Well, that was a first. Freida had come bearing gifts, generally edible, and she had come to him or asked him to come to her when she felt poorly, but never had she asked him for an actual favor. “One of my customers, a widow, so sad, still so young. She’s been so eager for her new dresses, hers are worn to rags, but the neighbor who was going to bring her into town, he got too busy, I hate to make her wait. Would it be too much trouble, you could take me there tomorrow morning, maybe you have a patient to see on the way?”
He could in fact go see the old woman with a leg abscess, which shouldn’t take too long to drain and bandage. Her son’s place was considerably farther away than the young widow’s farm, but Joshua could deal with the abscess first, and then swing by to deliver the dresses on the way back to town.
Freida took her knitting along — “It’s a lovely day, I’ll be all right in the buggy, finally I’ll get some work done on this shawl” — and they set out, a well-rested Nellie-girl taking them quickly out of town. Freida hailed almost everyone they passed, calling out questions about their news and well-being even though those greeted had little time to answer before they were left behind. She did not, Joshua noticed, greet Clara Brook, apparently out for a walk on the outskirts of town; Joshua took it upon himself to wave instead, tipping his hat and receiving a grave nod in return.
Soon they were out in farm country and passing corn growing tall and green, with tassels stirring in the breeze, and here and there the vivid red flash of a Summer Tanager, all accompanied by the sweetly varied chirps of meadowlarks. Freida kept up a stream of chatter, with the rumbling buggy wheels as counterpoint. Quite a bit of it concerned the customer in such need of new clothing. Joshua’s vague sense that Freida was up to something soon yielded to the glum conviction that the whole errand was orchestrated to bring Joshua and the customer together. Joshua paid as little attention as he could manage, determined to form his own opinion.
The old woman’s leg was more swollen, the old bandages more saturated and odorous, than Joshua had hoped. She had probably ignored his instructions to stay off it as much as possible and keep it elevated. He repeated the orders she had already flouted, drained and cleaned the abscess again, bandaged the leg, and left with a dour sense of futility.
Back on the road, the fresh breeze and birdsong helped put him back in a tolerably good humor by the time they pulled up to a neat little farmhouse with flowering bushes lining the front. It did not look familiar. If the husband had taken ill after Joshua came to Cowbird Creek, it was possible they had called the doctor in Rushing for some reason, or that Joshua had been on one of his infrequent trips out of town.
Joshua helped Freida down and then retrieved the large linen-wrapped bundle that must contain the dresses. As they approached the door, Joshua could hear the murmur of a woman’s voice, the steady rhythm suggesting she was reading aloud. At Freida’s firm knock, the murmur ceased, and shortly afterward, the door opened to reveal a woman holding a little girl in her arms.
The woman was of less than medium height and seemed entirely composed of curves, from the loose curls allowed to escape and hang around her face, to her arm holding the child, to what he could see of her figure, to her gently welcoming smile. He must have seen her before, and probably more than once — in fact, she looked vaguely familiar, more than, say, Clara Brook had at first — but he had never noticed her face and figure. Perhaps he had encountered her only in winter, when she had been muffled in an overcoat.
She looked up at them, her round blue eyes lighting up as she stepped back to allow them inside. “Oh, thank you! I feared it might be days or even weeks before I could be decently dressed again.” Then she looked up at Joshua and said, “I’m Mrs. Arden. Thank you so much for bringing Mrs. Blum. Do come in.”
As always, I make it easy to preorder the book by providing the link.