From the Relief Society Magazine, 1960 –
The Apricot Tree
Janet drew her shawl more closely about her shoulders as she stepped out of the cabin door. The wind was sharp – for April. She hurried out to the shed and picked up an armload of wood. Thank goodness, she didn’t have; to shovel a path through the snow any longer.
On the way back she stopped to examine the buds on the apricot tree. Maybe last night’s frost hadn’t nipped them. It was hard to tell. This was the third tree she had planted, and they were hard to get. It had been the first one to survive at all, and maybe the buds on this one had been frozen so that there would be no fruit this year.
She hurried on. Timmie mustn’t be left alone for more than a few minutes. His breathing was easier this morning, but he’d had a hard coughing spell in the night. If she could just get that fever broken today he might do all right.
She caught a glimpse of a horseman turning into their lane from the road. “Matt Hornsby coming in with the mail. He’s been to the store and picked it up along with his own,” she told herself. It had to be that. It couldn’t be someone coming to get her to take care of his wife. Not today. Not with Timmie so dreadfully sick. It couldn’t be. And, if it was, Timmie had first call on her time.
She went inside and dropped the wood into the box. The boy on the bed looked at her listlessly, his eyes bright with fever.
“I’ll get you some nice breakfast,” she said cheerfully, careful to hide any trace of anxiety. “I’ve made some good hot mush. There’s honey for sweetening, too. That will help you to get well and strong.”
He showed little interest, but she scooped up a small bowl of mush from the kettle on the hearth and spread it lavishly with honey. She had just started to coax some of it into his half-willing mouth when there was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” she called, not daring to break off with the feeding to get up.
The door opened, and she turned to see young Parley Matheson. Her heart sank. Lutie’s time had come. Or maybe it hadn’t. The baby was not due for another two or three weeks yet. The young husband’s distraught face quickly told her otherwise.
He didn’t waste any words. “Lutie needs you real bad, Sister Thurston. She’s been having pains most of the night. I just waited for daylight to ride over. Will you come real quick? I don’t want to leave her alone any longer than I can help. She’s scared.”
Even in her distress Janet half smiled. She knew which one was the most scared when the first baby came.
Then the serious, anxious look returned. She forced the last spoonful of food into the boy and stood up. “I can’t go,” she said shortly.
“You can’t!” he repeated unbelieving. “Why, you have to come. Lutie might die. She’s awful bad.”
“Timmie’s awful bad, too,” said Janet. “I’ve been up with him all night. I’m afraid he’s got pneumonia. He has a high fever. Miles has gone out with the wagon for freight. I’m here alone. I can’t leave him.”
Parley rolled his felt hat between his agonized knuckles. “But what’ll we do? She’s got to have you.”
“I can tell you what to do,” she replied. “Or, maybe you can get Sister Blackburn. She helped with my three. Lots of babies have been born without my help. Lutie won’t die. She’s good and strong. I reckon you’re a lot more scared than she is.”
Parley looked helplessly about. “You bet I’m scared. I couldn’t do anything, if both our lives depended on it. And Sister Blackburn is another two miles away. I can’t take all that time to go after her.”
Janet looked out of the window to a little windswept knoll. Her lips were set as she said in a low, determined voice. “There’re two little graves out there, Parley. My little girls. Timmie’s all I’ve got left. I can’t take a chance on losing him, too. If I can just break this fever today he may be all right. But I’ve got to watch him every minute. Lutie isn’t in half the danger he is.”
Parley looked trapped. He drew his coat sleeve across his eyes in a bewildered fashion.
Janet went over and pulled her worn brown satchel from underneath the bed. “Take this,” she said, “if you decide not to go for Ellie Blackburn. There are scissors and clean cloths and anything else you will need.”
He reached for it as if in a trance and started towards the door. Then he turned and said, “Lutie won’t feel safe with Sister Blackburn or anyone but you.”
Janet stood silent for a moment. “Very well,” she said quietly. “I’ll go. You stay here and watch Timmie. Don’t let the fire down for a moment. Bathe his face with cold cloths. And rub his chest with this oil every so often.”
She started to put on her wraps. The heavy, shapeless coat and the blue fascinator. “I’ll have to ride your horse,” she said. “Miles has taken ours out for freight.”
Before putting on her knitted gloves, she went back to the bed and felt Timmie’s head. The boy turned fever-bright eyes upon her. She shut her own, unable to bear the pleading, half-scared look in his eyes. She couldn’t go. It was asking too much.
As if he sensed her wavering, Parley said, “I’ll take real good care of him, Sister Thurston. I won’t be scared here, like I would be with Lutie. I’ll do everything you said.” Then he added, “And I’ll pray.”
Janet nodded and stood up. “Be a good boy,” she said to Timmie. “Mother will be back real soon. I have to get a new baby for Sister Matheson.”
She pulled on the gloves and went out of the door.
The horse stood with his head lowered against the wind. It could snow yet, Janet worried. Then there would be frost and the apricot buds would freeze.
As she rode along she thought that the countryside had never looked uglier. Later, there would be green in the fields. Now there was only last year’s stubble showing through patches of snow. Here and there a bare tree held stark branches towards a gray sky.
Her thoughts went back to her former home in Indiana. There had been two tall evergreen trees, standing like sentinels on either side of the front door. In April the violets made a purple carpet on the south side of the house.
But, most of all, she remembered the lilacs. There was a double row that reached down the lane to the highway. Even now she could close her eyes and smell those lilacs.
And still she had never regretted leaving when her faith called. None of the hardships, the lack of beauty, would have mattered if only she could have kept her little girls. And now Timmie was so sick. “Dear God,” she prayed, “please let me keep Timmie.”
The thought flashed through her mind that she ought to be given his life in payment for her willingness to go to Lutie. But she quickly put it aside. She would not attempt to bargain with God. Not even to keep Timmie.
The horse quickened his pace as they turned down the lane to the Matheson cabin. There was no smoke coming out of the chimney. She did hope there would be some hot coals left. It was hard to start a blaze without matches. She would be needing a fire for hot water.
She put the horse in the barn, drew off the saddle and bridle, and hurried into the cabin.
Lutie greeted her with a deep sigh of relief. “I thought you’d never get here,” she said. “I began to think that something must have happened to Parley on the way, or that maybe you weren’t home. I’d have died if you hadn’t come.”
“Oh, now, I don’t think so,” said Janet cheerfully. “I’ll get this fire going and make you a cup of hot ginger tea. It’s sort of relaxing.”
Thank goodness there were live coals and enough wood in the box to keep the fire going for some time.
“Where’s Parley?” asked Lutie anxiously. “Why didn’t he come back with you?”
“He couldn’t. I was about not to come myself. Timmie is real sick. I didn’t want to leave him. Miles is out for freight. Someone had to stay.”
“I’m sorry,” said Lutie. “I remember … It must be terrible to lose a child.”
“Yes. I guess maybe there isn’t anything that’s harder to bear. Maybe you’ll think you’re suffering today. Well, let me tell you, you’d go through it once a week, if you had to, in order to keep them.”
She went out for a bucket of water and just as she came in the door Lutie gave a cry of pain. Janet put down the bucket and took hold of her hand. “Just pull as hard as you want,” she said. “And cry out if you like. It won’t hurt anything and it might help.”
When the girl had relaxed again Janet busied herself about the cabin. There was not much work to be done, but she couldn’t just sit. Certainly today, of all days, she couldn’t just sit.
“Where are your carpet rags?” she asked.
“Under the bed – what few I have. There hasn’t been much of anything I could spare, so far.”
Janet brought out the bag. There were nine balls of rags, all sewed together. There wasn’t a scrap of extra cloth. She slipped off one of her underskirts and began cutting it into long strips.
When Lutie gave a cry of protest, she said briskly, “This has been patched until you can’t tell which was the original stuff, anyway, so I might as well cut it up.”
Actually it wasn’t quite that bad. It was no worse than the other two she was wearing, but she had to do something. She couldn’t just sit there and worry.
While she was cutting she kept up a stream of talk with Lutie. It helped both of them. In between times she held the girl’s hands when the pains came, or rather let Lutie hold hers.
The day dragged slowly on. There was no clock in the cabin, but Janet knew that hours had passed. Great, long, seemingly endless hours. She wondered if it could possibly seem as long, even to the suffering girl on the bed, as it did to her. Would Parley be able to do anything at all? Maybe she should have left more instructions. But what? Could anyone cope with it, if it got any worse?
“Is it this bad for everyone?” Lutie asked as Janet wiped the perspiration from her forehead.
“Mostly. Some are worse. You’re coming along fine and natural like. You haven’t got one thing to worry about.”
“All those millions of babies born in the world. It doesn’t seem possible that each one could have cost so much.”
“No, but they have. That is, more or less.”
“I’ve heard women say that you forget the pain afterwards. I’ll never, never forget this,” she said through clenched teeth.
“No, honey,” Janet soothed, “you won’t forget it. But you won’t mind, either. If it were ten times as bad, you’d still be glad, once you get your baby in your arms. that’s all that matters.” To herself she added, Get them and keep them. That matters, too. That matters more than anything.
The time finally came when she put down the carpet rags to give all of her attention to the girl. The baby was born, announcing its arrival into the world with a loud wail of protest.
“It’s a girl. A beautiful little girl,” said Janet triumphantly. “I’ll bet she’ll weigh a good seven pounds. Maybe seven and a half. And will you look at all that black hair!”
Lutie looked at her baby with such joy and pride that Janet felt a lump in her throat, although she had witnessed that same glow a hundred times.
After she had done all that she could for the mother, she dressed the baby in the soft new clothes and put her in the crib. Then she said, “I’ll have to go. Parley will be back here before long.”
Lutie, who was already dozing, roused herself enough to murmur, “Yes, you must go. Parley will be real worried.”
Janet smiled. No need to retort that Parley was the least of her own worries. Anyway, there was no doubt that it had been a long, hard day for him, too.
She went out to the barn and put the saddle on the horse. Reluctantly he started down the lane.
“I know you hate leaving home,” she said, “so did I. I hated it a lot worse than you do. But it can’t be helped. There are times when you have to go.”
The horse paid no attention and, try as she would, she could only occasionally coax him into anything more than a mere walk. He would slow down the instant she quit prodding him.
She had gone a little more than halfway when the horse stepped into a chuckhole, throwing her violently forward. By the time she had recovered her position and urged the horse onward a few steps, she discovered that he was lame. It was still another two miles to her cabin, but she couldn’t ride a lame horse.
She dismounted and looked about. The Hemstead cabin was the only one nearby. Should she go over there and try to borrow a horse, or simply walk on home? She wasn’t even sure that the Hemsteads had a horse. Not everyone did. it was at least a quarter of a mile to the cabin. If she went up there and couldn’t get a horse, she’d have lost all that time and would still have to walk home.
She took a dozen steps and stopped. She had forgotten about Parley. It would take him hours to walk the five miles back to his cabin. Lutie and the baby were alone. The fire would be out. Lutie would be scared to death.
She turned and walked swiftly to the Hemstead cabin.
“Why, Janet Thurston!” cried Sister Hemstead,. “What a sight for sore eyes you are! Do come in. I have some hot cinnamon rolls I just made.”
The room was warm and cozy. The cinnamon rolls smelled heavenly. Janet dropped into a chair. “I can’t stay. I only wish I could. I’ve just put Lutie Matheson to bed with a baby girl. Parley’s at my place with Timmie. He’s real sick. I have to get back as soon as I can.”
“I’m awfully sorry,” murmured Selma. “Can we help?”
It reminded Janet that she hadn’t explained why she had come. “Parley’s horse has gone lame. I turned him loose to go back home. Do you have one that I could borrow?”
“Sure, we do. How about Arne hitching up the wagon and taking you? You must be pretty tired by now.”
Janet shook her head. “Just the horse, please. I could go faster that way.”
“Then I will call Arne to put on the saddle. And you take some of these rolls for you and Timmie to eat when you are home again.”
“Thank you,” said Janet. “You’re very kind.”
Once more she was on the road. With the fresh horse, she made good time. He seemed willing to travel as fast as she dared to ride.
When she reached home she slipped off, made him fast, and hurried inside. The fire was low. Sprawled in front of it was Parley, fast asleep. At Timmie’s “Hey, Ma!” he awakened with a start.
“Gosh, I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I guess I must have dozed for a minute.”
Janet was at Timmie’s side. She put her hand on his forehead. It felt warm against her chilled palm, but not alarmingly hot. She felt his cheek. “The fever seems to have gone,” she said with a deep sigh of thankfulness.
“Lutie! What about Lutie?” cried Parley, now fully awake.
Janet smiled. “Lutie’s fine. You have a beautiful baby girl.”
Parley was up on his feet. “I did everything you told me. I haven’t been asleep very long. I hope he’s all right.”
“He seems to be fine. Don’t worry. You’d better get along home now. Your horse went lame. I borrowed one from Hemsteads.”
“Thanks,” said Parley. “Thanks for everything. My cow will have a calf soon. I can pay you with that.”
“I’m hungry,” said Timmie, as the door shut.
“Good, so am I,” said Janet. “I’m hungry – and happy. Sister Hemstead gave me some nice, fresh cinnamon rolls. I’ll warm up some milk. It will make us a good supper.”
She went outside for an armload of wood. The wind had died down and the sweet smell of April was in the air. it wasn’t going to snow, after all.
She stopped long enough to look at the apricot tree again. The buds were swelling with a deep pink. There would be no more frost, she could almost be sure. This year there would be blossoms and fruit on the tree.