It was a short ride home from Mary’s place – not that it really was shorter or longer, but it felt easy when it was her day off. There was an unread book in her pack, nestled against a bottle of the Pottsdam sisters’ finest Spring tonic which might put a spring in your step to start with but would likely finish in a stumble.
Soon it would be warm enough, when the winds shifted, to sit on the front porch and read, and it was hard to imagine that in two months she’d be swimming in the river, but for now the ground was still soft around the house from the thaw and the first pea shoots had yet to appear in her garden. She smacked her lips thinking of spring peas – she was going to have to start giving Mary cooking lessons instead of food. If she succeeded in winning over that new pastor, he was going to be powerfully shocked to find out the woman couldn’t cook a lick and Sarah had been providing all the food for the after church suppers. Course if she married him, he might not quite approve of her friend the ranch cook, who found a new novel and strong drink a better way to spend a Sunday than church. Oh well. Cross that bridge as her dad used to say. The goats gave a little “mehh” of welcome as she and Saji picked their way over the rise and down the last little bit of trail to a perfect Sunday afternoon at home.
Christ he was cold, his body long since having forgotten the flames from last night’s fire, and now with the sun insisting on sloping off behind the snow capped peaks, Joe let go of the reins for a moment to blow into his cupped hands, his thighs more than the horse needed anyhow to guide her, picking her way through the rocks and boulders that passed for a trail down Wolfcreek Pass. She was slow now- the rocks taken their toll on her shoes and he was riding her gentle, letting her take her own pace. He understood her. Well and she would let him ride her until the day she couldn’t stand anymore.
He needed to find her a blacksmith. Hell he needed a bath and some food too. Joe ran his hand through a good week’s growth on his chin- shave- that would be good. Oh and some whiskey while he was at it. He needed some hospitality
She pulled the heavy wool flannel down over her wrists and buttoned it up, scooching the chair just one step closer to the fire. Damn this was just sheer laziness though. There was nothing for it she had to go split some more wood. She just wished it didn’t have to come at such a good part…..Ah quit your moaning woman, she admonished herself pulling her boots back on with a satisfied feeling of ‘ahhh’ when her foot found home. She loved these boots – a gift from her mother and they fit better than any pair she’d ever had. She was glad she had smaller feet – she thought there was a few men in town might be more interested in her for those boots than anything else they set eyes on. And they couldn’t even bury her with her boots on if some bastard killed her for ‘em…she laughed at herself and picked up the heavy wedge and the sledge hammer and laid the first log on the old stump that served as a chopping block, a satisfying chunk as the two halves split apart.
Her muscles always moaned at the first few swings but then she fell into the rhythm of the thing – lift, aim, swing chunk, four steps to the dance and it was the sort of thing to make you feel your feet – remind her where she was if her head took her too far off in a book.
She was hot now and stopped to strip off the heavy wool shirt, catching sight of Cheetie in the kitchen window watching her with what she thought was decided amusement that humans would insist on such activity. Sarah stuck out her tongue and was rewarded with the little lick of a paw in response that made her laugh until she heard Saji’s neigh from the paddock. She squinted in what little was left of the light and swore at the figure of the rider in from the mountains – poor sod must be freezing she thought. She sighed and pulled her shirt back on again, the union suit underneath now wet with sweat and clinging to her – didn’t have to make it quite that obvious for him.
She reached inside the door for her rifle and carried it out casually propped nearby, but enough in plain sight to maybe cause a man to think twice. She swung her hammer a few more times. Chunk, chunk the wood fell around her. Why did these people have to materialize out of nowhere – and it was as close to nowhere as you could get, the San Juans, when it was her day off.
Joe smelled the smoke in the clear air before he saw any sign of human life, even from a distance the warmth of a fire catching in his nose. The trees were growing denser as the pass descended towards what looked like a circle of glass from where he was, a lake that a few hours ago reflected the cobalt blue of the sky and now was as black as deep night, and Joe pressed his heels soft into her belly, ‘just a bit further’.
Smoke was good. If he didn’t run into the Ute, or a less forgiving rancher, he might get some food at least and directions to a town. Any place would do, it was a long way back across the mountains to Denver, and well, if they were looking for him they wouldn’t be here any time soon. The trail wound down through the pines and the aspens until at last he saw it in the distance- a small cabin, backing on to trees but with a vantage point that said ‘I know you are coming’. Ah sure he wasn’t out for trouble, but just put his hand on his pistol to feel it there and with a growl more from his stomach than anything else picked up some pace.
The thunk of the wood splitting was a good sign too. Not some wild hill Billy’s but someone who thought further than the next minute and he smiled. This valley felt fine after the cold of the mountains, green and wafts of earth and promising. His keen eyes watched the figure hard at work, the rhythmic swing and the precision of the hit, and Joe almost involuntarily circled his shoulders, he missed that. That feeling of losing yourself in something that seemed mundane but in fact held memory and now and hope all in one movement. Perhaps he could find some work here.
It wasn’t long before he spotted the Winchester, well at least it wasn’t already pointing at him. This place was full of good signs. A curiously slight man, ah, who was he to talk, his mouth turning up at one edge, he hadn’t had a good meal in days. Them lasses in the town he was already thinking about would be hurting themselves on his bones, Christ had been a week or more and an involuntary stir made him sit back in his saddle.
His attention caught up a bit he didn’t quite look up again at the figure outside the cabin until he was close enough to squint and peer into the conspiring gloom. No, it couldn’t be. What would a woman be doing out here on her own, and solitude was one fact he was already assured of, since the clothes that danced on the washing line were of just one size, now he thought of it they could be performing something he had seen some southern boys and their women do. He nearly laughed out loud, all that mountain air, well sure it was hard to breath, but it must have weakened his brain too. Fucking dancing clothes.
Christ he was cold AND hungry, whoever it was down there would maybe have a bit of broth and some bread.
Joe resumed his watch as he drew closer, the lines becoming clearer, actually no, there weren’t just lines but definite curves, and he allowed himself a few minutes, slowed the horse, to take this new discovery in. He could see curves in clothes that were more fitting for a man, but only served to contradict the purpose still further. His eyes covered the tan pants that clung to long lean thighs and the curve of her ass, watching the swing of her arms that took in her whole body
“Ah Joe. Don’t get all caught up in that now..food and fire remember?” an insistent voice from the rest of him, that might have won out except now that he was closer still and as the last thunk hit wood he caught sight of the rise of her skin disappearing under the unbuttoned union shirt. A little shake of his head to clear it and Joe pulled his horse up to the where there words would not be taken by the wind.
“The town is right down the valley, should you be looking for something”
He watched her pull around to face him, and nodded, his eyes flitting to the Winchester, something about letting her know it was there.
A pat on his horse’s neck, to assure her that all was well. Which ‘her’, he wasn’t rightly sure, but either way it made him feel better to do it, while he thought how to answer, well that and take a closer look at this woman in front of him. Her long black hair was in a braid that reached all the way down her back, and the tan skin of her face perfect over the bones of her face. Christ she wasn’t what you would say as fancy, well not like those lasses with all their rouge and frills, but she was something else and he couldn’t stop looking
“Will yer forgive me for intruding- I’ll not trouble you for anything other than a bowl of food if yer have some, and a minute or two’s graze for me horse, she’s fair done in”
“Is that right?” She looked at the horse instead of him, “Who have we got here then?”
“Her name is Chuchip”. Joe answered watching her movements, Sarah chuffing warm breath on the horse’s nose and petting her neck and now she was being nuzzled in return, that wool shirt-covered shoulder seeming to be just the place to scratch her ears. ‘Suits her.”
Joe watched all this with some amusement, and grinned at the last, “And here’s me thinking it was just that I was irresistible…” It just came out of his mouth and was maybe not the wisest choice as she looked up at him, but nothing feeling menacing in the man’s gaze and as she moved to check the horse’s flanks and her belly, he had her approval for this anyway.
“She’s well taken care of even if she has been ridden rather too long” Joes’ brows creased together and she added, taking in the whole appearance, “I suspect you had some good reasons for that. You have that hungry look of a man might need to be somewhere or not be somewhere in a hurry.” He looked wary now and Sara just shook her head.
“Bring her in here,” she unlocked the gate to the enclosure, “before you put her out in the field.” Horse and rider picked their way carefully though the yard and she motioned for Joe to slide off. It was full dark now and you couldn’t see much but Sarah moved next to him on Chuchip’s side. “Have a feel of her belly.” Joe did and felt some rumbling and some hardness that had not been evident from where he had sat on her back. In the little light from the house, she could see his face truly frowning now in concern, “Why did you not complain more, then” he said stroking her with concern.”
“I expect she knew as well as you that you couldn’t spend tonight on top of the mountain – you’d have freezed to death.” Then she smiled at him because she wanted him to know it would be alright, “Or it might have been that irresistible charm you spoke of” Joe did grin though a bit more embarrassed this time, but then Sarah took some springs of dried grass and small brownish leaves out of a saddle bag that was hanging on a hook.
“All right now lovey, don’t you worry, a nice cuppa tea and you’ll be right as rain,” in such a little old lady English accent that Joe did laugh out loud now and Sarah looked a little startled that she seemed to entertain him as well as herself. “We’ll be right back sweetie,” and left the door behind her open in what seemed to be as good an invitation as Joe would get.
Bending to enter the low door Joe could feel the warmth seeping through the cold cloth that was stiff around his body, and anxious to keep it all in he pulled the door gently behind him, letting the latch down with a clunk. If she noticed it which he was sure she must have there was no sign of tension in her back, she simply continued arranging pots over the fire, one of water and one which he could smell as the first licks of fire lapped at the bottom of the pot, releasing the pungent scent of herbs. Christ he wished he could keep his eyes from that a$$.
“Will I be sitting down then?” He would distract himself, aye that was the best plan.
“I think that’s what the man who made them intended, mister” he could see the edge of her smile as she turned from the pot and he grinned, well she seemed to take some pleasure from teasing him, but then that seemed like a small price to pay for the pleasure of sitting here, the very air in here seeming to wrap itself round him like a blanket
“Well I’d best not disappoint him then” pulling a chair from where it was nestled under the large wooden table with its mismatched compatriots “and me name is Joe. If yer wanted to know that is”
Sarah uncurled from where she was kneeling by the fire and looked back at him
“Well, Joe, if you want to tell me your name then I am pleased to hear it, since I am not accustomed to having nameless men at my table”
But she did have men at her table, ones with names, and some of them maybe in her bed, perhaps the ones that had more than one name, a half a second when his eyes flickered over the pile of pillows and furs in the corner that he hoped she didn’t see, his brown eyes returning to hers
If she had seen his thoughts she wasn’t letting on and she reached to stick the wooden spoon into the pot before extending her right hand.
“Sarah, I go by the name of Sarah”
He just managed to stop himself saying ‘that’s a pretty name’ something that might have won him some favour when accompanied by his smile in a saloon down in the town, but here- well it might just have got him out in the cold again, and he extended his hand to meet hers, his firm shake more about pulling himself back to where he was than being simply being friendly. Bang. He had touched her.
“That’s grand, well I am very glad to have met your acquaintance then Sarah” and in no time he was sitting down again, a bowl of steaming soup in front of him and a piece of bread that would serve as a mounting stool, his feet firmly under the table, telling her bits and pieces about where he came from between huge gulping mouthfuls. Her hands it seemed were never still, stirring herbs and leaves in to a big iron pot while her eyes listened to him and watched him devour her food.
He was starving sure enough, she thought, though he still had decent table matters. She had smiled to herself when his eyes closed when she put the crock of soup in front of him, taking a big breath in of the aroma of beef with marrow bones and over-wintered carrots and onions. But she did see his lips move just a little and she wondered if he wasn’t saying a silent grace before he started in. She watched him unconsciously lick his lips after swallowing the last bite and she scooped the plate away and filled it again, putting it back down before he had to wonder about if he could really ask for more. His gratitude was all in his eyes which kind of crinkled at her as he thanked her kindly and she wanted to give him more for the real appreciation she saw there. She had the left over cobbler she was going to have for after her supper but he looked as though he needed it far more than she, and she put the low heavy pan to heat gently on the stove, set the tea for the sweet mare out the door to cool, all while listening to words and seeing pictures between bites.
“Now you are teasing me Joe. A giant mouse that hops 10 feet - what do I look like to believe such a thing? Make a good story though for the children though. Here’s Joe Byrne, young ones. Hopped all the way across the ocean from Australia to America on a giant mouse with a pouch to put his valises in..” and she laughed a beautiful musical laugh that made Joe think far too much about her mouth, the way she threw her head back, but as the soup was finished now he rose to protest.
“On me Ma’s honor it’s the truth – not the part you made up, a teller of tales yourself, Miss Sarah, hopping across the sea. But the animal’s real as rain. You wouldn’t by chance have any paper then?”
And she did and he did his best to draw her one though it was not like his sister could have done. She would have made it jump right off the page and jump around Sarah’s kitchen. But it was enough to gain some belief on her part.
“A kangaroo you say it’s called?”
“Aye, a marsupial. That’s what they call it when they carry the wee ones in front of them like that.”
”Unbelievable. Course you’d never believe an armadillo either…saw one in Texas on a cattle drive once…. “He looked at her quizzically.
“I couldn’t even…sides if its alright with you I’m going to go give your gentle deer out there her tea so her belly has a chance to settle while you fill yours up some more. Those are canned blackberries from last summer but still…and I suppose I don’t have to tell you the pot is hot.” With that she took the cover off and Joe inhaled the smell of sugar and vanilla and fruit and it made him dizzy as perfume he literally couldn’t remember the last time he’d had something sweet. Biscuit and berries and a sugary crust and now she was pouring thick cream from the cold box and his mouth was watering but he was almost afraid to move.
“Jesus Sarah, do you always eat like this? I feel like the bloody king of England but the company’s much better….”
He made her laugh again. “No one leaves my table hungry Joe, It would ruin my reputation.” And with that she was out the door.
The pot well and truly scraped out Joe sat back in the chair and closed his eyes, a full belly and the warm room conspiring to make him feel like he could sleep for a week, and that bed looked it could swallow him up there and then. He winced a little and pulled his eyes back round to the fire, uneasy at looking at her belongings, her place without the permission to do so, she had invited him in for food after all, what business did he have imagining himself in her bed.
“Christ”. It seemed his body was refusing to give up the thought so quickly, and Joe shook his head “A smoke. Aye and see what she’s up to with that tea” a mutter under his breath as he stood up
Ok so he did normally have a smoke about now, though the dwindling amount of what was mostly dry powder in the pouch made for a less than satisfying drag, the tobacco dust either falling out of the end or ending up in his mouth, but it wasn’t tobacco that drew him outside, he wanted to see her, watch her with his Chuchip, see her move around his horse. He couldn’t quite keep away.