Gone Missing – Gone to Town, Chapter 7

Ray didn’t feel very threatened by Charlie. There was a brief standoff between the two and finally Ray just walked to the back of the wagon to help unload supplies. I caught Martha smiling.
“I’ll leave right after dinner, Martha, honestly. I want you to know I’m grateful for your help. And dinner’s all ready so let’s go eat and then I’ll stay to help you unload the wagon before I go, okay?”
Earl had taken a load of wrapped parcels into the house and came back on the porch.
“Smells wonderful in there. Quite the treat to come home and find dinner waiting. I see she cleaned out the stove and brought in more wood, too.” Earl said to Martha. Then he turned to me. “Come by anytime little lady. Let’s all go eat.” Earl was a big man, maybe ten years older than Martha. He seemed patient and sweet. He had laugh lines that curled up into bushy, salt and pepper eyebrows. He had on neat canvas pants and a clean blue flannel shirt, kind of like mine, and I guessed these were his good town clothes. Earl actually gave me a little bow, and with a smile he held the door open for Martha then me. Charlie stopped in the doorway, just for a moment, making Ray wait, who followed behind with a big burlap sack over his shoulder. Earl opened the big ice box door and Ray hefted a block of ice out of the sack and slid it onto the shelf.
“Yessir, no reason the rest of the supplies can’t wait. Let’s eat!” Earl rubbed his hands together in anticipation. Martha filled a wash basin and carried it out the back door to a little table set under the eaves. All three took turns using it to wash up. I hurriedly set the table.
Dinner was a huge success, if I do say so myself.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Martha proved herself a real friend. Her generosity was a marvel because I was still a mysterious stranger to her. She offered me anything I wanted out of that trunk upstairs, things she couldn’t wear anymore. I almost cried I was so touched and grateful. So I left that sweet cabin along the railroad tracks in a long black skirt and gray pinstriped blouse with lace-up canvas oxfords that fit me fine if I kept my socks on. I had the skirt and blouse I’d worn to town, another skirt and two blouses, and a few under things that would make me laugh later. Right then I was too fragile to show emotions either way, trying hard to be stoic.
“You’re welcome to stay the night, Ms. Burke.” Earl offered once again. “You can’t walk back to town tonight. I’ll take you to town myself in the morning if you’d just think sense.” It was painful how much I wanted to accept his offer but Ray stood there with something of a smirk on his face and I had to go.
“Charlie and I are good walkers, and campers too. We’ll be fine.” I repeated my thanks and hugged Martha and Earl. I bravely headed out, my L.L. Bean boots tied together and dangling over my new bundle of clothes tied up in a heavy coat that had been Earl’s. Charlie never looked back, leading the way down the dirt path into the woods that would take us to town. I turned around to wave and Earl and Martha gave wild encouraging waves. I saw Martha jab at Ray with her elbow and he finally turned away and went back inside.
As soon as we were out of sight in the protection of the trees I sat down and changed back into my boots. Not only were they more comfortable but the little oxfords had to last for a while for my life in town until I figured out a way to buy more more. I was feeling pretty cold and miserable by the time I stopped and made a little fire. I scrunched down onto a quickly made bed of fir boughs and settled my worried head on a pillow of clothes. Charlie cuddled close under the coat I draped over both of us and we tried to sleep. I dreamed of screaming chickens and dark cellars and Roger’s smile.
We got up right at dawn. No point restoking the fire, I decided to get moving right away. It sure was cold. I put on Earl’s coat and wrapped the extra large size tight around me. To my surprise I found the pockets full – I kept pulling out interesting things that had clearly been tucked in them by Martha – couple of dainty little handkerchiefs, a small leather coin purse, and a napkin wrapped around a couple of small biscuits and a chunk of cheese. Bless her heart. There was also a sliver of soap – a hint no doubt but a kind one. Charlie and I followed the path along the tracks for a while. It warmed up and the woods smelled piney and heady. I knew the river was just through the trees to the south. Since we hadn’t seen any sign of railroad workers that might give us a ride, I decided I might as well get it over with. The river was in full sun, I figured it must be 9:00 or so, guessing eight miles maybe from the Peterson’s. There was a lovely spot with almost a beach-like opening in the reeds and dry grasses.
“Want to go swimming with mommy, Bud?” Charlie took a big drink of water. The look on his drippy face was unmistakable. Nah.
The best thing was to do it quick. I stripped down to my undies and jumped in. It was at once the most exhilarating and most excruciating pain I’d ever felt. I was breathless but, boy, did I need that bath. Drying off could have happened a little quicker but I felt great. The boots went back on and we picked up our trail to town, not so much looking back now as looking ahead.

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