Mae was aware of a painful tearing in her chest as she looked from Miss Sadie Levine’s anxiously pleading face to Creighton’s inscrutable one. Unconsciously, she reached out and grabbed Owen’s small hand for courage.
“Your hand is all sweaty, lady. I don’t like it.” Tugging free, he slid off the bench and gazed raptly at the beauteous Miss Levine. “You’re perty.” He sent Mae an overcritical scowl. “I think you’re lots pertier than she is.”
“Children shouldn’t interrupt adults.”
Owen’s wide smile retracted a bit. “But I said you’re perty.”
“That’s very flattering. Now sit back down by your nanny, little boy. I’m havin’ a private discussion with your uncle.”
Owen slunk back to Mae’s side, but in case she was of a mind to try and hold his hand again, he stuck his tongue out as a deterrent.
“Well?” Mae prompted when Creighton’s stare slid uneasily in her direction. “Is there somethin’ you want me to tell Miss Levine? Or ask her, perhaps?” She obnoxiously batted her eyelids, knowing he was in a bit of a fix. He couldn’t communicate with his beloved without her help, and yet the personal nature of the subject matter was meant for two people, not three.
“Why would I want you to do that?” he finally muttered, expression gloomy. “You’ve already taken more than a few liberties with your translating, so save your breath. Just ask her if she has paper and a pencil I could use.”
“Don’t you think she would’ve brought out pencil and paper long before now if she’d had them?”
“Paper and pencil? My goodness! I do have something he could write on. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.” With a lavish smile, Miss Sadie dug into the small crocheted handbag dangling from her wrist and produced a day planner consisting of six paper boards hinged in a fan-like fashion. She pressed this and a small black pencil into Creighton’s outstretched palm, using the exchange to flirtatiously brush her fingers against his.
A grazing touch? That was her stab at being the seductress? Personally, Mae thought Sadie suffered from an incurable case of unoriginality.
With careful precision, Creighton balanced the card marked “Monday” on his knee, but every time he held the pencil against the sheet, the lurching train would stage an unexpected attack. Mae smiled, convinced that fate itself must be organizing a revolt against this ludicrous courtship.
The locomotive slowed and shuddered, and soon the view outside the windows became more compelling than whether or not Creighton would ever hold the pencil steady long enough to profess his undying love. Snatching Owen’s hand again, ignoring his squawks about “holding hands with a disgusting, sweaty girl,” Mae decided to give Creighton the privacy he’d earlier sought and joined those endeavoring a glimpse from one of the car’s open windows.
Everything went dark before she could do more than venture halfway down the aisle. A few startled squeals rose up from the passengers before calmer heads prevailed.
“We’re only passin’ through the tunnel,” Mae assured Owen, who’d suddenly smashed himself against her hip, his arms locked tight around her waist. “There’s nothin’ to be afraid of.” She was lying, of course, but even Mae had no intention of telling a small child that it was unnatural to go hurtling through a mountain in the pitch dark and they were likely as not doomed to smash into a fiery ball of iron the moment they exited the other side.
“I ain’t afeared,” he protested, forcefully detaching from her side, though it didn’t go unnoticed that his fingers remained tangled in the folds of her skirt. “It just took me unawares, is all.”
Mae smiled to herself but expunged all traces of amusement by the time they passed through the tunnel. Daylight refilled the car, and she took up his hand once more, carefully making her way toward a window.
“You’ll be able to see more if I lift you up. ’Course, that’d mean I’d have to hold you, but I can suffer the shame if you can?”
Making the mandatory face of disgust, Owen valiantly held up his arms. Green foothills expanded from the earth on all sides, and he made a little sound of awe at the sight.
“What place is this, lady? Where are we?”
She shrugged. “I don’t think we’re much of anywhere right now. Chattanooga—that’s in Tennessee, mind—is through these mountains, something like thirty more miles or thereabouts. We should arrive by early afternoon.”
“Chatter-nooga? Jiminy! I nary been to Tennessee afore.”
“Chattanooga,” she corrected.
“Chatter-nooga. That’s what I said!” He turned to look at her, his eyes skeptical little slivers. “You said you’d nary been on a train afore, so how do you know so much ’bout where we are?”
“The Yankees got big mouths. I listen.”
“So what’s Chatter-nooga like, if you know so darn much?” he demanded.
“I know the Yankees got control of it. Fact of the matter is, the Yankees got control of the whole state of Tennessee and have for a time now. They knew if they got control of all the railroads and rivers and such, then they could control the supply routes and our boys in the Confederacy would be quick to suffer hardship. Remember what Colonel Minty said when he announced our arrest?” she prompted. “Wars are won with ammunitions and railroads and the like. Deny them to the enemy, and the enemy is defeated.”
Owen rolled his eyes, unimpressed by her dire summation. “No, I meant what’s Chatter-nooga look like? Does it got big mountains? Do they got names, the mountains?”
“I think one’s called Lookout Mountain,” she recalled after a moment. “We ought to be able to see it when the train pulls into the station.”
“Why’s it called that?”
“Why do you have to ask so many silly questions?”
“Ha! You don’t know the answer.”
“Wiseacre,” she disapproved. “Maybe the first settlers passin’ through were so tired from all their walkin’ that one of them wasn’t payin’ attention and fell off the edge. From then on, the local folks warn any travelers, ‘By the by, keep your eyes peeled and look out. There’s a mountain!’”
“Shucks, that’s dumb.” Owen giggled. “That can’t be true.”
“Who’s to say? Were you ’round when they discovered Chatter-nooga? No.” She playfully pinched his nose, to Owen’s great irritation and secret delight. “So I wouldn’t be such a swellhead if I were you.”
Mae set Owen on his feet and hurried him back down the aisle. She made no effort to mask her surprise as they passed Miss Sadie Levine along the way, now ensconced in her original seat and looking none too happy about the fact.
“Post up,” she challenged, sitting across from Creighton again. “Did you decide to skip the courtin’ and go straight to the proposing? Did she say yes? Has the happy date been set? Oh, do tell.”
He ignored her and pulled Owen up to share his seat.
“Did you look out the window, Uncle Creighton? Did you see them big mountains? Guess what the mountain in Chatter-nooga’s called? Lookout Mountain! Know why they call it Lookout Mountain? Because a feller done dropped off the side an’ landed on his head an’ had to be scooped up with a shovel an’ then all the townspeople paid for a really nice funeral because they felt real bad an’ then—”
“It’s my turn to talk to your uncle now.” She reached out and covered Owen’s mouth, which was still very much in motion. “Have you and Sadie decided on how many children you want? Maybe you can name each child after the days of the week to honor how you proposed to their mother on her stupid day planner—ack! You licked my hand!”
“You covered my mouth!” Only now realizing his drastic measure was a double-edged sword, Owen frantically began scraping at his tongue. “I’m gonna puke!”
“Hope you got the decency to lean your head out the window,” Mae sharply encouraged. “And what’re you smirking about, Creighton? Envisioning your future as a happy bridegroom?”
“Not at all.” A sauterne smile lifted the corners of mouth. “I was pondering the jealous nature of women and how it makes them insane.”
“Jealous?” She immediately perked up, her expression cheerful. “Sadie used that exact word? She was jealous of me?”
“Of you?” He snorted. “You were the green-eyed monster, not Sadie.”
Her joviality immediately withered. “Don’t be absurd.”
“You wouldn’t be so irritating—apologies, I meant irritable—unless you were jealous. I’d already suspected you’d set your cap for me,” he instigated, eyes shining with the mischief of a badly behaved schoolboy, “but your behavior today proved it. I don’t return the sentiment, of course, but I’ll bear your adoration as best I can. You can’t help yourself, after all. I’m full of such charm,” he insisted.
“You’re full of somethin’, all right. Stop mistaking indignation for jealously.” Unnerved, she suspected his teasing speech contained threads of sincerity, delicately woven in to discourage her from additional starry-eyed thoughts. “I simply feel sorry for your future children and am chastising you on their behalf. What sort of parent names their children after the days of the week? Outright cruel if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask you.” He straightened suddenly, physically shedding himself of his lighthearted mood, as if calling to mind some unpleasant memory. Leaning forward, gray eyes hardening like river rock, he emphasized, “The fact of the matter, I don’t remember asking for your insight at any point today, but you seemed intent on voicing it. You have an unflattering habit of forcing your way into private conversations.”
“You’re the one who asked me to translate,” she reminded, belatedly wiping her damp palm on her skirt, grimacing slightly as she harkened back on how Owen had licked it.
“Translate? Is that what you’re calling that pack of lies? You purposefully turned your face away, saying the devil knows what. You intentionally misinterpreted what I had to say to her. You made a fool of me, Mae. You knew it was difficult for me to ask for your help.”
“I was doin’ you a favor,” she justified. “Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say. She actually compared two months of workin’ in a mill to bein’ a slave! That woman was in a pinch and we both know it. She was tryin’ to coax a marriage proposal out of you. I’m guessing she didn’t succeed, since she’s sittin’ alone again?”
After a disciplined moment of silence, he stingily offered, “No, she didn’t succeed. I have absolutely no plans to renew my association with Sadie Levine.”
“Thank the good stars! What?” she defended, her overenthusiastic outburst earning a dark look. “It’s for the best. The two of you couldn’t very well spend the rest of your lives communicating on Miss Levine’s day planner. Then there was her lack of faithfulness to Grady, a man she supposedly loved. She needed rescuing and didn’t really care who did the saving, so long as she never had to fend for herself. She saw you and wanted to latch on. Admit it!”
His mouth clamped shut, as if withholding words best left unsaid. “There’s no shame in a lady requiring assistance,” he finally allowed.
“No, but there’s shame in a lady pretendin’ feelings she don’t got in order to get that assistance,” she contradicted, peering at him closely, gauging for some sign of a broken heart but finding none. “You said this was your second chance with Sadie, but you obviously saw through her,” she prompted, hoping for his affirmation.
“I’ve always seen through Sadie,” Creighton divulged, his harsh disclosure surprising them both. “I just needed another reminder. And in case you haven’t already figured it out,” he allowed in, deftly switching topics, “I’m mad at you.”
“Me? What’d I do?”
“I already told you. You made a fool of me. You made fun of my deafness.”
“I did no such thing!” she contested, appalled that he’d taken such an idea into his head.
“What else would you call it? You deliberately tricked me. You said things I couldn’t understand and then took it upon yourself to make up things I never said. If that isn’t making fun of someone, I don’t know what is.”
“I never intended…that’s not what…” Her voice dwindled away as he very deliberately pulled his hat low, giving it a contentious tug in order to ensure his eyes were covered and therefore incapable of reading the stammering excuses tumbling from her lips.
She would have preferred Creighton in a towering rage reading her the riot act versus this willful disregard. “It really makes my blood boil when you end a conversation simply by closin’ your eyes,” she griped.
CONTINUE PART IV ON 8/29