Country Cousin is the first novel in its series
By: E. A. Bundy
Chapter One: Return from the City
Jenny saw her mother out the bus window as the Greyhound from Portland roared around the corner and pulled into the loading area behind the small depot in The Dalles, Oregon. Why was their mom meeting them here instead of Hood River? Jenny had waited nervously for the last few miles, but being fifteen had its privileges and as the oldest, she was able to push past her brothers toward the sound of rushing air, and the sighing noise that bus doors make as they open. She jostled her way down the bus steps to the ground, thwarting her brothers’ attempts to squeeze past.
Mrs. Miller’s face transformed into a smile, and Jenny temporarily forgot the haggard look she’d seen through the window a moment before. She hugged her Mom, previous concerns momentarily forgotten as the driver opened the long, low doors at the side of the bus and handed out their luggage.
With a mad rush, their belongings plus Mrs. Miller and her three children were crammed into their station wagon, and they drove off in a hubbub of chatter. Jenny realized something she’d noticed many times before. Her mother somehow managed to listen to three conversations at once, and although she couldn’t answer them all at the same time, she seemed to do just that.
Jenny talked about the strange styles she’d seen in Portland. “Some girls wear factory-faded, blue jeans with holes in them. I probably gave away a fortune in old clothes to Goodwill. Oh…and we got to play football with Teddy and his friends, over in the park.”
Jeff, the second oldest, cut in, “They’re really cool fish, especially the angel fish. Can I get some, Mom? They’re awesome.” Before his mother could reply, he blurted out, “Cousin Teddy has his own room. Can I have my own—with tropical fish—please?”
Eleven-year-old Patrick, said he wanted, “A registered poodle…just for me. I’m tired of farm dogs. They can’t do any tricks.”
Unable to ignore the fact their mother was subtly different, Jenny knew something was amiss. Perhaps it was the half-frown no longer concealed, or the deepened, wrinkle-lines at the corners of her mom’s eyes that stopped Jenny talking. She looked thoughtfully at her mother and it wasn’t long before Jeff was doing the same.
Jenny ignored Patrick who was still obnoxiously singing the praise of poodles, and said, “Mom, what’s wrong?” Her quiet tone made even Patrick turn. All conversation paused as Mrs. Miller pulled the station wagon to the side of the road, something she usually did only when her kids were fighting and things had gotten totally out of hand. The three children sat motionless in the deepening silence.
Jenny realized now that their mother had been driving south through town, instead of toward the westbound I-84 onramp. In a controlled voice, Mrs. Miller told them about their father.
“An accident?” asked Jeff.
Jenny whispered. “Will he be Okay?”
“The doctor says your father will be as good as new…eventually, but it was a serious accident. It’ll take a long time to recover.”
“How long?” Jenny asked.
Her mother took a deep breath. “A year…or more.”
Patrick shouted. “A whole year?”
“Yes. His broken back and other injuries…” Mrs. Miller’s voice quavered. “Your father is lucky to be alive. Our pickup was totaled. He’s going to need all of us to run the farm.” In a solemn voice she added, “The other driver is dead.”
Awareness that their father could have been killed settled heavily on the children. Jenny spoke first, “We’ll help way more than ever.” It was clear to Jenny during the somber trip to The Dalles Hospital why they had stayed on the bus past Hood River. The accident had occurred in this town and her dad was still in the hospital.
Inside their father’s room, the strained smile on his face somewhat lulled her fears and her abnormal quiet gave way to retelling about the visit with their city cousins.
Days rolled by after the return trip from Portland, and their father finally returned home. Jenny was headed back to her room late one evening when she accidentally dropped the folded towel she carried. She always kept her bath towel in her bedroom so her younger brothers wouldn’t use it. Heaven knew what they’d do with it if she wasn’t around. As she fumbled absently on the floor of the semi-darkened hallway, she overheard her mom and dad talking in earnest tones through their slightly ajar bedroom door. She paused, captured by something in the sound of her father’s voice.
“I know there’s a risk in me working in the woods, but there’s no other way.” There was finality in his voice as he added, “We can’t afford to lose the farm.”
“If it’s a choice between your health and the farm,” his wife replied with equal certainty, “it may be the farm will have to go. We can’t jeopardize you. Besides, we still have time until our yearly payment deadline and the bank might give us an extension.”
“The bank can’t. The economy’s turned bad with lots of foreclosures. Mr. Broad drove over to see me in the hospital. They’ve had to repossess many places. Ours is one of the more saleable in the area, so the bank will call in our note, but he doesn’t want that to happen. We can make our payment and pay off any hospital bills the insurance doesn’t cover by selling some of our timber.”
Mrs. Miller tried to interrupt, “But—”
“Ellen, you’ve seen the trees on the ground…limbed and bucked into logs, ready to be horse-skidded. With this wet soil, a horse like Ned is our only hope of pulling the timber out. Even using him, it’ll take steady work from now until payment time to finish the logging.”
Jenny was no longer able to contain herself as she burst into her parent’s room. “We’ll help!”
“Jenny," her mother sounded irritated, "what are you doing up so late?”
“Let us help.”
“You already do more than your share,” her Dad replied. “Your Mom and I will find a solution. Go back to bed. It’s late.”
“We can work Ned and skid the logs.”
Her mother’s voice was softer than usual, “What do you think, Will?”
“Horse logging’s too dangerous. There’s just no way.”
“But dear,” interjected his wife, “if they were careful…” she paused. “What am I saying? You’re right, it’s too dangerous.”
Mr. Miller looked at Jenny. “No!”
She knew that tone in her father’s voice. There wasn't any use arguing, so she stomped out.
Her thoughts raced as she returned to her bedroom, muttering angrily, “I’m fifteen. Jeff’s twelve. Dad went to work in the woods when he was only ten.” Jenny knew that by the age of twelve her father had done the work of most men. "Ned’d be doing the real work,” she whispered, “we’d just be hooking him to the logs.”
The following morning, Jenny did something she hadn’t done in years. She crept to her parent’s door and peeked through the old keyhole. She felt guilty and was fearful she might get caught like she had once before, but this time was different. She had to know what was going on. She couldn’t see her mother but her father was in clear view as he attempted to rise unassisted from bed. He winced with pain, and screamed. Jenny recoiled as she saw him collapse back onto his pillow. She stood up, not caring if they heard her, and tromped through the hall and down the stairs. Her brothers were sipping hot cocoa at the kitchen table when she descended through the stairwell. “Come on.”
They looked at one another and followed uncertainly with the screen door closing loudly behind them. Jenny headed purposefully toward the barn.
“Wait.” Jeff paused several paces behind her.
Jenny turned and glared at him. “What?”
“Where are we going?”
Jenny continued toward the barn.
The screen door slammed again. “Jenny Miller!” Their mother’s voice rang across the farmyard. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Jenny spun around with a defiant look none of them had seen before. “He can’t even get out of bed! I’m going to harness Ned and start logging.” She looked from Jeff to Patrick. “Are you coming?” She headed for the barn again.
The boys stood there exchanging looks, and then sought direction by turning toward their mother.
“Your father said, no!”
Jenny swung about mid-stride and strode toward the house. Her eyes cut a swath past her brothers and bored into her mom, “You’d let him get up to harness Ned? Horse-log…in his condition?” There were tears of anger streaming down her face. She glanced at Jeff and Patrick before she turned away, her voice floating back to them, “Coming?”
They looked at their mom. She seemed half-shriveled as she said, “Don’t let her work alone…” and turned to stumble through the screen door.
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