THREE MONTHS EARLIER
Rosa, sit down. The way you pop up like that scares the grits out of me.”
Rosa Garner had only met Aunt Mary Garner that morning at the train station, but she could already tell the woman expected obedience. Blushing, she squirmed between the barrels and the crate of chicks to reclaim her seat in the crowded wagon bed.
“But did you see that house? It’s big enough for a hundred people.” After a month-long journey from Mexico, Rosa could contain her excitement no longer. She craned her neck to see over Aunt Mary and her mother-in-law, Louise Garner, who shared the bench seat.
Aunt Mary shifted her substantial weight on the bench, causing the wagon to lean. “That ain’t a house, it’s a hotel, and we don’t need you falling out. After all Louise has been through . . .”
“Don’t scold her, Mary. She’s suffered right alongside me.” Louise smoothed her black mourning gown, keeping her handkerchief crumpled tightly in her fist. “We’re both widows, you know.”
Rosa pushed against the barrels that threatened to squash her as the wagon rocked along and continued to marvel at the elaborate buildings lining the busy street. What they lacked in color, they made up in size, hulking over her like the mountains of Mexico, her homeland.
Hard to believe her husband, Mack, had grown up here. Hard to believe he’d never return.
“Wave, Louise,” Aunt Mary said. “You’re attracting attention.”
Huddled together in front of a dress shop, two women whispered behind idle hands, but it wasn’t Louise they noted. Rosa pulled the neckline of her blouse higher and sighed. She’d chosen her clothes with care. Her white blouse was whiter than any she’d seen since crossing the Texas border. She’d worked days embroidering the line of poinsettias that adorned the collar and the embellishments on the gathered sleeves, but she doubted it was her embroidery work they objected to.
The emerald skirt had been saved for today, too—the day they reached Caldwell County and met Louise’s family and friends. Rosa was determined to make a good impression. Louise had coached her for weeks on manners and etiquette, and she couldn’t disappoint her mother-in-law, not when it meant so much to the older lady.
Louise waved and startled the women into returning the gesture. “So where else do we need to go? I’m anxious to get to the homeplace.”
Aunt Mary turned into an alley and ticked off their progress on her fingers. “We’ve been to the bank, the mercantile, and the feed store. Last stop—the courthouse.”
“I’ll be relieved to have that behind us. After all, how much can the taxes be?” Louise held onto the dash rail. The road had washed out between the two buildings, making the going treacherous.
“You left Caldwell County for a reason,” Aunt Mary said.
Yet Rosa had trouble reconciling the descriptions she’d heard of a struggling desperate town with the bustling prosperity she saw before her. According to Louise, she and her husband fled Caldwell County with their son, Mack, to protect him from the lawless situation called Reconstruction. Hearing extravagant tales of the silver mines of the Sierra Madres, the Garners leased their farm and went searching for riches. But instead of a fortune, Louise lost her husband and son and gained nada—unless she counted Rosa.
Before Louise could answer Aunt Mary, the wagon lurched, tilting down at one corner. In a move surprisingly nimble for her girth, Aunt Mary somehow got her feet over the box side and onto the ground before she was tossed out. At the same time, Rosa skidded on her backside down the sharply angled bed, a barrel rolling right behind. It slid onto her skirt, twisting her as she struggled to remain upright. Her feet tangled in her hem, leaving her pinned against the hard side of the wagon bed.
Her heart was racing, not just from the suddenness of the accident but from the horrible sensation of being trapped, smothered. Too many collapsed roofs, too many cave-ins at the mine had left Rosa with eggshell nerves, but she wouldn’t succumb. Lying on her back, she pushed against the barrel, desperate for room, fighting for breath.
“Rosa! Are you all right?” Louise reached around from the front and helped shove the barrel away from her daughter-in-law.
Rosa crawled to the side of the wagon and swung her legs over. Using Aunt Mary’s support, she slid out of the wagon box, careful not to land on the wheel lying beneath her.
“I’m fine.” Hiding her shaking hands, Rosa caught her breath. She hadn’t been trapped. There was the sky. There was air. She looked around, trying to get her bearings, feeling crowded between the tall buildings in this town of Lockhart, Texas. No time to panic. Louise needed her help. If her terror would pass, she could turn her thoughts to the problem before them.
The empty axle hovered a few inches off the ground. Rosa walked to the back. Just as she suspected. The opposite corner was elevated, wheel spinning errantly midair.
Aunt Mary huffed. “It’s that sorry pin again. I keep telling George to take it to the blacksmith, but looks like I’ll be doing it myself.”
“We’ll go with you.” Louise climbed down. “After weeks coming out of the mountains on the back of a burro, then all that time on a train, I would welcome an opportunity to transport myself for a change. A stroll sounds delightful.”
“You’re going to leave the wagon here?” Rosa asked. “With all our supplies in it?”
Louise looked to Aunt Mary for an answer.
“She’s right. You can’t afford to lose a cent’s worth,” Aunt Mary said.
Rosa nodded. “I’ll stay behind.”
Louise tucked a strand of red hair behind her ear. “You’re certain you don’t mind? Then, if it’s fine with you, we’ll return shortly. Remember what I taught you, and don’t speak to any strange men.”
Aunt Mary rolled her eyes at the advice. Obviously not all gringos were bothered with the niceties that consumed Rosa’s mother-in-law. Or maybe customs had changed during the ten years Louise lived in Mexico.
Rosa watched the two ladies. Tall Louise and stout Aunt Mary looked nothing alike, but the way they related reminded her of sisters. True, their husbands were only cousins, but kin was kin, and they needed all the help they could get from Uncle George and Aunt Mary. Rosa and Louise couldn’t even get to the homeplace without assistance.
So the pin had broken? Rosa assessed their predicament. Even with the necessary part, the axle was too close to the ground to get the wheel on. No one could lift the wagon loaded down like it was, but if the weight was shifted . . . She scrambled up the side. They’d come this far. A broken pin wasn’t going to stop her.
Rosa grasped the burlap sack of beans and lugged it up the incline to the back of the bed.
“Appears you’ve run into trouble.”
Rosa looked up to see a bearded man. She’d been properly introduced to only two men since arriv-ing—Nicholas Lovelace, the spoiled son of the lumber mill owner, and Deacon Bradford, the manager at Simpson’s Mercantile. This man was neither, so she ignored him, as she’d been taught.
“Nothing to be afraid of, miss. I was going to help, that’s all.”
“Are you bothering this lady?” another man asked, entering the alley. He launched a stream of tobacco juice against the side of the building and extended his hand to the first.
“Naw, just offering my assistance, but she ain’t too receptive.”
The bags of flour were slick and tightly filled, making them hard to grasp. Rosa rolled them, one at a time, up the bed and wedged them between the beans.
“Maybe she don’t speak English.”
“Probably not. Pretty thing, though. Wish I could get the missus to wear something like that.”
“What are you boys doing?”
Three of them now? Rosa blew a strand of ebony hair out of the way and grasped the bars of the chicken crate. Bending and walking backwards, she lugged it to a chorus of frantic chirping, then stood and stretched her back. Why were they gawking at her? She knew what she was doing. Each trip across the bed of the wagon brought it more level.
By the time the front end of the wagon lifted, money was exchanging hands. No wonder there was such a crowd. She’d stumbled into some sort of wager. Whatever the stakes, the men seemed to be entertained.
From her platform on the wagon bed, she saw Louise and Aunt Mary crossing the street with the blacksmith. She waved. Rosa thought they’d be surprised with the progress she’d made, but Louise looked stricken.
Plowing her way through the crowd of men, Aunt Mary was the first to reach the wagon. Her mouth hung agape as she stared at the perfectly situated axle, but Louise wasn’t concerned with the wagon.
“What is the meaning of this?” Louise gestured to the crowd, which, with shuffling feet and thinly veiled smirks, began to disperse.
“I leveled the wagon.”
“With all these men looking on?”
Rosa dropped from the wagon and studied her slippers. “I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t climb or whistle. I didn’t do anything you’ve warned me against.”
Louise put a hand to her forehead and closed her eyes. “Rosa, you created a spectacle—just what I most wished to avoid. The sooner we get you out of town the better. Perhaps we should visit the courthouse at a later date.”
Rosa bit her lip. She’d followed the rules and still made a mess of things. But Aunt Mary came to her rescue.
“Stop fretting yourself over niceties, Louise. Your taxes might bring you to ruin, not some innocent blunder. Now, let the blacksmith see to the wheel while we go to the courthouse. Hiding from bad news don’t make it no easier.”
One hundred and sixty-six dollars? How are we supposed to come up with one hundred and sixty-six dollars?” With white knuckles, Louise grasped the brass rail bolted to the countertop in the tax assessor’s office.
Rosa took her mother-in-law’s arm. She had no idea how much that amounted to in pesos, but it was enough to turn Louise’s skin pale. Enough to make Aunt Mary speechless, something that hadn’t happened since she’d met the woman that morning.
“We leased out our farm before we left for Mexico. We had no idea the renters had abandoned the property and stopped paying the taxes. It’s not my fault.” Louise twisted her hands around the smooth brass rail. “Unless God works a miracle, there’s no way two widows can make that much money by August fifteenth.
That’s three months . . .”
The buxom girl behind the counter fiddled with the ink-splotched apron that covered her starched shirtwaist. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Garner. The account has been delinquent for four years. It’s a good thing you came back from Mexico when you did—”
“Don’t you get smart with Louise, Molly Lovelace. I’ll have a talk with your ma,” Aunt Mary huffed.
“I’m not being smart. I’ll get the ledger, and you can see for yourself.”
The ladies didn’t protest, so Molly turned on her heel, but not before sending Rosa another peculiar look.
So this was Nicholas Lovelace’s sister? The dapper young man had given Louise an account of his sister while escorting them on their shopping errands. Evidently Miss Lovelace hadn’t purchased her fine clothing from the dry goods stores they’d visited thus far. They were more extravagant than any Rosa had ever seen.
“I bet she wouldn’t shift a wagon load in public,” Rosa said.
“If she could gather a crowd as big as yours, she would.” Aunt Mary hitched her skirt higher over her soft belly.
“Ladies!” Louise scolded, casting a warning glance at the approaching clerk. Molly brought the oblong book directly to Louise and led her to a bench against the wall. She pointed to a column of numbers stacked as neatly as the leather-bound volumes behind her. “It says right here.”
Rosa itched to get a look at the figures, but it wouldn’t do to push the elegant Miss Lovelace aside.
With brow furrowed, Louise bent over the ledger, then straightened and closed the book. “What does it matter? If God wants us to have the money, then no power on Earth can prevent it. We mustn’t despair.”
Aunt Mary raised an eyebrow. “True, but—”
“So Mack is really gone?” Molly interrupted.
“Yes, I’m afraid so.” Louise turned to Rosa. “Molly and Mack grew up together. Her mother, Adele, is one of my dearest confidantes.”
No wonder Molly’s eyes filled with tears at the mention of Rosa’s husband. No wonder she felt free to inspect Rosa so closely.
“Mack missed you and your brother immensely when we left.” Louise handed her the ledger. “I apologize for causing a scene, Molly. You were only executing your position in this office. We expect any child of Thomas Lovelace to be the best at their profession.”
Molly leaned forward. “You haven’t become reacquainted with my brother, Nicholas, have you?”
“He followed them from store to store, talking up a storm,” Aunt Mary snorted.
Rosa smiled. Nicholas Lovelace might not be industrious, but he was entertaining and informative.
Louise stuffed her handkerchief into her reticule. “I was glad to see him regardless, just as I am you. We didn’t come back to the best circumstances, but we made it here, and I refuse to believe the situation is as dire as it sounds.”
Silence. Molly and Aunt Mary’s eyes met. Between the sophisticated career girl and the farm wife, Rosa guessed they agreed on only one topic—Louise and Rosa didn’t stand a chance at raising the money. She prayed they were wrong.
Molly’s manners recovered first, having been utilized more frequently than Aunt Mary’s. “At least you’re home, Mrs. Garner. Your family is here for you.”
Louise managed a weak smile. “I do have family, but Mary and George have a house full of young ones.”
“I offered to let you stay with us,” Aunt Mary said.
“But you don’t have room. Besides, you’re trying to make ends meet, too. Not easy with seven of you under one roof.”
Aunt Mary nodded. “You know, I think Weston’s taking a herd on the trail, but he might be able to put you up. He’s still got that big place his pa left him when he died in the war. There is plenty of room for the family at Palmetto.”
“Weston Garner?” Molly squeaked and hopped off the bench. Her mouth opened and closed a few times before she found words.
“Oh no. That wouldn’t do. Not at all.”
Her blue eyes traveled from the ribbon holding Rosa’s hair behind her neck to the black slippers on her feet, missing nothing in between. “That would be disastrous indeed.” She wrung her hands. “Mr. Garner hasn’t been social for years. I’ve tried to . . . Well, let’s say he’s not fond of company right now. Unapproachable, even. You might get a roof over your head, but I doubt it. He values his solitude.”
“My nephew would welcome us,” Louise protested. “We were very close. He and Eliza are the closest family we’ve got.”
Rosa could still hear the voice of Mack’s father, Eli, encouraging him to follow his older cousin’s example. Mack had spoken of Weston as being big and strong, but serious—something Mack could never understand.
Aunt Mary shook her head. “Now that I think of it, it’s a bad idea. Weston ain’t been himself since his wife’s death. Just as dear as ever, but forget I said anything about going to his house. If worse comes to worst, you’d be better off sharing a room with my girls.”
Molly nodded a bit too eagerly. Rosa moved closer to Louise, convinced something was afoot. Meeting her eyes, Molly turned a slight pink. Her story was verified by Aunt Mary, but it still didn’t ring true. What was the girl afraid of?
ROUND ROCK, TEXAS
The barbershop bell rang as Weston Garner opened the door and then again when he bumped his head on it while crossing the threshold.
The barber took the razor handle out of his mouth. “Sorry about that. I need to hang the ding-a-ling higher.”
Weston dropped his hat on the hall tree. He’d taken a quick dip in Bushy Creek before reaching town, not wanting the odor of the Chisholm Trail to precede him like every other drover strutting down the streets. If he’d time, he would’ve washed his clothes. They sorely needed it, but town was too close for them to dry on his back and too close to lollygag without them. A man his size attracted enough attention as it was. Still, with his shaggy dark hair and rough beard, he sure could use a spit and a polish.
“We’re working fast as we can. One of us will get to ya in a minute if you have time to wait.”
“I have all day.” He had all day, all week, all month. No one was waiting for him at home. Might as well sit a spell. Weston headed to the only empty seat in the shop and fell into the cushioned chair.
He already regretted his decision to leave the herd and turn back early, but not from concern over his investment. Those four-dollar steers were worth ten times that when they reached the butchers up north, and the cowboys could push them on up to Wichita without him. He didn’t need to mollycoddle his ranch hands, but maybe he should’ve stayed longer. On the trail he’d found some peace. Would it endure when faced with the memories that haunted his home—Palmetto?
Finding an open jar of pomade, Weston took a whiff but was disappointed. Bear grease.
The barber returned with steamed towels. Tilting Weston’s chair back, the man covered his face. Weston sunk into their heavenly warmth. After weeks of scanning the horizon under the Texas sun, his eyes relaxed; his wind-burnt skin was soothed. He’d kept up with the younger fellas during the day, but sleeping on the ground was another matter. He’d be snoring soon if he wasn’t careful.
Lord, he prayed as he settled in, things are fixin’ to get hairy. I don’t rightly know how to be the man you want me to be. I thought I had it figured out before Cora, but that didn’t work out so well. How do I start over?
He didn’t realize he’d fallen asleep until the barber lifted the towel from his face.
“Now, how about that beard? You want a trim?” The spindly barber mopped up the excess moisture from Weston’s face.
“Go on and shave it all off.”
Despite the shaving soap, Weston could’ve dozed off again if it weren’t for the conversation between the two men to his left.
“So ya finally caught up with her?” the man nearest Weston asked.
A cultured voice from the corner seat answered, “Yes, she was trying to catch a train to Ohio. Ignorant wench. I don’t know how she made it this far without someone telling her what to do.”
Weston’s jaw clenched. He shifted in his chair, just then realizing how small it was for his large frame.
“Don’t move,” his barber warned.
The men continued.
“Women! They don’t appreciate nothing.”
“Precisely. Her father insisted I marry her, and then she runs off. As if he wants her back.” There was laughter all around.
“Why don’t you just let her go?”
“Because that’s what she wants.”
Weston tried to lean forward, but the straightedge razor scraping his neck made him think twice. He wanted to get a look at those two. Between towels, shaving cream, and a hovering barber, he couldn’t tell who they were—just that he could whop both of them if he needed to.
“Where’s she now?”
“At the hotel.”
“You ain’t worried about her running off again?”
The soothing voice belied the words. “No. She won’t be running anywhere for a while.”
If it were Caldwell County, Weston would be honor bound to say something, but correcting strangers usually led to violence. Men might talk tough and mean no harm, but they didn’t do it in front of him without some reckoning. Especially about a woman. But he was far from home and eavesdropping on strangers. Not a good place to start a confrontation.
The barber across the room finished a haircut and cleaned the customer off with a stiff brush. Sounded as if the two men next to Weston were leaving, as well.
At least three men made their way to the door. The bell rang as they walked out. Weston looked, but in vain.
The barber parted Wes’s hair and smoothed it down to get a straight cut.
Weston cleared his throat. “That fellow talking about his wife, you know him?”
“Naw, and glad I don’t.”
They fell silent while the scissors snipped and clumps of dark hair dropped quietly to the floor.
“He’s from somewhere south of here, but definitely a Yankee—I ain’t judging, just saying he’s not been here long enough to lose his accent. Think they said he’s from south of Lockhart.”
“Lockhart?” Weston bolted upright in his chair. Jay Tillerton! The voice, the attitude, suddenly rang very familiar. Come to think of it, Tillerton and his wife were from Ohio.
“Was that fellow tall, narrowed shouldered? Schoolteacher type?”
The barber wiped his scissors on his apron and began to backtrack. “Oh, I wasn’t paying no mind. Besides, people say a lot of things they don’t mean.”
But they shouldn’t.
“I’m calling it quits.” Weston jerked the sheet off his neck, sprang up, and fished for money in his pocket.
“Aren’t you gonna let me finish? I only got half done.”
“Sorry. Gotta catch up with someone.” He tossed him a coin and hurried to the door.
“But your hair—”
“I’ve got a hat.”
Weston strode down Georgetown Avenue, watching both sides of the road, looking for the man. If Tillerton was headed home, he should’ve come this way. Weston stopped at the corner of Lampasas before the absurdity of his behavior caught up with him.
Chasing a neighbor down the streets of Round Rock? What had gotten into him? Probably wasn’t Tillerton at all. He turned west toward the livery stable to get his horse, Pandora, being too embarrassed to go back to the barbershop.
If he wanted a fresh start, he’d made a poor beginning. Yes, he needed to get involved, but there had to be a better way. This type of erratic behavior would earn him even more sympathetic glances and subdued voices. He wanted to stop making people feel uncomfortable. He wanted to enter a room without dampening the gaiety. If he was going to rejoin society, he needed to quit taking everything so seriously.
Besides, hadn’t he already proven he was no help to damsels in distress?
PRAIRIE LEA, TEXAS
Before the sun reached its zenith the next day, the ladies’ wagon had rolled onto the farm situated on the west fork of Plum Creek. Rosa stretched, glad she wouldn’t be sharing a bed with Louise and Aunt Mary again. The crowded hotel was better than the train, but she was ready for a place to call her own.
As they broke out of the piney forest, the prairie expanded before them like a giant quilt that hadn’t been perfectly smoothed. Verdant fields stretched before Rosa. In the mountains, the green ran vertical: vines, trees, and giant cacti. Here it raced to the horizon, dragging her imagination to the future.
The road split and they took the left branch.
A clump of shade trees huddled in the otherwise cleared plot. As the wagon drew near, Rosa could see that they were gathered protectively around a whitewashed two-story house. Her mother-in-law’s tear-filled eyes were all the confirmation she needed. They were home.
“Oh, Eli, you should be here with me,” Louise choked into her hankie, her red hair escaping the bonnet, causing Rosa’s thoughts to turn again to her own late husband.
Mack grew up here. This farm was his, and she couldn’t lose it, not after she’d robbed him of his happiness.
Rosa had taken what belonged to another and had paid for her folly. Everything had been ripped from her hands except this farm, Louise, and her new faith. That was all she’d managed to salvage.
Sitting at the Garners’ table in her Mexican village, Rosa had heard stories about Jesus and stories about Texas until, in some way, they were connected. Jesus would keep her safe with Louise. Jesus would keep her safe at their farm. But Jesus might not be concerned with a poor Mexican girl on her own.
And if it weren’t for Louise, she would be on her own. When the Garners first rode into Ciauhtlaz, Rosa’s parents encouraged her to help the Americanos. As a leading family of the village, it was their duty to extend hospitality to the newcomers, but as Rosa’s interest in their religion grew, so did her parents’ disapproval.
The memory of her mother’s tears as she implored Rosa to reconsider her decision made her own eyes water. Her madre begged, she pleaded, but once Rosa refused to worship Santa Muerte, Saint Death, her mother relentlessly avoided her only girl child.
Stunned by the thoroughness of her banishment, Rosa clung to Eli, Louise, and Mack—the only family that wanted her.
She would do anything to help her mother-in-law make it here. They had nowhere else to go.
“Is that George?” Louise motioned to the man standing on the shady porch.
“None other,” Aunt Mary said as they rolled into the yard.
“I declare, I thought this day would never come.” Uncle George bounded to the wagon and helped Louise and Rosa down, surprising Louise with the heartiest hug his long arms and narrow chest could produce. “Don’t know how you managed, but you look younger than the day you left.”
Louise waved her handkerchief at him. “You rascal. I can’t lay claim to youth with a daughter-in-law at my side.”
“Ah, yes. But she’s barely left the nursery.” He smiled and then nodded somberly toward Rosa. “Sorry, ma’am. I shouldn’t tease until I’ve paid my respects. Mack would be right proud that you’re standing on Garner land.”
“And he’d be plumb irate if you have to leave it,” Aunt Mary grumbled. “We can get acquainted over a plow and hoe just as well, but first let’s get this wagon unloaded.”
She geed to the horse, leaving the others to follow her to the barn. It seemed that with each item lifted over the edge of the wagon bed, Aunt Mary assigned another chore to be completed before nightfall. No siestas here. They’d use every hour of daylight God gave them until the house was restored and the crops were sown.
And Rosa’s first task? She would follow behind Uncle George, the horse, and the plow to break up the lumps of earth they overturned. The hoe didn’t look heavy, but by the time Aunt Mary and Louise carried an earthen water jug out to them, Rosa’s back ached and her hands were blistered.
“Uncle George and I have already plowed an acre. We are working rapido, no?” Rosa took a drink of spring water, not minding when it splashed down the front of her green blouse.
Uncle George fanned himself with his hat. “Louise, I don’t know what you’d do without this girl. I’m glad you brought her home to us.”
“She’s a gem—the one consolation I have from our disastrous Mexican venture. She’s not very big, but she works circles around me.”
Louise’s words pleased her. Rosa knew she might not be the smartest, richest, or prettiest woman around, but she could work. If hard labor could earn a place in this community, she was guaranteed success.
Aunt Mary plopped her thick frame directly on the ground next to her spouse. “Louise and I ain’t doing too shabby ourselves. We’ve cleaned the downstairs and hauled that mouse-infested feather tick to the burn pile.”
“Yes, and I’d better get back inside. This sun will ruin my complexion.” Louise picked up the water bucket by its rope handle to carry it back to the kitchen.
The sun was gathering strength, but Rosa didn’t fear its rays. Her complexion would only glow richer. No freckles or liver spots to worry about.
Mack had always vexed his mother about her Irish complexion, an oddity in Rosa’s village. He was constantly teasing someone, surrounded by giggling village girls. Had he not reveled in their attention, perhaps his father wouldn’t have reacted so strongly. Had Netnetl—that pagan girl, as Eli described her—not been so beautiful, perhaps Eli would have had more patience.
For Rosa, agreeing to Eli’s suggestion came as easily as plucking a ripe mango. No man in her village wanted a wife who had turned her back on their traditions, so her choices were few. Still, she never would have consented to the marriage with Mack had she known how strongly he objected to it. But she was foolish. Rosa believed what she wanted to believe—that Mack would love her.
With a sigh Rosa got to her feet. After having been a wife for less than a month, she’d now been a widow for almost a year—a long year. Was it wrong to dream that someday a man would cherish her? Shouldn’t gratefulness to Louise override all discontent?
Rosa followed Uncle George to the garden plot and was soon back in the swing of things, swinging her hoe, that is, while he turned the ground.
“Don’t overdo it, Rosa. This heat will get to you before you know it. Besides, we could use your help at our place when we’re done here. It’s shearing season and the pay is decent.”
Her blade sunk deeper with each stroke. “I don’t know how to shear sheep, and I can’t accept payment, especially after all you and Aunt Mary have done for us.”
“You’ll learn quick enough, and as foreman for Weston, it’s my job to hire the help. I have to pay someone. It might as well be you.” He pushed past her to complete the row.
Handling sheep sounded much more interesting than handling a hoe. Rosa would never catch up with him, but maybe she wasn’t supposed to. Uncle George would finish this evening, leaving her a couple of days to break up the clumps and scatter the seeds.
On his next pass, Uncle George had a request. “Would you mind bringing the water jug out again? No hurry, but I could use a swig.”
Rosa dropped the hoe and flexed her hands. Would she mind? She smiled. Anything to break the monotony.
Skipping past her baby chicks and into the kitchen, Rosa found the dingy house transformed. Louise and Aunt Mary had whipped the abandoned homestead into submission, from the cobwebs that had graced the corners to the mouse droppings on the floor. The stove and basin sparkled. Even the parlor was tidy, although faded. She poked her head into Louise’s room but found it empty.
They must be upstairs.
Her foot was on the first step when she heard Aunt Mary from the room above. “The town incident really wasn’t her fault, Louise. Those men knew better.”
“Yes, but they wouldn’t have done that to you or to me when we were younger. They treated her differently.”
Rosa heard a screech as something was pushed across the floor, then Louise continued. “I felt like part of an exhibition driving through town.”
“Nonsense. Everyone is surprised to see you back home. That’s all.”
“Back home with a Mexican daughter-in-law?”
“Naw, they see Mexicans every day. That’s not why people stare at her. She’s beautiful, Louise. Did you see how Molly’s feathers ruffled when I mentioned Weston? She’s considered herself his intended for a couple of years and doesn’t relish the thought of you two at his place.”
So that was Molly’s concern? Rosa crossed her arms. Once Molly got to know her, she would realize how unfounded her fears were. Rosa’s objective was financial, not romantic.
“Weston and Molly? Really? I suppose Adele is thrilled,” Louise said.
“She would be if Weston would give Molly the time of day. Poor girl. It’s a one-sided affair, best I can tell, but that doesn’t keep her parents from pressuring her to snatch him up.”
“Who can blame them for trying? But what can we do for Rosa? Makes me wonder if I made a mistake bringing her all this way. Maybe it was selfishness. She’s a help to me, but I don’t know what kind of future I can offer her. Opportunity won’t come knocking often.”
A mistake? As if a bucket of cold water had been dashed in her face, Rosa’s vision cleared. If her trip to Texas was a mistake, Rosa was out of options. And her dreams of finding someone to love didn’t sound likely in Prairie Lea. She straightened her shoulders and pushed up her sleeves. Louise must not regret bringing her. Give her an opportunity, and she’d make the most of it.
Eating dinner on the long bench between seven-year-old Susannah and her five-year-old sister, Ida, Rosa felt more at home than she had since crossing the Mexican border.
It’d taken her three days to get the garden in, and then she’d made the short walk with Uncle George and Aunt Mary to their sheep ranch across the creek. That morning their daughters waited anxiously in braids and bows to meet their new cousin. From the start, Ida insisted on holding her hand, but Susannah, a mature young lady, was content to shadow Rosa around the barn as she learned the ins and outs of shearing season. At first the boys, Samuel and Tuck, had ignored her except for stolen glances. By the noon meal though, they were trying to outdo each other with tall tales of Texan proportions.
“You boys are full of beans. Don’t believe anything they say, Rosa.” Uncle George wiped the last of the meaty juice out of his bowl with a chunk of cornbread.
Across the table, Tuck beamed. “But I taught her how to tie up the fleeces. That wasn’t a fib.”
Aunt Mary rose and collected the empty dishes. “You must’ve taught her good, Tuck. She’s keeping up like an old hand.”
It was Rosa’s turn to beam. “Thank you, señora.” Rosa hopped up to dip a curtsy and wink to the girls, who giggled into their little aprons.
George rose and walked to the open door. “I don’t know where those cowboys are. I thought they were coming out to help today. Good thing we didn’t wait on them.”
“Cowboys!” Mary swatted at a fly with her dishcloth. “Bunch of no-good rabble-rousers! Rosa, if those boys show up, don’t you have a thing to do with them. They aren’t fit company for ladies.”
“That includes our oldest son, Bailey, most days, but the ladies don’t seem to mind.” George stood a moment longer and then roused himself. “Well, let’s go, boys. Them sheep ain’t gonna crawl out of the fleeces by themselves.” He shuffled toward the door. “You coming, Rosa?”
She didn’t hesitate. Rosa loved to handle the greasy warm fleeces, so heavy and soft. Staying inside on such a beautiful day would be a tragedy. The sky was the same brilliant blue as her blouse, the coreopsis crowded around the barnyard gate as bright as the yellow embroidery she had whipped into her clothing while lounging during languid Mexican evenings.
As she passed through the gate, there was a commotion ahead of her.
“Tuck! Catch her! She’ll lead them all out!”
“I’m trying, Pa.”
Caught by surprise, Rosa stepped out of the way as a heavily fleeced ewe barreled past her red skirt, Tuck hot on her heels. To her horror, the whole flock was following behind. She raced to the end of the wooden gate and lifted and rotated it into place to halt the exodus, but it was too late to catch all of the runaway sheep.
Tuck managed to head off the followers, but the lead ewe made a beeline toward her home pasture. Samuel and George were there in an instant to help Tuck turn the flock.
“Sorry. I let them get by,” Rosa gasped as she raced past them after the lone fugitive.
Once clear of the yard, she lengthened her stride. Her legs stretched and greedily ate up the fresh grassland between the errant animal and her. The crisp spring air was invigorating. On the long train ride home, Louise had taught her not to fidget, to sit properly and move gracefully, but she hadn’t explained what a lady did with raw energy. If the answer was chasing sheep, then Rosa was behaving perfectly.
The wily ewe slowed to a trot as it entered a copse of trees. Mimicking Tuck, Rosa stalked around the trees to get in front of the animal.
Weston spotted a house on the hill. He hadn’t been there since he and the owner had traded bulls. He couldn’t remember which bull he’d obtained in the bargain, but he did recollect the man’s two daughters—silly things, whose faces looked like they’d been in seed ticks. Sure enough, as he approached, he saw one young lady on the porch. She dived inside and returned with her sister. There they stood, whispering behind their hands as he passed.
Well, that wasn’t unusual. When he’d been a young man, it was hard to separate the belles who were interested in his estate from those who were preoccupied with his looks. Since then, the years had wiped away the smooth naïveté of his adolescence, leaving a weathered countenance—not exactly what most young gals were hunting for, but it didn’t matter. He’d removed himself from the marriage market, to the expressed displeasure of matchmakers throughout the war-torn state.
Love, marriage, disaster—that’s how it read in his book. He wouldn’t put another woman through that no matter how handsome they declared him to be.
Then again, he shouldn’t be vain. The two girls were probably laughing at his hair, but if he stared at ladies in the same manner, he’d have some explaining to do.
He tipped his hat as he continued on the road toward home. No, not home, not yet. If he remembered correctly, Uncle George would be in the middle of sheep shearing. They’d be grateful for an extra pair of hands. Yep, a trip to Uncle George’s might keep the regrets away a while longer.
He and God hadn’t been on speaking terms until lately, primarily because of Wes’s guilt. Should he blame God for the tragedy or himself? For a time he told himself he’d rather be in the dark than to know he was liable, but he finally reached a point where nothing else mattered. He’d tried a life separated from his God, and it was no way to live. He’d rather be a son who was chastened than a stranger who was ignored.
On top of that, his sister, Eliza, would soon return home from a trip he was too yellow to take. He should’ve gone to St. Louis and taken Cora’s mementos back to her family. Five years mourning was long enough, but instead, Weston had found excuse after excuse. No more. Time to get back in the saddle and start living. He couldn’t go home and be the same man who had left.
Approaching the property line, Weston didn’t see any ewes in the north pasture. Shearing must be underway. Pleased at the chance to stay away from Palmetto for a couple more days, he let Pandora have her head. His mare must have anticipated a feed sack, for she covered the last leg at a brisk gallop, and soon they were on family land. But was it too soon?
Maybe he should have taken more time to figure it out before turning Pandora south again.
Too late now.
A flash of red caught his eye, and at the same time Pandora’s ears twitched. He pulled up the reins. Someone was stalking through the trees. A woman crouched low was sneaking forward, her back to him. Who was she and what was she doing at George’s? He turned Pandora and crept slowly behind her, not wanting to announce himself until her intentions were clear.