“Farming?” The barber wheezed with laughter and pulled on a chunk of Jack’s beard. Jack winced.
“Oops, sorry, fella—but farming? Now I’ve heard everything!”
“Steady there with the scissors, Saul. You ever hear me mention my uncle? Ira Chesley?”
The barber shook his head.
“He’s not really my uncle, but he’s related to me some way or other. Don’t know exactly how. I used to spend the summers at his farm—” Jack frowned, thinking back to those days “—when I was a kid, I mean.”
He’d spent the winters at various relatives’ houses, too, ever since his mother had died, when he was eight. There’d never been a father, not that he remembered, anyway, and whenever he asked, he was told to mind his p’s and q’s and not ask questions. Leave well enough alone, they always said. All of them, the variety of “aunts” and “uncles” and “cousins” who’d raised him. Ira Chesley had been one among many. He remembered staying with Ira’s sister, too, in Saskatchewan somewhere. The Maple Creek area. But that hadn’t been nearly as much fun. His aunt Minnie had made him wash and brush his hair before meals and go to church with her every Sunday.
“Ira’s had a heart attack. He’s not doing so well. He wants me to take over his farm.”
“I see.” Saul didn’t sound convinced. Jack decided to shut up and let Saul shave him.
Ira Chesley had been one of the best. Jack believed that the old bachelor had actually loved him in his gruff offhand way. Ira had been kind to him, and now, when he was laid up and the doctors had said he’d never farm again, who had he asked for?
Jack Gamble. Little Jackie, Ira used to call him. And how could he refuse? Ira needed him. Ira, who’d always been there for him.
And, of course, the doctors were right. Ira Chesley had to be pushing seventy. Even without this bad-heart business, his working days were numbered. Last time Jack had seen him out at the farm, two or three years ago, the old man had been so crippled up with rheumatism he could hardly put his work boots on. Now he was a thin feeble old man lying in a hospital bed, worried sick about his pack of mangy dogs back at the farm. Jack had visited him that morning on the extended-care ward and had assured him his dogs were all right. The ward gave him the creeps. Old men with dull eyes and nicotine-stained fingers grasping at the bedclothes. The pink and yellow cotton blankets, washed too many times. The smell of disinfectant and the squeak of rubber-soled shoes on granite floors. He wanted to get his uncle out of there, but he had nowhere to take him. Not until he got himself fixed up at the farm.
When he’d first seen his uncle after coming out of the bush, Jack knew he’d made the right decision to trade in his pickax for a pair of overalls. In fact, he was looking forward to it. Farming was a crapshoot, the way finding something worthwhile in the rocks had always been. Prospecting was a fool’s game, and so was farming. Jack knew he was up to the challenge.
Only, if he was settling down for good, he needed a wife. He wanted to do things properly. He’d thought it over and decided that the women he’d been involved with over the past few years were highly unsuitable. He’d always had a soft spot for the flashy babes, the party gals, the glamour chicks—when he had the money. Not one of them was the type he’d phone up to hold his hand when he had the flu.
If he was settling down and turning into a farmer, he needed a proper farmer’s wife. Someone who knew how to care for kids and collect eggs, someone who knew how to put a decent meal on the table for a harvest crew, someone who could sew and bake and read stories to their children, when they came along. Help them with their homework when they were a little older. Jack wanted children, and to get children, he needed a wife. Heck, he wanted a wife. It was time.
“A Glory girl, huh?” Saul said, wiping away the traces of foam on Jack’s face. “You figure?”
“That’s right, Saul. Just like Sadie.”
Saul snorted. “Ha! Good luck, pal. They don’t make ’em like my Sadie anymore.”
Jack grinned, eyes still closed. He knew better. Yes, a no-nonsense small-town girl was the girl for him. A Glory girl.
HMM. HOW MUCH soy flour could you put in oatmeal-raisin cookies without totally destroying the taste? After all, cookies weren’t really meant to be nutritious.
Hannah put down the pumpkin she was mutilating in the name of Halloween and pulled the last pan of cookies from the oven, then transferred them to a wire rack. She took a sample from an earlier pan and thoughtfully broke it in two to inspect the middle. It looked good. She sniffed. Smelled good.
She chewed a piece and swallowed. With the double cinnamon and extra dollop of brown sugar she’d added, if she didn’t know she’d substituted soy flour for a third of the regular flour, she wouldn’t be able to tell. And Seth Wilbee certainly wasn’t going to notice.
She took up her paring knife again and adjusted the pumpkin’s eye. Stab! Nutrition was important. Hannah frequently brought baked items to Seth Wilbee, the town tramp—to put it kindly—who lived on the other side of the big culvert, near the bridge over the Horsethief River. Hannah was sure he didn’t eat properly, had probably never heard of Canada’s Food Rules. She had no idea what he ate, really, although she’d seen him fishing in the river and knew he had a small vegetable patch behind his shack.
Hannah passed his culvert every day as she walked to work at the library and had taken to stuffing nutritious goodies in his mailbox as she passed. She didn’t know what the big galvanized mailbox was all about—she was pretty sure Seth Wilbee didn’t get any mail—but she put her offerings in it, anyway, raising the red flag to let Seth know he’d received something.
She was planning to take him this jack-o’-lantern as a gift when she’d finished it. She’d helped Ella Searle with her first-grade class field trip out to Sanchez’s Pumpkin Farm yesterday and had come home with two for herself, one of which already sat in her living-room window grinning at passersby on the street below.
She’d met Seth Wilbee several times since she’d started giving him baked goods and he was always gracious, if usually rather vague. He’d told her early on that he didn’t care for nuts, so if it was no trouble to her, he’d appreciate it if she’d leave out the nuts. And once, he’d invited her to tea in his shack, which had been quite an experience. That was when she’d seen his garden patch.
Hannah stacked the cooled cookies in a tin she’d bought earlier that week at Ripley’s Department Store. It had a witch and a black cat painted on the lid, and Seth would no doubt find a use for it after Halloween. Maybe he’d put the dried-out tea bags he collected from the town’s restaurants in it. Or maybe straightened nails. Seth was a recycler of the first order.
Hannah was torn. On the one hand, she wanted to be home in her warm comfortable two-bedroom apartment in case little trick-or-treaters came by. But there was always a problem with Joan, her parrot, who shrieked at the tiny hobgoblins, employing the dreadful vocabulary she’d picked up from a former owner. Hannah had seen little children burst into tears in her hallway.
On the other hand, her sister had invited her to the opening of a new nightclub in Calgary. Hannah was tired of Emily’s efforts to marry her off. Her sister’s regular annoying invitations, which she just as regularly turned down, were Emily’s thinly disguised attempts to match her up with poor some unsuspecting man that she—Emily—deemed suitable. Suitable meant little more than single and employed. She supposed Emily’s intentions were good.
The younger Parrish sister by four years, Emily was convinced Hannah would never meet anyone on her own. She was just too quiet, too staid, too sensible, too…well, Emily had even gone so far as to call her boring.
Maybe it was true. Maybe she was boring. But Hannah enjoyed her quiet life. She had friends, mainly women. She was a member of three clubs in town—Friends of the Library, the Glory Garden Club and a quilting group that met once a month. She read a lot. She enjoyed going out to the occasional movie or renting a video and watching it with her cat, Mr. Spitz, and Joan. Sometimes she dated Bruce Twist, the insurance salesman from the farm-insurance agency on Main Street, but not often. Or Danny Philpot, a clerk at the county courthouse. She didn’t want to mislead them, but she had no real romantic interest in either man. Oh, they were nice enough. She’d tried her best, but it just hadn’t worked. So she usually turned them down. How could she explain that she was only interested in simple companionship? They’d be sure to think she was, well, odd.
Generally, very few trick-or-treaters made it up to her second-floor apartment. Still, she didn’t know if she wanted to drive all the way to Calgary for a Halloween party at some new club next to the St. Regis. The club name alone—the Howlin’ Tiger—was enough to make her shudder. Rap, probably. And techno-stuff.
The last time she’d gone out for Halloween, back in Tamarack, the small town where the Parrish girls had grown up, she’d been Cinderella. Her mother had said she was too old at twelve, nearly thirteen, but Hannah didn’t want to miss out on all the candy. She’d never been so scared in her whole twelve years—or since—when she’d spotted that pig’s head at the old witch Mrs. Birch’s house.
She’d gone out with her best friend, Lorna Gagliardi and Emily. Her mother had insisted she and Lorna take Emily, who happened to be on the outs with her current friends and wanted to go trick-or-treating. Lorna had dared Hannah to go up to the witch’s house. Everyone called it that. No one ever went there, especially on Halloween. It was too scary.
The house was ramshackle and unpainted and had been built at the back of the lot, well away from the street and the comfort of streetlights. Emily, she recalled, had jeered at Hannah’s initial hesitation. Sometimes Emily could make her so mad. And so she’d told Lorna that she’d go if Lorna would.
Emily had screamed dramatically at their bravado and jumped up and down and said she was staying on the sidewalk and they weren’t to be too long. Who was the scaredy-cat now? Hannah had declared with some satisfaction.
Clutching each other’s hands, she and Lorna had made their way gingerly up the overgrown path to the porch, where a single low-wattage bulb burned over the door.
Her heart dropped when she pushed back the creaky screen door, the bottom half scuffed and worn. The porch was so full of stuff—junk—that it was no surprise they hadn’t seen the head right away. Lorna knocked and Hannah stood right beside her, heart pounding, ears strained for sounds from within the dark cottage. They’d heard the shuffle of slow feet. Lorna had just turned to her and whispered, “Let’s go,” when her eyes widened at something behind Hannah. Hannah turned.
At first she couldn’t grasp what she was seeing. Then she saw the sunken eye with pale bristly lashes, the gaping nostrils, the slack lower jaw with visible molars, oddly human. It was covered with a single layer of mosquito net or cheesecloth, maybe to keep the bugs off, although there were no bugs this late in the year. The cloth hid nothing.