A/N Please comment!
Beatrix's days took on a sort of rhythm at the camp- every morning she rose with the sun, washed her face then made her way to the mess hall. She helped bake the morning's bread and pack the collection of lunch pails waiting to be taken out with the men for a day of work. Once the dishes were washed they tackled the chores for the day. For the most part they followed the old adage:
Wash on Monday,
Iron on Tuesday,
Mend on Wednesday,
Churn on Thursday,
Clean on Friday,
Bake on Saturday,
Rest on Sunday.
The only difference being that they spread the washing for the camp over several days and baked every morning and afternoon, saving Saturday to help Mrs. Adkins with the great garden at the back of her shanty.
After a light lunch they started up the preparations for dinner, and just before the men arrived there was a slight lull during which they sat and chatted. Then they served and cleared dinner, washed the dishes and put away the leftovers.
Each evening she sat in the empty mess hall with Leah and listened to her read a poem while mending. She read one each night, wanting to savor the booklet as long as possible. If she particularly liked the days selection, as was the case for Bridal Ballad and The Raven, then she would silently memorize the poem. Otherwise she would recite for Beatrix from an incredible mental catalog until they retired to bed, always with the same exceptional expression and precision. Leah had really amazing powers of memory- even quoting a positive epic in The Lady of Shalott.
The days lengthened, and Beatrix's skin gilded as spring wore on to summer. Leah would often shake her head at her, admonishing her for ruining her white complexion but the bright sunshine was irresistible. Often, on Saturday afternoons, Beatrix would look up from the row of beans or tomatoes she'd been weeding, drop her hat to her shoulders and turn up her face to the sky.
One such moment she was surprised by a clump of choke weed landing on her forehead. Sputtering she brushed the dirt from her face and dress, soon joined by a laughing Leah.
With time their friendship had grown, and soon they spent their chores talking and laughing together, gossiping good naturedly about events at the camp and stories in the occasional newspaper that came their way. Beatrix even staid at the camp with Leah for the Groundbreaking.
That afternoon Micah brought them a warm, sticky jar of lemonade and a bag of candy and they'd walked back with him East until they reached the end of the tracks. A car pulled by two mules approached then receded, Micah going back with it. The girls staid behind and sat on the hot rails under the stars watching the distant fireworks, giggling and licking their sugary fingers like children.
Though the bottom portion of the rail road was now open the men continued work. Soon the tracks came level with the shanty town and they could hear shouting and the ringing of sledgehammers as more rails were laid. Each day the sounds became more and more distant, until they could only see the men far off in the distance, shimmering figures dancing on a dusty horizon.
Beatrix was happy at the camp, but on a Sunday afternoon in the beginning of August Micah came to her and spoke his piece down to the ground. She was a wonderful woman, if you took his meaning, and he would be very much obliged if, that is to say, he wanted to ask if she would consider, he knew he didn't have much to offer a woman but...
"Give me the rest of the season to think about it, Mr. Delving. When we leave camp I'll give you my answer."
He nodded and turned heel, leaving Beatrix both a little sad and amazed at the depth of pigment a human face could produce. She liked Micah very much and respected him, but she didn't want a romantic relationship with him. And despite his confusion around her she doubted if his sentiments differed. Unless she was much mistaken his heart lay elsewhere.
About a week after the interview she sat with Leah in the mess hall, a small pile of mending between them. The men, on a temporary break waiting for supplies to be sent up the rails, were outside laughing and relaxing in the hot sun.
They'd tacked up the door curtain to let in a breeze and Beatrix looked up to see Micah walk past on his way to the office.
Glancing at Leah she sighed. She hadn't told her about the proposal, not wanting to pain her. Leah'd never hinted at an attachment, in fact she very rarely spoke of Micah, but every so often she'd catch a look, not always one sided, and she wondered. Putting down her mending she looked at her friend.
"Leah.. have you ever-"
There came a commotion from outside, interrupting the question. Both girls hurried to the doorway; Leah glancing out and then returning to her seat, Beatrix staying to watch what happened.
Levi Hunt was flat on his back in the ground with Isaac Cain kneeling over him, pounding his face into the dirt. Beatrix smiled grimly. Served him right; he was much too full of himself for his own good and it was about time someone roughed up that pretty face. Micah pulled the much larger man away bodily and Isaac swung at him, busting his nose in a spurt of blood. He froze, his fist half raised as what he'd just done registered in his mind.
"Cain, I think you'd better collect your things."
A friend helped Levi out of the dirt, his face bloody and misshapen. He spit a tooth into his palm and cursed, pure fury in his blackening eyes.
"I'll get you for that."
"That's enough from you, Hunt. You get yours when he's done."
"The hell I will!"
His friend pushed him back, wisely cutting him off.
"But Boss! Isaac threw the first blow!"
The man stuck out his jaw, silent for a long moment before nodding.
"Well, be that as it may, I can guess how this all started. I expect you out by sundown."
Levi's chest heaved, his breath coming fast.
"You can't do that."
"I think I can."
His face ticked and he looked about wildly until his eyes settled on Beatrix standing in the open doorway, arms folded. Instantly he relaxed, his bloodied lips twisting into an insolent smile.
"Well. That's unfortunate. 'Be even more unfortunate if somebody turned your fiance's pretty little playmate in to the slave hunters."
Beatrix's stomach sank and the color drained from Micah's face. When he spoke his voice was deadly calm.
"Do that and I will kill you."
"Will you? Be too late then, even if you could find me. O'course, you could just kill me now. If you're man enough."
He smirked. He knew very well that Micah would do no such thing.
"Either way you'll go to prison and word'll get out about our Leah. Seems like this could all be avoided if I keep my job."
Micah's jaw worked and he followed Levi's gaze to the mess hall, though Beatrix knew he didn't see her. He was looking through her to Leah. After a long, heavy moment he walked over to Levi and pushed his face right up to his.
"You don't say a word."
"That mean I still have my job?"
"Not that you deserve it."
He laughed jovially.
"Hell, I don't give a got-damn about all that!"
Clapping Micah's shoulder he sauntered away.
"Ought to know that by now, boss."
He winked at Beatrix as he passed. She turned back into to the building without acknowledging him, dropping the curtain down over the door. Leah had taken back up her work but her hands were still over it. Her eyes were wide and frightened and her skin had a taken on a sickly hue. She must have heard.
As she got closer she noticed a sheen of cold sweat over her forehead and neck.
She pressed a hand to her mouth and her throat convulsed. Without further comment Beatrix hurried over to the kitchen and returned with a pot.
After she'd emptied and cleaned it she set them both up with a pot of tea. Perhaps not the best thing on a summer afternoon but it was all she had to clean the sick from her friend's mouth.
Pressing the cup into her hand she guided both to Leah's lips. Nervously she tried to make conversation.
"It'll be a good thing when that shipment of ties arrived. Being idle has the men at each other's throats!"
Leah took a sip and made a face. Beatrix wasn't exactly adept at tea making and had brewed the leaves until they were bitter. After taking a breath she tried a shaky smile.
"That fights been long in coming. Idleness didn't have much to do with it."
Relieved that her friend had come around she continued the theme.
"I've noticed that. What do they have against each other?"
Leah took another sip and shifted on the bench.
"Well, nothing against each other, really. You see, there was a rumor a while back that Mr. Cain's wife was running around on him. In fact it came out a few days before you arrived."
Beatrix furrowed her brow.
"When he came to get me Mr. Delving said there had been trouble at the camp."
"And how. He went berserk. They say he held a gun to her head and threatened to shoot her."
"Mr. Cain? But he's so quiet."
Leah shook her head.
"Didn't used to be. Time was he was almost as much a peacock as.."
She took a deep breath, paling slightly.
"Anyway after he found out he changed. He used to dote on her, never a cross word between them. Always 'Yes, Darlin,' 'Yes, Angel.' He sent her to town along with their daughter and won't speak to her. Now she says she didn't do anything but you know how that goes. As long as one person says she did truth doesn't much matter."
"I think I can guess who that one person was."
"Ask me he made a pass and got turned down. Otherwise he wouldn't push it so much or go after Mr. Cain like he did."
"I know. People in town treat her like she's got some sort of disease; half the shops won't serve her."
"I know. Now what'll happen to Clara and that poor little girl? How's he going to keep them without a job? Most of his money went to renting that room, trying to cut off his nose and spite his face. Sometimes I just don't understand people."
"Should I take his part with Mr. Delving?"
Leah thought then shook her head.
"No. Moving on might be the best thing for them; if he can get that serpent out of his ear long enough he might come back to his senses. And anyway it'd just come right back up to a head. It'll look bad for Micah if-"
She colored, realizing that she'd referred to him by his given name. Beatrix laughed and bumped Leah's shoulder, eyes sparkling. Leah's own eyes widened in alarm.
Beatrix raised her brow, facetiously, crossing her heart in an exaggerated motion.
"Your secret love is safe with me. I'll never breath a word."
"I don't- I'm not-"
She glanced around and leaned in, whispering urgently.
"I do not have inappropriate affections for Mr. Delving!"
"Why whatever are you referring to? Inappropriate affections? I think that offends my delicate sensibilities!"
She laughed, smiling at her friend.
"I think it's a smashing match."
Hope fired in Leah's eyes and then drained, replaced by a pain so intense Beatrix felt a twinge in her own chest. She'd meant to be encouraging but her words were only cruel. It was so easy to forget the great racial divide supposed to exist between them. Micah would never be able to marry her and she knew it.
"I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking."
Leah looked down at her hands.
"I would've made him a good wife."
Beatrix sighed and put an arm around her shoulders. Sometimes she just didn't understand people, either.