Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Three)
"Courage," she said aloud to herself, then knocked on the door. The gruffness of the "Come in" almost made her turn and run, but she took a breath and opened the door.
He was sitting behind his big desk, his head down. "Mr. Jordan," she began, but he interrupted her.
"So you won, did you?" he said, leaning back in his chair and scowling.
"I want you to know that what I did was out of necessity. I would never have resorted to a court of law if I hadn't been in desperate need."
"Desperate need," he said. "Ah yes, I know that feeling." Looking like some great prowling beast, with his brows drawn into a scowl, Cole rose and came around the desk to glare down at Kathryn.
With stiff arms and her hands made into fists, she stood her ground. She was not going to let him see how much she regretted everything that had happened.
"Mrs. de Longe, let me tell you about 'desperate need.' I own this town, and that means that everyone and everything in it is my responsibility. On top of that responsibility, I have the sole care of a hellion of a son. His mother, may she rest in peace, dumped him on my doorstep the night before she ran off with a circus performer."
At that Kathryn raised her eyebrows. A circus performer?
He was advancing on her, but Kathryn refused to retreat. "I need someone who can handle that boy. You don't know what he is like."
"I can see what you have allowed him to become," she said with more courage than she felt.
"Oh?" Cole said, one eyebrow raised. "Should I have kept him tied to me as you have that son of yours? Pardon me, Mrs. de Longe, but I do not want my son raised to be the puny, frightened little creature that your son is. I want my son to grow to be a man."
Kathryn could take anything anyone gave to her, but she couldn't take what he was saying about Jeremy. "How dare you?" she said, moving toward him and standing on tiptoe so she was closer to his level. "My son is more of a man than that ill- mannered, selfish creature you have raised. My son isn't halfway to being hanged for the criminal he is."
"Criminal?" Cole said, his face furious as he was nearly nose to nose with her.
Then suddenly, he seemed to change. As he stepped away, there was a smile on his face, a wicked little smile. "Yes, Mrs. de Longe, Zachary is on his way to becoming a criminal, which is why I needed someone who could handle him. You…" He looked her up and down with contempt. "You can only handle boys who say, Yes ma'am and No ma'am, and know which fork to use."
"I can handle anyone," she said under her breath, still seething at his remarks about Jeremy. "I can teach your son and discipline your son and–" She broke off because he was laughing at her, as though what she'd said was extremely amusing–and ridiculous.
"You?" he said, laughing. "I have a dog that outweighs you, and a prison warden couldn't handle that son of mine."
Truthfully, Kathryn agreed with him, but she couldn't back down now. "I can and I will control your–" She broke off as he picked up a check from off his desk and handed it to her. "What is this?"
"It's a bank draft for two years' salary. When I'm wrong I admit it. It was my son who was the liar, not you. I pay my debts, so there's the money I promised you in the contract"
Kathryn stood there looking at the check in her hand. It was what she wanted, what she'd gone to court to get. So why wasn't she halfway out the door by now? She looked up at him. "Who will you get to teach your son? Will you hire that woman who has worked with the criminally insane?"
"Yes," he said simply.
"Then I don't want this," she said as she put the check back onto his desk. "Your son needs a teacher, and I have been hired to be that teacher, as well as being ordered to by the court."
"That's very noble of you," Cole said. "But also very stupid. My son is not for the likes of someone like you."
"And what am I, Mr. Jordan? Since you seem to know a great deal about me, I'd like to know what it is you do know about me. Other than that you think I'm trying to trap you into marriage, that is."
At that, the corner of Cole's mouth quirked into a bit of a smile. "You're a lady," he said as he sat on the desk, his long legs stretching into the room. "And since you're in this hellhole of a town, my guess is that you're running from something or someone. People in Legend often come here to hide from something. You say you're a widow, but lady widows usually have rich relatives to take care of them. So where are your rich relatives?"
It was Kathryn's turn to smile. "You are not a good judge of character, Mr. Jordan. I am not a 'lady,' as you call it. My mother was a cook for a large estate, and my father worked in the stables until he died when I was five. When the daughter of the house proved too stupid to educate, it was decided that perhaps if she had a companion she might better learn, so I was schooled with her. But even though I was educated in the main house, I was never, ever treated as anything except the cook's daughter. As for Jeremy's father, that is none of your business. Now, would it be possible that someone could show me where my son and I are to stay?"
"Stay?" Cole asked. "You can't stay here. And you can't possibly take on Zachary. He–"
"Double my salary says that I can and will get that young man under control, and I'll do it within a week. As long as you give me a free hand, that is."
Cole opened his mouth to speak but closed it, then he smiled in a knowing way. "You're on. One week. Double your salary." Putting out his hand, he shook hers, and the look in his eye said that this was one bet he was sure he was going to win.
For a moment Kathryn felt exhilarated that she had won, but at the same time she felt terror running through her as she remembered the way young Zachary had pulled a whiskey bottle from the arms of a woman and downed half of it. "W… where do we stay?" she asked, taking her hand from his because he had not released it. Instead, he was standing there staring at her in a way that was making Kathryn feel decidedly uncomfortable.
"Anywhere," he said, then turned his back on her as he looked at some papers on his desk. "Take whatever rooms you want. The house is mostly empty."
"All right," she said softly, then started for the door.
"Mrs. de Longe?"
She paused with her hand on the door.
"I'll be away in Denver for the next week. I usually take my son with me, but since you seem convinced that you can handle him, I'll leave him in your care." "Yes, certainly," she said with as much courage as she could summon. How in the world was she going to control that horrid boy for a whole week? Should she ask where the whips and chains were stored?
"If you should change your mind after the first day or so, I'll leave this draft here. You can cash it at the Legend bank, and you and your son may leave at any time."
"And who will look after your son?"
"He seems to be rather good at taking care of himself," Cole said. "I've never found that he needs anyone."
"Like you, Mr. Jordan?" she said. "Perhaps he is merely echoing your sentiments, that you believe you need no one else on earth."
Turning, Cole gave her that little smirk again. "I see. Now let me guess, Mrs. de Longe. You think you are just the person I need."
Kathryn gave him a very sweet smile. "Mr. Jordan, I hope your horse steps into a hole and you fall and break your neck. Good day, sir." As she firmly shut the door behind him, she heard his laughter.
"Mother, you have gone mad," Jeremy said when he heard what she had done. "You should have taken the money and we could have left this horrible place. Zachary is incorrigible. And the father is as bad. I've heard that–"
"Jeremy, you are not to repeat what you've heard about either of them. Zachary Jordan has no mother, so we must be forgiving and–"
"I have no father," Jeremy said and there was the unmistakable tone of jealousy in his voice. "But that fact has yet to excuse me from any misbehavior."
"Jeremy, my darling, you have been blessed with a mother who is sane and sensible and loves you very much. That poor child has had no one except a man who lives under the illusion that every woman on earth is dying to spend her life with him. He is vain and arrogant, not to mention ignorant of the simplest courtesies and–" She broke off because Jeremy was staring at her oddly.
"Come on," she said, picking up one of the cases at his feet. "Let's see if we can find someone to tell us where his rooms are, so we can live as far from him as possible."
Jeremy grabbed the other bags and started to follow his mother up the stairs. "And a room that we can put a padlock on."
"I think that was just Mr. Stewart's little joke," Kathryn said as she paused on the landing, looking at the two hallways in front of her, one branching right, the other left. With her free hand she ran it along the surface of a table, then frowned as her hand came away dirty.
"I don't think it was a bad idea," Jeremy said as he followed his mother down the right corridor, his shoulders pulling under the weight of the bags. "Really, Mother, a padlock could be quite an asset"
Kathryn was opening doors, looking inside the rooms, then clucking in disgust. It was obvious that the house had once been beautiful, but now neglect had been allowed to make the rooms almost uninhabitable. Dirt and dust were everywhere. In one bedroom there was a mouse nest in the feather pillow on the bed. One bedroom's window had blown open, and it looked as though it had stayed open for days, because the floor and the surrounding furniture were damaged severely.
When Kathryn opened the door at the end of the corridor, she said, "Ah," in such a way that Jeremy came to peer over her shoulder. He could see that this was obviously his bedroom, as Jeremy thought of the man who had made his mother so unhappy. There were clothes and dirty boots slung everywhere. A pile of socks that looked as though they hadn't been washed in years were heaped by the door.
With thumb and one finger extended, Kathryn picked up a sock and held it aloft. The toe was worn through. "Disgusting," she said, dropped the awful object, then shut the door. "Come, Jeremy, we will move into the opposite end of the house."
"Where does the other one sleep?" Jeremy said under his breath as he followed his mother's swift footsteps.
Kathryn didn't say anything, but she silently thought that poor Zachary could probably sleep in town in one of those… those houses, for all his father knew.
"Mother, you must rest. And you must admit defeat."
Kathryn ran the back of her hand over her sweaty brow, pushing the fallen hair out of her eyes, and looked up at her son. She was on her hands and knees scouring the kitchen floor, which she was sure hadn't been washed in the last ten years or so. "Darling, if I had ever admitted defeat I would have been hanged for kidnapping long ago and you would be living a life of leisure with your father."
At that Jeremy smiled and sat down at the big pine kitchen table that now gleamed from his mother's efforts. ""You could always help me, you know."
Jeremy picked up an apple from the bowl on the table and bit into it. "I am an O'Connor, you know. Blood of kings, that sort of thing."
Kathryn threw her dirty rag, and it would have hit him smack in the face if he hadn't caught it midair then dropped it disdainfully on the floor. She got off her knees and lowered herself onto a chair near her son. "Jeremy, darling, what in the world am I going to do? Mr. Jordan will return in a day or two, and I haven't made any progress at all"
For a moment she closed her eyes and thought back over the last several days, and involuntarily, she gave a bit of a shudder. Zachary Jordan was afraid of no one and nothing. There was nothing she could threaten him with that made any difference to him. She couldn't intimidate him with, "I'm going to tell your father," because he knew very well that his father wanted her to fail–if for no other reason than to be able to say, I told you so.
She had talked to Zachary twice to try to persuade him of the value of an education. Like his father, he had just laughed at her, then turned away and left the house.
She had tried to make a home for him. Well, truthfully, maybe she had tried to make the Jordan house into a home for her and Jeremy, but Zachary lived there too. It seemed that Cole Jordan only had male employees, and cleanliness was not something they considered important. Neither was good food. They fried everything in lard, poured it onto platters, then put them into the middle of the table.
For her and Jeremy's own health, she had started cooking for the two of them and young Zachary, who, she quickly discovered, had an appetite that matched the size of him. And of course Kathryn couldn't cook in a kitchen as filthy as that one had been, so she'd cleaned it. Then she'd cleaned two bedrooms for herself and Jeremy, and since their rooms turned out to be next to Zachary's, she cleaned his too, even sending the sheets out to the Legend laundry.
"There is nothing I can do to force him to study."
"Too bad you can't starve him," Jeremy said as he bit into his apple. "The boy eats as much as the town blacksmith, who, from what I hear, might be his father as well as any other man. And he certainly likes those shirts you had ironed."
Days ago Kathryn had stopped correcting Jeremy's unpleasant comments about Zachary because she'd found out that his jealousy was stronger than her attempts to inhibit him. No, she wasn't worried about Jeremy; her concern was Zachary. How did she get him to agree to be her pupil? She had figured out that that's what it would take with Zachary because he was too willful to be forced to do anything he didn't want to do. "You can see that he looks just like Cole Jordan," Kathryn said, her chin resting on her hands and thinking about what Jeremy had just said. She might not have been able to get Zachary to open a book, but she had made inroads into other parts of his life. Who would have thought that such a grubby little boy would actually be a hedonist?
Over the last few days Kathryn had seen the pleasure he had taken in putting on freshly washed and ironed shirts. She'd seen him flick a speck of dust off his newly polished boots. Maybe she couldn't get him to want to learn geography, but she'd had no trouble getting him to bathe.
And Jeremy was right about the food. The first night when she and Jeremy had sat down to a dinner of roast chicken and tiny vegetable tarts, Zachary had scoffed and ridiculed the meal even as he was filling his plate. That night Kathryn had been past exhaustion and she had snapped at him, "Either you mind your manners and act like a gentleman or you eat in the bunkhouse with the men." After that Zachary had quietly sat down across from Jeremy and had watched everything Jeremy had done and imitated it perfectly.
At least I taught him something, Kathryn thought. Then, suddenly, her head came up and she stared, wide-eyed, at her son. "What did you say?" "That the town blacksmith could have been his father. I was told that his mother–"
"Jeremy, you must stop listening to gossip. No, what did you say before that? Something about food."
"Oh. I said it was too bad you couldn't starve him into submission."
"Yes," Kathryn said as she stood. "That's it. Jeremy, I want you to go into the bunkhouse and get the dirtiest sheets you can find."
"The men don't have sheets, just blankets."
"Then get the dirtiest blankets you can find. And I want you to have the men use Zachary's clothes to wipe down their sweaty horses this evening."
Jeremy stopped chewing his apple as he looked up at his mother in disbelief. It was one thing for him to think up hideous things to do to Zachary, but his mother was a firm believer in returning good for evil.
"And I want you to get Manuel back in here. I want him to cook dinner tonight."
"Mother! You can't mean–"
"Go! Do it! Now!"
Jeremy dropped his apple and began running.
As Zachary Jordan rode home that night he was smiling in anticipation of the hot dinner waiting for him and the smell of lemon oil that now filled the house. Every time he'd entered the house in the last week he congratulated himself on his cleverness. It was due to him that Mrs. Kathryn de Longe was now living with them. If it had been left up to his father, they'd now both be imprisoned by that bull of a woman his father had wanted to hire.
But Zachary had foiled him. With a little help from his friends in Legend, Zachary had been able to hire the sweetest woman he had ever met. And in the last week he had lived in heaven. He would have died before he admitted it to anyone or let the men see how he actually felt, but he loved the cleanliness of the house. He liked being able to put on a clean shirt every day.
And he loved the food the woman cooked. Instead of two-pound beef steaks that took a Bowie knife to cut, he now ate beef cooked in wine, chicken wrapped in herbs, trout smothered in slivered almonds. She served salads and cooked vegetables with delicious sauces ladled over them. There were desserts that made him nearly weep when he put them into his mouth.
And all he had to do to get this wonderful food and service was to sit at the same table with that little prig, Jeremy, and mirror everything he did. Which, of course, hadn't been difficult. What great intelligence did it take to pick up one fork instead of another?
He did feel a tiny bit bad about his refusal to comply with Mrs. de Longe's other request, that he spend his days with his nose in a book, but how could he give up life for something like that? How could he stay away from mountain streams of water so clear you could see fifty feet down? How could he forgo hearing the eagles songs or sitting around a campfire and listening to old Golden Hawk's stories of the old days? Was he supposed to give up shooting lessons from the 'Frisco Kid? Maybe he was old now, but he could still shoot and still spin a yarn about gunfighters and what it had been like long ago. And then there were what he considered his duties in Legend. The ladies told him what their problems were and he told his father and, most of the time, his father fixed what was wrong. His father had banned more than one bad-tempered cowboy, from town because he was mistreating the ladies.
Smiling, Zachary remembered the day he had first seen Mrs. de Longe. A lot of the men of Legend thought Mrs. de Longe was one of the ladies, but Zachary knew she wasn't. She was beautiful, true, but there was an air of quality about her. The ladies were fool's gold, but Mrs. de Longe was like twenty-four- carat gold. The real thing. He'd known that when he saw her photograph, and he'd been even more sure of it when he'd seen her in person.
On that first day, as he'd stood on the sidelines and seen the way she had held on to her son, a wave of jealousy so strong had overtaken Zachary that he could hardly bear it. All his life he'd heard too many rotten stories about his own mother. She had been one of Legend's ladies, but she had also been ambitious and had set her cap to become Mrs. Cole Jordan. After Zachary had been born, he knew his father had refused to marry her, so she'd dumped her baby on the doorstep and run off. She hadn't been back or even enquired about the son she'd left–or probably sold–since.
Zachary could still remember how he'd felt that day, seeing a boy his own age with a mother like that. All he could think to do was make that perfectly clean boy feel as bad as he did, so he'd acted as though he thought Mrs. de Longe was one of Legend's ladies. How good it had felt to fight with the boy, even if he was a much better opponent than Zachary would ever have thought! Later, he couldn't refrain from taking a bottle from a lady and drinking half of it down. He knew the city boy wouldn't know that the ladies filled their bottles with cold tea.
So now, returning to the house, Zachary was smiling in memory and anticipation. What delicious thing had Mrs. de Longe cooked for him tonight? But when Zachary reached the house, he found the front door to his own house locked. Since when was there need to lock the Jordan house, he thought. His father had armed guards patrolling the Jordan Line, and who would dare attack their house anyway? He pounded on the door, but no one came to answer it. In the end he had to climb up the porch post, walk across the porch roof, then climb across two windowsills before he reached his own bedroom window.
As soon as he slid the window open, he smelled the room. And as soon as he did, he knew exactly what Mrs. Kathryn de Longe was up to. And, immediately, he admitted defeat. If he was going to have to pay for clean clothes and good food with multiplication tables, then so be it. And if that prig Jeremy could do them, then he could too. Besides, some of the things she'd been telling Zachary about foreign countries sounded a bit interesting. He could do without spelling, but maybe he'd conquer that too.
Zachary walked through his dirty room, grabbed a pillow from a settee in the hall, and went to sleep outside Mrs. de Longe's door. That should get her, he thought as he settled down to sleep, for Mrs. Kate, as everyone had come to call her, had the softest heart he'd ever seen. Except when it came to his father, he reminded himself. When it came to the elder Jordan, she didn't give an inch.
You're slippin', Pa, he thought as he drifted into steep. You need to do some work, like maybe you should start sleepin' outside her door for a few nights. Then you'll get all she has to give.