“You boys be nice to our girl,” Nora said, stepping up to the surrey just in time to see J.B. say something that made Aundy’s cheeks turn bright red.
“Yes, ma’am,” Garrett and J.B. said in unison, although Garrett shot a wink at Aundy before he picked up the reins and guided the horse out of town.
Later that week, Aundy saddled Bell and rode her to Nash’s Folly, taking along a basket of fresh cinnamon muffins she’d made. Nora would no doubt have already served breakfast, but the men often liked a mid-morning snack.
Leaving Bell at the barn, she walked to the kitchen door and knocked. Clomping boots let her know Garrett was still in the house as he pulled the door open and gave her a smile that weakened her knees.
“Good morning, Aundy,” Garrett said, welcoming her into the kitchen. “Pops will be right out. He was helping Ma get something off a shelf in their room. Who knows what she’s got planned today.”
Smiling, Aundy set the basket on the table and removed her hat and gloves, leaving them by the door.
“Do I smell cinnamon?” Garrett asked, pushing aside the napkin covering the basket. “Did you make these?”
“No, I plucked them from the muffin tree on my way here,” Aundy said, trying to keep a serious expression on her face.
Garrett looked up in surprise then broke into a broad grin.
“Mrs. Erickson, I do believe you are a bit sassy this morning,” Garrett said, snatching a warm muffin from the basket and biting into it. “This is really good. Maybe you can give Ma your recipe, or just make me some more. I’m quite partial to cinnamon treats.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Aundy said, tucking away that information for later use.
Nora breezed into the kitchen, followed by J.B., and gave Aundy a big hug. “What did you bring, Aundy?”
“Cinnamon muffins. Apparently they grow on trees over at the Erickson place,” Garrett said, taking another one from the basket as he grabbed his hat and work gloves and went out the door with a teasing grin.
“I think that boy is working too hard. He’s talking crazy,” Nora said, making Aundy a cup of tea and pouring a cup of coffee for J.B. “I’m going to work on cutting out some quilt pieces in the parlor, but if you need anything, just holler.”
“Thanks, Nora,” Aundy said, sitting down at the table with a notebook and pencil she’d brought along.
“What would you like to talk about today?” J.B. asked, leaning back in his chair and taking a drink of hot coffee.
“Animals,” Aundy said, and proceeded to ask J.B. about every type of farm animal she could think of, including sheep.
“What’s the interest in animals?” J.B. asked, helping himself to a muffin while Aundy poured him another cup of coffee. She spent so much time in the Nash’s kitchen, she felt as at home there as she did anywhere.
“Just curious,” Aundy said, toying with her teacup. “If you knew someone who wanted to find out more about a certain type of enterprise, where would you recommend they go to glean the information they would need to further pursue their interests?”
J.B. chuckled. “If it was a man, I’d tell him to go Underground on a Friday night. You can hear more gossip and truth in an hour there than you can anywhere else the rest of the week combined.”
“The underground? Like in a hole?” Aundy asked.
“Land sakes, girl. You haven’t heard about the Underground yet?”
When Aundy shook her head, J.B. leaned toward her conspiratorially. “Nora’d have my head if she knew I told you, but there are tunnels under part of the town connecting some businesses of questionable nature. They started out as service tunnels to legitimate businesses then they added a card room and saloons, Chinese laundries, that sort of thing. A lot of men spend their free time there and you can hear just about any news you want.”
“Really?” Aundy said, shocked by this revelation. “Where are the tunnels?”
“You ever notice the grates set in the boardwalks in town?” J.B. asked.
“Yes, I commented on them to Nora one day. All she said was to never stand on top of one and they were nothing I wanted to be concerned with.”
Laughing, J.B. shook his head. “That sounds about like Nora. Any number of businesses near those grates has an entry to the tunnels.”
“Oh, my,” Aundy said, digesting this tidbit of information.
“I hope you keep in mind that the tunnels aren’t a fit place for a lady, especially a young lady who’s already been getting more attention than she wants.”
Aundy nodded in agreement. Since the weather had warmed and the roads dried out, a steady stream of callers had arrived at her door, with both propositions and proposals. Young, old, poor, rich, handsome, and filthy – she’d seen just about every type of man come calling in an effort to gain access to Erik’s farm. Garrett had taken to coming around in the evenings, when the men seemed most inclined to call, after their daily work was finished. When he couldn’t make it over, he somehow made sure Dent or one of the hands was conveniently working near the house to keep an eye on things.
Hoping the novelty of her being newly widowed would soon wear off, Aundy was tired of the callers. She never thought she’d live to see the day she was popular with the male population, but then again, they weren’t interested in her. All they could see were acres of farmland ready for the taking. Or so they thought.
The only visitor who arrived not spouting proposals was Ashton Monroe. Since he hadn’t said anything Garrett or Dent deemed inappropriate, they didn’t get worked up when he came to visit, although neither one of them seemed very fond of the man.
Ashton was funny, charming, and almost pretty in features. He told entertaining stories, made Aundy feel smart and witty, and seemed to enjoy being casual friends.
Although Nora disliked him, Aundy couldn’t help but enjoy his company. She hadn’t seen him for a week or so and wondered if he was out of town again. Frequently gone on business, Aundy wasn’t exactly sure what it was Ashton did for a living, other than travel around and check on his investments.
“I better get home,” Aundy said, gathering her things before slipping on her hat and gloves.
“Remember what I said, Aundy,” J.B. cautioned, helping himself to another muffin. “No ladies Underground and especially not on a busy Friday night.”
“I’ll remember,” Aundy said, walking to the parlor where Nora sat cutting fabric.
“Leaving so soon, honey?” Nora asked, setting down her scissors and getting to her feet to give Aundy a hug. Aundy would have thought it comical since she was so tall and Nora so petite, but she wouldn’t trade the motherly hugs for anything.
“Yes, I need to get home. I have some things I should take care of today,” Aundy said, brushing at her skirt. She loved to ride, but her skirts weren’t designed for straddling a horse. She’d been meaning to make some riding skirts, but hadn’t found the time to sew. She might stay up late and make one just to be able to ride more comfortably. With her sewing knowledge, she could make her own pattern, but it would save her time if Nora had one she could borrow. “You don’t happen to have any patterns for riding skirts, do you?”
“I don’t, but Erik’s mother had several. She loved to ride Bell, you know. Didn’t you say Erik never bothered to clean out her clothes? They should be in the closet. Her clothes might be a little short for you, but with a wide hem, they should work just fine.”
“I’ll have to see what I can find” Aundy said, thinking she might have to finally clean out the two empty bedrooms in the house. At least go through Erik’s mother’s clothes. If his mother had dresses more suited to a farm wife than the city clothes she’d been wearing, Aundy would alter them as well. She had already ruined one of her favorite skirts working outside. The fine fabric wasn’t made for farm work.
“Sure you don’t want to stay for lunch?” Nora asked, walking Aundy to the door.
“Not today, but thanks for asking,” Aundy said, kissing Nora on the cheek and hurrying down the steps and around to the barn. Bell greeted her with a happy whinny and they were soon running down the road toward home.
After brushing Bell, Aundy sat at the kitchen table reviewing her notes from J.B. and reading through a few pages of Erik’s animal husbandry book.
With her mind made up of what she wanted to do, she decided after lunch to clean out the two vacant bedrooms. Starting with Mr. and Mrs. Erickson’s room, she opened the door and admired the colorful quilt on the bed. Stripping off all the linens, she knew they probably needed a good washing and put them in a pile by the washing machine on the back porch to take care of later.
Returning to the room, she discovered Erik left everything as his parents had, since the drawers in the dresser were full of personal belongings. Feeling like a trespasser or thief, Aundy looked around the room at the items that once belonged to the Erickson’s. She wanted to shut the drawers, slam the door, and not ever enter the room again.
Instead, her practical nature ruled over her emotions as she went to the storage shed where Dent kept things they might need and found several old fruit crates. Carrying them to the back porch, she wiped them down before taking them into the house to the bedroom.
Going through one drawer at a time, she sorted the items into piles. Some things needed thrown away, the worn clothes would become rags, and the packets of letters she would set aside to decide what to do with later.
Books she placed on the bookshelf in the front room. Photographs went in the box with the letters. A trunk in the closet revealed three heavy sweaters in Nordic patterns, a beautiful white shawl made of the finest wool, extra linens and another colorful quilt, along with many pieces of Rosemaling painted china.
Admiring the detailed work and warm colors on the china, Aundy decided the dishes should be displayed in the dining room instead of hidden away in the closet. After finding places for the pieces in the china cupboard, she finished digging in the trunk and discovered a few more books printed in Norwegian. She added those to the bookshelf in the front room.
A smaller trunk on a shelf featured a vibrant Rosemaling design of blue with green and gold accents. Aundy loved it and decided she’d like to have it in her room. Opening the lid, she removed what must have been Mrs. Erickson’s wedding gown. Shaking out the folds, Aundy admired the skillful stitching and care that had gone into the garment. Carefully folding it, she set it in the trunk with the sweaters, linens and quilt, keeping out the white shawl to wear.
Carrying the small trunk to her room, she set it on a chest of drawers and admired how well it matched the blue and yellow quilt on her bed.
Returning to the other bedroom, she sorted through Mrs. Erickson’s clothing, finding several calico dresses that would be much better suited to wearing on the farm than Aundy’s current wardrobe. Although somewhat dated and out of style, Aundy didn’t think the chickens or the vegetable garden would care.
Setting the dresses aside, she found three riding skirts in good condition and tried them on. Standing in front of the mirror, she saw the skirts were short, but otherwise fit her very well. Examining the wide hems, she was relieved to know she could lengthen them enough to wear without causing any scandal over a short hemline.
More digging resulted in the discovery of a pair of cowboy boots and two pairs of shoes. Taking off her own shoes, she found Mrs. Erickson’s fit her well, if not somewhat loose. A little padding in the toe would fix the problem.
Trying on the boots, Aundy felt the soft leather and looked at the scuffed toes and worn-down heels. Unlike any boots she’d seen a woman wear, she thought they must have been special made just for Erik’s mother. They definitely looked like men’s western boots, only smaller. Wiggling her toes, she concluded a pair of thicker socks would remedy the problem of the boots fitting.
Getting to her feet and clomping around the room, an idea began to blossom in her head. As the blossom reached full bloom, Aundy upended the box of men’s clothes she’d just carefully packed onto the bed and began searching through the items. Pulling out pants, a shirt, vest and tie, she reached into the closet to grab a coat. Trying on the clothes, she decided to put her plan into action that very night.
Giddy with excitement, she dug around on the closet shelf, finding a broad-brimmed hat. Settling it on her head, she glanced in the dresser mirror. Adjusting the strap beneath her chin to hold the hat in place, she pulled down the brim until it shadowed her eyes. With some soot on her cheeks and jaw to look like a man’s stubbly whiskers, she thought she might get away with her little deception.
Changing back to her clothes, she took the men’s clothes to her room, finished packing up the bedroom, leaving the boxes stacked by the door and went to Erik’s room, looking for some cologne or aftershave. Finding a bottle of Bay Rum, she took it to the bathroom and left it sitting on a shelf by the mirror.
When Dent stopped by after supper to see if she needed anything, it was difficult for her not to share her plans. Instead, she told him she was fine, but thought she might like to go for a ride before it got dark. Dent said he’d have someone saddle Bell and leave her tied to the fence out front.
“Thanks so much, Dent,” Aundy said, giving him a handful of the butter cookies he seemed to enjoy as he made his way out the door.
Opening the stove door, Aundy gathered a cup of ashes and took them to the bathroom. Washing her hands, she went to her room where her disguise, as she had decided to call it, awaited.
Recalling what J.B. said about the Underground not being a place for a lady, especially not on a Friday night, Aundy also remembered what he said about it being the best place to gather information.
And information is what Aundy wanted. No one took her seriously as a woman, so if she had to pretend to be a man to accomplish what she wanted to do, then so be it.