The Ojai: Pink Moment Promises, by Patricia Hartmann
The simplicity of Ojai farm girl Meggie Baxter’s life is shattered when she must choose between loyalty to her rough-hewn friend, Rusty, and the dashing Charles.
As the decades of her life unfold, she faces the elemental dangers of floods and fire as well as the colorful high-jinks radiating from Pop Soper’s Fight Camp, the steam baths at Matilija Hot Springs, a leaning post office tower, a corrupt councilman and Libbey’s plans to modernize the town.
Amid tragedy and loss, Meggie clings to the one constant in her life, the promise of God’s love. It is the ‘pink moment,’ the evening sunset casting a rosy hue like a prayer across the Topa Topa Mountains, that points her again and again to faith and courage.
Midst the idyllic beauty of the Ojai Valley and the crushing forces of change, will Meggie and her beloved Ojai stay true to their rural roots of faith and family? Will the ultimate sacrifice that spares Rusty’s life be enough? Or will the winds of destiny destroy both the people and the indomitable spirit of the Ojai?
The following excerpt (Chapter 11) takes place at Christmastime, 1916.
To purchase the full book, visitÂ www.patriciahartmannbooks.com, order from Amazon.com, or purchase at the Ojai Valley Museum.
“All that Glitters” 1916
“Hey, Trooper. Easy boy…It’s OK.” Rusty spoke soothingly as he forked some hay into Trooper’s trough for his evening feed. The big chestnut gelding held back a few moments before moving forward to eat. Pa’s horse was showing telltale signs of abuse. A slight skittishness. Some scarring along the flanks. A wary look to the eye. It saddened Rusty in a way he couldn’t quite come to grips with. Everything Pa touched suffered. Trooper had been a fine, handsome horse when Pa won him off a fella in a poker game a few years back. Rusty made sure Trooper was well fed, but he couldn’t control what happened when Pa was drunk and in the saddle.
Rusty tried to reassure the horse with a gentle rub along the neck and a few soft words. “It’s okay fella…That’s a good boy.” The animal flinched slightly before blowing a stream of air out of flared nostrils and finally relaxing into Rusty’s touch. As he rubbed behind Trooper’s ears, Rusty noticed that the horse favored his right forefoot.
“Easy now, boy…Let’s have a look.” Rusty wedged his back against Trooper’s shoulder, shifting the animal’s weight off the front foot. He lifted the foreleg back and examined the hoof. The worn shoe was missing a nail. A second nail had worked loose and was protruding about a quarter inch from the bottom of the loosened shoe. Rusty grabbed a hammer and pounded the nail back in. “This is only a quick fix, Trooper. You’ll be needin’ to see Charlie Gibson at the blacksmith shop right away…if’n I can get Pa to part with the money.” If not, maybe Rusty could work it off mucking out stalls.
The days were shorter in these cooler days of December. Already the sun was starting to set. Rusty hurried to finish his chores while he still had light.
Moving to the pig shed, Rusty checked on the sows. Nine of them were nearing their farrowing time. Pa bred them too early – spring piglets had a better start in life. The sows all seemed steady on their feed. None of their teats leaked milk. Looked as if they’d hold off a few days yet. After scratching a few of the rounded backs with a stick, Rusty hefted a metal bucket he’d held back from his earlier milking of the gentle Guernsey cow. He poured a little of the rich white liquid to the pig troughs. Rusty wished he had some good corn to fill out the slops. They’d produce better with richer feed. But Pa’s only interest in corn was if it could be made into whisky.
Rusty sighed and straightened up. He headed to the wash barrel by the back door. Tonight was the big Christmas party at Thacher School. He needed to get cleaned up and dressed in his Sunday best. Rusty struggled to rouse some lather from the remnant of the cracked lye soap bar.
His thoughts turned to the night ahead. Good thing it’s within walkin’ distance. Even if’n Pa would let me ride Trooper, that wouldn’t be smart. Good way to lame a horse.
A tinge of anticipation countered the shivers from the cold water. The big Thacher Christmas hoopla. All the Nordhoff high-schoolers and the Thacher School boys were invited. Some of the older townsfolk would likely be a coming too. Meggie was sure to be there. Rusty scrubbed harder. Sure, she’s courtin’ with that Charles the III fella. All the more reason to keep an eye out fer her.
Meggie threw a heavy flake of alfalfa into Molly’s feed trough, then held out a few chunks of carrot for the mare’s usual evening treat. Molly lifted her upper lip, revealing yellow teeth, as Meggie gently rubbed the soft pink skin of the horseâ€™s nose. Wags bumped the back of her leg, demanding some attention too. Meggie stooped to stroke the silky black head and rub behind the dog’s ears, eliciting a rhythmic waving of his namesake tail. “OK, Wags, chores are done. And none too soon.” The sun was setting.
Meggie lingered in the barnyard, pulling her coat tighter about her, tucking her cold hands in the pockets. Yesterday’s light rain puddled the yard and the fresh smell of wet earth and damp hay filled the air. Meggie breathed in the scents and felt a quiver of excitement flood her heart. Bathed in the orange and pink hues of the sunset, Meggie had every reason to be thankful. The Topa Topas glowed pink, then purple in benediction. A few trailing rain clouds rested on the Chief’s headdress. As she turned her circle in the yard, Meggie thanked God for this day and in advance for the glorious evening ahead.
Tonight she would see Charles at the Thacher Christmas Party. This was not a box lunch or a carriage ride, but a real fairytale ball. Lights and dancing and romance. Meggie pictured herself there, clinging to the warmth of Charles’ arm. The shimmering deep blue of her formal gown matching the color of her eyes. She and Mama had spent hours stitching the dress by hand from expensive yard goods and the latest Sears Roebuck pattern.
Meggie could still see the shiny soft blue taffeta spread across Mama’s lap as she bent to make small, even stitches in the fabric. Mama’s golden hair, escaping from its tortoise shell combs, fell in soft tendrils around her face. Side by side, she and Mama had worked to fashion the iridescent fabric into a tight bodice and flowing skirt that cascaded gracefully to the floor.
The tiny seed pearls to be sewn in at the neckline and sleeves had given Meggie even more of a challenge. The pearls, carefully clipped from a castoff mourning dress Mama had found at the church rummage sale, had a very tiny center hole for threading through. It took a trip to Barrows & Son General Merchandise to find a needle thin enough to do the trick. Then Meggie had spilled the tin of pearls, watching helplessly as they bounced and skittered across the wood planks of her bedroom floor.
Chase caught her on hands and knees, searching for the tiny white beads under the bed and in the yarn of the throw rug. “So this is how Me Lady prepares for the ball…Praying are we?” He expertly dodged the pink velvet throw pillow Meggie aimed at his head. “Now…now, Meggie. You shouldn’t get testy with your carriage driver. The supply wagon just might turn back into a pumpkin.”
“And that would make you what…a rat?” From her position on the floor Meggie spied a tiny pearl near his boot. “Don’t move.”
“Why? Are you taking aim at me with your glass slipper next?” Chase grinned at her from the doorway.
Meggie rescued the pearl and stood to her full five foot one inch height to stare up into her brother’s blue eyes. She held the tiny bead in front of him. “You almost trod on a pearl of great price – you big brute.”
A smile twitched at the corners of his mouth as Chase bent to kiss the top of Meggie’s blond head. “You’re right, little lamb. I almost did.”
When Meggie tried on the finished gown and stood on a stool to see her reflection in her dresser mirror, she felt transformed into a real princess. She twirled a bit to reveal the layers of petticoat and piled her blond hair atop her head to study the effect. In the mirror she caught Pa’s reflection as he caught her admiring herself. He was smiling.
“You’re a real beauty, Meggie,” he said, leaning against the door-jam. “Reminds me of your Ma.” Pa’s eyes took on a faraway look. “When we first met, your Ma sure took my breath away. You look just like her.”
Meggie turned to face him. “Thanks, Pa. You like it?”
“Beeeautiful. Downright Baxter beautiful.” Pa stepped closer to cup her face in his hand. “It’s not just the gown, you know. The beauty that lasts comes from deep inside. You’re growing into a real beauty, Meggie. Makes a Pa right proud.”
Meggie blushed at the compliment.
Wags barked, chasing a covey of quail away from the edge of the chicken yard, bringing Meggie back to the present. The lovely gown was waiting for her. Tonight was the night. What would Charles say when he saw her in it?
Meggie tried not to think about the second part of the evening– the part that made her more nervous than excited. The part about the scholarship and Mr. Prentiss, the Cambridge/Radcliff dean, who would be waiting to meet her. What if he didn’t like her? What if her poems hadn’t impressed him? What if he thought she was too unsophisticated for Radcliff?
Quit it. Stop being so negative, Meggie scolded herself. God’s working it all out. Me and Charles. The scholarship. Getting a degree at Radcliff. Using my talents for God’s glory.” Meggie took a deep breath of the cooling air. Tonight is the start of a glorious adventure! Meggie wiped her damp hands on her skirt. She straightened her shoulders and walked toward the farmhouse and her future.
Meggie was glad for the borrowed wool coat from Aunt Rose and the lap robe that kept her warm on the ride up Thacher Road. The three eligible Baxters-Dalton, Chase and Meggie rode on the front seat of the supply wagon as it eased into the lamplight at the front of Thacher Hall. The creaking wagon was not Cinderella’s fancy carriage, but had hauled a few pumpkins in its day. Meggie felt no need of a fairy godmother to make her dreams come true. It was a night perfect for romance.
Dalton had his eye out for his intended, Florence, who went all doe-eyed around him. Meggie knew that a whole flock of clucking females would collect in the warmth of Chase’s smile. He was a handsome and desirable bachelor, still playing the field.
Meggie’s thoughts centered on Charles and on how to best impress the respectable Mr. Prentice. In her head, she rehearsed the little greeting she’d planned for the college dean. So glad to meet you, Mr. Prentice. An honor, I’m sure.
She gave a little shake of her head. Too much reflection could spoil a girl’s special evening. Best think only of Charles, and the warm way he looked at her. Meggie intended to enjoy this rare night. A fancy ball. Christmas magic.
She smiled from pure joy as she threw off the lap robe, and stepped down from the wagon seat, taking care not to catch the hem of her gown. The rich fabric and the many petticoats beneath rustled softly as she moved. Meggie actually felt beautiful as she walked toward a night full of promise.
The entrance of Thacher Hall was warm in greeting; soft yellow light spilling out into the night from the beveled glass ovals in the massive front door. Through the large mullioned windows she could see a towering Christmas tree, beribboned pine boughs, and hundreds of flickering candles on the window ledges.
As the trio made their way up the rock steps, the door opened to the merriment of music and laughter. A pungent fragrance of pine and nutmeg-spiced eggnog tickled Meggieâ€™s nostrils as she dared to breathe. She was really here. Meggie hung her coat on one of the hooks by the door.
“There you are…” Charles held out his hand. “Meggie…you look lovely. My farm girl transformed.”
Meggie blushed, taking his hand. “Oh, Charles. And you are…dashing.” Meggie’s gaze took in his waistcoat and tie, his neatly pressed black suit, the cut of his dark slicked-back hair. He was surely the most handsome man alive. This must be love, she thought as her throat tightened at the sight of him. Meggie took his arm to steady herself.
Her brother, Chase, pushed past the couple into the main room. “Look at this spread. Tarts, ham, pies, rolls, spiced peaches.”
“We can eat later, Meggie. Right now I want to show you off.” Charles ushered her to the dance floor where other couples already moved in time to the music. Meggie floated in Charles’ arms. This evening was a golden fairy tale, satisfying the most romantic dreams of her soul.
Meggie reined in her worried thoughts when she caught sight of Lucinda twirling past the huge candlelit Christmas tree. So what if Charles turned to stare. Who wouldn’t notice Lucinda in that bright red silk gown? It was cut daringly low at the bosom, with a long train that Lucinda held up out of the way with a braided cord looped over her dainty wrist. The young men desiring a spot on Lucinda’s dance card swarmed around her. But even the lovely Lucinda couldn’t spoil Meggie’s mood. Meggie was dancing with Charles. She closed her eyes and let the music enfold her.
She didn’t notice Rusty enter and stand in the shadow of an anteroom. She didn’t see him cross his arms in front of his best shirt as he watched her dance and spin with her beau. When the music ended and they applauded the small orchestra, she had eyes only for Charles.
Couples moved out onto the large covered porches to escape the heat of the room, taking cups of mulled cider with them. Laughter and music filled the cool night air.
The loud clatter of hoofs on the rough stone driveway rang out. Meggie looked past Charlesâ€™ shoulder as a horse and rider raced up. A rain of curses jarred the mood of the festive setting.
“Where the heck is thet no good son of mine?” Clyde Stowe spurred a lathered Trooper closer to the wall. “Rusty…get yer tail out here. Me best sow’s farrowin’ tonight. Then you sneak off to some gall durn fancy party. Get yerself home right now or there’ll be hell to pay.”
Cyclone Clyde’s words slurred. “Damn you. If’n a single piglet or me best sow dies, yer ta blame. Lazy, good fur nothing…” He cantered his lathered horse around in tighter and tighter circles at the edge of the lantern light, narrowly missing the tethered teams and wagons. Trooper limped as he struggled to obey his crazed rider. Nervous horses tied to the rail nickered and stomped their feet in agitation, shying away from the sweat-darkened chestnut gelding.
“Stupid pig-farmer.” Charles’ voice held a note of contempt.
In the shadows, Rusty moved forward. His face burned with shame. Why does Pa have to ruin everything?
He saw the shocked look on Meggie’s face–saw her turn, lock eyes with him, and look away.
Clyde jerked cruelly on the bit, pulling his horse off balance. Trooper slipped on the wet ground. “Whut the…gall durn it. Git up you lazy piece of horse flesh!” A string of profanity and the slashing sound of a whip cut through the night.
“Pa…No!” Rusty ran forward, jumping off the low wall to the drive below. He tried to grab Trooper’s reins. A slash of the whip caught him just above the eye and seared across his nose. Rusty staggered backwards, bringing a hand to his bleeding face.
“Dern bastard!” Clyde spat the words at his son and yanked on the reins, forcing his mount back on his haunches. A horseshoe dangled from Trooper’s right front hoof. It flashed for a moment in the lamplight. The horse staggered, smashing into a wagon behind him. As he tried to right himself, the gelding’s front hoof came down hard on the flopping metal shoe. The chestnut horse fell awkwardly to his knees, throwing his rider over his head. Clyde’s boot caught in a stirrup, jerking him sideways just as the gelding fell heavily on his flank, crashing into a group of wagons. The splintering sound of breaking wood, amid the screams of horses, ripped the night as the frightened teams tried to break loose and escape the turmoil.
Rusty rushed forward, putting himself in the middle of pileup. He vanished in the crush of rolling wheels, jangling double-tree hitches, and terrified horses. One arm was caught hard against a wagon bed. The crack of wood and bone rang out.
“Whoa there. Easy now.” Chase guided a wagon team away from the carnage. He, along with his brother Dalton, calmed horses and moved teams aside to free the area around the fallen Trooper.
“Pa…Pa…” A still form lay crushed under the big chestnut horse. Trooper struggled to get up on bleeding knees. Rusty ignored the pain in his right arm as he eased the horse to his feet and jerked the loose shoe off. Trooper stood-favoring one leg. The lathered horse panted heavily…trembling. In the flickering lantern light, half hidden in the shadows, dark blood poured from Trooper’s torn knees and from whip slashes on his heaving sides.
Holding the reins in his left hand, Rusty knelt beside the fallen form of his Pa. The tears that ran down Rusty’s cheeks mingled with the blood oozing from the whip cut across his eye and his nose. His Pa’s staring eyes saw nothing.
Meggie stood frozen in horror. Then she took a step forward. Charles grabbed her arm, pulling her back. “No, Meggie.”
“I have to go. Rusty needs me.” Meggie pulled free of Charles and raced down the steps to Rusty. She knelt beside him in the dirt, softly touching his shoulder.
The eyes that turned toward hers were full of misery.
“I think my arm’s broke.” Rusty’s voice was somewhere between a plea and a sob.
“It’s OK. We’ll help you.” Meggie looked up at Chase who gently tugged on Rusty’s good arm to help him to his feet.
Rusty gritted his teeth against the pain. In the wavering lamplight, Meggie saw that his right arm jutted out at an unnatural angle.
“We’ll need a sling,” said Chase, looking around for a bit of cloth.
“Here.” Meggie lifted her skirt and tore off a piece of her petticoat flounce. Chase quickly fashioned a crude sling and eased it under Rusty’s forearm. He tied the ends behind the boy’s neck. Rusty swayed a bit. His wounded eye was swelling closed.
“Lean on me.” Meggie pulled his battered head towards her shoulder. He slumped against her.
“We got our team and wagon untangled from the lot” said Chase. “Dalton and I’ll take you to the Doctor.”
“Trooper…I can’t leave him.” Rusty looked over at the injured animal. “And Pa…what will …?” Rusty couldn’t finish the sentence.
Sherman Thacher stepped out of the crowd, holding a blanket in his arms. “Don’t worry, Rusty. I’ll handle it…and later the buryin’ too.” He moved to cover the body of Clyde Stowe. “You go along now to the Doc’s. We’ll tend to Trooper at our stables. Try to save his knees. You’ve my word on it”
Rusty nodded and handed the reins into Sherman Thacher’s hand. He took one last look at the still form of his Pa. A patch of red hair matted with blood protruded from the top of the blanket. Worn, scarred work boots covered in mud jutted up past the bottom edge. The boots–like those of Billy Soule–lay stone still.
He’ll never hurt Ma or me again, thought Rusty. Never again. So what was the sharp ache in his chest? Rusty tried not to think about it.
He winced in pain as Chase and Dalton helped him up to the wagon seat, setting Molly off at a trot into the night. Rusty wiped blood from his cheek with his left hand and let his good eye fall closed. There was nothing else he wanted to see tonight.
Meggie watched as the body of Cyclone Clyde was hefted into another wagon for his last trip into town. An empty whiskey bottle fell from his jacket pocket, shattering into sparkling shards on the hard, cold ground.
Meggie wondered how a night that began with such glittering promise could have turned so tragic.
Slowly, the crowd drifted back inside. The music began to play once more.
“Meggie?” Charles came down the walk to usher her inside. Just inside the hall, where the light was better, he stepped away from her. He stood a few feet away, a strange look on his face. “Whatever were you thinking?”
In the crowd gathering behind Charles, Meggie saw the red silk gown. Lucinda’s face held a satisfied smirk as she moved aside to let an older gentleman pass. The man, dressed in a three-piece woolen suit with silk shirt and black tie, came to stand beside Charles. Meggie noticed that his shoes were spit shined, the cuffs of his tailored pants neatly pressed.
Charles gave a nervous cough. With a look Meggie could not fathom, he stared right through her as he made the formal introduction.
“Mr. Prentice…may I present Miss Megan Elizabeth Baxter.”
Meggie started to extend her hand, but stopped midway. Her hand was smeared with blood. In the beveled glass of the entry door she caught a glimpse of her reflection. Her cheeks were streaked with dirt and tears. Her hair, having come loose from its pins and combs, hung in a few bedraggled clumps around her face. Smudges of mud stained her lovely blue taffeta gown, which had a few jagged holes at the knees. The right shoulder of her dress was marred with darkening blood. Shreds of white petticoat drooped out from underneath.
Meggie struggled to think…to breathe. What words had she practiced?
“An honor, Mr. Prentice,” she said in a barely audible voice, backing away. “If you’ll kindly excuse me…I’m afraid I’m not myself tonight.”
With flushing cheeks, Meggie grabbed her coat off the hook and fled out the door, stopping by the nearest lamppost. Charles followed at a safe distance. “Meggie…that was quite a show. Your big chance to get into Radcliff and you decide to play nursemaid to a pig farmer.”
Charles paced back and forth glaring at Meggie as if seeing her for the first time. “You have to decide what you want, Meggie. An education at a college back East or a being stuck in a backwoods place like Ojai–all your talents wasted.”
“I do want to go to college…It’s my dream. All those books, a real library…a chance to learn…” Meggie shivered in the cold and pulled her coat closer about her. “But…”
“But you just couldn’t help yourself, could you?” Charles’ brow furrowed as he squinted at her. “They take ladies at Radcliff, Meggie. They have a reputation to maintain.”
“But I…” Meggie struggled to explain herself. “I had to help.” She was becoming angry that she needed to explain.
“Oh I see…” Charles took a sarcastic tone. “You can take the girl out of the farm – but you can’t take the farm out of the girl.” Charles gestured at the muddy rutted driveway, the ragtag collection of wagons. â€œLook around you, Meggie. Is this what you want?”
Meggie looked up at the bright sparkle of stars strewn across the sky. The dark mass of the Topa Topas rose in front of her, surrounded by the black lacy edges of valley oaks silhouetted in the faint moonlight. Meggie’s breath frosted in the cold air as she spoke. “Ojai is my home.”
“Well, you’re welcome to it, then.” Charles smoothed back his dark hair with a well-manicured hand. “I’m so glad we had this little talk.” He gave an exaggerated bow. “Goodbye Meggie.”
Charles turned back toward the laughter and gaiety of the Christmas party, leaving Meggie alone. The woman in a low-cut red gown took his arm at the door.
Meggie drew in a deep breath. She took one last look at the glittering hall. Then she turned back toward the steep road home. My only regret, she thought as she strode into the darkness, is that I’m not wearing my sensible walking boots.
Order The Ojai: Pink Moment Promises from Amazon.com,Â www.patriciahartmannbooks.com or purchase at the Ojai Valley Museum.