Well, dinner was over and nobody had seemed inclined to complain or had a bellyache, so she guessed it had gone alright. The minister and his wife had exclaimed over it, especially the ice cream and pies. Mr. Langdon seemed pleased and complimented her right in front of everyone. The children seemed proud of her, although she couldn’t for the life of her figure out why. The young man, whose name turned out to be Ryle Tate, was polite in a formal sort of way. He certainly didn’t say or do anything to give offence, but she admitted to herself she was a trifle miffed he hadn’t been more enthusiastic.
She told herself she wasn’t setting her cap for him. Why, then, did it bother her what he said or didn’t say? Wryly, she acknowledged her interest had been piqued. There was something standoffish about him and she was curious to get behind that wall of social courtesy and polite conversation and find out who he really was. One thing was sure – she wouldn’t get far playing coquette. He was a serious young man, with more depth than most his age. He would want an equally serious woman. Though it would be a shame if he were so somber all the time. With a bit of a shock, she realized she had not heard him laugh at all, even when the children were joking or the minister and Mr. Langdon were swapping tall tales. He smiled from time to time, but he had not laughed. She began to feel sorry for him. That, she told herself, is your first mistake, thinking a man has some secret sorrow you can find and cure. Time to get back to reality, put the dreams away for the day. Time to do the dishes.
With the kitchen tidied up, she wandered into the parlor, but all was neat and dusted, nothing to be done. For the first time all day, she had idle time on her hands and she began to relax and savor it. She moved to the window to catch a cooling breeze and began to leaf through one of Mr. Langdon’s gazettes. Mr. Langdon and the guests were sitting on the veranda, talking about this and that.
“How is the Woods girl working out, John? I know you had your doubts before you hired her.”
“She’s been fine, Reverend. You’re right about my having had doubts. I couldn’t see how anyone her age would be able to take care of my home and children, but she’s taken hold. Done everything I’ve asked and done it well. Even the children don’t seem to resent her. I was afraid they would compare her to their mother, which wouldn’t be fair to Liza. I think it made it easier that she didn’t try to replace Martha, just be helpful and concerned for them.”
“Well,” said the minister’s wife, “I suppose she had good practice in her own home. She’s had to tend to her own brother and sisters since her mother died. Of course, she comes of good stock, pioneers. Her family was here before the Flood. But I was surprised at how much she knows about cooking and managing a home. The house is neat and clean, the dinner was very good and the children look happy. Even you, John, look a bit more portly than the last time I saw you.”
Mr. Langdon laughed. “Yes. I loved Martha greatly, but frankly Liza’s a better cook than Martha ever was, God rest her soul. Very intelligent too. Reads to the children every night, then reads to herself, the good books. We will miss Liza when she finally decides to leave us.”
“Is she thinking of leaving,” asked the minister?
“I haven’t heard her say so in so many words,” Mr. Langdon replied, “but I can’t keep her here forever and wouldn’t want to. She has her own life to live and someday she’ll decide to go live it. When she wants to leave, I won’t stand in her way. Maybe I can even help her along a bit.”
“You’re a good Christian, John,” the minister’s wife said. “And you’re right. In a couple of years or so she’ll take the eye of some young buck and you’ll be looking for a new housekeeper.”
“Maybe she has already,” said her husband. “Ryle here seemed to be spending a lot of time and trouble avoiding looking at her. Is she so unattractive then?”
Liza had been considering moving away from the window, telling herself it wasn’t polite to eavesdrop on folks. Now, however, she felt her feet glued to the floor and she couldn’t have moved if it came Judgement Day. She was more than a little interested in what young Ryle had to say. Had he really being avoiding looking at her? If she’d known that, she would have found ways to tweak his nose a bit, just for fun.
“Oh, I saw her well enough, Uncle. You might say she’s the only one I saw today. She’s really very pretty, yet that’s not what struck me after the first glance. You’re right, Aunt Maude. She is more grown up than her years. You know, after church I looked over all those young ladies and she was the only one who seemed grown up. They all tried to flirt – properly, of course – except her. And you say she’s only thirteen? Remarkably serious, she seemed. Does she ever laugh? I’d like to make her laugh, somehow.”
What a turnabout, thought Liza! He thinks I’m a somber old woman and I think he’s a gloomy young man and we both want to change each other! But maybe I’m as wrong about him as he is about me. Wouldn’t that be a joke! She inched closer to the window and told herself it really wasn’t her fault if she happened to be in the parlor when they happened to be discussing her.
“Unfortunately, I doubt if I’ll get the chance to know her very well. I’m back to Colorado day after tomorrow.”
“I wish you could stay longer, Ryle,” the minister said. “Since we moved out here from Buffalo, you’re the only family we’ve had visit us. Your mother and I were very close and you’re almost like a son to Maude and me.”
“Thank you, Uncle. You both know how I feel about you two. But I’ve some money saved up and I know a nice little ranch that the owner will sell at a bargain – he’s got gold fever and is itching to get back to prospecting. That’s all I want, to raise cattle and children in some of the most beautiful country on Earth.”
“You may raise cattle, but you won’t raise many children by yourself,” Aunt Maude said slyly. “Seems to me you’ll need a woman somewhere along the way.”
“Yes, but I want to make the ranch a going concern before I ask any woman to share it. I couldn’t ask anyone to live in a sod hut, cook over an open fire and not have any nice things for the years it will take to make the ranch pay. Maybe then I’ll go looking. If she’s still unmarried, maybe I’ll look around here.”
Humph! How like a man, thought Liza. Any woman worth her salt wouldn’t mind at all, as long as she was with her man, building something for their future. Her own grandparents had migrated to Ohio when it was considered wilderness. They fought the Indians, cleared the forests and raised corn, beans and children. It wasn’t til they were nearly eighty that they lived in a place that didn’t have a dirt floor. And they swore they liked their old log cabin better.