The woman and I stared at each other, both of us speechless. Charlie ran over and jumped on her, his little dusty paws leaving faint prints on her apron.
“Hey, little fella. Where did you come from?” After a quick tussle of Charlie’s ears she eyed me again, justifiably with a look of fear.
“Sorry Charlie jumped on you, he knows better, he just gets excited sometimes. We didn’t mean to startle you. I’m pretty surprised to be here myself.”
The woman’s eyes grew wide as I gave my apology.
“You’re, you’re a woman? A girl?”
With no time to think I said the first thing that came to mind.
“Gosh, thanks, haven’t had anyone question that for a long time.” I smiled but she didn’t. “I guess I’m not exactly dressed like a girl. I’m not sure what to tell you.” There I stood in my old jeans, roughed up L. L. Bean hiking boots, made just for women but not exactly feminine, dad’s old blue plaid flannel shirt, and a baseball cap that had “Go wild in the Mountains” printed on it. “Rather than try to explain maybe you could help me. There’s no reason to be afraid.”
Before the poor woman could answer men’s voices and the stomp of boots came up on the porch, clearly about to enter the house.
“You get back down there and stay until I call you.” The woman ordered. She was smoothing her apron and nervously watching the front door as I started down the stairs.
“Charlie, get over here.” I hissed my command but he ignored me, his tail wagging furiously in anticipation of new friends coming through the door. I went downstairs and waited. I pondered a dozen things while I waited in that cellar, everything from the fact that time portals really existed, to how pretty all the canning jars were lined up on the walls down there, to thinking I needed more obedience lessons for my dog. It must have been on hour before I was summoned back upstairs.
“Now you explain yourself immediately or I’ll have one of those men take you to the sheriff in town.” She had a wet dish rag in her hand and waved it at me like it was a weapon.
“I, uh, was, um…” I looked around the cabin, desperately trying to think of a plausible story. I should have been concocting something while I waited downstairs instead of thinking what a good story I’d have to tell when I got home.
“I was out scouting elk with my father and we got separated. I’m lost actually. It’s just me and papa, out in the hills trying to get by, I guess I don’t always dress very pretty.” I looked down at my outfit, trying to look apologetic.
“And you were trying to steal food from the cellar, were you?”
“No, ma’am, I assure I was not. I just fell into the cellar, I don’t know how I got there.” I was getting really getting hungry though. Leftovers from the meal she just served the men were in a big pot on the stove and smelled wonderful. I was hoping if I sounded pathetic she’d feed me. “Hey, where’s Charlie?”
“He went out with the men. Sit on down, I’ve still got enough stew to feed you and then you have to be going. But you’re going to get yourself in trouble wearing those clothes. We’ll have to think about what to do.”
“Thank you, ma’am. That’s very kind of you.” I hadn’t called anybody ma’am in probably twenty years but it seemed the most natural thing. I pulled out a chair and sat down. I surveyed the cabin, amazed at the newness of the woodwork, the pretty yellow checked curtains in the intact window, a few antique-style pieces of furniture that looked almost brand new. I could still picture in my mind the tree growing smack in the middle of this room like it had been just over an hour ago.
“My name is Sally. I’d be very grateful for any help, ma’am.”
“We’ll see what we can do then you can go find Charlie. And my name is Martha.”
I watched as my benefactor served up a stew thick with carrots and chunks of meat. She couldn’t have been much older than me. She wore a floor-length, red print dress, the sleeves pushed up for work, the collar buttoned almost all the way to her throat with a tiny rim of faded lace around the edge. Her apron was starched and white with a few faint stains where she wiped her hands and two dog paw prints. It covered most of her skirt and bodice. She was pleasantly plump with a touch of sadness, perhaps resignation, in her face. Her hair was a knotted up braid on the back of her head, dark with a few strands of gray. She was right out of a movie.
“My husband bought this house from the railroad when they were finished building the line through here and we make our living, such as it is, from a bit of farming and providing meals for the train and lumber bosses. I ain’t no beanery queen, mind you. I wanted to be closer to town, but…My husband is out hunting now, too. Maybe he’ll come across your pa.” She finished washing up lunch dishes, wiped off the worn wooden table, and took my bowl before I had to time to scoop up the last of the delicious gravy. “I have some things that don’t fit me no more, should do you fine to go look for your dog and then you can be on your way.”
Within an hour I stood on that woman’s porch in a long calico skirt, lots of little blue and purple flowers on a yellow background, and a faded cream-colored lace blouse. And my hiking boots. I’d braided my hair into a pony tail and accepted the muslin scarf Martha offered. I looked back before stepping into the unknown. Martha stood watching me for a moment, shaking her head, hands on her hips, then went back inside.
* * * * * * * *
As I’d guessed, the river was visible just across the tracks. There was hardly a tree for acres on either side of the tracks, just a couple of large ponderosas near the house, perhaps to provide shade from the late summer heat. I could see larches on the distant hills with the same gold of early autumn I’d seen 95 years into the future when I got here. Whoa. I looked east, half expecting to see my truck parked along the edge of the dirt road that paralleled the tracks but there was nothing beneath a stand of young cottonwoods swaying in the breeze. I had no time for exploring or sightseeing, though, I had to find Charlie and figure out what to do. There were clusters of men working up and down a section of track, shoveling and hammering. The first group I approached stopped what they were doing and watched me come their way, clearly wondering what I could be wanting.
“Excuse me, I’m looking for my dog. A little guy, floppy ears, grey and white and black, kinda scruffy looking. Have you seen him?”
At first none of the men said anything, they just stared at me. Finally one of them jabbed another with his elbow, and the jabbed one finally answered.
“Yes, ma’am. I think that might be the little fella right there.”
I turned to see where he was pointing, and there was Charlie, crowded in with a bunch of men in the back of an old, I mean new, pickup truck that was pulling away. He was giving me his contented doggie smile.