Shoim wants Jude back at the farm right quick pronto. For good reason.
Jude strolled back to the main road, then to the city park. “About time,” Shoim grumbled from the big red maple near the eastern corner. “I’ll fly, since your hands are full.”
“Is there a problem?”
“Not exactly, but Martha slipped and landed hard on her dignity.” Shoim sounded a little worried. “She moved pretty slowly and didn’t finish the noon chores.”
That was not good. “Thanks. I’m going that way now.” Jude wasted no time going to Martha’s farm, west and south of town. He didn’t run. Running attracted attention. He walked briskly, alert for trouble. As usual, he gave the warped magic at the Graff farm a wide berth. It wasn’t as polluted as under the Beck place, but it still gave him pause. He and Shoim needed to look into it, like the place on the north end of the county. Shoim soared overhead, watching for trouble. And for a snack, probably.
Nothing seemed amiss at Martha’s farm. That is, except her car not being in the garage. She never left the sedan out unless she was cleaning the garage or unloading things, and neither of those seemed in progress. Jude vaulted the fence and knocked on the back door, then let himself in with the key she’d given him. “Hello?”
“I’m in the living room.” She didn’t sound happy. He set the boot box down beside the boot rack in the mud room and headed that way. Bauxite the cat met him in the doorway and led him farther in. That was also not usual. “I sat too long and got stiff,” the older lady complained.
He rounded the corner and saw her in her reading chair. She’d set her latest quilt project aside. “Do you need a hand, ma’am?”
“Yes.” That set off more alarms. He moved to stand in front of her. She extended her hands. “Just get me started, please. I pulled something and my get-along has a hitch in it.”
Jude took her wrists, gripping with care. “On three. One, two, three.” He pulled gently, mindful of his much greater grip strength on the right side. She hissed with pain as she stood. He moved around, releasing her right hand and shifting so that he could catch her if she started to fall back. She took one step. Then a second.
“Oh daymn, that hurts,” she hissed as her right leg started to buckle. He caught her. “Something’s bruised bad.” With his support she took a few steps. The leg held and Jude eased away, trying not to trip on Bauxite in the process. “Well, nuts. I got the apples delivered to Willa, but I don’t think I’m going anywhere this afternoon or tomorrow morning.”
No, she was not, not without him. “Do you need to go somewhere, ma’am?” He caught himself and added, “To town, or to Riverton?” Please, Lady of Night, please not Riverton.
“I’d planned to go to the quilting club tomorrow at one, and church tomorrow night.” She stood straight and winced again. “I’m not going to the mailbox right now, that’s for certain.”
Jude nodded. “No, ma’am. I’ll do that, and I’ll drive you to the quilting club tomorrow, if you don’t mind my borrowing your car to get to work and back.”
She planted her fists on her hips. “Young man, I am perfectly able to drive myself.”
“Yes, ma’am, you are. It’s the getting in and out that I’m worried about, especially if you are carrying your quilting crate.” He folded his arms. He could be just as stubborn as Martha was. “And if I don’t help, and you fall, people will talk.”
She shook her finger at him.
He didn’t move.
“Mow!” Bauxite declared from beside him.
“She agrees with me, ma’am. It’s two to one.”
Martha threw up both hands. Irritation flipped to pain and she made a face, eyes closed, mouth an “oh” as she exhaled. “Ow. You win. Cat, you are a traitor.”
“No, ma’am. She’s concerned about your well-being and reputation for good sense.” The small black cat probably just wanted fresh water, or a treat.
Martha smiled despite herself. She shook a finger at him again. “Just for that, go fetch in the mail, please, and move the car. I slipped on the gravel and landed on my right hip, and clean forgot to bring in the car after I moved the groceries.”
That he would do, and gladly. “Yes, ma’am.” She’d left the car keys on the table in the utility room, beside the garage door. He pulled the dark colored sedan into the garage and closed the door, then hung the keys in their proper place. Mailbox key in hand, he went out to the blacktop and got the mail. As he did, the neighbor’s work pickup pulled to a stop and the passenger window rolled down. “Yes, sir?”
“Your aunt OK? I noticed her car’s been out a while today,” Mr. Schwartz said.
Jude nodded. “Yes, sir. She was moving things in the garage and then got busy inside the house.”
“That’s good to hear. Thanks.” The window rolled up and the pickup trundled past.
Jude took the mail into the house, then returned to the back garden and the shed. Martha had been stacking wood, and some remained yet to be moved. The apple baskets also sat out. He shifted them to the shed, then finished with the wood. “How’s Martha?” Shoim called from on top of the shed.
Jude went to him, and said in his own speech, “She’s stiff and moves as if badly bruised, but she can walk and stand straight.”
“Lady of Night be praised for mercy,” Shoim rasped. “We need to add to the shields here, Tenebriu. Something’s been poking at them since we left this morning.”
That decided him. “I’ll stay here tonight and re-work everything. It’s that time of year.”
“Anno.” Shoim flapped hard and launched into the afternoon sky. He hovered for a moment, then plunged into the squash plants. He emerged with a mouse. Jude smiled, baring his teeth. The Northern harrier hunted neatly, ate his kills, and prevented small problems from becoming large ones. Would that all of life were so clean and simple, and all Hunts so successful. The smile faded. The squash. Martha should not be out weeding and gathering the produce. He sighed. Well, a sore back and dirty hands now were by far preferable to going hungry in winter and spring. He ducked inside, left his heavy jacket there, and set to work.
By the time Martha came out to see what he was doing, he’d finished stacking and bracing the firewood, added more sticks and twigs to the kindling box, topped off the generator’s fuel, and had filled two crates with late squash, far too many green beans and runner beans, and enough late season tomatoes to fill every can in Devon County, or so it felt. Basil and other herbs rested on the drying racks in the shed, with extra basil tied and hanging in the mud room. She planted her hands on her hips and called, “Young man, just what do you think you are doing?”
He straightened up, hiding a little wince at the twinge in his lower back. “Collecting the last of the squash, ma’am.” Please may it be the last of the squash. Squash was his second least-favorite vegetable. So of course it grew with great abundance and produced more than anything else in the garden save the green beans.
He heard the exhalation that meant she was exasperated with him. “Well, thank you. Now stop that and come in and eat. Does Shoim need anything?”
“No, thank you, ma’am. I refilled his water.” That he stalked the other birds that used the birdbath, well, that was between Shoim and the Most High. In truth, his left hand had begun cramping, or trying to. He’d used it too hard for too long. Jude brushed off the dust and dirt and moved the first crate into the mud room. The second crate followed, mostly. He just managed to set it down when his left hand failed. He crouched and uncurled the fingers one by one, biting the tip of his tongue to keep from saying what he wanted to. You are a fool twice over. Stupid, stupid fool.
“What—? Show me,” the old woman commanded. He stood and removed the glove. The skin had cracked, as well as the muscles cramping from overuse. “Young man, you know better.” She grabbed his hand and held it with care. A faint, soft warmth flowed in. The muscles relaxed enough that the pain eased from miserable to just a dull ache.
He did know better. “Yes, ma’am. I just forgot.” Not entirely true, but close enough to serve. She gave him a look, disbelief in her medium green eyes. He ducked and studied the floor.
“Well, wash both hands and come and eat. You can put salve on after supper.” He heard the unspoken “or else.” And he was a little hungry. He’d need the fuel when he and Shoim re-worked the shields on the farm that night.
“Yes, ma’am.” The hot water felt good. The scent of a casserole filled the kitchen. Something hot and cheese-covered sat on the table, along with a basket of rolls and the butter dish. He helped her sit and scooted her chair in, then sat as well. She said grace, and served herself. She moved a touch stiffly. Yes, he’d better stay overnight.
The spicy Italian sausage in the casserole almost made up for the squash. She’d layered slices of squash, the sausage, a thick home-made tomato sauce, and cheese, topping it with cheese and crumbs made from the end of a stale loaf of bread. It wasn’t his people’s cooking, but it tasted good and filled the empty place inside his stomach. “I’m almost out of butter. Could you go to the dairy co-op and get some while I’m at the quilting, please?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Eggs she had in plenty, and fresh milk from the dairy across the way, but they couldn’t sell butter direct to people. Why the state insisted that butter had to be sold from a store he did not attempt to understand, but it was so. “Salted or unsalted?”
“Unsalted, a couple pounds. Put it on my account, Jude, and I mean it.” She glared at him, then buttered her roll.
Meaning someone had gossiped to her about his using his bakery wages for the farm. “Yes, ma’am.”
She insisted on doing the dishes. He sorted the vegetables, then washed his hands. Martha handed him a soft towel and opened the container of salve for him. “Arnica, lanolin, a little capsicum, and wound-wort.” And her herbal Healing skill as well, when she made it.
“Thank you.” Jude worked the salve into his left hand. The senior Hunter’s knife blade had only cut tendons and muscles, weakening the hand. It had taken the blood of a man turned abyssal beast to dissolve and poison flesh almost to the bones. The skin remained a little darker than the rest of him, as if he’d been toasted. The hand had been black, or at least he vaguely remembered it being black. He’d been in too much pain and too drained from forcing so much magic into Beck’s heart to truly recall many details. Jude flexed the hand as best he could, stretching it, and moving each digit. The thumb still worked, and he could grip and hold things, but only a little strength remained. He shrugged. He was alive, and had a working hand. That was a miracle twice over.
Which reminded him, since Veronica, the coven leader, had compared attorneys with things abyssal more than once . . . “Aunt Martha, Deputy Andersen asked if you still lived here. An out of town attorney was inquiring at the sheriff’s office, and Andersen asked me. And Mrs. O’Malley said that Mr. Harbaugh, the lawyer one, quizzed her husband about the Janzen family.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Huh. I think it’s time to file adverse possession on the woodlot and that bit of field. I found some more of Sean’s papers, and he’d actually taken over paying the taxes on that other field and the wooded land three years earlier than the actual purchase date of this,” she pointed down, “parcel. That means it’s within the window for claiming.” She shifted her attention to his left hand. “Open your fingers.”
Jude did as ordered.
“And close them.”
He felt things pulling and moved slowly. She leaned forward and touched his wrist, feeling the movement. “Overwork. The muscles are tired more than anything.” She shook her head and stood upright, one hand going to her lower right back as she did. He caught a glimpse of a quick-hidden grimace. “It’s a damn shame they can’t re-grow muscle the way they can do skin now-a-days.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He’d read about hand repair surgery and what the doctors did. He’d be useless for months and helpless for just as long. No, thank you. Not to even think about the cost. You could buy the latest models of tractor and combine and accessories, and get a decent farm to go with them, for the cost of surgery and recovery. No, thank you!
“I’m for bed. When will you be back from work tomorrow?”
“Eleven-thirty, ma’am. Maybe a little later, but before noon.” The government labor people rarely appeared before noon, yet another reason to work in the mornings.
“Good. I’ll be ready to go then, so you can take me to the quilting circle, then get the butter. Good night.”
“Good night, ma’am.” He put the salve away, then listened without listening. He heard showering sounds. That was very good—the hot water would help her bruised muscles. That she had not fussed more about him doing all the outdoor work suggested that she hurt worse than she let on. Martha tended to be— He thought through English words as he turned off the lights, tidied the kitchen, and made certain that Bauxite had fresh water and a little dry food for the night. Stubborn? Determined? Tenacious? Mulish? No, not quite that one. Adamant, that was what he wanted, adamant about her independence. Then he went outside.
(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.