his wife and wished nothing but happiness for them, but now was left with the formidable task of replacing both his trusted and hardworking foreman and his trusted and hardworking nanny/cook/housekeeper. He was sure that Josephine would prove the more difficult of the two to replace.
Frank already had several hands employed and two of those men definitely had the makings of a decent foreman. He would take Ben’s recommendation into consideration on that matter also. There were options there already.
But replacing Josephine was another matter entirely. There weren’t that many women in the area, and Frank was going to need to find someone close by or willing to live in the house. None of the other hands had wives either.
Which brought him right back to his only other option. Find an eligible young woman and marry her. As soon as possible. Didn’t seem that romantic, at least not from the woman’s point of view, but Frank had to be practical. He needed a mother for Emme. And he was offering a nice home and comfortable life for any woman who accepted his proposal. His ranch was prosperous. There was always food on the table and money for any other needs—clothing and what-not.
He had put out word in town over two weeks ago that he was looking for a housekeeper and childcare, but he hadn’t had any responses yet. Not one. Ben and Josephine were planning on leaving in two weeks and Frank was running out of time.
He stared out at the property again, least as far as his eye could see. It was the middle of the week so he decided to wait a few more days, until week’s end. If there was still no response, then he would have no choice but to start courting one of the few unmarried young women from the area. What else could he do?
It was cooler in the small diner just for the fact that they were out of the blazing sun. Plus there were some fans blowing the hot air around a bit and that seemed to help.
Marie paused for a moment just inside the entrance, waiting for her eyes to adjust to being out of the bright sunlight.
“Just take any old seats you’d like, honey,” the waitress called out to Marie from behind the counter, so she helped the boys to seats at a small table by the window. They could watch the world go by as they ate.
The waitress ambled over just as Marie settled into a chair. “Nice to get out of the heat, ain’t it?” The waitress smiled at them and Marie liked her instantly. She seemed genuinely friendly and kind. Marie could always tell when someone was faking friendly.
“Awful nice,” Marie agreed, and the boys nodded enthusiastically.
“Well, my name’s Dorothy, except everyone just calls me Dot, and I’ll give y’all a few minutes to decide what you want to eat.” Dot handed out the brief menus to all three of them.
The boys looked to the menus and then to Marie.
Marie smiled at Dot. “What’s the special today?” She did her best to sound casual. She knew that she probably had enough money to cover a small meal for all three of them, but she didn’t want to spend their last dime on this one meal, either. Yet she wasn’t about to tell a complete stranger that.
“Just about the best meal you’ll get here is the fried chicken. Bert—he’s the cook—that’s his best dish. Comes with a heap of mashed potatoes and string beans. It’s safe to say one plate would feed the two of them,” Dot motioned to the boys, “and one for you. That’d be more’n enough.” Probably not the first time Dot had dealt with customers trying to watch their pocketbooks. Marie appreciated the fact that she’d handled it with such tact.
“That sounds fine, Dot.” Marie handed the menus back to her. “Thank you.”
“Comes with beverages and dessert.” Dot smiled at the two boys as their eyes lit up at the mention of a dessert. “What are y’all drinking today?”
“Coffee for me and milk for the boys, please.”
“Comin’ right up.” Dot winked at the boys and then went to fetch their drinks.
Marie and the boys sat quietly at their table looking out the window at the street. Marie decided then that she should talk to the boys about something that had been troubling her for some time. “Jack. Henry.” Marie’s stomach twisted as they both looked up at her, their gazes so trusting and expectant. They were such good boys, and they had been through so much already in their short lives. She hoped she was doing the right thing. She kept her voice low enough so that only the boys could hear her. “There’s something that I need to talk to you both about. A favor that I have to ask of you.”
“What is it?” Jack instinctively kept his voice low also, following Marie’s lead.
“I know that you boys loved your mama more’n anything in this world”—they both nodded solemnly at this—“and I loved her too.” Marie hesitated, wanting desperately to choose the right words. “I don’t mean any disrespect to her at all by asking you this, but I need for you boys to call me ‘mama’ when we are around other people from now on.”
“But you’re not our mama,” Henry piped up, a little too loudly; a woman two tables over looked up from her coffee at them.
Marie smiled at him and reached for his hand. “I know that sweetheart, and you and Jack know that, but I’m just afraid that someone else might not understand how much we care about each other. They might not understand how important it is for us three to stay together and they might try to take you away from me, seein’ as I’m not your kin really.” Both boys seemed frightened by this statement and Marie quickly tried to soothe them. “That’s why I think it’d be best if we pretend that I’m your mama. That way no one can take you away from me.” She smiled at them reassuringly. “Does that make sense?”
Jack and Henry both nodded slowly.
“I promised your mama that I’d take good care of you after she passed on and I believe that she would approve of what we’re doing. It doesn’t have to be forever, just until we get settled somewhere. Then you can stop pretending and call me Marie again.” Marie saw Dot out of the corner of her eye headed to their table with two heaping plates of food. She smiled at the boys. “It’ll be our little secret.”
They smiled back.
Dot put the plates down and produced a third empty plate so that Marie could divvy up the portions between the three of them. “If there’s something you need, ya’ll just give a holler. Enjoy your food.” Dot started to turn from the table when Marie spoke up.
“Actually, I was wondering if you might know of anyone around here that might be lookin’ for help.” Marie started to busy herself with serving the boys. The food sure did smell good. “I need a job.”
Dot stopped mid-turn and turned back. “Y’know, I think one of the ranchers outside town was lookin’ for help—a housekeeper, I think. Not sure if it’s a live-in position or not.” She turned toward the counter. “Bert!”
Marie smiled as the boys cringed at Dot’s shrill shout across the small diner.
“Who was it was lookin’ for help—was it that rancher—what’s his name?”
A man at the counter turned then. “Frank Carter’s lookin’ for help. Live-in nanny and housekeeper.”
Marie smiled expectantly at the man. “Can you give me directions to his place?”
“Ma’am, if you wait until I’m finished eatin’, I’ll take you and your boys out there myself. I work for the man.”
“Earl, I coulda sworn last time you was in here you said you’d never do ranch work again.” Dot winked at Marie, who quickly caught on to the fact that Dot knew this man well and was having some fun with him.
“You know how things is, Dot.” Earl gave Dot a dirty look. “A man’s gotta eat. And Carter pays pretty well too. Just works a body real hard.”
Dot smiled at Marie and lowered her voice. “Earl’s good for the ride and you’re safe with him, doll,” Dot assured Marie. “Same goes for Frank Carter. He’s a serious man, but from everything I’ve heard and know of him, he’s a good and fair man also. If you stay on for the job, you come back and see me, let me know how ya’ll are doin’.” Dot winked at the boys. “Now eat that food before it gets cold.”
“Afternoon.” A pleasant looking young woman, who was clearly with child, answered the door to Frank Carter’s house. She smiled at Marie and the boys. “What can I do for y’all?”
“My name’s Marie and I’m here to inquire after the housekeeper job.” Marie smiled back. “This is Frank Carter’s place, right? Is he still lookin’ for help or has the position been filled?”
The young woman stepped aside and motioned for them to enter the house. “Come in, please. I’m sorry to make y’all stand out in that heat for a second longer.”
The three stepped into the cool house and the screen door slammed behind them.
“My name is Josephine. Pleased to meet you. And the position is most definitely still available. Why, we ain’t had any one ask after it yet. Mr. Carter’ll be pleased for sure.” Josephine leaned in to whisper conspiratorially to Marie. “There ain’t that many women folk around these parts to take a job like this. I think the boss was starting to worry.”
Josephine turned then and headed for the kitchen. “Come on inside and I’ll fetch you and the young’uns a cold drink. Then I’ll go get Mr. Carter.”
“Excuse me, Josephine?”
Josephine turned toward Marie.
“Is this a live-in position? And I’ve got the two boys too. Do you think that’ll be a problem?”
Josephine smiled at her. “It is a live-in hire. As to the boys, you’ll have to ask Mr. Carter that question. I really can’t answer that for sure. I live with my husband in the foreman’s quarters.” She continued excitedly. “We’re moving to California, which is why Mr. Carter needs someone else. And I’m expecting a child come the fall.”
She looked so excited and happy, Marie couldn’t help but smile back. “That’s wonderful.”
“Thank you. Ben—that’s my husband—Ben and I are real happy to be starting our family.” Josephine pulled a pitcher of lemonade from the icebox and reached for three glasses. “And we’re moving to be closer to family. I will miss Emmeline, though. She’s the sweetest baby, that’s Mr. Carter’s daughter, the one you’ll be caring for if’n you take the job, that is.” Josephine handed them each a cold glass of lemonade as she poured them and invited them to sit at the large kitchen table. “I’ve chewed your ear enough, I suppose. My Ben says sometimes I do go on.” Josephine giggled at this admission. “It’s just, like I said, there ain’t that many women around here. It’s nice to have someone to talk to.” She smiled at the boys. “You boys sure are handsome. What are your names?”
“I’m Jack,” Jack answered politely. He motioned to his brother. “And this here’s my brother, Henry.”
Henry smiled at Josephine, but let Jack do the talking for the both of them.
Josephine reached out and shook both their hands in turn. “Pleased to meet the both of you.” She turned back to Marie. “I’ll go fetch Mr. Carter.”
Josephine disappeared into the mudroom at the back of the kitchen and Marie heard a screen door slam. She looked around the large, comfortable, and clean kitchen, complete with all the modern conveniences. This Mr. Carter must be well-off, she thought. She certainly wouldn’t mind working in this kitchen. Marie smiled at the boys who both sat quietly drinking their lemonade.
The screen door slammed again a few minutes later and Mr. Frank Carter walked through the mudroom and into the kitchen.
Marie’s mouth went dry at the sight of him. He was a very large and imposing man, with dark hair, piercing black eyes, and a strong dark brow.
“Yes. Marie is it?”
She nodded as Josephine came back into the kitchen.
“If it’s alright with you, I’ve asked Josephine to keep your boys company in another room while we talk.”
Marie nodded. “That’s fine.” Marie smiled at the boys as Josephine led them from the kitchen.
“I do believe that we have some playing cards in the front parlor here and we could play a game or two if…”
Josephine’s voice trailed off as they moved farther from the kitchen and Marie turned back to give Frank Carter her full attention. She was so nervous that her stomach was in knots. What if she didn’t get the job? What if the boys couldn’t stay here? How would they get back to town? Where would they sleep tonight?
The young woman that sat at the table in front of him looked to Frank like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. The second he’d entered the kitchen and met her, he knew he was in trouble. She was sweet, soft-spoken, and pretty, and she caused every protective instinct within him to come racing to the surface.
Earl Mannings had already told him a bit about her, having delivered her to Frank’s doorstep himself, but Earl couldn’t always be relied upon to be completely accurate about much of anything, so Frank had taken his description of her with a grain of salt. Earl did mention the boys, though, so Frank already knew about them. He didn’t really mind that so much, as long as they were well-behaved. He was just so glad to have someone come for the job.
Frank leaned against the kitchen sink, facing Marie, to talk to her. With his arms crossed and his legs straight, feet planted firmly apart and flat on the floor, he assumed the stance he always took when he was about to discuss business.
“Why don’t you tell me what kind of experience you have and then I’ll tell you what will be expected of you, if’n you decide that you’d like to take the job.” Frank noticed Marie did not make eye contact with him, preferring instead to stare at the hands she had folded neatly in her lap.
“I grew up the oldest of seven children, so I’ve been around babies my whole life, feeding, changing, playing, soothing—whatever the need be. I’ve also been in the kitchen most of my life and can make most anything you have a taste for. I grew up on a farm, so I’m accustomed to farm chores, milkin’, gatherin’, and what-not. Making cheese and churning butter.” Marie paused and glanced up at Frank. “I’m a hard worker, Mr. Carter, and I’d do my best to fill Josephine’s shoes.” She quickly looked back down at her hands.
Figuring Marie was done, Frank spoke then. “You’ll be expected to do a few early morning chores, such as gathering the eggs and milking the cows—we have two milk cows. Also, making the cheese and butter. Preparing the meals and cleaning up after. Just for the members of the household; I provide the hands with food, but they’re responsible for cooking for themselves. Then, doing the laundry, and keeping the house clean and neat, and caring for my daughter Emmeline all day. I’m working the ranch all day and most times into the early evening—as long as there’s daylight—so I need you to do for her from morning till night. I’ll pitch in with any of these things whenever I’m able, but you can’t rely on me for anything. I can’t guarantee my help.” Frank paused to try to gauge Marie’s reaction. She didn’t appear to be fazed by any of it. “Does this sound like something you would be able to do?”
Marie looked directly at him then. “Yes sir. I’m sure I could manage it.” A quizzical look came over Marie’s face then. “Where is your daughter, Mr. Carter?”
“I believe she’s down for a nap. This is her usual nap time. I’ll offer you the position then, Marie. The job is yours if’n you want it.” Frank didn’t miss Marie’s hesitation at accepting his offer, and her next words helped him understand why.
“Mr. Carter, sir, those two boys are my boys. They have to stay with me. I know this is a live-in position, but I’m guessing that you weren’t counting on more’n one person.”
“I have a room that would suit them two boys just fine and then one for you. Of course your boys will stay with you.” Frank had softened his tone of voice as he spoke about Jack and Henry and how they were welcome. Frank had a soft spot for children. But then he got right back to business. “Josephine will be here for another week and she can show you everything you need to know. Do you want the job, then?”
“Yes sir, thank you.”
“It’s settled. One of my men can give ya’ll a ride back to town to gather your things and Josephine can help you get settled in.” When Marie spoke next, her voice was so soft that Frank had trouble hearing her.
“We have everything that’s ours with us already,” Marie stated. “We don’t need to go back to town for anything.”
Frank was about to ask how she managed to bring all their things with her, or why she had maybe assumed she would get or even want the job once she got here, then thought better of it. He realized she could mean that they had so little it was easy enough to bring it along. He would find out soon enough how true that was.