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Specious Nephew

Book By: booksbyfay
Mystery and crime


In this second book in the Series Of Amazing Gracie Mysteries, a stranger shows up for Molly Moser's wedding. He claims to be Melinda Applegate's nephew. Gracie Evans doesn't believe him. She's determined to prove he's up to no good. Her warnings to everyone at the mansion go unheeded because they think she's jealous of the time the man spends with her friend, Melinda. At the same time, all sorts of upheaval takes place at the mansion rest home in Locked Rock, Iowa while the owner is gone on her month long honeymoon.


Submitted:Aug 13, 2008    Reads: 73    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


Chapter 1
God didn't intend for old folks to like fall, thought Gracie Evans as she vigorously rubbed her aching, left knee. She listened to the crisp, north breeze rattle brown leaves on the unkempt, pivot hedge along side of Moser Mansion Rest Home For Women. A shiver run through Gracie, settling in under the dark gray braids wrapped around her head.
In an instant, a strong gust of wind tore loose a handful of dry leaves and scooted them along the porch floor in front of Gracie and her companion, Melinda Applegate. The leaves made it all the way to the south end of the porch, swirled up in a whirlwind motion then scattered across the yard, lodging in the dead leaf piles at the base of the hedge and the picket fence.
Looking at the clematis on the trellis in front of her, Gracie grimaced. The look of it was more proof that fall was an ugly time of year. It was the ninth of September. The vine had thinned to a screen of yellow leaves, like what was left of the ones on the honeysuckle and morning glory vines that grew on either end of the porch.
Not that Gracie needed shade from the hot, summer sun now. The two handmade, Amish rockers positioned behind each of the three vines no longer needed protection. In fact, what little warmth the sun provided soaked into her, feeling mighty good now that this sudden cool snap hinted at an early frost.
She didn't bother to squint through the peek holes in the vines. She kept them clear of leaves during the summer to give Melinda and her an unobstructed view of the neighbors comings and goings. Now there were more natural openings then leaves, and wouldn't you know not much exciting to watch across the street since the lady of the evening, Rachel Simpson, was murdered and her house burnt to the ground.
Two doors north of Rachel's house, Mavis and Dan Jordan split up during the summer. That couple sure kept things exciting in the neighborhood for awhile with their fighting. Many a night she watched Dan Jordan sneak into the side door of Rachel Simpson's house after dark until his wife, Mavis, found out. Then Dan ran off. After that, Mavis went off the deep end. She murdered the Simpson girl, realized that Gracie and Melinda knew too much and put fear into everyone at the Moser mansion until Gracie and Melinda helped get Mavis arrested for Rachel's murder. Now the Jordan house stood empty.
A retired couple, Earl and Sara Bullock, owned the house on the middle lot across the street. Nice enough couple but about as exciting as watching an old dog chase his tail. The highlight of their day seemed to be working in the flower beds and garden in the summer. Of course, that was more than she had to keep her busy. Gracie had to give them that. All she did was sit and let people wait on her.
Now with fall coming on, Gracie expected the Bullocks would stay out of sight, indoors by the fire, but this day had certainly been different. There had been a flurry of activity at their house. For the better part of the day, Gracie sit tight in her rocker, trying to figure out what the heck was happening over there.
The fact was there just wasn't any other way for Gracie to occupy her time in the rest home. She was willing to stick with sitting on the Moser porch until much colder weather hit Locked Rock, Iowa to keep from sitting closed away in the dark parlor. That would happen soon enough. Of course, Melinda agreed to rock on the porch with her. That helped. They always had each other to pass the time of day with. That is, when she could keep Melinda awake.
If there happened to be any tidbits of Sara's conversation that Gracie missed, she could always count on Sara to fill her in when their neighbor came to visit.
Besides Gracie reasoned, there wasn't anything wrong with a body being curious. Gracie felt she needed to stay informed about what was happening in the community. What easier way to do it for an old person besides listening and watching the neighbors.
"A penny for your thoughts," suggested Melinda in her soft voice, breaking the silence. She relaxed her head against her rocker. Her light gray, curls flattened to her face like tiny springs. The petite woman gave Gracie a long, thoughtful look.
Gracie studied on what she should say before she spoke, wanting to blurt out that God hadn't intended for fall to be a season suitable for old folks, but she resisted. Melinda would scold her for being sacrilegious if she bothered to be so truthful.
Instead, she looked down at the sunlight that filtered through the vine onto her lap. Stretching a crooked finger out, she tapped at the pale yellow sparkles of light that danced along the folds of her brown skirt. Finally, she answered in her brassy voice, waving her finger back and forth toward the open space between the two vines. "I'm thinking now that the sun's peeking under the roof we should move our rockers over so we get the full sunshine. I don't know about you, but I'm mighty chilly. Here it is early in the afternoon when the day should be the warmest. If you ask me it's too early to have this cold a weather."
Melinda smiled at Gracie's complaining. She replied softly, "Well, you know the old saying. If you don't like the weather in Iowa, wait awhile. It'll change."
"Just the same, I'd rather not freeze to death any sooner than I have to. A body could catch her death sitting in the shade on a day like today. Let's move over in the sunlight."
Melinda nodded agreement. She rose, scooted her rocker over, and left room for Gracie. Tugging her rocker into position, Gracie plopped down next to Melinda. Tapping her toes on the floor, she rocked energetically, hoping that would help warm her up.
A group of children ran down the street, shouting and laughing. Definitely the fall season is for the younger generations, confirmed Gracie to herself. Young ones stayed active enough that they didn't feel the chill in the air. Thank goodness her mind was clear enough that she remembered those days, but she gave a deep sigh when she thought about how long ago that was.
Gracie contemplated Main Street with hitching racks almost empty of buggies and horses. "Not much business at the stores with the farmers in the fields, gathering in the corn crops before the first snow comes. Orie Lang hadn't even been by much lately to take Miss Molly for a buggy ride."
"He managed to stop picking corn long enough to pick Miss Molly up for church again Sunday. Most times he stays for dinner like last Sunday before he heads back to the farm," defended Melinda.
"Expect Aunt Pearlbee's cooking is the only good meal that bachelor gets. He's no dummy," replied Gracie.
Smiling, Melinda made a tent of her fingers and brought them up to touch her lips. "If you'd been paying attention lately, you'd notice Mr. Orie isn't taking notice of Aunt Pearlbee's cooking while he's here."
"Come to think of it, Mr. Orie didn't seem in such a hurry last Sunday. He spent a good part of the afternoon in the parlor with Miss Molly. He must be about done with the harvest," decided Gracie.
"Reckon so. It'll be good for Miss Molly when Mr. Orie starts coming more regular. Since they've been sparking, Miss Molly seems so happy," said Melinda.
Gracie didn't have a reply for that comment so she sat quietly drifting in her thoughts. She watched a couple of squirrels, chasing each other along side the porch. For the last several days, they scampered across the yard with their cheeks full. Now that their fur coats had grown thick and fuzzy to ward against the cold, they sensed it was time to store a food supply for the winter. They buried walnuts and acorns in the ground or hid their bootee at the base of the hedge.
It seemed like only yesterday, Melinda and she watched from the gazebo while a couple of squirrels scurried up the old maple in the backyard, carrying food to babies in a leafy nest. It must be true that the time passes faster as a body gets older. No doubt about it, thought Gracie, frowning. She looked at the brown spots covering the back of her hands and wondered when they had turned ugly on her.
In her younger days, she didn't have time to worry about yesterday or tomorrow for that matter. In the fall, she kept busy on her farm. Just like the men farmers, she worked along side a wagon pulled by a team of work horses. She yanked the ears out of the dried shucks and threw them at the wagon. As she walked down the rows between the dried stalks, she shouted, "Come Queen, come Buck." The horses moved slowly past her, stopping when Gracie hollered whoa. All the while hurrying as fast as she could, Gracie worked to fill the wagon, making the most of the daylight hours. She was pretty darn good at picking corn. As good as any man she knew.
And now what am I gathering? She asked herself at that moment in 1903 while she sat on the mansion porch in Locked Rock, Iowa. A sudden breeze blowing from Canada made her mighty uncomfortable. Gracie silently answered her question with, goose bumps. She vigorously rubbed her arms.Tugging her walnut stained, knit shawl tighter over the front of her long sleeve, tan blouse, she smoothed it out in her lap over her dark brown, calico skirt.
What she needed was something to think about besides being cold like what was going on in the front yard right then. A swarm of monarch butterflies fluttered across the lawn, flitting from the large rest home sign over to the vines then back to the picket fence. They seemed restless as if too tired to light and rest. The orange and black blurs soared up high and floated down in a slow, graceful ballet. Migrating on their journey south, the butterflies needed to rest for a spell, but by morning, they would be on their way again.
Once in awhile in the summer, a lonely butterfly flitted around the honeysuckle, but that wasn't the same kind of excitement for Gracie. It would be another year before a large number flocked together to give this kind of show and then only for a few hours on their way south.
As the monarchs fluttered down the street, Gracie relaxed back against her rocker and sighed.
"Gracie, if you keep frowning, you're face is going to freeze that way with as cool as it's getting," teased Melinda. "What's the matter with you today?"
"I hate the cold of fall and winter. That's all. I feel winter coming in my bones already, and I dread it," Gracie said with sincerity.
"Well, worrying about something that you can't stop from happening isn't going to make you feel any better. I swear the better I get to know you the more the word curmudgeon comes to mind." The way Melinda looked at Gracie wasn't altogether flattering.
Gracie gave her a hard look right back. "Whoa there! That don't sound like a nice thing to call me. What is this crud mudge on anyway?"
"The word is curmudgeon. If you want to know what it means look it up in the dictionary in the Moser library," said Melinda.
"Fine friend you are. Calling me names," snapped Gracie, wiggling indignantly in her rocker.
The screen door hinges squeaked. The cook, Pearlbee, shuffled slowly through the doorway, steadying a tray with two cups on it. The thought ran through Gracie's mind that if Pearlbee's hips got any broader, she'd have to turn sideways to go through the doors. Wouldn't do to bring that up to the cook though. Let Pearlbee's dander get up and she turned into a cyclone in action.
"Hi, Pearlbee," greeted Gracie. "Didn't realize it was tea time yet. We can sure use that."
"Yes, thank you, Aunt Pearlbee. I'm so glad Miss Molly decided to start having tea time. It breaks up the afternoon." Pearlbee lowered the tray down to Melinda. She hooked her fingers in the handle of a steaming cup, lifted it off the tray and wrapped her hands around it.
"I'm sure ready for something to warm me up," said Gracie, reaching for her steaming cup.
The cook's unsteady gait made it hard for her to keep the tray from wavering. Melinda suggested in concern for the cook's safety, "Aunt Pearlbee, you really should use your cane more."
"Ah's knowed it Missus, but cain't when I gets my hands full," declared Pearlbee.
"Maybe we should come get our own tea from now on. That would be of help, wouldn't it, Gracie?" suggested Melinda.
Gracie thought Pearlbee puffed up some. Never could tell when she'd get miffed about someone taking a chore away from her. Gracie sure didn't want that anger directed at her. Let this be Melinda's idea. Noncommittally, she shrugged her shoulders. "Don't make no never mind to me."
"Then that's what we'll do. You just let us know when you're ready Aunt Pearlbee. From now on, we'll come to the kitchen after the tea." As if she sensed Pearlbee might not know how to take this helping hand, Melinda gave the cook a close inspection and quickly changed the subject to one favorable to Pearlbee. "My, you do look nice in your new uniform, Aunt Pearlbee," she complimented.
"Thank ya, Missus," beamed Pearlbee, swishing her hips exaggeratedly to model the full effect of her newly acquired, black, challis dress set off by a white linen collar and cuffs on the long sleeves. Pearlbee reached for the hem of her full length, stiffly starched, white apron and held it out. She twisted around to show them the fancy way the pointed yoke straps came to a v in back where the ties made a bow.
Gracie took a sip from her cup before she watched the cook model her uniform. Drinking the warm tea make her even more uncomfortable. "Pearlbee, find us those quilts we cover our laps with when you have time. I don't think it's going to warm up enough out here this afternoon to be comfortable without them."
"Sure thing, Miss Gracie. Ah's be right back." Pearlbee waddled back to the screen door, balancing the empty tray.
Melinda watched the cook disappear then chastised, "Gracie, the least you could have done was tell Aunt Pearlbee you liked her new uniform."
Gracie pursed her lips, thinking about her answer. "Maybe but she looked all right in the ever day outfits she used to wear as far as I'm concerned."
"But she's proud of that uniform, and she does look nice in it," insisted Melinda.
"Don't expect Pearlbee would have gotten that fancy getup if she hadn't kept up such a fuss over that missing red apron we borrowed and didn't bring back. Miss Molly just gave her the uniform to calm her down," reminded Gracie, looking away from Melinda to across the street. Her mind was torn between arguing with Melinda and wondering what the two strange men were up to at the Bullocks. They made repeated trips, carrying boards and rolls of wiring into the house.
"What do you mean we?" Melinda's sweet, quiet voice rose a little. She darted a glance at the door. Focusing on Gracie, she lowered her voice, "As I remember it, that idea was yours, putting the apron in the package mean Mavis hid in exchange for the bloody dress she wore when she murdered Rachel Simpson. You're just lucky Aunt Pearlbee hasn't found out yet."
Gracie straightened in her rocker, squared her shoulders and jabbed a crooked finger at Melinda. "I'm lucky? As I recall you were right there in the tool shed in the middle of the night helping me find that package. Weren't you?"
Melinda sunk back in her rocker. "You're right," she muttered half heartily, looking down at her folded hands in her lap.
A door bang across the street. Gracie put her attention in that direction. She sure didn't want to miss anything. With curiosity in her voice, she exclaimed, "There comes a couple men out of Sara Bullock's house again. Wonder what she's having done? Sure was a mess of boards and wire, those men unloaded from that wagon this morning."
"Look at that fence post those two men put up in the corner of the yard. Must be all of thirty feet tall. Makes me nervous wondering what kind of animal Earl intends to keep in Rachel Simpson's yard when they get it fenced in," said Melinda.
"That ain't a fence post. No animal needs a fence that high in the air," snorted Gracie in disdain. "That's a city girl for you."
"Well, Miss Know It All, what is it for then? Oh wait, here comes Sara. We'll just ask her," returned Melinda, defensively.
"Yahoo, ladies," shouted Sara, waving at them.
Gracie noted under her breath, "Sara, got her apron on. Must be making a hurry up call."
Melinda returned the wave and called eagerly, "Good afternoon. Come on up here."
Sara settled her wide hips between the arms of a rocker behind the honeysuckle vine. She untied her bonnet and removed it from her head.
Anxious to get out of Sara what was going on, Melinda asked, "We've been dying of curiosity about all the activity at your place. What you fixing?"
Gracie leaned forward to look around Melinda.
Sara took her time folding and placing her bonnet in her lap. She knew the elderly women could hardly wait to satisfy their curiosity. Grinning, she said, "Not fixing anything. I got me a job. That stuff goes with it."
"What kind of job?" Rushed out of Gracie's mouth.
"I'm a telephone switch board operator," informed Sara proudly.
"What's a telephone?" Gracie wanted to know.
"That's one of those new contraptions that people are talking on to each other now," shared Sara.
"Well, what is that big fence pole in the corner of your yard for?" quizzed Melinda.
Sara giggled. "It's not a fence pole. That's a telephone pole."
"See there," Gracie rubbed in. "I told you that was no fence post."
"Let Sara finishing tell us what it is then," Melinda snipped peevishly.
Their neighbor continued to explain, "There will be more poles set down the block. Wire has to be strung on them and hooked to the houses of everyone who has a telephone to send messages over."
"What's going on out here?" Molly Moser peeked through the screen door. "I thought I heard talking."
"Afternoon, Molly. I was just telling Gracie and Melinda about my new job," replied Sara.
"What! You have a job? Tell me, too." Molly popped outside. The screen door shut with a hollow bang and bounced a couple times before it stilled. The young woman scurried over to sit down in the rocker next to Sara. She gripped the rocker seat, leaned forward and put all her attention on their neighbor.
"I'm going to run the switchboard for the telephones out of my home. I'm what they call a switchboard operator," Sara announced proudly. "Want to come see what it looks like? The workmen should have everything about set up by now."
"Sure, I'd like to see," said Molly, eagerly.
Melinda looked at Gracie. "We want to go, too. Don't we?"
"Reckon." With very little enthusiasm, Gracie tried to digest what this new gadget that Sara described was all about as they crossed the street. She wasn't so sure she was going to like whatever it turned out to be.
The small, clapboard house the Bullocks owned was one of several look alike houses in town built in a hurry to accommodate people that moved to town after the railroad came. Gracie followed behind Molly and Melinda through the neat, but sparse parlor. Between the worn, dark brown, horsehair couch and a stuffed chair that matched it sat a table with a kerosene lamp in the middle surrounded by books. A rocker was by the front window. Near it sat a small table with a bouquet of pink and lavender asters in the center. Most likely they'd be the last flowers Sara would gather this year out of her flower beds.
The middle of the floor was covered by a large, oval, multicolored rag rug. Knowing how handy Sara was, Gracie figured she braided it from sewing scraps and the best parts of old clothes. Sara like Gracie never threw anything away. Gracie's mother used to say, "Just as sure as shootin' you throw away something, there'll come the day you could have used it." Over the years, Gracie found her mother's advice to be right. What never came up was the fact that finding something later that had been laid back for future use was often a hopeless case. In later years, Gracie hunted through the piles of objects discarded by her parents and herself, searching for an item. If it took very long to find what she was looking for, she'd have to stop and think a while to remember why she wanted to find the object in the first place.
Sara motioned for her guests to follow her. She led them to a door on the north end of the parlor. "This is the spare bedroom, but there's room for the bed and the switchboard, too."
When they heard the women, the two workers, in chambray work shirts and jeans, got up from a kneeling position. Both of them were covered in dirt and sawdust. They had stuffed a vast number of rubber coated wires attached to the back of the switchboard into a hole in the board floor. The men stepped back from the large piece of plywood nailed in one corner to let Sara and her friends view their handiwork.
"We just about have the switchboard hooked up, Mrs. Bullock. You'll be able to try it out afore long," the taller of the two men told Sara, pointing to the board full of small, gold cranks with white knobs.
Gracie leaned forward to inspect the silver plates below the cranks. She recognized several names. Sara stepped up beside her and picked up a brown, bell shaped piece resting on a small wooden platform at the edge of the switchboard. "This is called a receiver. It's what I listen into when folks talk to me." She held it to her ear and pointed to a wooden framed hole at the side of the switchboard. "This is what I talk into."
"Who all has one of these telephones?" Molly asked..
"The Locked Rock Mercantile and some of the other businesses. Some folks in town like Doc Lawson, Madge Potter, Phillip Harris, and a few others," said Sara. "Not many people yet, but more will want one once they see how it works."
"Sounds like folks that has money to me. I'll bet something like this gadget don't come cheap. What good is it going to be when no one that we want to talk to has one of them," said Gracie in a matter of fact tone.
Ignoring Gracie, Melinda asked, "How far away can you talk on one of these things?"
"To anyone that has a telephone all over the country. Lots of folks have them out east in the bigger cities like New York."
Molly studied the switchboard. Suddenly, she spoke. "I'd like to have one, too."
"Really, Miss Molly," said Melinda, gleefully.
"Yes, think how quick it'd be to get Doctor Lawson if one of us needs him. All we'd have to do is ring him up. Can you sign me up, Sara?"
"I sure can. You'll have one put in tomorrow."
"Golly Moses, that soon. I'm excited about this. Aren't you ladies?" Instantly, her thoughts turned elsewhere. Molly glanced down at the watch attached to her blouse. "Oh my, look at the time. We better think about heading home. Aunt Pearlbee must have dinner about ready, and she doesn't like it if her food gets cold."

Chapter 1
God didn't intend for old folks to like fall, thought Gracie Evans as she vigorously rubbed her aching, left knee. She listened to the crisp, north breeze rattle brown leaves on the unkempt, pivot hedge along side of Moser Mansion Rest Home For Women. A shiver run through Gracie, settling in under the dark gray braids wrapped around her head.
In an instant, a strong gust of wind tore loose a handful of dry leaves and scooted them along the porch floor in front of Gracie and her companion, Melinda Applegate. The leaves made it all the way to the south end of the porch, swirled up in a whirlwind motion then scattered across the yard, lodging in the dead leaf piles at the base of the hedge and the picket fence.
Looking at the clematis on the trellis in front of her, Gracie grimaced. The look of it was more proof that fall was an ugly time of year. It was the ninth of September. The vine had thinned to a screen of yellow leaves, like what was left of the ones on the honeysuckle and morning glory vines that grew on either end of the porch.
Not that Gracie needed shade from the hot, summer sun now. The two handmade, Amish rockers positioned behind each of the three vines no longer needed protection. In fact, what little warmth the sun provided soaked into her, feeling mighty good now that this sudden cool snap hinted at an early frost.
She didn't bother to squint through the peek holes in the vines. She kept them clear of leaves during the summer to give Melinda and her an unobstructed view of the neighbors comings and goings. Now there were more natural openings then leaves, and wouldn't you know not much exciting to watch across the street since the lady of the evening, Rachel Simpson, was murdered and her house burnt to the ground.
Two doors north of Rachel's house, Mavis and Dan Jordan split up during the summer. That couple sure kept things exciting in the neighborhood for awhile with their fighting. Many a night she watched Dan Jordan sneak into the side door of Rachel Simpson's house after dark until his wife, Mavis, found out. Then Dan ran off. After that, Mavis went off the deep end. She murdered the Simpson girl, realized that Gracie and Melinda knew too much and put fear into everyone at the Moser mansion until Gracie and Melinda helped get Mavis arrested for Rachel's murder. Now the Jordan house stood empty.
A retired couple, Earl and Sara Bullock, owned the house on the middle lot across the street. Nice enough couple but about as exciting as watching an old dog chase his tail. The highlight of their day seemed to be working in the flower beds and garden in the summer. Of course, that was more than she had to keep her busy. Gracie had to give them that. All she did was sit and let people wait on her.
Now with fall coming on, Gracie expected the Bullocks would stay out of sight, indoors by the fire, but this day had certainly been different. There had been a flurry of activity at their house. For the better part of the day, Gracie sit tight in her rocker, trying to figure out what the heck was happening over there.
The fact was there just wasn't any other way for Gracie to occupy her time in the rest home. She was willing to stick with sitting on the Moser porch until much colder weather hit Locked Rock, Iowa to keep from sitting closed away in the dark parlor. That would happen soon enough. Of course, Melinda agreed to rock on the porch with her. That helped. They always had each other to pass the time of day with. That is, when she could keep Melinda awake.
If there happened to be any tidbits of Sara's conversation that Gracie missed, she could always count on Sara to fill her in when their neighbor came to visit.
Besides Gracie reasoned, there wasn't anything wrong with a body being curious. Gracie felt she needed to stay informed about what was happening in the community. What easier way to do it for an old person besides listening and watching the neighbors.
"A penny for your thoughts," suggested Melinda in her soft voice, breaking the silence. She relaxed her head against her rocker. Her light gray, curls flattened to her face like tiny springs. The petite woman gave Gracie a long, thoughtful look.
Gracie studied on what she should say before she spoke, wanting to blurt out that God hadn't intended for fall to be a season suitable for old folks, but she resisted. Melinda would scold her for being sacrilegious if she bothered to be so truthful.
Instead, she looked down at the sunlight that filtered through the vine onto her lap. Stretching a crooked finger out, she tapped at the pale yellow sparkles of light that danced along the folds of her brown skirt. Finally, she answered in her brassy voice, waving her finger back and forth toward the open space between the two vines. "I'm thinking now that the sun's peeking under the roof we should move our rockers over so we get the full sunshine. I don't know about you, but I'm mighty chilly. Here it is early in the afternoon when the day should be the warmest. If you ask me it's too early to have this cold a weather."
Melinda smiled at Gracie's complaining. She replied softly, "Well, you know the old saying. If you don't like the weather in Iowa, wait awhile. It'll change."
"Just the same, I'd rather not freeze to death any sooner than I have to. A body could catch her death sitting in the shade on a day like today. Let's move over in the sunlight."
Melinda nodded agreement. She rose, scooted her rocker over, and left room for Gracie. Tugging her rocker into position, Gracie plopped down next to Melinda. Tapping her toes on the floor, she rocked energetically, hoping that would help warm her up.
A group of children ran down the street, shouting and laughing. Definitely the fall season is for the younger generations, confirmed Gracie to herself. Young ones stayed active enough that they didn't feel the chill in the air. Thank goodness her mind was clear enough that she remembered those days, but she gave a deep sigh when she thought about how long ago that was.
Gracie contemplated Main Street with hitching racks almost empty of buggies and horses. "Not much business at the stores with the farmers in the fields, gathering in the corn crops before the first snow comes. Orie Lang hadn't even been by much lately to take Miss Molly for a buggy ride."
"He managed to stop picking corn long enough to pick Miss Molly up for church again Sunday. Most times he stays for dinner like last Sunday before he heads back to the farm," defended Melinda.
"Expect Aunt Pearlbee's cooking is the only good meal that bachelor gets. He's no dummy," replied Gracie.
Smiling, Melinda made a tent of her fingers and brought them up to touch her lips. "If you'd been paying attention lately, you'd notice Mr. Orie isn't taking notice of Aunt Pearlbee's cooking while he's here."
"Come to think of it, Mr. Orie didn't seem in such a hurry last Sunday. He spent a good part of the afternoon in the parlor with Miss Molly. He must be about done with the harvest," decided Gracie.
"Reckon so. It'll be good for Miss Molly when Mr. Orie starts coming more regular. Since they've been sparking, Miss Molly seems so happy," said Melinda.
Gracie didn't have a reply for that comment so she sat quietly drifting in her thoughts. She watched a couple of squirrels, chasing each other along side the porch. For the last several days, they scampered across the yard with their cheeks full. Now that their fur coats had grown thick and fuzzy to ward against the cold, they sensed it was time to store a food supply for the winter. They buried walnuts and acorns in the ground or hid their bootee at the base of the hedge.
It seemed like only yesterday, Melinda and she watched from the gazebo while a couple of squirrels scurried up the old maple in the backyard, carrying food to babies in a leafy nest. It must be true that the time passes faster as a body gets older. No doubt about it, thought Gracie, frowning. She looked at the brown spots covering the back of her hands and wondered when they had turned ugly on her.
In her younger days, she didn't have time to worry about yesterday or tomorrow for that matter. In the fall, she kept busy on her farm. Just like the men farmers, she worked along side a wagon pulled by a team of work horses. She yanked the ears out of the dried shucks and threw them at the wagon. As she walked down the rows between the dried stalks, she shouted, "Come Queen, come Buck." The horses moved slowly past her, stopping when Gracie hollered whoa. All the while hurrying as fast as she could, Gracie worked to fill the wagon, making the most of the daylight hours. She was pretty darn good at picking corn. As good as any man she knew.
And now what am I gathering? She asked herself at that moment in 1903 while she sat on the mansion porch in Locked Rock, Iowa. A sudden breeze blowing from Canada made her mighty uncomfortable. Gracie silently answered her question with, goose bumps. She vigorously rubbed her arms.Tugging her walnut stained, knit shawl tighter over the front of her long sleeve, tan blouse, she smoothed it out in her lap over her dark brown, calico skirt.
What she needed was something to think about besides being cold like what was going on in the front yard right then. A swarm of monarch butterflies fluttered across the lawn, flitting from the large rest home sign over to the vines then back to the picket fence. They seemed restless as if too tired to light and rest. The orange and black blurs soared up high and floated down in a slow, graceful ballet. Migrating on their journey south, the butterflies needed to rest for a spell, but by morning, they would be on their way again.
Once in awhile in the summer, a lonely butterfly flitted around the honeysuckle, but that wasn't the same kind of excitement for Gracie. It would be another year before a large number flocked together to give this kind of show and then only for a few hours on their way south.
As the monarchs fluttered down the street, Gracie relaxed back against her rocker and sighed.
"Gracie, if you keep frowning, you're face is going to freeze that way with as cool as it's getting," teased Melinda. "What's the matter with you today?"
"I hate the cold of fall and winter. That's all. I feel winter coming in my bones already, and I dread it," Gracie said with sincerity.
"Well, worrying about something that you can't stop from happening isn't going to make you feel any better. I swear the better I get to know you the more the word curmudgeon comes to mind." The way Melinda looked at Gracie wasn't altogether flattering.
Gracie gave her a hard look right back. "Whoa there! That don't sound like a nice thing to call me. What is this crud mudge on anyway?"
"The word is curmudgeon. If you want to know what it means look it up in the dictionary in the Moser library," said Melinda.
"Fine friend you are. Calling me names," snapped Gracie, wiggling indignantly in her rocker.
The screen door hinges squeaked. The cook, Pearlbee, shuffled slowly through the doorway, steadying a tray with two cups on it. The thought ran through Gracie's mind that if Pearlbee's hips got any broader, she'd have to turn sideways to go through the doors. Wouldn't do to bring that up to the cook though. Let Pearlbee's dander get up and she turned into a cyclone in action.
"Hi, Pearlbee," greeted Gracie. "Didn't realize it was tea time yet. We can sure use that."
"Yes, thank you, Aunt Pearlbee. I'm so glad Miss Molly decided to start having tea time. It breaks up the afternoon." Pearlbee lowered the tray down to Melinda. She hooked her fingers in the handle of a steaming cup, lifted it off the tray and wrapped her hands around it.
"I'm sure ready for something to warm me up," said Gracie, reaching for her steaming cup.
The cook's unsteady gait made it hard for her to keep the tray from wavering. Melinda suggested in concern for the cook's safety, "Aunt Pearlbee, you really should use your cane more."
"Ah's knowed it Missus, but cain't when I gets my hands full," declared Pearlbee.
"Maybe we should come get our own tea from now on. That would be of help, wouldn't it, Gracie?" suggested Melinda.
Gracie thought Pearlbee puffed up some. Never could tell when she'd get miffed about someone taking a chore away from her. Gracie sure didn't want that anger directed at her. Let this be Melinda's idea. Noncommittally, she shrugged her shoulders. "Don't make no never mind to me."
"Then that's what we'll do. You just let us know when you're ready Aunt Pearlbee. From now on, we'll come to the kitchen after the tea." As if she sensed Pearlbee might not know how to take this helping hand, Melinda gave the cook a close inspection and quickly changed the subject to one favorable to Pearlbee. "My, you do look nice in your new uniform, Aunt Pearlbee," she complimented.
"Thank ya, Missus," beamed Pearlbee, swishing her hips exaggeratedly to model the full effect of her newly acquired, black, challis dress set off by a white linen collar and cuffs on the long sleeves. Pearlbee reached for the hem of her full length, stiffly starched, white apron and held it out. She twisted around to show them the fancy way the pointed yoke straps came to a v in back where the ties made a bow.
Gracie took a sip from her cup before she watched the cook model her uniform. Drinking the warm tea make her even more uncomfortable. "Pearlbee, find us those quilts we cover our laps with when you have time. I don't think it's going to warm up enough out here this afternoon to be comfortable without them."
"Sure thing, Miss Gracie. Ah's be right back." Pearlbee waddled back to the screen door, balancing the empty tray.
Melinda watched the cook disappear then chastised, "Gracie, the least you could have done was tell Aunt Pearlbee you liked her new uniform."
Gracie pursed her lips, thinking about her answer. "Maybe but she looked all right in the ever day outfits she used to wear as far as I'm concerned."
"But she's proud of that uniform, and she does look nice in it," insisted Melinda.
"Don't expect Pearlbee would have gotten that fancy getup if she hadn't kept up such a fuss over that missing red apron we borrowed and didn't bring back. Miss Molly just gave her the uniform to calm her down," reminded Gracie, looking away from Melinda to across the street. Her mind was torn between arguing with Melinda and wondering what the two strange men were up to at the Bullocks. They made repeated trips, carrying boards and rolls of wiring into the house.
"What do you mean we?" Melinda's sweet, quiet voice rose a little. She darted a glance at the door. Focusing on Gracie, she lowered her voice, "As I remember it, that idea was yours, putting the apron in the package mean Mavis hid in exchange for the bloody dress she wore when she murdered Rachel Simpson. You're just lucky Aunt Pearlbee hasn't found out yet."
Gracie straightened in her rocker, squared her shoulders and jabbed a crooked finger at Melinda. "I'm lucky? As I recall you were right there in the tool shed in the middle of the night helping me find that package. Weren't you?"
Melinda sunk back in her rocker. "You're right," she muttered half heartily, looking down at her folded hands in her lap.
A door bang across the street. Gracie put her attention in that direction. She sure didn't want to miss anything. With curiosity in her voice, she exclaimed, "There comes a couple men out of Sara Bullock's house again. Wonder what she's having done? Sure was a mess of boards and wire, those men unloaded from that wagon this morning."
"Look at that fence post those two men put up in the corner of the yard. Must be all of thirty feet tall. Makes me nervous wondering what kind of animal Earl intends to keep in Rachel Simpson's yard when they get it fenced in," said Melinda.
"That ain't a fence post. No animal needs a fence that high in the air," snorted Gracie in disdain. "That's a city girl for you."
"Well, Miss Know It All, what is it for then? Oh wait, here comes Sara. We'll just ask her," returned Melinda, defensively.
"Yahoo, ladies," shouted Sara, waving at them.
Gracie noted under her breath, "Sara, got her apron on. Must be making a hurry up call."
Melinda returned the wave and called eagerly, "Good afternoon. Come on up here."
Sara settled her wide hips between the arms of a rocker behind the honeysuckle vine. She untied her bonnet and removed it from her head.
Anxious to get out of Sara what was going on, Melinda asked, "We've been dying of curiosity about all the activity at your place. What you fixing?"
Gracie leaned forward to look around Melinda.
Sara took her time folding and placing her bonnet in her lap. She knew the elderly women could hardly wait to satisfy their curiosity. Grinning, she said, "Not fixing anything. I got me a job. That stuff goes with it."
"What kind of job?" Rushed out of Gracie's mouth.
"I'm a telephone switch board operator," informed Sara proudly.
"What's a telephone?" Gracie wanted to know.
"That's one of those new contraptions that people are talking on to each other now," shared Sara.
"Well, what is that big fence pole in the corner of your yard for?" quizzed Melinda.
Sara giggled. "It's not a fence pole. That's a telephone pole."
"See there," Gracie rubbed in. "I told you that was no fence post."
"Let Sara finishing tell us what it is then," Melinda snipped peevishly.
Their neighbor continued to explain, "There will be more poles set down the block. Wire has to be strung on them and hooked to the houses of everyone who has a telephone to send messages over."
"What's going on out here?" Molly Moser peeked through the screen door. "I thought I heard talking."
"Afternoon, Molly. I was just telling Gracie and Melinda about my new job," replied Sara.
"What! You have a job? Tell me, too." Molly popped outside. The screen door shut with a hollow bang and bounced a couple times before it stilled. The young woman scurried over to sit down in the rocker next to Sara. She gripped the rocker seat, leaned forward and put all her attention on their neighbor.
"I'm going to run the switchboard for the telephones out of my home. I'm what they call a switchboard operator," Sara announced proudly. "Want to come see what it looks like? The workmen should have everything about set up by now."
"Sure, I'd like to see," said Molly, eagerly.
Melinda looked at Gracie. "We want to go, too. Don't we?"
"Reckon." With very little enthusiasm, Gracie tried to digest what this new gadget that Sara described was all about as they crossed the street. She wasn't so sure she was going to like whatever it turned out to be.
The small, clapboard house the Bullocks owned was one of several look alike houses in town built in a hurry to accommodate people that moved to town after the railroad came. Gracie followed behind Molly and Melinda through the neat, but sparse parlor. Between the worn, dark brown, horsehair couch and a stuffed chair that matched it sat a table with a kerosene lamp in the middle surrounded by books. A rocker was by the front window. Near it sat a small table with a bouquet of pink and lavender asters in the center. Most likely they'd be the last flowers Sara would gather this year out of her flower beds.
The middle of the floor was covered by a large, oval, multicolored rag rug. Knowing how handy Sara was, Gracie figured she braided it from sewing scraps and the best parts of old clothes. Sara like Gracie never threw anything away. Gracie's mother used to say, "Just as sure as shootin' you throw away something, there'll come the day you could have used it." Over the years, Gracie found her mother's advice to be right. What never came up was the fact that finding something later that had been laid back for future use was often a hopeless case. In later years, Gracie hunted through the piles of objects discarded by her parents and herself, sea




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