Forrest trudged back down through the brush and uneven rock, having retrieved his shotgun. Laced back into her field boots, Alice had set to work rolling up the bison hide and strapping it to the back of her pack basket, which she’d hastily re-packed. Now she bent to retrieve her map, lifting it gingerly in her hands to gently blow on the paint and examine to see if it had dried yet. Anxious not to keep Forrest waiting, she placed a blank page over it to absorb excess paint and keep it from moving, and rolled them both together, placing that in her pack basket, which she slipped her arms through, careful around her loaded rifle, despite the fact that the safety was on. Then she turned to him, looking up and placing her hand over her eyes to shade them from the sun.
“All right,” she said. “Let’s go home.”
Forrest nodded, turning without a word and leading the way up the outcropping to where they could access the rest of the hill and descend towards the station.
They said almost nothing to one another as they made their way down past the tree line, back the way Alice had come, and down across the meadows, until they were at the edge of the Bondurant property. It had taken them only half the time, Alice hurrying along behind Forrest to keep up with his big stride.
When they had reached a place where Alice was reminded of something she had wanted to tell Forrest, she called out to him, softly, uncertain of whether or not he was upset with her, given his relative silence upon their descent.
“Eyeah?” he grumbled.
“Those three sycamores to the west of the pond, and that big chestnut all have to come down.” She said.
“Ain’t gotta come down, them trees-“ Forest protested.
“They do,” Alice interrupted, frustrated. “It’s anthracnose, see the leaf blight?” She asked, pointing to the sycamores. It’s faint, but it’s in the beginning stages.”
Forrest glared at her and harrumphed. Despite this, she continued.
“And the chestnut has blight fungus, see the cankers? If any of them topple the wrong way they’ll land on the shed.”
Forrest stopped walking entirely, stared at the trees, and then at Alice, who stared back, looking sheepish, and then followed without a word when he turned to keep walking. He was headed for the four trees. Standing back, a few hundred yards from the station, she watched him examine them, remaining at a respectable distance. He walked about for a few moments, picked at some of the bark, and then brushed his palms off on one another and turned around, head down and eyes narrowed. To his relative disbelief, she was right. He hadn’t even noticed. As he passed by Alice, waiting with her hands gripped around the straps of her pack basket, he grumbled, eyes darting over her pretty features
“Awlright, we’ll cut ‘em down.”
She hurried to fall back into step with him. As they made their way back into the yard at Blackwater Station, Alice saw Cricket pick his head up and wave to them as they passed by. Jack and Howard were nowhere to be found, but the truck was gone, and Alice suspected they had gone on a delivery. Forrest stalked into the station with Alice behind him, heading into his office without another word.
“Hi, Maggie,” Alice said.
Maggie looked up from where she was mixing together a batter for that night’s dinner, and smiled at her. “There you are,” she said.
“I probably should have mentioned going walking,” Alice replied, guilt marring her features.
Maggie shook her head, furrowing her brow. “Just do so next time, please?” She asked.
Alice giggled silently, nodding in the direction of Forrest’s office. “As if I could forget to, now.”
Climbing up the stairs two at a time, Alice went to her room and placed her pack basket on her bed, pulling her blouse out of the waistband of her riding pants, unbuttoning the sticky garment and tossing it into the laundry. Sitting on the trunk at the end of the bed, she used her boot horns to pull them off, peeling her stockings down her legs and shimmying out of her riding pants. Throwing her pantalets, bra and chemise in the laundry as well, she donned a dressing gown and snuck into the bathroom to bathe.
When she returned to her room, feeling clean and refreshed, Alice planted herself in the middle of her bed and finished the last of her snacks from the pack basket, stopping intermittently to roll her wet hair into a cascade of finger waves that she pinned to her head with individual curl clips. When she was satisfied, she curled up in bed with her curtains drawn, in a short, sheer nightgown, and fell blissfully asleep until dinner.
When her little alarm clock chattered to life at five thirty, Alice rose and unpinned her hair, brushing out the waves with her fingers as she rummaged around the room looking for what she intended to wear. It had grown warm that afternoon, and Alice wasn’t interested in sweating any more than she had earlier that day. She put on a freshly laundered bra and matching pantalets, crinkling her nose as she dug out her matching garter, digging through her drawer until she found her sheerest (and therefore coolest) pair of stockings. Sighing, she found her thinnest slip and shimmied into it, hoping the night would start to cool off. She stepped into a cream colored wispy crepe de chine bias cut dress with an attractive keyhole opening at the front, a wider cutout opening at the back, and scalloped sleeves. The buttons on the dress were an attractive glaucous blue, trailing down her side and meeting at the top of the keyhole opening to her dress. Finding a pair of comfortable matching blue flats, and patting her smooth, luxuriant finger waves, which she swept up and pinned in the shorter, trendy style, she took one last look in the mirror, dusting some powder on her cheeks, applying a bit of balm to her lips and brushing a bit of mascara onto her eyelashes.
Hurrying down the stairs, Alice retrieved her apron from its shelf behind the counter, hauled the ice cream maker from it’s place beneath the fresh table cloths, and set to work beside Maggie, making frozen lemonade while the older girl shuffled about working on dinner. There were few customers in the station that night, drinking at a table in the corner and playing cards amicably. Cricket came around and offered to help turn the hand crank on the ice cream machine, while Alice made the lemon syrup she would mix with the ice she had pummeled and placed in the canister in the center. The heat from the syrup would melt the ice into a kind of slush, and once mixed together with ice and salt around it, would turn a thicker consistency that could be eaten with a spoon. Lettie had taken many an opportunity on sweltering hot days to cook up this concoction, and she and Alice would sit wherever was coolest, fanning themselves and letting the cold mush chill their insides.
Forrest listened from his office to the pleasant chatter of Alice and Maggie, talking about nothing and everything. Cricket moseyed around underfoot, checking the grill where Maggie’s chicken was cooking, helping both girls as much as he was able while they bantered back and forth. In the budding evening, the air had cooled, and pleasant breezes blew through the screens on the open doors of the station, and in the windows, carrying the smells of dinner throughout the building and cooling Alice off considerably. Alice placed her mixture in the ice box, hoping it would freeze sufficiently by the time dinner had concluded. Then she went about setting the table for five. When she had nearly finished placing the last pieces of flatware by their respective place settings, the jalopy pulled up, and Jack and Howard came inside, looking tired and accomplished. After washing their hands, they reported to Forrest’s office, speaking low, delivering the cash so their brother could count, store, and distribute it. Before long, all three brothers emerged from the office, just as Maggie was placing the last heaping serving bowl in the center of the table and Alice followed behind her, placing a pitcher of ice water beside it. As was customary, the girls waited for the brothers to take their places at the table. Howard and Jack chose their places beside one another, but instead of seating himself, Forrest paused and went behind the chair which sat beside the one on which he would sit, pulling it out from beside the table and looking at Alice bashfully, then casting his gaze down to the chair. Flushing a bit, she didn’t hesitate, instead standing in front of it and sitting gracefully as he pushed it in behind her. She cast a glance at Maggie and smiled a slightly goofy grin at the older girl. Keeping her lips slightly pursed so that Forrest wouldn’t be given the impression they were keeping secrets, she discreetly returned the smile.
Throughout dinner, very little was said, everyone seated at the table suddenly famished as soon as they sat down. While the girls and Cricket cleaned up, Howard sat at the counter fixing a hinge on one of the still pourers they used for draining the liquor into jars. Jack swept up around the table and throughout the station. Forrest wrote in a notebook with a tiny stub of pencil he kept in his cardigan pocket, bits of information he wanted to remember from his conversation before dinner with his brothers. Then he rose and stalked out to the porch, cutting a cigar from the case Alice had given him with the cigar cutter she had given him for Christmas. It was not lost on her that he often made use of them, and she smiled as she dried another dish with a dishtowel, placing it on the stack of dried dishes already assembled by the sink. She checked the icebox, opening the tin of frozen lemonade to check the consistency, then scooping it into tumbler glasses, placing a few lemon slices in each for good measure. She handed Jack, Maggie, Cricket, and Howard each their own glasses with spoons, and planted one in each of two glasses, carrying one in each hand as she headed out to the porch. Forrest was seated in his usual chair by the green rectangular table, puffing on his cigar and squinting out at the setting sun in the yard. Wordlessly, Alice stepped towards him and held out a glass. He took it from her and furrowed his brow, looking up, appreciative but curious.
“Frozen lemonade,” she said.
He nodded, and sipped a bit of frozen slush off the top, nodding his head and licking his lips. Satisfied that he was satisfied, Alice gracefully sat on top of the wide railing in front of him, leaning her back against the wooden post, laying her legs out in front of her, crossing one ankle over the other. She looked out at the yard as she scraped at the ice with her spoon, placing it gently in her mouth and pulling the ice onto her tongue, savoring the contrast of sweet and sour, and the pleasant chill as it slid down her throat. She watched the colors start to fade, and turned her face towards the sky as the stars began to appear. All the while, Forrest watched her, stubbornly digging at his frozen lemonade with one hand while he smoked his cigar with the other.
She turned her head towards him, pretending not to notice he was struggling with both hands full. “What time will we ride tomorrow?” She asked.
Forrest thought for a moment. “Seven,” he said.
Alice nodded. “All right.” Swiftly, she swung down from the railing and descended the porch steps, padding across the dirt yard in her flat shoes, heading for Smoke’s stall. She dug around in her glass for the last few spoonfulls as she walked, finally tipping her glass upwards to drink the last of the freezing cold lemonade. She set the empty glass on the railing of an empty stall, walking along in the relative dark to find the light switch, flicking it upwards to illuminate the barn aisle.
“Hello, handsome,” Alice said, smiling at Smoke as he peeked his large head over the doorway of his stall. As she stepped beside him, he lifted his head and placed it over her shoulder, and she put her arms around his neck.
“I’m sorry we didn’t get to work today,” she said. “I needed some time to take a walk.” She sat with the horse for a bit, scratching beside his ears and patting his neck alternately, talking aloud as much to herself as to him.
When Forrest had finished, he placed his glass on the counter inside, and still puffing on his cigar, made his way to the shine house where he would check to be sure everything was in order.
Taking one last glance at the darkened interior of their storage shed, Forrest locked the padlock on the door and spied Alice, glass in hand as she flipped off the light in the barn and rolled both doors closed for the night. In the light of the high moon cast across the yard, she noticed Forrest looking at her, and waved shyly. They met in silence as they walked back towards the station, and matched each other’ strides as they headed inside, Forrest locking the door behind them and moving around to lock the side doors while Alice went to place her glass in the sink. Yawning as she came out from the back kitchen, she laughed when she saw Forrest had noticed.
“Well, I believe I’ll head upstairs” she said, wondering where the others could be. Jack seemed to have disappeared, Cricket would have gone home by now, and Howard and Maggie had seemingly retired to upstairs. Forrest only nodded and lumbered into his office, going to count some figures before turning in.
As he climbed the stairs that night, instead of pausing outside the threshold and wishing her goodnight through the closed door as he usually did, Forrest knocked gently on Alice’s door. When she called to him to come in, he was taken aback to notice she was laying on her stomach on her turned down bedcovers, in a pale peach silk nightgown that reached just below her calves, but was so thin as to leave little of her curvaceous shape to the imagination.
“Oh, uhm…I uh” Forrest stuttered, embarrassed, caught between wanting to look and knowing he shouldn’t.
Turning to him with her hair falling in her face, she smiled, a flush coming to her cheeks, and said bashfully
“Please, come in. Could you close the door, please?” she asked, her intentions to communicate that she didn’t mind if he saw her this way, but preferred for no one else to. Hesitantly, Forrest stepped into the room, the soft light of one of her bedside lamps casting a dim glow across everything in sight. Including her. He noticed she was reading, a book which she placed flat on the bed. He could see he cover, it’s gold letters “The Woman In White” written neatly on the spine. To his surprise, she had raised herself up onto her knees and came to face him, and his heart dropped in his stomach as his eyes took in the way the silk of her nightgown draped over her chest and hugged her waist. The neckline plunged quite low, and Forrest panicked, feeling a flush rise to his cheeks. She hung back a foot from him, kneeling on the bed, and looked up into his eyes.
“Have you come to kiss me goodnight?” She asked, no longer concerned with propriety.
He stepped in towards the bed, his knees pushing into the mattress as he took her gently around the waist, squeezing her tight against him as he dipped his head to nuzzle at her neck.
“Mm,” he said. She giggled a bit when his scruff brushed against her jawline, and he pulled back to look down at her lovely face once again. Eyes blinking expectantly, he watched her pretty mouth part ever so slightly, and leaned forward to place his pouty lips against hers. He was surprised by the eagerness with which she kissed him in return, but nevertheless responded in kind, puling her to him possessively and gently slipped his tongue past her lips, prodding her tongue with his. He was suddenly aware of his hands gripping great fistfuls of silk, pulling her nightgown halfway up her thighs without realizing what he was doing. As he grasped for another handful, his calloused fingertips brushed against the softness of her skin. She gasped, pulling away with a disappointed sigh of regret, her arms still about his neck where they had been resting.
“Forrest,” she whispered. “I want you to. You don’t know…..how I want you to.” At this, he groaned softly.
“But we’re….” She paused, searching his eyes, “it’s not….not yet. I’m a…and we…it’s not….time.” She was steadily turning pink, and Forrest reluctantly uncrumpled her nightgown, sighing so heavily she felt his chest move. She leaned forward and squeezed him around the neck again.
“S’alright, darlin’” he said. “That’s why we’re goin’ tomorrow.”
Puzzled, Alice pulled back and smiled at him, a bit of inquisition in the look she gave him. But he would give nothing away. He simply looked at her, his gaze steady, his big palms flat against the skin of her back as he held her.
“Well,” she began, looking down. “I suppose I should sleep so I’ll be wide awake.”
She beamed at him, to show her excitement. He nodded and pulled back, watching her as she carefully tucked herself into bed and placed the book on her beside table, turning over on her side and gazing up at him. Forrest reached out and ran his thumb over her cheekbone, pulling the bedcovers up around her and reluctantly stepping away from the bed, turning back to her in the doorway as she reached one hand up and gently yanked the pullstring to turn her light out.
“Goodnight, darlin’” he said.
She smiled, closing her eyes and settling onto her pillow as she sighed. “Goodnight, Forrest.”
He closed the door quietly, with one last glance at her pretty face.