North Dakota / 1883
Papa had been right, damn his puny parched heart. Phillip hadn’t the stones to settle the land. Now he was sleeping beneath the dirt beside Papa and she was hard pressed to conjure a tear for either of them.
Perched on the porch steps, she watched leaves chase each other down the dirt road like jackrabbits scampering through the twilight, racing to their dens ahead of the storm.
Wind rustled through the desiccated stalks in the fields beyond the house, mocking her with crops she had no means of harvesting. The scarecrow, that patron saint of prosperity, mutely pronounced judgment from his pious pulpit, tattered sleeves flapping in the breeze as though waving goodbye to the last vestiges of her civility.
Curse Papa and his prophecies. Curse Phillip and his impotence. And curse the puritanical scarecrow and his dire proclamations. Fueled by anger and despair, she rushed the straw man and wrestled him to the ground. Too worn out to make it back to the house, she put her cheek on the hay shoulder and closed her eyes.
Sometime later, when the sun was a distant ginger catseye disappearing beneath the swirling skirts of nimbus clouds and the scent of rain rode the breeze piggyback, the toe of a boot woke her and a whiskey rough voice said, “Care to tell me why you’re sleeping with the scarecrow, Mrs. Wellsford?”
“Nope.” Couldn’t a girl give up the ghost in peace?
He chuckled. “I’ve heard some strange survival stories about folks living this far from town, with only the coyotes and horizon for company, but this here has me speechless.”
“And yet you keep talking, Mr. Robertson,” she said, sitting up and brushing off the leaves and straw.
He clasped her wrist and pulled her to her feet. “How about we continue this inside over a cup of coffee?”
“That’d be nice if there was kindling or coffee.”
He nodded towards the house. “Already taken care of.”
“You gathered wood, lit a fire, and made coffee before coming to get me?”
“To be fair, I didn’t know you were out here making time with the straw man until the crows started circling,” he said, heading out of the field. “I stopped by to discuss Phillip’s harvesting troubles but couldn’t find him. Where he is?”
“Three weeks in the ground.”
“Sorry to hear it. You got folks back home?”
“Nobody I’d want to go back to.”
He motioned for her to take the porch steps ahead of him. “Best get that figured out before the snow sets in. No offense, but you’re too scrawny for the whorehouse and too ornery for another stab at matrimony.”
“You’re a lousy conversationalist,” she said, pushing through the front door. “Let’s hope your coffee makes up for it.”
It didn’t. Was tasteless and gritty as scorched river silt but that didn’t stop her from downing two cups before speaking her mind. “Why don’t we cut to the chase? What’s your proposal for the crops?”
He brought a loaf of rye bread out of his knapsack and passed it to her. “You don’t have the horses or manpower to harvest but the Cheyenne are willing to do it and trade your crops for venison and flour. Enough to last the winter. Big fella I run traps with on occasion, Little Robe, they call him, one you bought those gloves from last winter? He can make it happen. Just need your okay. ”
Thunder pealed and she got up from the table. “Come on. Let’s enjoy the storm out on the porch.”
They settled into chairs under the window.
He fished a flask from his vest, offered her a drink, and took one himself, propping his boot heels on the porch railing. “Why did you stay out here so long, seeing how resources was grim and Phillip was faltering?”
“For nights like this when lightning dances across the dusky midnight. Phillip was in it for the profit but for me it was all about the adventure and the grandeur.”
He lit a slender cigar. “Soon as the weather eases up, I’ll head out. Gonna need your answer about the crops before I go.”
She reached for the cigar and took a couple puffs before handing it back. “Feels suspicious, you offering up all this good will for nothing.”
“It’s not for nothing, Mrs. Wellsford. Just not something I’m willing to put a price on. ”
“You’re a hard man to read. You left me in the field while you fixed coffee. You sold my crop but won’t accept compensation. You say you’re leaving but here you sit sharing a drink and smoke.”
“That’s about the size of it,” he said, mouth pitched somewhere between a grimace and a smile.
“My sanity is questionable and my reputation is shot to shit, Mr. Robertson, but you’d do well to wait out this storm on the floor in front of my hearth.”
He came up out of the chair. “The floor? You’d let that miserable scarecrow get a leg up on me?”
“Only one way to find out,” she said, taking the cigar, tamping it out on the railing, and opening the door.
As she lay warm and worn, tangled in soft cotton and hard flesh, the staccato of rain on the roof and pungent aroma of intimacy and tobacco were a balm to her ragged soul and a tendril of hope uncoiled beneath her ribs.
Papa hadn’t the stomach. Phillip hadn’t the stones. The scarecrow hadn’t the pulse. But Mr. Robertson had the wits, she had the heart, and together, they had a damn fine chance of turning this patch of land into the life she’d been dreaming of.