The women had spread a veritable feast on several tables in the living room and kitchen. The doctor was happily stowing away a large sandwich while ensconced in an easy chair when Dale stepped through the front door. He looked him over curiously and raised an eyebrow.
Dale dipped his head in the doctor’s direction and disappeared into the kitchen.
“Now just where do you suppose he blew in from?” the doctor asked of Maw Tucker. “Mighty strange clothes he’s wearing.”
“Don’t rightly know,” She pinned the doctor with a piercing gaze. “And it ain’t rightly none of my business, either, less he brings it up.”
The doctor flushed. “Madam, I beg your pardon. I certainly didn’t mean anything by the question!” He gave her a formal bow, excused himself, and found a less chilly place to sit.
Kheri snickered, watching the exchange. Maw Tucker had managed to deliver a very effective punch and it was extremely satisfying to watch the doctor crumple. He kept silent however and merely mumbled, “Excuse me” as he followed Dale into the kitchen.
Dale filled two plates with food and took them out into the back yard. He walked over to the pump, sat down on the grass, and rapidly began devouring their contents.
Paw Tucker wandered over and planted himself on the ground nearby, let out a satisfied belch, and patted his stomach. “Good food,” he said, stretching contentedly.
Dale nodded and went on eating, emptying both plates in the space of a few minutes.
Paw watched in amazement. His eyebrows rose almost to his hairline and he shook his head. “Something tells me you were a mite hungry, son.”
Dale finished the last bite of food before nodding. “I hadn’t eaten in nearly three days.”
Paw peered over his glasses. “Now that’s a record I’ve no desire to beat.”
“Yes, well, it’s a record I wasn’t trying to set,” Dale answered dryly.
Paw chuckled. “Why’d you go so long without food, then?”
“It wasn’t by choice. I’m stranded here without anything. No food, no money, no way I can think of to get home… at least not any time soon.”
Paw tilted his head to the side as he turned this over in his mind. “Yep, that might cause a few problems. So who stranded you?”
“Not who,” Dale responded as Kheri sat down next to them with his plate. “What.”
“Ok,” Paw said. “I’ll bite. What stranded you?”
“Circumstances beyond my control.”
Paw gestured toward Dale’s jump suit. “Pretty strange clothes you’re wearing. You must come from a long ways off.”
“I do. That’s actually the reason I was out here this morning.”
“Kheri said his aunt might have some old clothes she’d be willing to get rid of.” Dale felt Kheri stiffen and glanced at him. “I thought I’d ask her, but events didn’t exactly give me that chance.” He turned his attention back to Paw, ignoring the flush creeping over Kheri’s face.
Paw Tucker looked sideways at Kheri and shook his head. “You know your aunt’ll never give those clothes away, boy. What were you thinking?”
Kheri faced Paw defiantly. “He’s been dead thirty years! She needs to let go and move on. Besides,” he dropped his fork on his plate with a clatter and threw both hands up in the air. “They’re probably so old they’re falling apart anyway!”
Paw shrugged as he turned back to Dale. “She won’t part with ‘em. That’s all she’s got left of that fool of a husband she had. But I tell you what, son. You did something most strangers wouldn’t have this morning, and I’m obliged since she’s my neighbor and friend. I’ve got some old clothes which I ain’t gonna be wearing again. They should fit you fine. You’re welcome to ‘em if you want ‘em.”
Dale returned his gaze with a smile. “Thank you. I’d be more than happy to take them off your hands.”
“Well then, I’ll send my wife up to the house in a bit to fetch ‘em for you. I’m curious, though. Since you’re stranded and all, where’re you planning on living?”
Dale shook his head. “I haven’t figured that one out yet. I suppose I’ll look around town and see if anyone’s in need of help, and go from there.”
Paw stroked his chin and nodded slowly. “Might be a couple. The inn’s always looking for people. Take a piece of advice, though,” he went on, wagging his finger in Dale’s face. “Stay away from that crazy wizard to the south.”
Dale raised an eyebrow. “That crazy what?”
“Wizard,” Paw repeated. “Least ways, that’s what he calls himself. Don’t rightly know what he is. He’s always coming to town with strange brews in bottles. Claims they’ll fix everything from warts to hangnails, and he’s always looking for people to come help with crazy experiments. No one’s stupid enough to try that, though.” He nodded sagely to himself.
The side of Dale’s mouth crooked as a smile tugged at it. “I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you for the warning.”
“You’re welcome. Welp, think we better get back to work if we’re gonna get finished ‘fore the sun goes down.” He stood up and brushed himself off, then tromped back into the kitchen.
Kheri watched him go, and then turned to Dale. “So… now what?”
Kheri fidgeted and refused to meet Dale’s eyes. “Well, you’ve got what you wanted. You’ve got clothes. So now what?”
“Now,” Dale’s voice was quiet and firm, “I figure out where I am, and find some way to survive until I can figure out how to get home.”
“I told you this morning. You’re my guide to this place. Remember?”
Kheri nodded silently, picking at the grass again.
“Until I don’t need a guide any more, nothing changes.”
“But….” Kheri’s hands clenched into fists. As anger flooded through him, the fears he’d imagined swam up and did battle with his common sense. In the midst of chaos, Dale put a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“Settle down,” Dale’s words cut through Kheri’s emotions like cold water. “We’ll talk about it later, when these people have left.”
Kheri looked into the face of someone he couldn’t figure out, and then took a deep breath and nodded. “All right,” he agreed, deflating.
Dale stood, patted the younger man on the shoulder, and then took his plates back into the house.
Kheri watched his nemesis walk off then stood up and wandered over to the chicken yard.
The rooster eyed him suspiciously and flapped its wings, crowing loudly.
“Shut up you stupid bird,” Kheri grumbled. “I’m not in your yard.”
The rooster flapped its wings again, gave him the evil eye, and strutted past a couple of hens.
Kheri sneered in the rooster’s direction before leaning dejectedly on a fence post. “I can’t win,” he muttered, dropping his chin on his hands. “Everything hates me. What did I do to deserve this?” He watched the rooster strutting around the yard, his thoughts embroiled in self-pity and wild imagination. Paw Tucker appeared beside him out of nowhere and he jumped.
“He’s a fine looking rooster, that one,” the older man motioned at the rooster.
“Yeah, and he hates me.”
“He just thinks you want his hens, is all.” Paw patted Kheri on the back. “Just trying to protect what’s his from being stolen.”
Kheri’s face twisted with disgust. “The only thing I want his hens for is dinner!”
“Yeah, but he don’t know that, boy.”
Kheri shrugged and dropped his chin back down on his hands.
Paw stood silently for a few more seconds, watching him, then “You want to talk about it, son?”
Kheri shot him a black look. “What’s to talk about?”
“Oh, I don’t know, but something’s eating at you mighty bad.”
Kheri shrugged again. “I doubt you’d understand,” he muttered.
Paw gazed out at the chickens. “Try me.”
“My life sucks! Ok?”
“Things not working out in town?”
Kheri avoided Paw’s gaze by glowering at the chickens. “Not really, no.” He bent down, snatched a rock from the ground, and threw it at the rooster. It missed. “The rooster tried to kill me this morning,” he went on, his voice rising. “My aunt’s house nearly burned down, she almost died, and one of these days I’m gonna punch that doctor right where it counts!” He slammed his fist down on the post, winced, and shook his hand.
“Well, the doc’s gone now,” Paw replied, his voice calm. “Jerad took him off about an hour ago. The house’s fine, we’re nearly done, your aunt’ll be ok, and the rooster’s on the other side of that fence.”
Kheri rubbed his hand while shrugging once again.
“You could come back out here, son. Help your aunt out. You don’t need to be sleeping in the alleys in town.”
Kheri concentrated on his hand and rubbed harder. “I’m not sleeping in the alleys.”
Paw put a friendly hand on Kheri’s shoulder. “Okay. Have it your way. Just trying to help.”
Kheri pulled away from the hand.
Paw removed it and stood away from the fence. “Welp, we’ve got some painting to finish up and we’ll be out of here. My wife’ll be back in a bit with those clothes for that friend ‘a yours.”
Kheri stared at the chickens, ignoring him.
Paw waited for a few more seconds for a response that didn’t come then went back to the house.
“He’s not my friend,” Kheri muttered once Paw was out of earshot. “I’m not sure what he is.” He stared at the house, expecting to see Dale standing on the back porch, but the doorway was empty. Turning back to the chickens, he watched them for a while longer, then gave up and went back inside.
Paw was standing in the middle of the kitchen, his hands on his hips, gazing around at the repairs as Kheri entered. “Looks good, boys. I’ll go say goodbye to Matty and we’ll meet back over at my place for some cards this evening.” He beamed a satisfied smile at the others and nodded his head.
“Can’t,” one of the men said as he gathered up his tools. “Cow’s fixing to calf and I need to get home.”
Paw clapped the man on the shoulder. “Well get on with you and let us know how she does.”
“Sure thing, you take care.” The man shook Paw’s hand, stepped around Kheri, and left the house, allowing the screen door to slam shut with a bang.
The bedroom door opened as if in response and Matilda came out wearing an old, beat-up bathrobe. She wandered into the kitchen and inspected it with a happy smile on her face. “I declare, you boys did a wonderful job in here! Why, it looks brand new.”
Paw grinned at her. “You’re welcome, Matty. Can’t see a neighbor without a kitchen.
“Well, thank you all. I’m much obliged. And tell Bessie that those curtains are just wonderful.”
“I’ll let her know. Careful with that wood now,” Paw cautioned, motioning toward the back yard. “I took a look at what you was burnin’. Mighty full of sap in spots. Probably what caused this mess.”
“Probably so. I’ll chuck it round back a’ the barn and let it sit a while longer. Got some older wood from two years ago I still ain’t burned.”
Paw picked his gloves up from the table and slipped them into a hip pocket. “I’ll send Jerad over next week with another load. I just finished clearing a couple trees and it’s ready to be split now.”
Matilda tilted her head sideways and smiled. “Why thank ya, Paw. That’d be right nice of you.”
Paw placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “You take care now. Get some more sleep. Doc said you should rest till tomorrow.”
Matilda dismissed his comment with a wave of her hand. “Oh, what’s he know? I’m just fine ‘cept for this bruise on my face.”
“Still,” Paw lifted a cautionary finger.
“Bah, I’ll be fine.” Matilda turned to smile at her nephew. “Didn’t they do a wonderful job?”
“Yeah, it’s great,” Kheri muttered. He shoved past her and walked into the living room.
She sighed and shook her head, watching as Kheri deposited himself on the couch and glowered at the wall. “Sour all the time, that one.”
Paw put his hands on his hips. “Needs a woman to set him straight. One of these days, he’s gonna….” The sound of wagon wheels outside interrupted his commentary. He squinted at the door. “That’ll be Jerad, back to get me and drop off some clothes. Where’s that friend of Kheri’s?”
“Don’t rightly know. Might be out front.”
Paw nodded as he picked up his saw. “Well, let me see if I can find ‘em. You take it easy and we’ll check in on you tomorrow.” He patted Matilda on the shoulder, and then went out the back door.
Matilda smiled around at the kitchen one last time, sighed happily, and then walked into the living room. “Now what’s eating you,” she asked as she walked over to sit down by Kheri on the couch.
He shrugged, crossed his arms over his chest, and wrinkled his nose. “Nothing.”
His aunt clasped her hands in her lap. “Mighty sour for nothing.”
“Just don’t like it when people start lecturing me,” Kheri tossed a black glance toward the kitchen.
She followed his gaze and nodded. “Paw means well. You know that.”
Kheri scowled and glared at the floor. “Yeah, but I’m tired of people trying to run my life!”
Matilda sighed. “If someone gives you advice child, they’re not trying to run your life. Just trying to help you over the ditches.”
“I can get over the ditches on my own!” He crossed his arms tighter over his chest, and glowered at the front door.
His aunt put her hand on his arm. “Sure you can, but everything’s easier if you’re not alone.”
Kheri sighed as he turned to face her. “I’m no good out here on this farm. The chickens try to kill me, the cow hates me, I can’t grow anything but weeds. I’m just not a farmer.” Matilda didn’t say anything in response, so he shrugged. “That doesn’t give me many options. It’s either make a mess of things out here or try to live in town. And town,” he said without much conviction, “is working out just fine.”
His aunt indulged in a private sigh then, “No one’s trying to force you not to live there, are they?”
“Everyone I talk to. They call me a street rat, or tell me that my place is here, or….” Kheri stopped as his aunt patted him on the head.
“Calm yourself child. They’re just trying to help.”
Kheri jerked his head away and stood up. “I’m going outside. Maybe a tree’ll fall on me or something and end the day proper!”