The dried peas rattled in the crockery bowl with a sound like hail on a tin roof. Tessa Bright frowned, thinking of the holes that needed patching in her own shelter, and the hundred other chores that were more than one woman alone could see to. Especially not a woman with one arm in a cast. She balanced the bowl awkwardly on her knees, and began sorting through the peas for rocks and dirt. "If you really want to help me out, Will, could you see about finding me a hired man?" She raised her head and addressed the empty air. "Are you listening, Will?"
"I'm listening." The porch swing beside her wobbled with the weight of someone settling into the seat and a chill breeze swept over her. In spite of the summer heat, she shivered. She was never going to get used to that--the way Will was so cold all the time now. Of course, the whole situation wasn't really the sort of thing anyone ever got used to, was it? What woman expected her husband to die and come back as a ghost?
"Well? Can you do anything to help?" She glanced down the long drive that led to the road. Not that she got a lot of visitors out this way, but if anyone were to come by and see her having a conversation with thin air, they'd likely want to send her off to the mad house. Most of the folks in town already thought she was a few bricks shy of a full load.
"I'm working on it." Though she couldn't see him, Will's voice was as familiar to her as his face had ever been. He had a beautiful voice: low, with a hint of gravel in the throat. Hearing it now, without the comfort of his physical presence, brought a hollow ache to her chest, a different kind of hole that couldn't be mended with mere tarpaper and tin. "I don't want just any man to take my place," he said.
She shifted the bowl, trying to get a better grip. "I don't want another husband, Will." She was just getting used to looking out for herself. Why complicate matters by trying to start over with another man? "I just need someone temporary, until my arm heals." She scowled at the plaster cast on her left forearm, as if it were personally responsible for all her troubles. Maybe if she'd had help to doctor that gelding, she wouldn't be in such a fix now.
"You need someone to look after you and this place, the way I did," Will said. "Someone upstanding and respectable, who can help you make friends in town."
"I just need someone useful." She nodded. "Someone who knows about horses and doesn't drink too much. Someone young enough to be strong…but not too handsome."
"Why not handsome?" Will sounded surprised.
She shifted in the swing. If only she could see Will. He had been a handsome man, and he'd stolen her heart so easily. Better not to take any chances. "I don't want talk in town," she said.
Will made a noise like a horse snorting. "They're gonna talk, no matter what." The swing shook as it emptied of his weight. "You just leave everything to me."
She sighed and turned her attention once more to the peas, stifling a flutter of irritation. Will had done such a good job of looking after her when he was alive, she supposed it was only natural that he wanted to continue now that he'd passed on. But wasn't it about time he realized she could look after herself?
His question made her look up. She squinted into the bright sunlight. A man was walking down the drive toward the house. A tall man in a dirty brown hat, carrying a saddle. "I wonder what happened to the horse that went with that saddle?" she mused.
Will was silent, retreating as he always did whenever anyone else was around. She stood, cradling the bowl of peas, and walked to the edge of the porch, squinting into the bright June sun at the stranger. The broad brim of his hat cast a shadow across his face, but his quick and steady gait identified him as a young man. The saddle, though heavy with tooled leather and silver conchos, seemed hardly to burden him as he carried it on his shoulder. The blue of his flannel shirt had faded to a soft pewter, and his trousers were clumsily patched above one knee. Instead of a gun, he wore a long-bladed knife at his side.
He stopped at the wooden gate in the low picket fence that surrounded the yard and nodded politely before lowering the saddle to the ground. "Morning, ma'am," he said. "Is your man at home?"
She resisted the urge to smile. In Will's present condition, he couldn't exactly be said to be anywhere. "I'm afraid my husband passed on last year."
He paused for a moment, as if considering his next move. She wondered if she should have gotten the gun from the house. She forgot sometimes how vulnerable she was, a woman alone.
"Then I guess you're the one I need to talk to," the stranger said. He nodded toward the corral beside the house. "I saw your horses. Wondered if you'd be interested in buying this saddle."
She relaxed a little. Nothing about this man seemed threatening. He was just a traveler, passing through. She studied the firm set of his chin, all she could see clearly in the shadow of the hat. "I've got saddles."
"This is a good saddle. Hand-tooled leather and finest Mexican silver." His voice was soft, barely accented, like one who hadn't been born speaking English, though he spoke it well enough now.
She followed his gaze to the saddle. "If it's so wonderfully fine, why do you want to sell it?"
He tilted his head and she thought she detected a hint of a smile at the corners of his lips, but she couldn't be sure. "A saddle like this isn't much good without a horse."
"Then you've come to the right place." She stepped down off the porch, into the yard. "Those horses you see are for sale. One of them might be perfect for your saddle."
He turned his head toward the half-dozen horses that had gathered along the corral fence, like spectators at a sporting exhibition. Necks stretched over the top rail, ears arched forward in curiosity. Tails flicked at flies and hooves stamped as if to demonstrate the vitality of all her stock. In truth, it hurt her each time she had to part with one of her dears, but there were bills to be paid and she couldn't let sentimentality get in the way of eating.
The stranger turned back to her. "Fine animals. Expensive?"
She nodded. "Of course."
He looked down at the saddle and nudged it with the worn toe of one knee-high boot. "Which brings me to the second reason the saddle is for sale. I don't have the price of a beer on me, much less the gold to buy one of your horses."
She wondered how far he'd walked, carrying that saddle. She'd assumed he'd come from town, but anyone there would have given him a good price for his burden. Now she thought he must have been traveling through, and turned into her drive because it was the first place he'd come to. "So I can't sell you a horse, and I don't want to buy your saddle." She took a deep breath, her heart fluttering in her chest as she searched for the right words. She'd never offered anyone a job before. What if he turned her down? Or worse, what if he saw through her pretense at boldness and laughed at her timidity? "But maybe we can still do business."
He was silent, his gaze fixed on the saddle.
"I need a man to help me around the place," she continued. "Just a couple of months, until my arm mends." She nodded toward the cast. "I can pay you fifty cents a day, and room and board."
He looked past her, to the house. She wondered if he saw the fine place it had been, or only the disrepair into which it had fallen this last year. Then he nodded. "All right, ma'am. I'll take the job." He swept off his hat and held his hand over the fence.
A tremor ran through her as the stranger's eyes met her own. She gasped and fumbled with the bowl, but the cast made her awkward and the crockery slipped through her fingers. The bowl shattered on the hard dirt and peas rolled and bounced across the yard. "Oh no!" she cried, and knelt, attempting to scoop up the fragments.
"Here, let me help you." He opened the gate and knelt across from her. She couldn't take her eyes from him, seeing that her first impression of him was true.
He was one of the handsomest men she had ever seen, with sharply chiseled features that melded strength and beauty. The sight of him made her insides go all quivery and her thoughts tumble over themselves in a panic.
Not only that, but he was an Indian. How could she have missed that before? She had mistaken the brown of his hands for the effects of the summer sun, until she'd seen the coppery tan of his face. Out of the shadow of his hat, his sculpted cheekbones and chiseled nose betrayed his heritage, as did the ink-black hair tied at the base of his neck with a leather thong. Only his eyes seemed foreign to his features, eyes the deep green of Mississippi pines.
He was a halfbreed then. The realization did nothing to slow the rapid drumbeat of her heart as they continued to stare at one another, motionless.
"Is something wrong?" He was the first to break the spell between them.
She shook her head, trying to hide the shaking in her hands as she gathered broken bits of pottery. Why was this happening to her? This man could only mean trouble.
Of course, she could always send him away. She raised her eyes to look at him once more, at the smooth blackness of his hair and the deep brown of his skin. His broad shoulders strained at the fabric of his shirt as he reached out to capture a rolling pea. Here was a man who could work hard. A man familiar enough with horses to own a custom-made saddle. He was everything she'd hoped for, and who was to say when she'd come across another one like him out here on the edge of the wilderness?
She gathered her apron to hold the errant peas and pottery and stood. "What's your name?" she asked.
He rose also, and replaced the hat on his head. "Fox," he said. "Micah Fox."
She forced a business-like expression to her face and extended her hand. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Fox. My name's Tessa Bright."
He hesitated only a moment before taking her hand. His grasp was gentle but firm, sending a wave of warmth through her. Once more, his eyes captured and held her gaze and her knees began to tremble beneath her long skirts. "Why don't you put your things in the barn, and I'll go fix you something to eat," she said, looking away.
He shouldered the saddle once more and she turned toward the house, forcing herself to walk slowly, when inside, all she wanted to do was run. When she reached the privacy of her kitchen, she sagged against the doorway. "So, Will, what do you think of that one?" she whispered.
But the only answer that came to her was silence.
© Cindi Myers
A Willing Spirit
Author: Cindi Myers
Publisher: Aspen Mountain
Genre: Western Historical
Micah Fox shows up at Tessa Bright's ranch penniless, hoping to sell his saddle.
Tessa, a recent widow, has an arm in a cast and is in desperate need of a man to help with the chores.
Has Will, her passed on husband, given her a second chance at love?