Why should it be so bright and sunny on the day of a funeral? That didn’t seem right. As if the world rejoiced with the passing of the man in question. Would the ground be so accepting of his remains? The thought was morbid. Even for one of Lily’s darker moments.
She pushed it to the side. Not even her estranged grandfather deserved such tidings. Where was her respect for the dead? A shiver shook her body despite the sun’s warmth bearing down upon her.
A quick glance at her father yielded no more certainty than she had received these last several days. The man’s relationship with his own father had been a mystery. Why had she never known her grandfather? What kind of man was he? Her uncle spoke of the man rather well. But her father’s features betrayed his feelings beyond a shadow of doubt—somewhat of a blessing as he would not utter one word on the subject. At least, not to her.
Perhaps he had spoken to Joseph. Wouldn’t her brother have told her? They shared everything. Or so she thought. Peering to her other side, she spied Joe. Though he was three years her junior, he stood a solid foot taller. Not that she minded. He had become her confidant and protector in these last few years when Ma’s antics had…had become more difficult to bear.
She would have been lost without Joe. Somehow, he kept on smiling through it all. How did he do that?
He shot her a look. His gaze deepened and his hand covered hers.
She squeezed it.
A cough to the other side of Joe drew his attention.
It became a coughing fit.
No. Not today.
Lily closed her eyes. Dear Lord in heaven, not today.
Joe released Lily’s hand and drew Ma closer to his side as he pulled out his handkerchief. Perhaps no one would think any more on it. And Joe would keep her contained.
At least Lily could hope.
She chanced a glance at Pa.
He glared across his small family, as if daring any of them to step out of line and embarrass him. Tarnish the great image of Sheriff McAllen.
Lily shook, unable to control her body’s reaction. She pulled her arms around herself and sniffled.
Pa’s handkerchief appeared before her.
Without turning in his direction, she slid out a shaking hand to retrieve it.
How much longer must they remain here—a spectacle of the whole town? On display? Every movement, every sound scrutinized? It became more than her nerves could manage. A familiar unease pierced her beneath her ribs.
She tasted bile.
It would not happen. She would not let it.
Clenching her teeth, she swallowed against the pressure in her throat.
At last, the preacher finished speaking and stepped to the side.
What remained? The prayer? Had he prayed?
What was he waiting for?
Reverend Jones looked to them expectantly. To her.
There was something she was meant to do.
She sensed Pa’s eyes boring into her.
God, if You have any mercy, enlighten me.
Joe laid a hand on her shoulder, rubbing his fingers there and pressing her forward.
She stepped out from the line. Toward the grave.
Oh, yes. Her flower. She was to place it upon the coffin. Ma, too.
Glancing back over her shoulder, she reached for Ma’s hand. Threading her trembling fingers through Ma’s, she led the unsteady woman toward the pine box.
Ma’s footfalls were not even. Lily prayed others wouldn’t notice.
As they drew up to the coffin, Lily gulped. She had never been so close to a dead body. Nor had she ever wished to be.
Thankfully, the box had been closed and sealed. Not that she would have even recognized the man within had he been lain out as if in sleep. She had not known him in life.
It seemed wrong to playact this way—this pretense of sorrow, of grief. She forced her guilt to the side…as usual. And laid the rose upon the pine box’s lid.
Ma followed suit.
Lily turned to step back into line, but Ma would not budge. Lily’s stomach sank. They were so close.
If only she could beseech Joe. He would help her. But if she peered at him, everyone would see.
What was she to do?
Her whole body seemed to shake. She leaned closer to Ma. “It’s time for us to step back,” she whispered.
Ma continued to glare at the casket. Her eyes glazed, uncomprehending.
Lily closed her eyes and licked her lips. Then she tugged at her mother’s arm again.
The woman would not move.
And then Lily was being pressed. Ma was pushing her.
Lily held tightly to her arm.
“No, Ma,” she pled. “Not here.”
Pa was behind them in a second. His arm around Ma, pulling her away from Lily.
But that didn’t deter her from continuing to reach for her daughter, intent on inflicting some sort of harm.
Lily froze, aware that she had become the object of everyone’s attention as Pa led Ma into the anonymity of the crowd.
But Joe’s calming presence was there a moment later. He took her arm and led her back to their place.
Lily’s aunt and cousins dropped their flowers without incident. Then Reverend Jones stepped forward and spoke some closing words that Lily didn’t hear. The pounding of her heartbeat in her ears was too loud.
Everyone around her bowed their heads. But Lily could not. Would not. She did not wish to speak to God on this or any other day.
Joe tugged at her sleeve. Had he noticed? But she refused to oblige him, continuing to stare straight ahead.
The prayer ended and the crowd dispersed.
Time to find Ma and Pa. Or was it?
For nothing good awaited her there.
A handful of well-wishers approached her uncle and aunt, and all but ignored she and Joseph.
It stung, but she tried not to let it. There truly wasn’t a relationship lost between she and the man buried this day.
As the churchyard emptied and the preacher said his personal farewells to the family, Joseph offered an arm to her.
She took it and let him lead her toward the small town streets. Would they seek out Pa? He had most likely taken Ma to the jail—the best and quickest place to get her out of view.
Lily did not wish to face either of them.
But Joseph was more the dutiful child than she.
As they walked, she tried not to slow their steps too noticeably. Still, she needed some extra moments to still her racing heart. How could it be so erratic?
But as they neared the main stretch, Joseph turned them toward the school.
Relief released some of the tension in her shoulders. And she fell into an easier pace with him.
Only then could she concentrate on his words.
He spoke of nothing of consequence—the weather, the happenings of the town. Benign topics that any passer-by would be able to overhear without concern.
As they neared the big tree beyond the school, he stopped. “Want to swing?”
She furrowed her brows. Swing? A woman her age didn’t partake of such a girlish pastime.
“I’ll push.” He smiled.
She crossed her arms. “I don’t know if that’s entirely appropriate.”
He laughed. “For a brother to push his sister?”
“For a grown woman to swing,” she countered. Was he crazy?
Turning his head this way and that, he leaned toward her and lowered his voice, “Who’s gonna know?”
She rolled her eyes.
“Come on, Lil. I know how much you used to love it.” He grapsed the rope on one side of the swing. “You know you want to.”
He was right. She did. And there wasn’t anyone around to wag their tongues about it. Maybe she could…
“All right.” She threw up her hands.
His lips spread across his face. He maneuvered behind the wooden seat and held the ropes.
She turned and sat, clasping the ropes just above his handholds.
He lowered his hold and pulled the swing back. Then released it and sent her soaring.
And she left the earth. Everything…her troubles, her problems…all of it, fell away and it was just her. In the sky, the gentle breeze surrounding her as she moved back and forth in a rhythm.
She wasn’t sure how long Joseph endulged her, but when she slowed, it was too soon. As he allowed her momentum to still, she was breathless from laughter.
“You don’t smile enough.” He held out a hand to help her up.
Grinning, she held onto the moment for every last sweet piece of joy it could give her. “I could say the same for you.”
He ducked his head, looking to the ground.
Shaking his head, he avoided her gaze.
“Joe,” she pushed at his shoulder. “What are you hiding?” Though the mood was playful, dread crowded at the edge of her mind.
His smile fell. Things became more serious.
“Joseph?” What was wrong? Couldn’t they share everything? Since they were young. They’d often only had each other to lean on. What was this?
“It’s probably time we head back.” He tugged her hand onto his arm as he moved off in the direction they had come.
She pulled her hand from him. “Something’s not right. Tell me.”
He paused, looking at the ground and then at the horizon. Then at her. His one brow pressed down and the other lifted. Almost as if he were pained.
The trepidation from earlier returned. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears.
“I…um…took a job as a ranch hand at the Miller ranch.”
The ground disappeared from beneath her. Or at least her knees wouldn’t hold her anymore.
She gripped for his arms.
He steadied her.
They had always been there for one another. And now he was leaving her? To face them alone?
“What…?” The word sounded weak to her ears. Had it even been audible?
He eased her back onto the swing. And pushed a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry, Lil. I just…I can’t do it anymore. I gotta get out and live my life.”
Why couldn’t she feel anything? Sad? Angry? Anything? All that existed was this numbness.
“I need you to understand that. Please, understand that.”
“W-When will you go?” Somehow she had made a full thought and formed a cogent question. Somehow.
“Monday.” He let out a breath.
“Three days?” That wasn’t much time. No time at all for her to get used to the idea. Much less prepare. Or…find a way out. No, that was impossible.
She was stuck in this nightmare.
And he was leaving her to face them…alone.
Dan settled into a chair. He fought down the grumble rising in his throat. Why had he been sent on this errand? It seemed much more suited to Slim. But Brandon decided it would be Dan that fetched the new ranch hand.
He’d arrived earlier than expected. No one could begrudge him a cup of coffee in the cafe before collecting Joseph and his things.
Watching his hands, clasped on the table, Dan almost missed the girl stopping by.
Her skirt was the first thing he spotted, the floral pattern set against a tan fabric could not be described as interesting. But it had a gentle flow to it.
His gaze drifted to her face.
What was she doing here? Why wasn’t she at home, helping Joseph pack? Bidding him farewell?
He mentally kicked himself. Such was none of his business. It just always seemed that they were rather close.
She pressed an accommodating smile onto her features, but it was put on. Her eyes did not reflect any such levity.
“What’ll you have?” She lifted red-blonde hair out of her face. Some must have fallen out of her pinned up design, for most of the thickness had been gathered and secured off her neck.
But he remembered many years before…back in their schooldays…when her tresses flowed free, only partly held back by a lone ribbon.
The movement of her hand drew him back to the present. She held her pencil just above her notepad. And with it, her focus.
Had she even looked at him? Did she ever?
For all the years they had known each other?
Or was he always the ranch hand’s son?
And now nothing more himself?
He fought the urge to cross his arms.
As if that wasn’t enough. It had been when she pursued Cutie.
He looked off toward the door. “Coffee, please.” His words came out tight.
She sighed and lowered the notepad. “Coming right up.” That same plastered on smile touched her lips and she turned. Without so much as a glance.
He shook his head. No more of those thoughts. They would not serve him.
A quick scan of the room left him more relaxed. There were only two others within—a couple, dining by the window across the room. It was a bit past the breakfast hour and not nearly time for lunch. He might not have much time for his coffee before he would need to head out himself.
But where was that coffee?
A scream from the kitchen stirred him from his musings. He was on his feet before he fully registered what was happening.
A second later he found himself beside the stove.
Lily, paled, jerked at her skirt, the hem of which had become drenched.
The floor was covered in dark liquid and Mrs. Jackson was righting a pot.
Had Lily upended the pot and spilled the hot coffee on herself?
He grabbed for her hand and led her to a chair. Falling to a knee, he lifted the fabric of the hem away from her leg. Indeed, it was quite warm to the touch.
Lily seethed through clenched teeth. Her hands made fists that fought between curling to her chest and grabbing at her leg.
Dan pushed at her hands. They were obstacles. He turned to Mrs. Jackson. “A cloth. As cold as you can make it.”
The woman nodded and turned to fetch it.
He lifted Lily’s skirt to examine her shins.
Lily pushed out a breath, but didn’t fight him.
Catching her features, he sought her eyes. But they wouldn’t find his. They were sealed. A futile effort to block her tears.
“I need to get these stockings off. We need to cool the skin.” He pulled at the laces of her boots even as he spoke.
Shifting his focus back to her legs, he worked off the boots and the stockings.
Her skin was red and angry, but not damaged.
He breathed out a sigh and his shoulders relaxed.
Looking toward her features again, he sought her eyes. “Nothing permanent.”
She met his gaze then, opening her lids, tentatively. “Truly?”
Her voice seemed so small.
A pang caught in his chest to see the stirring in her brown eyes.
He tipped his head forward, a small movement.
It must have assured her, for she released her clenched fists.
Mrs. Jackson returned with the cloth.
Dan took it and pressed it first to one shin and then to the other.
Lily’s eyes shut again, her features twisted. From pain? Or more discomfort? He hoped the latter.
Some moments of silence passed.
“Shall I fetch the doctor?” Mrs. Jackson interjected.
“I do not think he will be needed.” Dan looked at her, removing the cloth and indicating the skin, now returning to its normal color. “There does not appear to be any deeper injury.”
Mrs. Jackson nodded.
He glanced at Lily again.
Her eyes were no longer shut, but she stared at him. A faint pink high on her cheeks.
“Are you feeling all right?” Dan furrowed his brows. Perhaps they should send for the doctor.
“Yes. It’s just that…” Her voice trailed off as she glanced from Mrs. Jackson to Dan’s hands and back.
Only then did he realize how inappropriate this must seem.
“Oh.” He stood and handed the cloth to Mrs. Jackson before turning back to Lily. “My apologies. I didn’t mean to…that is, I only…”
“It’s all right, Dan.” Lily’s lips lifted as she dropped her skirt back over her legs and ankles. This time the smile brightened her eyes. “I…thank you for your quick assistance.”
“Of course.” He turned to step out of the kitchen. Then he swung back around. “I, um, just wanted to offer to see you home. As I happen to be headed that way.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Oh?”
He tilted his head again. “Yes, ma’am.”
Lily looked at Mrs. Jackson.
“Please, Lily, go home. Rest.” Mrs. Jackson offered her a motherly smile. “You won’t do me any good like this.”
Lily lowered her features. Then she met Dan’s gaze again. “If I can have a moment to gather myself, I’d like that.”
Dan nodded. And sidestepped out of the kitchen and back to his table.
As he settled back into his seat, he realized that she had called him by name.
The ride to her family’s humble home passed without much conversation. Even though Lily’s father often boasted she could engage a fence post.
But this was different. Somehow.
Daniel Hayworth was not a man whose company she had frequented. Nor, necessarily, avoided. He seemed quiet. Always thoughtful. And that intimidated her.
Even now, he stared after the horse, his attention rapt on its movment. But what went on in his mind? Where were his thoughts?
She fared much better with the men she had been more accustomed to. Like Cutie. Men whose eyes had been fixed on her. Their thoughts had been easier to read. Their intentions laid bare.
Things had not worked out with Cutie as she hoped.
Dan shifted beside her, pulling the reins and slowing the horse.
She looked up. The smallish house stood before them. Her features warmed despite her determined lack of consideration for Dan.
When she glanced over, he was halfway out of the cart.
He crossed to her side and lifted his arms.
She placed her hands on his shoulders and let him help her down, still refusing to meet his eyes. That only found her staring at his rather broad chest.
“I thank you. For seeing me home.” What else could she say?
She dipped her head before she turned. stepping out of his space and toward the door.
The dirt crunched behind her.
Was he following her? She dare not look. Did he think she incapable of making it to her own door without him? A bit presumptuous…perhaps a bit chivalrous.
As she approached the door, she spun, laying a hand to the latch.
“Thank you again. I appreciate your quick assistance and your care in ferrying me home.”
He nodded, but remained as he was.
What was he thinking?
She made a half-way decent curtsy and opened the door.
However, when she moved to close it behind herself, he reached out and halted the door’s progress just inches short of the frame.
Then she found his eyes. What could she say? He appeared rather determined.
“Might I come in?”
Did he wish to speak with her mother or brother about the matter? Why?
What could he possible want?
She paused, neither giving more room for the door’s opening nor pressing for its closing.
“Lily?” a voice called from within.
Thank the good Lord! Joseph would rescue her.
“Lily, is that you?” Joseph stepped into the small great room behind her. “Why are you home so earl—?”
His eyes cut to the door. And set on the man just outside.
“Dan! Good to see you. Won’t you come in?”
Lily jerked her head from Joseph to Dan and back.
Joseph covered the space between them in a second and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Lily, you know Dan.” Putting a hand over hers on the latch, Joseph pulled the door open.
Dan gave Lily a curious glance before turning his attention to Joseph. “I hope I’m not too early.”
“Not at all.” Joseph smiled. “I’m ready as I’ll ever be.”
What was happening here? There seemed to be some knowledge between Dan and Joseph.
“Shall we?” Dan gave Lily a sideways glance, but focused on Joseph.
“I’ll get my things.” Joe turned.
He would not leave her alone with Dan. Certainly not!
“Can I help?” Dan stepped forward.
Lily held up a hand. “No need. I would like to speak to my brother. Alone.”
Joseph quirked a brow. “Sure.” Then to Dan, he said, “We’ll just be a moment.”
Lily’s face burned. She grabbed for Joseph’s sleeve and led him toward the back hall.
“My things are in the barn,” Joseph protested. “Why are we—?”
Pinning him with a glare, she hoped to halt his questions.
He did silence and follow her into the back area partitioned off that served as her sanctuary, small as it was.
Once the blanket dropped behind Joseph, she spun on him. “What is going on here?” She pressed the words out.
Joe’s eyes were wide. Was her tone so harsh? “W-w-what do you mean?”
“Why is Dan here? In our home? As if you expected him?”
Joseph looked at the floor for a few seconds before meeting her eyes again. “He, ah, is coming to take me to the Miller ranch.”
It all fell into place. And Lily’s face heated several more degrees. She pressed her hands to her cheeks. How could she not realize?
That’s why Dan had said he was headed this way. It was he who had come to collect Joseph. He worked at the Miller ranch.
“Did you…not remember?” It was impossible to miss the hurt in her brother’s eyes.
Or the pricking behind her own. “No. I knew it was today. I just…didn’t know Dan ended up at that ranch.”
Joseph’s brows met. “Didn’t know? He’s been there for several years.”
She waved a hand between them. “Let’s not quarrel over that.”
He nodded, letting out a breath.
An awkward silence fell between them.
“Why didn’t you say anything before you left for work this morning?” Joseph’s voice was quiet.
Lily crossed her arms over her midsection, raising a hand to pinch the bridge of her nose. “I don’t know.”
Joseph mirrored her stance, only he seemed to be hugging himself. “Ah, I see.”
What did that mean? She jerked her head up, meeting his glare with her own. Her features were hard and set, but that didn’t keep her tears from falling. “See what?”
“This doesn’t have to be so difficult, Lil.” His gaze had softened.
“That’s easy for you to say. You’re the one who is leaving.” She wiped at her face. Stupid, stubborn tears.
Joseph’s eyes locked on hers. “But I’m not leaving you. I’m always here for you.”
She shifted her focus to the ceiling. He might speak such fine words, but they were hollow. How could he help her the next time Ma went on a rant and…
There was no point thinking on it now. He was leaving and that was that.
“Please, just go.” Her voice shook.
“Don’t make it be like this.” Joseph stepped closer to her.
She moved away. “Just go,” she pushed out through clenched teeth.
Joseph dropped his hand and slinked out of the space, pausing as he held up the blanket partition. “But I do care.”
The quilt fell into place and he was gone.
Dan pushed back from the breakfast table, nodding at Cook as she took his plate.
“That was fantastic,” Joseph announced, patting his stomach. “I’ll have to be careful.”
“Oh, shoo.” Cook’s cheeks tinted.
Dan wanted to roll his eyes.
“We’ll make sure to work you hard enough.” Brandon Miller offered the young man a smile as he raised his coffee cup.
Brandon’s wife laid a hand on his shoulder as she stood and relieved him of his plate.
She tilted, slightly off balance with her growing midsection. How much longer would it be before the ranch was graced with another little one?
Brandon gripped her arm as she righted herself. The look that passed between them was for them alone.
But Dan couldn’t turn away. The ache filling his chest deepened all the more every day. When had it started? When Brandon and Amanda found each other? When Cutie and Mariena married? The happiness surrounding him seemed a bit too much.
“What’s the plan for today?” Joseph sought Brandon’s attention.
Was he so eager?
As Dan’s regard fell to him, he saw just that—Joseph was quite jittery with nervous energy. His legs bounced as he ran hands over his knees.
That had to stop.
Brandon cut his glance from Amanda to Joseph. He paused, thoughtful, as if caught off-guard by the question. Had he not considered what would happen with the young man that day?
The boss’s eyes met Dan’s, then landed back on Joseph. “It’d be best if you got a proper introduction to the place.”
Joseph nodded, still shifting his limbs as if he needed to relieve himself.
Dan took a swig of his own coffee, letting the warm brew soothe him and take his mind off the man several years his junior. He did not envy Brandon’s task, playing guide to the newcomer.
“But I thought we had to—” Slim started.
Brandon cut him off with a hand held up. “We do. And we will.”
Slim’s brows furrowed. What had they been tasked with? Oh, yes, the calves. Branding day. The boss preferred to be a part of that. Would Brandon delay it?
“I thought Dan would be able to take care of orienting Joseph to the ranch.” Brandon glanced at Dan once more.
Dan swallowed hard. That was the only thing keeping him from spitting the coffee out.
He? Spend the day with Joseph?
The young man beamed at him.
Dan offered him what felt like a crooked smile.
“When do we go?” Joseph asked. Were his hands on his knees the only thing holding him down?
Glancing once more at Brandon, Dan was certain he saw a sly glee in the man’s eyes. But he couldn’t be sure. “I’m ready when you are.”
Perhaps the sooner they started, the quicker it would be over.
Joseph jumped up so fast his chair was knocked into the wall.
All of the men stared at him.
He offered a sheepish grin. “Sorry. I…get a little excited sometimes.”
“You don’t say.” Slim shot Dan a look.
A look that made Dan want to punch him in the face.
“It’s all right,” Dan said as he rose. “We understand. Slim about lost his breakfast the day we heard we was getting a new ranch hand.”
“I…what?” Slim thrust out.
Brandon let out a laugh.
Dan walked toward the door, not bothering to look back. He left those voices behind him as he stepped onto the porch.
Joseph joined him a few moments later, adjusting his hat. “Where do we start?”
“I think a ride around the property.”
Dan didn’t wait for a response, but led him to the barn where they saddled a couple of mares.
Slim and Brandon were approaching the area as Dan urged his steed to move out. He was sure he didn’t imagine the scowl on Slim’s face though.
It did give him a brief moment of pleasure before he pushed the horse into a trot. The sound of hoofbeats behind him assured him that Joseph had accomplished the same.
Dan let him around the perimeter of Brandon’s land. It led them farther away from the homestead and barn than he usually gave credit. The ranch lands were on the bigger portion of the land but did not encompass the whole of it.
Before mid-morning, they stopped by Uncle Owen’s favorite fishing spot to water the horses.
Dan rubbed down his horse’s neck. And wished he could just enjoy the quiet. That wasn’t possible. Joseph would want to talk. And Dan needed to answer his questions. Perhaps it would help if he started off with a brief description of what they were doing and seeing.
Sure enough, Joseph pulled his horse nearer to Dan’s and opened his mouth.
“This is the farthest south the Miller land runs. And this here stream is one of Uncle Owen’s favorite spots.”
Joseph nodded. Then opened his mouth again.
Dan broke in, “We don’t ever bring the cattle this far. We just don’t need to. Perhaps one day the herd will be so large. But that won’t be for some time.”
Again, Joseph seemed to consider his words, peer off into the distance. And then open his mouth.
“It is a fine prospect though. And a great fishin’ spot.”
Now Joseph’s forehead creased. Was he frustrated? Maybe Dan was doing him a disservice. So, he quieted, focusing on his mare’s grazing.
Joseph shifted his feet. As if he waited for an additional few moments. “What do you suppose that is?” He pointed off into the distance where he had been staring.
There, among the shrubs, was a colorful clothed lump. Dan narrowed his eyes to get a better look. “I think someone dropped a bedroll.”
Joseph pointed to the sky. “Then why are those vultures so interested?”
Silence fell between them.
Dan shifted his focus. Joseph indeed spoke true. Buzzards circled above. Normally, Dan would dismiss it as some sort of animal, but nothing of that sort would be wearing cloth of such vibrancy.
“Let’s check it out.” Dan wasn’t sure about taking Joseph into an uncertain situation, but he mustn’t risk leaving him alone back here either.
“Shall we tie up the horses?”
“No.” Dan was firm. “We keep them with us.”
They crept toward what appeared to be a blanket piled beside the wilderness shrubbery. But as they neared, it became more apparent that a person lay underneath.
Dan drew his revolver and handed his horse’s reins to Joseph. Their steps slowed all the more as they continued to close in upon the unknown invader.
Now standing over the intruder, all that could be seen was the blanket, a spill of dark hair, and shoed feet. But judging the dimensions, Dan would guess the person to be small, likely young.
He reached for the edge of the blanket-like covering. Gripping it with his fingers, he jerked the cloth off.
And uncovered an Indian brave—no more than eleven years old or so. By the war markings on his face, he was Apache.