My father died in my arms, an experience difficult to accept at any age, but for the young woman I was then, smart and confident and happy with life, especially hard. He died in the family store stocking shelves, a common task done without a thought of danger or death. Father had placed one foot on the ladder to lift up a sack of flour, and I heard him make an odd, choking sound. When I turned, I saw the pallor of his face, reached for him to break his fall, then cradled him in my arms as he died. I suppose his death was an omen of sorts, but I was just nineteen at the time and of a practical nature with little patience for the intangible. Besides, omens are revealed as truth only after the fact, and I’d have to wait six years before I realized that the store held life and death for more people than my father. Me, for example. I nearly died inside the family store and still have the scar to prove it. More than one scar inside and out, truth be told, but scars, even ones that heal clean and smooth, have their place in the telling of this story, and I’m not complaining.
I remember the beginning of the story as if it happened this morning—little Jeffy Hansen calling for help, poking his head just inside the door of the store to tell me Billy was in trouble, then taking off without further details to find his father. Catching Jeffy’s urgency, I picked up my skirts and rushed outside, turned the corner, and came face to face with two toughs who might as well have had the word TROUBLE, all in capital letters, stamped on their foreheads. Grown men tormenting my Billy and my temper rising at the sight, since I have never been able to tolerate a bully.
That alley altercation was how I met John Rock Davis, a man who brought a different kind of trouble into my life—and heart—although never a bully, thank God. Anything but. If it hadn’t been for that morning and the seemingly random intersection of simple-minded Billy and two thugs and John Rock Davis, Civil War veteran and man with a past, only God knows how my life would have turned out. But I did meet John that morning and loved him practically from the first moment I caught the full force of his clear blue eyes. For better or worse, that meeting set the future course of my life, and I believe now it was never random, couldn’t have been, the way things turned out. The hand of God was busy in Blessing, Kansas, not that I realized it at the time. Too young. Too content with life. Too blinded by other loves, past and present. Too independent to admit any man held appeal. Too afraid of change. Too stubborn. A woman of excess and proud of it.
In the end when it came down to choices, I made mine although the memory still causes heartache, and I wouldn’t wish what I had to go through to make that choice on anyone else. All hell broke loose that summer of 1880, but heaven, too, and it’s the touch of heaven that makes even the worst times worth remembering.
I knew Jim was right, but his advice made me cross. My town, my friends, my store, my living, my life—no one had a right to barge in and disrupt any of it. But there was no use taking my bad temper out on a leprechaun.
“I know,” I said meekly, then added with a touch of asperity as he headed for the door, “and he’s not my Mr. Davis.”
We were long spoiled in Blessing, a small Kansas town that always lived up to the promise of its name, an orderly and peace-loving community mantled under the rule of law. My sister Lily and I were born and raised on the southern edge of Blessing in what was for Blessing a mansion, a big stone house with a pristine white fence around the front yard and a welcoming crescent window of wine-colored glass over the elegant front door. Father had ordered that distinctive window from New York to surprise my mother, his dark-eyed Kansas belle with cameo skin and lustrous auburn hair. The window didn’t match the color of her hair exactly, Father told us with apology, but I could tell the pleased smile on Mother’s beautiful face made his effort worthwhile. Caldecott’s General Store and Dry Goods, our family’s flourishing business, sat solitary and successful on the eastern side of the street, directly across from the house. That small Kansas town was a wonderful place for two loved little girls to grow up.
“Not boom or bust,” Father would often say, pleased with the play on words, “just Blessing.”
When I think back to that summer, John Davis’s blue eyes are what first come to mind although the dreaded combination of drought and locust had us all on edge long before I met John. Already by late spring, the rippling waves of heat rose with the golden intensity of midsummer as if the prairies had been set on fire. Even for the old-timers, 1880 was turning into the hottest year in memory. By June the ground had started to dry out and crack, the corn stood stunted, the wheat too brittle, the yellowing grass sharp like pins.
Father, dead almost six years by then, was spared all the pain of that time. Had it been otherwise, I know the summer’s terrible events would have killed that good and principled man. Augustus Caldecott, my father and the only man I can name who successfully combined ambition and principle, carried two passions with him to his grave. One, the memory of Rebecca, the woman with the cameo face who became my mother, and the other her perfect image, my sister Lily. The affairs of that summer would have struck so mortal a blow to those passions that Father would not have recovered. I never thought to say “Thank God” for his quick and sudden passing, but with time and circumstance the words come more easily.
Copyright © 2006 Karen J. Hasley.
All rights reserved.