Northwestern Montana 1923. Jo’s searching out a future. Mac’s hiding a past. With each of them fighting for their path, who is left to protect the ranch? During hot summer days and cool revealing nights, can Jo and Mac find the courage to become one or will they be reminded once again that the worst pain is the kind they don’t see coming?
The next week Mr. Wagner and his sons, along with the rest of the threshing crew, showed up at the ranch to harvest the last of the wheat. They started work early in the morning and didn’t finish until late into the evening.
During the war, Montana farmers had planted bigger and bigger crops of wheat to meet the war demand, but after it ended, prices dropped dramatically, and farmers could barely give their wheat away. That, and the drought hit farmers and ranchers hard. Mac had returned from the war at just the right time when people were selling their land for a fraction of what it was worth and leaving Montana in droves. Mac’s ranch sat on the northwestern edge of the state where the climate was wetter and the drought hadn’t been as severe, but even so, he had negotiated a great price for his acreage. His profits from the mine, along with his other investments, purchased the ranch and were still keeping it afloat. If his livelihood depended solely on the ranch, he would still be in the red, but Mac was not only a rancher, he was also a businessman. His other interests gave him a boost and some investment cash when other ranchers and farmers had none. Mac always planned years in advance. This attribute, and Leif’s enterprises, were the reasons they had electricity and indoor plumbing on the ranch when most Montanans didn’t. Mac didn’t enjoy the farming side of ranching or growing the crops to support his cattle. That was more to Leif’s liking, but it was also a necessity. The arrangement he’d made with Wagner, wherein he only had to work the threshing crew for two weeks, pleased him.
Mac had ridden out early this morning looking for signs of trespassers and keeping a close eye on his cattle. Several in the herd were grazing higher up on the south ridge line, and it had taken him a good chunk of the morning sniffing them out. Jo wasn’t riding with him this week because Mattie had been looking rundown the last few days, and Jo had approached him asking if she could assist Mattie with the heavy chore of feeding the threshing crew. Mac missed her companionship but was smart enough to admit that putting distance between himself and Jo was probably a good thing.
As he rode into the barn and dismounted from General, Leif sauntered in between the double doors. “Hey, boss,” he said, addressing Mac in his friendly way. “Any sign of trouble today?”
Mac shook his head as he deftly unsaddled General and swung the cumbersome load over the gate to Leif. “Nope. Whoever shot that cow hasn’t been back since.”
“Shoot,” Leif muttered with a sprig of hay between his lips. “You know as well as I do who shot it. Our ole cowboy you gave a beating to.”
Mac clucked his teeth. “He deserved what he got.”
“Yessiree, that he did,” Leif agreed. “Well, maybe they got their revenge, and they won’t be back again?” Leif speculated, cocking his eye toward Mac, interested in his opinion. He knew Mac wouldn’t forgive them for shooting his cow, and if they tried it again, things would get mighty unpleasant.
“Neither of them has a brain,” Mac said derogatorily, “so, I suspect they’ll be back.”
“When you reported the incident to the sheriff, did you tell him you had a couple suspects in mind?” Leif asked, scooping up a pail of oats for Mac’s horse. Mac took the pail from him and set it on the stall floor at General’s hooves.
“I told him I had a minor run-in with a couple of old hands, but didn’t go into too much detail.” Leif backed away from the stall as Mac swung the door open and stepped out. Resting his hands on his hips, Mac confided in Leif, “Leaving the ranch to work the threshing crew next week rubs me wrong. I don’t want Jo or Charlie riding out alone, Kirby either for that matter. If those boys are the ones who did it, I wouldn’t think anything’s beyond ‘em.”
Leif released a fretful breath. He’d been worried about the same thing. “If I was a cowardly mangy dog like them, I’d certainly be more apt to cause trouble while the boss was away.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m figuring too.” Mac’s face twisted with disgust, thinking about the despicable men who shot his cow and might come back to do it again. An uneasy fear sat in the pit of his stomach, and he hated the idea of leaving the ranch unprotected, of leaving his family unprotected, but a deal was a deal. It wouldn’t be the first time in his life that he’d bullied up and done what had to be done.
Seeing the worry tightening Mac’s brow, Leif slapped him on the back, “Aww, don’t worry over it. It’ll be fine, and Kirby will be here. He can handle any trouble.”
Mac nodded his head, but his stony countenance looked unsure.
“Speaking of trouble,” Leif mentioned as they were walking out of the barn side by side, “Ole Black-y has been giving the threshing crew a hard time of it. Wagner said he charged a couple of his workers who cut across the pasture this morning, and Mattie told me that when she and Jo delivered some water out to them, he was acting crabbier than usual.”
“He’s a bad-tempered piece of work all right,” Mac said, shaking his head. “I’ve thought of selling him off about a hundred times, but he breeds good stock.” Leif and Mac reached the edge of the pasture and stopped to observe the bull. He was about a hundred yards out in the pasture, and as soon as he saw them, he raised his sharp horns cagily. Mac bent down and smoothly climbed through the fence, deciding to test the bull’s irritability.
“Be careful,” Leif said, issuing a warning of caution to Mac, as the bull’s nostrils flared and he glared at him.
Ignoring the bull, Mac casually walked the fence line, every step closely scrutinized by the bull. Mac turned to face the bull directly and took one step in its direction. Immediately, the bull swung his head down and arched his back, a sure indication that he felt Mac was a possible threat. Analyzing the bull’s behavior, Mac took another step toward the small herd of cows, and this time the bull pawed at the ground and dug his horns into the dirt and grass. As Mac lifted his foot in the direction of the cows, the bull charged powerfully toward him. Only ten feet from the fence, Mac easily climbed back through the rails, but that didn’t stop the bull from coming. About twenty feet away, he pulled up short, snorting and panting aggressively at Mac.
“That’s not good,” Mac said, shaking his head as irritably as the bull had done. “He usually tends to get grumpy if you’re within twenty, maybe thirty feet, but I was a hundred yards off. I suspect he’s feeling extra territorial with all the people stomping around his cows,” Mac explained.
“What do you want to do?” Leif asked.
“Better pen him up. I don’t want someone getting hurt,” Mac concluded resentfully.
Nodding his head in agreement, Leif asked, “How do you want to go about it? He’s not going to want to leave those cows, and I don’t think he’s going to greet us real friendly.”
Mac was silent for a minute, working out the best way to get the bull penned up. “I think it will be easier to herd all the cows into the corral. The bull will follow them in, and then we can leave him and get them out,” Mac said, setting forth his idea to Leif. “Anyway, the threshing crew will only be here two more days, and then we can pasture him again.”
Once the plan was decided on, Mac rounded up Kirby and Charlie, purposely leaving Jo to her inside tasks; he didn’t want her anywhere near the bull. An hour later they had the bull safely in the corral, where he was roaming around, tetchy and cross from being separated from the cows.
“Charlie, I want you to make sure there’s water in the trough and give him plenty of alfalfa for the next couple days.” Sternly, Mac added a warning, “When you’re in that pen, don’t turn your back on him for a second. You’ll wind up with a horn in your hide if you do. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Charlie answered, nodding his head gravely while he watched the sleek heavily muscled bull pace agitatedly around the corral.
In the late afternoon, the threshing crew took a short break to eat supper. Jo and Mattie had spent the entire day tending to their needs, providing three solid meals and water to the crew of ten. This evening the meal consisted of crispy fried chicken, potatoes, gravy, biscuits, fresh greens from the garden, and an assortment of pies. Jo had made two each of apple, cherry, and huckleberry. She herself had never tasted a huckleberry until a week ago when Mattie and Kirby had ridden home from a Sunday outing with a bucket full of the delicious purple berries. Apparently, they were abundant this time of year and could be found all over the mountains if a person went high enough. Mac promised to take Jo picking in a couple of spots where he claimed “the bushes are full of berries as big as pennies.” They had been so busy on the ranch that they hadn’t had time to go yet, but Mac assured her that it was early in the season and the huckleberries would be on the bushes for a while longer.
Not having enough room at the table for the crew, Mattie and Jo laid the food out along the wagon bed where everyone could help themselves and then find a spot in the yard to eat. Jo gathered on the front porch with Mac and the rest of the family, anxious to rest from a day spent hustling back and forth from the fields carrying heavy water pails.
Sam patted the porch boards next to him. “Sit by me, Jo.”
She gladly did, handing Sam her plate while she sunk to the floor and tucked her legs under her. While she devoured Mattie’s sinfully delicious chicken, she listened absently to the talk around her, her mind drifting to home. As she scanned the wheat fields, she wondered if the wheat and oats on their farm at home had been harvested yet. She wondered whom the school board had hired to take over her position as teacher and how her students were fairing. Her mind roamed to her family and whether her mother was getting along all right without Pa. By now, Jo thought to herself, Will and Krissy have been married over a week. A tiny fleck of sadness surprised her. Before she’d come to Montana, attending the wedding was the last thing on earth she’d wanted to do. It was strange that now she felt a loss at having been absent from the celebration. Reflecting on her alteration of heart, Jo attributed the miraculous transformation to one thing: prayer. She’d left home with a bitter resentment in her heart and a burning hatred for Will and, she admitted to herself, a fair amount of the same for Krissy. Jo had asked God to heal those awful feelings within her, and wondrously, he had.
Jo’s eyes swept over the ranch yard. It was still mostly dirt, although grass had sprung up in patches here and there this summer. She and Leif had planted a couple of apple trees at the front corner of the yard. She imagined the apples in the orchard back home were getting big and red now, and that it wouldn’t be long before frost would come and it would be time for picking. Her grandfather had planted the apple orchard shortly after he purchased the farm, and Jo’s father had added to it every year. It was always one of Jo’s favorite times of the year when the family would gather and spend the crisp fall evenings filling their bushels with the juicy red fruit.
Jo glanced sidelong at Mac. He was talking in hushed tones to Mr. Wagner, about what, Jo couldn’t hear, but it seemed to be serious. As much as she enjoyed the apple harvest, looking at Mac, she admitted to herself that she was hoping to miss it this year. The thought of leaving the ranch caused a welling ache in her chest.
“I want pie,” Sam said to Jo, interrupting her reverie. She smiled down at him, soaking up his warm honey eyes and greasy chicken face. Lovingly, she wrapped an arm around him and hugged him tightly to her. Leaving Sam would be harder than anything else. Just the thought of it caused a sharp lump to catch in her throat. She swallowed it.
“What kind do you want?” Jo asked him brightly, squeezing his shoulders and working hard to brush away her melancholy thoughts.
Gushing hopefully, Sam replied, “All of ‘em!’’
“Well, we better go then before there isn’t any left!” Jo exclaimed, hopping down from the porch and grabbing Sam’s hand so he could jump down too. She dished up both of them a small sliver of each pie and wandered down toward the corral to eat it while they watched the bull. Jo, for one, was relieved to have the big animal penned up. Cutting through the pasture saved her time when she was hauling water to the threshing crew, and it was a relief not to have to look out for the bull and give him a wide berth. Jo pulled a couple of crates over for her and Sam to sit on, and they happily ate their pie, making funny faces at the bull and cracking each other up.
Mac came upon the lighthearted scene and filed it away in his memory with others he’d collected over the summer. Unbeknownst to Jo, he had walked up directly behind the two of them just as she stuck her tongue out at the bull and crossed her eyes. The bull, insulted and confused by her screwed up face, raised his head and snorted at them, causing peels of giggles from both Jo and Sam.
“You’re a grump.” Jo said, heckling the bull from her crate.
“Me?” Mac asked, affecting an offended manner.
Surprised, Jo turned to see him standing directly behind her. Grinning impishly, she teased, “Well, sometimes.”
“Well, sometimes, mean little girls and boys,” Mac said, tapping Sam lightly on the head with his fingers, “bring it out in me.” Sam grinned sheepishly up at his father. “Taunting that bull won’t make him any nicer,” Mac censured, looking pointedly at his son.
“I’m sorry, Pa,” Sam said. “He acts so funny when I make faces at him.”
Mac lifted Sam up and took his place on the crate, repositioning him on his knee.
Pointing his finger at Jo, Sam said, “Jo made faces too.”
Mac laughed, but reprimanded Sam lightly. “Don’t sell your friends down the river, son.” Mac turned his head toward Jo, laughter in his eyes.
Rather than apologize, Jo said obstinately, nodding her head toward the bull, “Well, I’m not sorry. He had it coming. He eyeballed me all day. I couldn’t even put a toenail in the pasture without him fussing about it.”
Mac looked back at the big bull, thinking to himself that it might be time to ship him somewhere else. “I suppose he got what he deserved then,” he submitted. “I don’t want either of you going anywhere near him.” Sternly looking into Sam’s face, he clarified, “Sam, you are not to set a foot in that corral. I don’t even want you on the fence. Do you hear me?”
His eyes big and round, Sam nodded his head.
“You stay completely away from him.” Mac swiveled his eyes back to Jo, making sure she understood that he expected the same from her.
His warning irked her. Obviously, she wasn’t going to go anywhere near the dangerous animal. She didn’t need him to order her about like she was a four-year-old. Grabbing Sam’s plate and hers from the ground, she stood up and walked to the house, too tired to battle with Mac and on the verge of saying something that would surely incite one.
Two days later, the threshing crew finished the harvest and departed from the ranch, moving on to a new neighbor and new fields. It was just in time too. Dark gray storm clouds hovered in the sky above the ranch, ominous and heavy.
It was early in the evening, and Jo was inside helping Mattie wash dishes and put the chaotic kitchen back in order after four days of frenzied cooking. Peeking her head out the window, she looked at the black sky. “Shoot!” she lamented. “I forgot to bring the pails in from the field. I wonder if I have time to get them before this storm opens up.”
Mattie came to stand by her at the window, peering out at the sky. “I think you’ll end up soaked if you go for them now.”
Jo clucked her teeth. “I suppose I don’t really have a choice. I won’t have a pail for Shirley’s milk if I don’t go.” The decision made, Jo hustled out the back door, not even stopping long enough to grab her coat from the hook. A strong wind had picked up, causing Jo’s dress to whip furiously around her legs. She held it down with one hand while running across the yard.
“Jo,” Charlie yelled from the barn, “where are you going?”
Shouting loudly so that Charlie could hear her over the howl of the wind, she said, “I left the milk pails out in the field. I need them for Shirley.”
“I’ll go get them,” Charlie called, taking a step out of the barn toward Jo.
“No,” Jo called back to him, “I’ll be quick.” She waved at him and took off toward the pasture, shielding her eyes from the blowing dust. Jo crawled between the rails of the pasture, awkwardly wrapping her dress tightly around her legs in a habit of modesty. Wagner’s cows had been munching the grass for over a week now, but it was still up to her shins, and she felt it scratching against her legs as she sprinted over its green stalks. The cows were huddled together at the bottom of a slope in the field and barely noticed Jo as she ran past them and up the other side of the low hill. Her flight across the pasture was fast but not fast enough, as the first drops of rain dripped from the black clouds above her. Scampering through the fence on the other side, Jo charged across the field of chopped wheat stalks to the pails. The metal buckets were still lined up on a makeshift table of logs and boards that Leif had set up at the edge of the wheat field. Jo grabbed a pail and dumped the remaining water from it as the storm grew more violent. The trees bordering the field began swaying drastically from side to side with each gust, their heavy branches tossing and turning wildly in the air. Just as Jo was emptying the last bucket, a crack of lightning sliced through livid sky, and a deafening peel of thunder rattled the ground under Jo’s feet. Quickly, she shoved the pails together, one inside the other and dashed back across the wheat field and into the pasture fence. Rain was pelting her face now, and it was growing harder to see as the tiny water bombs stung her eyes. Jo had never been scared of storms, quite the opposite in fact. At home she loved to sit out on the veranda, watch the lightning brighten the sky, and listen to the rain as it beat against the metal roof of the barn.
Jo was about halfway through the pasture and just coming up the slope where the cows were huddled when she slowed her pace, figuring there was no point in running now that she was already soaking wet. The pails swung briskly at her side as she cut her way through the wet clingy grass. All of the sudden, an unexplainable alarm sounded in Jo’s brain. She froze in midstride, the pails halting their back-and-forth momentum in her hand. Surging into her conscious was an innate sense of danger that all creatures, both animal and human, possess. Slowly, Jo turned in a circle, squinting and searching her surroundings for the threat that had sent chills up her spine. The sky was growing darker by the second, making it difficult for her to see what danger lay in its depths. Still alert but unable to see anything, Jo cautiously took a step backward. As she did so, another streak of lightning split the heavens. Its brief illuminating light fell across the heaving muscled shoulders of an animal fifty yards behind her. A white puff of steam escaped from its snorting nostrils as its rolling black eyes met Jo’s.
Leif and Charlie were in the barn fixing a piece of equipment when Mac and Kirby rode in, sheets of water dripping from their slickers. Mac swiped his hat off of his head and beat it against his leg to get the water off. All afternoon he’d been anxiously waiting for the threshing crew to clear out so that he could ride out on the range with Kirby and make sure everything was satisfactory before he and Leif had to join the threshing crew in the morning. He had only been a quarter mile into the tree line, headed for the summer pasture, when the sky opened up and rain poured down. Now, he’d have to leave without checking on the cattle and without the security of knowing trespassers hadn’t been slinking around. Mac cursed to himself. The unnerving impression that something was amiss settled in his gut.
He swung down from General with a heavy, angry clump and began brusquely undoing the saddle. “I didn’t want that bull put back out in the pasture yet,” he said gruffly to Leif. “I wanted to wait a few more days and then move him and Wagner’s cows up to the ridge together.” Mac’s jaw ticked angrily as he snapped the reins around in frustration.
“He’s still in the corral,” Leif answered tightly. “I didn’t put him back with the cows.”
“Well, we just rode in, and he’s not out there,” Mac glared at him.
Charlie, who was leaned over a bale of hay using it to support a piece of wood he was sanding, stood straight up. His sudden movement caused all heads to turn toward him. Charlie’s eyes widened in horror, and his face turned ashen as he whispered, “Jo.” Her name rang from his mouth again in a panicked agonizing breath, “JO!”
Before, Mac, Leif, or Kirby could ask a question, Charlie shot wildly over the bale of hay, racing toward the barn doors. In his frantic dash, he slipped on a pile of hay and slid onto his stomach, pounding into the dirt floor. In an uncontrollable frenzy, he scrambled to his feet, kicking hay and dust up behind him and shouting Jo’s name in a desperate cry.
The barn doors bashed angrily against the wall as he hurtled through them. Leif, Mac, and Kirby chased out of the barn after him, confusion and chaos exploding around them as they tried to make sense of Charlie’s panic. Rounding the corner, they saw Charlie rush to the corral fence, jump onto the first railing, and peer into it through the rain. He jumped down and charged to the end of the corral where the open gate was swinging wildly in the wind.
“Jo!” he shouted her name again, cupping his hands and running down the fence line.
In the throbbing black storm, Mac saw the air leave Charlie’s lungs and his eyes roll white with fear as he stared into the pasture. Following Charlie’s gaze, Mac felt his heart stop in his chest. Jo was standing stock-still in the middle of the pasture, a pail dangling from each hand. The bull, about fifty yards away from her, shook its sharp horns side to side aggressively. Tearing his eyes away from the frightening scene, Mac jerked around and sprinted to the barn.
The dull cry of her name slipped into Jo’s consciousness through the deafening rain. Cautiously, she glanced over her shoulder, making sure to keep the bull in her sight as she did so. She saw Leif, Kirby, and Charlie at the pasture fence, shouting at her, but she couldn’t understand them over the storm. Fear pulsed in every nerve of her body, and she could taste its bitter acidity in her mouth. She didn’t know what to do. The bull was pawing at the ground and snorting at her, and though her mind shouted at her to run, she was positive that the slightest movement would send him barreling down on her.
Charlie and Leif began to climb over the fence, but Kirby yanked them down hard from the railing. “If you go tearing in there, you’ll make things worse. He’ll charge her for sure.”
Leif shoved his arm away roughly. “He’ll charge her either way! I’ve got to get close enough to distract him,” he shouted angrily into Kirby’s face.
Kirby pointed in either direction down the fence line, barking orders at them. “Charlie, go down the fence line fifty feet, and Leif you go left. When you get into the pasture, move slowly. We only want to distract him, give Jo a chance to back away.”
Lightning ripped through the sky again as the three of them climbed through the fence. The lightning and noise from the thunder unnerved the bull, and Jo could sense his aggression growing more determined. She had to act. Had to do something. Anything.
“Heavenly Father. Oh please, Heavenly Father. Help me. Please.” As Jo prayed aloud, it gave her the courage to lift her foot off the ground. Slowly, she placed it behind her, letting her weight fall on it. The bull stared at her but didn’t advance. Again, she lifted a foot, inching it to the ground behind her. The bull whipped its head up and to the right. From the corner of her eye, Jo could see a figure moving down the fence. For the first time in several minutes, the bull’s fuming eyes weren’t trained on her, and she quickly took several more steps backward. Too late she realized her steps had been too fast, and she had alarmed the bull. It swung its ugly black head back in her direction and lowered its horns, deadly intent glaring in its eyes. Mud sprayed into the air behind it as it dug its hooves into the ground and barreled down on her.
Her name ripped through the air. “JO!” someone bellowed. “JO!” another horrifying tearing of her name sounded in her ears.
Jo knew it wouldn’t do any good to run, that the bull would be on her in seconds, but her mind had a will of its own. She spun around and pumped her legs, overwhelming terror coursing through her body. She could hear its thundering hooves behind her, closing the gap. Her shoulders hunched as her body involuntarily prepared for the painful impact. Three more strides and the threatening mass of the bull drowned out all other sound from her conscious. Jo could feel its presence at her back but could go no faster. All she could see through her black pit of fear was the fence up ahead, only thirty yards but still too far. Feeling the oppressive beast at her back, Jo pulled her arms into her chest, curling her body into a ball and squeezed her eyes shut…
A shattering hammer exploded in her back as Jo was thrown forward ten feet, landing hard on her stomach in the mud. Her lungs gasped for the air that had been expelled violently from her chest. Clawing in the mud to her knees, she looked desperately over her shoulder, expecting the horns of the bull to slice through her. She saw the bull, its hooves churning at the ground as it whipped around to charge at her again. Jo froze in horror. Just before it reached her, a massive black blur raced in front of her, blocking its path. Everything was chaos, the storm, the hooves pounding brutally into the ground.
“JO! JO!” a savage cry ripped through her stunned, immobile mind. “RUN!” it bellowed at her. “GET UP! RUN!”
Jo didn’t know whose voice it was or where it came from, but she obeyed. Frantically, she scrambled to her feet, pushing herself up off the soggy grass with her hands. Once again her legs were pumping.
Suddenly, Leif appeared alongside of her. “Keep going!” he shouted.
The fear in his voice staggered her, and she twisted her head around, frantically looking for the bull. Leif grabbed her by the arm, pulling her with him as they sprinted toward the fence. The echo of pounding hooves expanded in her ears again. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the outline of the massive bull rearing toward her again. She cringed toward Leif, bracing her body for impact once again, but it didn’t come. To her side, she saw the same black blur whip between her and the bull. Finally, the fence was within reach. Leif swung her up in his arms and pitched her over the top of it. She crashed violently over the fence into Charlie’s arms, taking him to the ground with her in a shuddering ball of terror.
Jo lay in the pooling water, her limbs shaking violently, still terrified beyond comprehension. Kirby, Leif, and Charlie swarmed around her asking if she was hurt, shouting in her face, but she was unable to answer them. The same black blur that had bounded between her and the bull tore into the ranch yard, coming to a sliding halt directly before her.
Mac swung down from General’s back, rushing to her so swiftly that he had to stop by throwing himself to the ground. “Jo.” He slid into her, grabbing her by the shoulders. “Jo,” his voice grated harshly in her ears. “Are you hurt?” he shouted.
Rivers of rain poured down his face as he raked her with intense eyes, searching her for injuries. Finding none, he pulled her to him fiercely.
Jo rested her head against his wet shirt. His heart was beating wildly in his chest, and she pushed her face up to it, letting its rhythmic beat calm the fear pulsing through her as she pieced muddled flashes together. Mac had saved her. He had reached her just in time. The bull was within feet of Jo when he bolted in between them on General. Unable to stop in time, the bull had rammed into the side of Mac’s horse violently. The collision shoved General to the side, forcing his flank into Jo’s back. The contact had thrown her onto the ground, knocking the wind out of her and jarring her violently, but it was a fragment of the damage that would have been caused by the bull. Jo was now aware that Mac’s voice had been the one calling her name, shouting at her to get up, to run, and the hooves she heard weren’t only the bulls. He had placed himself and his horse in the path of danger until Jo was clear of the field.
Charlie rolled to his knees in the mud. “Jo, I am so sorry.” His face was white with fear and stricken with guilt.
Jo lifted her head from Mac’s shirt to reassure him. “I’m fine, Charlie,” she said shakily, trying to calm him.
“It was me. I left the gate open. After I fed him.”
Mac’s arms went rigid around Jo. “What are you talking about, Charlie?” he demanded, above the rain.
“I was latching the gate when Leif came to get me,” Charlie moaned, “I…”
Mac shot to his feet, pulling Jo up with him. He narrowed icy eyes at Charlie. Mac’s face was a granite etching, hard and white with anger. “Your carelessness could have killed her!” he hissed, the words slicing from his tongue, sharp and cool as a knife blade.
The air crackled around them, thick with the biting rain and tension. Mac’s eyes skimmed over Jo. She was dripping wet, mud and grass clinging to the front of her dress, her big round eyes still full of fright. “Jo,” he said coolly, “go inside.”
She shook her head from side to side, refusing to leave. Pushing past him, she went to Charlie. “It’s all right, Charlie. I’m fine.”
His eyes were filled with anguish and guilt. “I’m so sorry, Jo.”
Jo put her arms around him. “It’s all right.”
“Like hell it is!” Mac roared above the thunderstorm. Slashing the air with his arms, he thrust them violently out to the side. “Your neglect is inexcusable.”
“Stop!” Jo yelled back at Mac just as loudly. “It was a mistake. An accident.”
“An accident? An accident!?” Mac scoffed at her, a glassy sneer spreading over his face. He turned his back on them, pacing angrily in the cold hard rain, fighting to get control of his wrath, wanting to tear apart the corral, the fence, the whole barn. His shoulders shook with anger at Charlie’s carelessness. All he could see was the bull bearing down on Jo, not knowing if he could get there in time. Whipping back around to Charlie, Mac said in a deadly calm voice, “I can’t have someone so careless working on my ranch.”
Charlie’s woeful eyes stared at Mac and then shifted remorsefully to Jo. Nodding his head, he said in a quiet whisper, “Yes, sir.”
Leif stepped in between Mac and Charlie. “Hold on a minute, Mac. Charlie’s never….”
Mac’s back straightened, and his thick fists clenched tightly at his sides, his deadly identity had returned. “No.” The lone word sliced authoritatively over Leif. “Charlie…pack up your belongings tonight. I will drop you off in town in the morning. We’ll leave early.”
Mac’s verdict was delivered flatly, no discussion, no space for mercy or understanding. The flat wall of his back as he turned away from them stamped the finality of his decision. He took two steps to his horse before Jo caught him around the arm.
“No! This isn’t right,” she shouted, pulling at his unyielding arms to get him to stop. Mac brushed her away from him as she yelled, “You can’t do this! He’s just a boy!”
A yelp of pain broke from Charlie’s throat as Jo’s errant words stung him, like a dog unexpectedly kicked by his trusted master. Betrayal and hurt swarmed in his eyes.
Jo shook her head to the side fiercely. “No, Charlie. I didn’t mean it like that.” She rushed to his side, anxious to take back the reckless words.
Like Mac, Charlie shook her off, deeply wounded by Jo’s appraisal of him. Rising to his full height, Charlie met Mac’s eyes. “I’ll be ready to go in the morning.”
Mac hesitated, esteem for Charlie warring with his rage. Lingering shame filled the boy’s face. Mac glared at Jo. It was one thing to fire Charlie for his neglect, but dismissing him as a mere boy shattered his pride. “Do I pay you a man’s wage, Charlie?” Mac asked.
“Do you do a man’s work?”
Charlie gulped. “Yes, sir.”
“Was this carelessness the mistake of a man or boy?”
Proudly, Charlie answered, “A man, sir.” Mac nodded his head in consent and swiveled around to go again.
“No!” Jo wailed along with the wind. “Mac, please.” Her pleas were carried away in the gale, unanswered, unacknowledged as Mac ignored her and grabbed General’s reins. “Stop!” she shouted again desperately, “You can’t let Charlie go!”
Angrily, Mac whirled around. “Enough, Jo. This is not your ranch. Go inside!”
“Please,” she begged him for Charlie’s sake, for her own. She wasn’t ready to have the family she’d recently acquired torn apart, and Charlie was family to her. She clutched Mac’s arm. “Listen to me.”
But Mac couldn’t listen. He was still teeming with fear for her and still enraged by Charlie’s admission of neglect. He ripped his arm away and strode toward the barn.
Jo watched his retreating figure, powerless to stop the spiraling resolute outcome. Before she realized what she was doing, her eyes alighted on a sopping clump of mud at her feet. Desperate to stop him, to make him stay and listen to her, she bent toward the ground and scooped up a handful of the brown muck. Everything around her froze in dead stillness as she hit her target squarely.
Leif and Kirby’s mouths gaped open in stunned disbelief.
The muddy clump had splatted loudly against the nape of Mac’s wide neck and was slowly seeping down the middle of his back.
The wind, lightning, rain, and thunder still blew around them in a torrent of fury, but it was as if time had stopped for Jo. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears like the crashing of furious waves upon the rocks. She watched with trepidation as Mac’s arms lowered stiffly to his sides, his large hands uncurling to hang in his loose but lithe stance.
With his back still turned toward them, Mac dropped his head, the long thick muddy muscles of his neck ticking as he stood with disquieting stillness in front of them. Angry sparks rippled off the planes of his rigid back. He turned around agonizingly slow, inch by inch, until he faced Jo. He lifted his saturated, jet-black head to her.
Jo expected to see icy blue fury shooting from his orbs, but what she saw left her breathless. His eyes were a tranquil, flat black, the veiled pupils boring into her in an unnerving, ominous way. His eyes flicked to her hand, still dripping tellingly with thick brown sludge. Mac moved in powerful, unhurried strides toward Jo, like a prowling predator across the muddied yard.
Jo’s mouth fell open to speak, but lost in the ferocious calm of Mac’s gaze, she could think of nothing to say. She tried again, opening her mouth to form words, “I…”
The first syllable barely escaped her lips before Mac’s hand shot out violently and grabbed her by the elbow. Roughly hauling her behind him, he dragged her toward the barn through the whipping wind and rain. They charged through the shocked and subdued gauntlet of Leif, Kirby, and Charlie.
Concern for Jo etching his brow, Leif followed them anxiously. “Mac…”A low petition scraped hoarsely from Leif’s throat, but it was silenced, cut short by Mac’s upraised hand as it carved through the night, commanding him to be silent.
Still pulled along forcefully by Mac, Jo glanced over her shoulder in Leif’s direction. She stared at him until Mac wrenched her around the doors and into the barn.
As they entered the dry and warm shelter, Mac released his grasp on her arm, the sudden liberation sending her tripping backward toward the wall. Jo curled her back next to its solid, supporting structure and watched Mac pace furiously in front of her, his hand threading through the thick mat of hair at the top of his head. The lantern glowed from its place on the hook, where it had been forgotten as Charlie frantically rushed into the storm. It shrouded the barn in dim light. The horse Kirby had ridden out was still saddled, standing in the back corner of the barn glutting on the endless abundance of hay.
All of the sudden, Mac’s heated pacing stopped, and he turned halfway toward her. He cocked his head in her direction. The calm in his eyes from before was shredded, and a gaping fury and need leapt from them.
Mac covered the five steps to Jo in a heated bolt of power, sweeping his arms around her waist and crushing her to him, his mouth slanted hotly over hers in raging hunger. Jo gasped in shock, but it was quickly swallowed by Mac’s ravenous mouth. His lips pressed into her with frighteningly sweet intensity as the smooth granite planes of his mouth melded into Jo’s soft and pliable lips. She was trapped in the powerful, unrelenting pressure of his muscled arms. Breath, space, pain, happiness, and every other opposing force in mortality melted into a tangle of starving, excruciating need. Mac pulled Jo’s arms up to his neck, where she wrapped them in his heavy sopping wet hair. She could feel gritty granules of the mud she’d thrown at him sieving through her fingers.
Jo clung to him, her own need, heartbreak, and love tearing from her soul. She moaned into his mouth, the taste of him and the rain from his face blending together with addictive potency.
Mac’s hands dug into her back, kneading and pressing her into his body with a devastating fervency. He lifted her up and trapped her against the barn wall with his solid body. Jo flung her head back, resting it on the boards behind her, and closed her eyes as Mac’s mouth ground hot, moist kisses along her throat. She had never felt anything like this before, had never imagined this silky warmth coursing through her body, had never experienced this heavy craving in the pit of her stomach. Slowly, the ferocity of Mac’s storm calmed, and his kisses became the sweet drops of heaven after a pouring rain. They stung Jo’s soul with their intense longing, their craving. He drank her in with a thirsty need that could not be quenched, his lips, so soft.
“Mac,” his name rolled from her tongue, a lonesome, yearning plea for this pleasure to never cease.
Groaning, Mac kissed and cradled her in an endless, body-shattering assault until Jo’s lips were swollen and bruised. Her breath, and his, pounded loudly in her ears. Mac tore his lips from hers and eased his crushing hold around her waist.
Slowly, Jo slid down the length of his body until her feet touched the floor. The deep indigo pools of her eyes stared up at him with dawning wonder. Placing her hands between their bodies, she stroked them up the front of his panting chest and cupped his rough jaw between her hands. With burning tenderness she glided her fingers into the hair at the nape of his neck and pulled his lips to hers. She pressed a fervent kiss to them and then drew back, enforcing the meaning of her kiss with earnest eyes.
A raw, vulnerable loneliness flashed across Mac’s face that broke her heart. With sweet womanly reverence, she kissed his lips, his chin, his hands, seeking to heal the destructive pains of his life with her love.
“Jo,” his low conflicted voice broke with anguish and desire.
“Let me in,” she implored in soft, hypnotic wisps, her eyes soft and pleading.
Mac wrapped his hands in the tangled wet masses of hair at the back of her head, forcing her mouth up to his. Skimming her lips with his, he breathed into her ear, caressing and rubbing his rough cheek against hers. His teeth grazed the line of her jaw, sending splintering shivers racing up Jo’s neck. Mac’s lips found hers again, claiming them with hungry possession, branding a deep overwhelming pleasure forever into their memory.
The storm raged outside. Through her heaven, Jo could hear its howling wind, its dense and heavy rain pounding on the roof of the barn. She was lost in the feel of him. A warning voice threaded into her mind, struggling against the desire of her body. She was Mac’s. She willingly gave him her heart, her hands, her life, and though she wanted to, she could not give her body, would not give her soul.
“Mac,” she sighed, her lips parting unwillingly from his. Mac’s hands wrapped tighter into her hair, pulling Jo’s mouth back to his commandingly.
“Mac…” she exhaled his name again, unwinding her hand from his neck and placing it against his chest.
The firm pressure of her palm against his thudding heart was the first sign of resistance Jo had shown. He stilled his lips and pulled back, searching her eyes. Desire and warmth pooled in them, but also a firmness, a control that was lacking in himself. Understanding pounded into his clouded mind. Reluctant to change his course, he pressed more kisses to her lips with a throbbing tenderness that nearly undid Jo’s resolve. She pressed against his chest again, lightly.
Resting his forehead against hers, Mac closed his eyes and drew in deep breaths of air in an effort to slow his racing pulse and clear his foggy mind. The sweet, fresh scent of Jo swam in his senses like an intoxicating drug. Simultaneously, they opened their eyes and looked at one another. Jo’s eyes were bright with love and passion, her lips red and enflamed from their ardent fever. Mac’s were torn, yearning, and still hungry, but he didn’t press her.
Softly, he smoothed the hair back from her face with his calloused hand and rubbed his thumb across her swollen lips.
Jo kissed it, looking directly into his eyes.
Unable to resist, he dropped his head and pressed another breathtaking, gentle kiss against her lips. It was filled with a love that he had yet to voice, causing Jo’s heart to contract tightly in her chest.
“Pa?” Sam’s young voice surprised them from the open barn door. Mac lifted his lips from Jo and turned his head to the sound of his son’s voice. Sam was just inside the barn, barely out of the rain, and was watching them curiously.
Mac’s arms were still on either side of Jo, caging her against the rough barn wall. In a hoarse and strained voice, he asked, “Sam, what are you doing out here?” Sam’s hair was wet from the rain and droplets dampened the shoulders of his plaid button-down shirt.
“He’s with me,” Kirby answered, stepping around the barn door to stand behind Sam. His eyes gave away nothing as they fell on Jo and Mac locked in an intimate position, a heavy current clearly threading between them. Kirby cleared his throat and dropped his hand to Sam’s shoulder, looking down at him. “Sam’s going to help me with General,” he explained.
In the heat of his anger and subsequent desire, tending to General had escaped Mac’s mind. He was fairly certain General was banged up from colliding with the bull and needed looked over. Glancing longingly down at Jo, Mac sighed, loath to let her go. Reluctantly dropping his left arm, he set her free from his cage.
Jo took a heady breath and cleared her throat, trying to gain composure, but her legs were wobbly and her cheeks were blazing warm and red. Kirby entered the rest of the way into the barn, leading General behind him. The horse was dripping wet and walking with a strange hitch in his step.
Avoiding Kirby’s eyes, Mac walked to the horse and ran his hands carefully over its left flank. The horse shied nervously to the side and pulled his head against the reins. Mac frowned, concerned about the swelling that was already appearing along General’s left side. “Let’s get him unsaddled and cooled down, and then I can take a better look,” he said. Kirby took Sam’s hand in his and, holding the reins in his other hand, led General into his stall. Mac’s eyes followed the animal, scrutinizing its odd gait.
“Will he be all right?” Jo asked.
Turning to her, Mac released another heavy sigh and shrugged his shoulders. The searing desire that had been coursing through him moments before was slowly ebbing making room for a dawning awareness of the recklessness of his actions. His eyes roamed over Jo, taking in her flushed freckled cheeks and luminous blue eyes. Inadvertently, his eyes flicked to her lips. They looked warm, pink, and tempting.
“I need to see to General,” he said brusquely, unsure of what to do or how he should leave things with Jo. Now that there was a crack in his armor, a weakening in his resolve, he didn’t know how he would stop the whole dam from bursting. Before, he could only imagine what Jo’s lips might feel like on his, what the weight of her soft and curvy figure would feel like in his arms; now, he knew, and it was more pleasing than any of his imaginings had done justice.
Jo stepped close to Mac, looking up into his face. Warm and womanly, she entreated, “And Charlie?”
Silence filled the space around them as Mac settled in his mind whether he would submit to her appeal or not. He said nothing but indicated with a resigned blink of his eyes that he would rethink his dismissal of Charlie.
A glowing smile spread across Jo’s face, not of a gloating or triumphant nature, but of genuine gratefulness and relief. Intimately, she slipped her small, gentle hand into Mac’s and smiled shyly at him. She gave his hand a meaningful squeeze. If Kirby and Sam hadn’t been in the barn, Mac would have hauled her sweet body into his arms again at the demonstration of affection. Jo turned to leave, and their hands drifted apart, their index fingers still tangled, unwilling to separate.
Once outside, Jo streaked across the yard, jumping over small rivers of muddy rain water from the heavy downpour. She burst into the kitchen sopping wet, with mud caking her boots and her dress plastered to her.
Leif had filled Mattie in on the incident and the ensuing confrontation between Mac and Jo, so she had been waiting anxiously by the back door for Jo to come in. As soon as Jo was in her sight, she threw a towel around her shoulders, gathered her up in a hug, and began mothering her. Feeling raw and shaky from both of her draining encounters, Jo happily accepted Mattie’s tending.
While she was in her room stripping out of her sodden and soggy clothing, Mattie filled the tub for her. The sound of water running in the tub called to Jo. Her back and shoulders were already growing stiff from the collision with General. The warm water eased the ache in her joints as she sunk down into it, closing her eyes and resting the back of her head on the rim of the tub. Jo tried hard to relax in the soothing bath and let the afternoon’s alarming events dissolve away, but her stomach was a tangle of knots that she couldn’t unravel. She kept reliving the fright of the bull charging, Mac’s mouth on hers, the intensity in his eyes, the tone of his voice when he’d shouted at her to run. His call had been wild and feral, filled with desperation. And his kisses. His kisses, she thought to herself, they were deep and absorbing, and full of…love? Not allowing her mind to drift in that hopeful direction, Jo slunk down deeper into the tub, submersing her head completely under the water in an effort to drown out the invading thoughts.
Freshly bathed, Jo snuggled on her bed wrapped in a comfy quilt and listened to the drum of the rain on the ranch house roof. Taking her journal from the drawer of her bedside table, she recorded the day’s events, knowing that writing it all down would help to sort her thoughts. Things never seemed as confusing or conflicted when sprawled across a page in black and white. Reading her entry through, she quickly realized that she had neglected the chore that had sent her across the pasture in the first place. In her dash from the bull, she’d dropped both milk pails in the grass and forgotten all about Shirley.
When Jo came downstairs a few minutes later to complete the chore, she found the pails, brimming with milk, already sitting on the kitchen counter. “I forgot all about the cow,” she said contritely to Mattie, who was sweeping up clumps of mud in front of the back door.
“Never mind about that, Jo,” Mattie said. “Charlie did it and brought the milk in a few minutes ago. He, Leif, and Kirby are in the parlor, and as soon as I’m done here, I’m going to join them,” she said with an eager smile.
“Here, I’ll finish that,” Jo said, taking the broom from her.
“Oh, that’s all right, Jo. You don’t need to do that.”
Staring sincerely into Mattie’s eyes, Jo insisted, “Please, Mattie, you are so good to me. Let me do this.” Mattie obliged and retreated to the parlor, leaving Jo alone in the kitchen.
Every brush of the broom across the floor added more unease to her mind and more shyness at the prospect of seeing Mac again after their intimate encounter in the barn. Would they go on as before and pretend nothing had happened? Would their encounter change things between them? These questions and more nearly drove Jo mad as she swept the kitchen floor, waiting for the familiar sound of the back door to open. She didn’t have to wait long. Just as she was sweeping up the last of the muddy clods, Sam and Mac came charging in through the door, tracking in a fresh mess with them.
“Sorry,” Mac apologized sheepishly, noting the broom in Jo’s hands.
She stared up at him, bravely meeting his eyes. An awkward and uneasy stillness impregnated the room, typical of any first greeting wherein the relationship between two people has been vastly altered in the space of a kiss.
While Mac was tending to General, he’d had ample time to think over the day’s events, and it was with a heavy but resolute heart that he had entered the kitchen. Though now, face to face with Jo, he fought the same battle he’d conquered in his mind not thirty minutes ago. She had obviously bathed, and the smell of orange blossoms was bouncing enticingly off of her, dulling his willpower. He couldn’t think clearly when she looked up at him all fresh and warm and utterly inviting. Shaking the undermining thoughts from his head, he mumbled inconspicuously to Jo, “I’m going to go clean up.”
In that uneasy and aloof manner, he left the kitchen, and Jo listened to the heavy thud of his footsteps as they jogged up the hall stairs.
She and Sam joined the rest of the family in the parlor, Sam going directly to Leif and climbing up familiarly on his lap. Leif glanced up at Jo, seeing her for the first time since her run-in with the bull and Mac. “How are you, Jo? Are you hurt anywhere or sore?”
Out of the corner of her eye, Jo saw Charlie’s dark head rise and his shoulders stiffen as he listened intently for her answer. Not wanting to add to his guilt or angst, Jo lied to spare his feelings, “Not a bit.”
Leif nodded his relief and turned his attention to the energetic bundle of happiness on his lap.
Taking a seat next to Charlie on the sofa, Jo picked up a book she had been glancing at earlier and avoided the uncomfortable silence in the room by pretending to read it; in reality, she was scrutinizing the faces of those around her. Naturally, Charlie seemed more distant than usual, and when Jo had sat down, he had barely looked at her. Whether it was out of guilt or lingering wounded pride, she didn’t know. All she did know was that she didn’t like this awkwardness between them. Sincerely regretting her mistake in calling Charlie “just a boy,” she wondered how to go about mending the fissure between them. At the time, she was distraught and hadn’t thought her words through. Now, in the cozy haven of the living room, she realized how offensive they must have been to him. She wondered how the conversation with Mac had gone and what Mac had said to Charlie when he told him that he could stay. Was it sentimental? Had he apologized for inflicting such a harsh sentence upon Charlie over a mere accident? Knowing Mac as she did, it seemed highly unlikely, and in fact, she was right.
After Jo had left the barn and Mac had finished tending to General, he approached Charlie, who was milking the cow, and gruffly said, “I won’t be taking you to town with me in the morning.” Charlie glanced up at Mac, a spark of relief flickering behind his guilt-ridden eyes, and dipped his head.
In true manly fashion, that constituted the sum of their reconciliation. Women would have been affronted by the simplicity of it. No bearing of soul or acknowledgment of wrongdoing? No pleading for forgiveness and promising to never be so hurtful again? Those remonstrations were not the way of men and certainly not the way of Mac.
In an effort to appeal to Charlie, Jo scooted closer to him on the sofa and slyly nudged his foot. His eyes, lifting from the Aviation magazine he was studying, peered at Jo. She smiled warmly and affectionately at him. The gesture went far in healing the splintered bond between them.
Charlie grinned hesitantly back at her and mouthed the words, “I’m sorry.”
Jo shook her head side to side, signaling Charlie that all was forgiven and forgotten and that she hoped he would do the same.
Returning the gesture, he nudged her foot with his, assuring her in their private way that he already had.
Without a look or word to anyone, Mac entered the parlor and took a seat in his oversized parlor chair. Jo’s stomach curled in knots at his presence. There was something massively appealing about a man freshly-washed with mussed, wet hair and a clean-shaven face. He picked up a copy of The Saturday Evening Post and flipped it up in front of his face, clearly pensive and in no mood for conversation. Jo could barely look at him without slipping into a flurry of delicious memories, so willingly she left him alone, averting her eyes to the other occupants in the room.
Mattie was knitting away, seemingly unaware of the uncomfortable tones bouncing off the walls, and Kirby was beside her, his fingers hooked on either end of her knitting spool, unrolling its white string as needed. It was still strange to Jo, to spy him performing these thoughtful acts for Mattie. He would patiently sit next to her for hours in the evening, slowly unwinding her yarn without complaint, but to all others he was short tempered and could barely stand to be bothered.
The clock chimed loudly from its place in the corner, offering the only other sound in the room apart from the click of Mattie’s needles. Leif and Sam had left their position in the chair in exchange for the floor, where they were pushing a set of wooden trains around a toy track. Sam removed his train from the track and shoved it across the hardwood floor and deep red rug toward Jo. The little wheels chugged all the way to a stop at Jo’s feet dangling above the floor. She scooted off the couch and took a seat on the rug, leaning her back against the sofa. She winced, a slight tenderness sparking along her left side, but quickly covered it, fearing Charlie would notice her discomfort. Picking up the toy train, Jo pushed it back across the rug to Sam, and they played the game absently for the next few minutes.
On Sam’s turn, he pushed the train faster and farther than usual, and it careened off course, crashing noisily into the stone fireplace. Racing to pick it up, he caught his foot on the wood rocking chair and toppled roughly onto the floor, bumping his chin on the ground.
“Sam!” Jo clamored to him, softly picking him up and setting him on her lap. Coursing tears puddled down his red face as he held his banged chin and cried into her shoulder. All in the room momentarily stopped their pursuits to look after Sam.
“Here,” Jo said, gently lifting up his chin, “let me see.” His chin had a red mark on it and a tiny abrasion but wasn’t cut, and Sam was already beginning to gather himself. Jo cupped his cheeks in her hands and asked, “Are you all right?”
Sam gulped and nodded his head, then climbed out of her lap and up onto Mac’s.
Mac playfully scrutinized the chin, pretending to take it very seriously for Sam’s benefit, which pulled a reluctant smile from him. “That’s a pretty good bump there,” Mac said.
“Come here, Sam, let me see,” Leif called from his position on the floor amongst the remaining trains. Sam hopped down and proudly walked to Leif, sticking out his chin so his uncle could get a better look, and then showing it to Charlie, Kirby, and Mattie in turn. “Yep, that looks like a stinger. You know what will make that hurt feel better?” Leif asked Sam, raising his eyebrows in earnest.
Sam shook his head from side to side, his honey eyes growing big, anxious to hear what could help his chin feel better.
“Go to Jo and let her give it a little kiss…right there,” Leif said, tapping Sam’s bump lightly. “That will take the hurt away.” Sam turned to Jo and grinned suspiciously at her. She opened up her arms invitingly to him. Suspicious but willing to try this experiment, Sam went into them.
Jo cupped his little chin once again and placed a pert kiss right on his bump and then pulled back to look at him. “Better?” she questioned with warm, laughing eyes. Amazed, Sam nodded his head vigorously and wrapped his little arms tightly around Jo’s neck, digging his hands into her hair and hugging her. His squeeze pulled the hair on the back of her head, but Jo didn’t care; it was a sweet pain.
Shrewdly observing the tenderness between his son and Jo, a disconcerting crease wrinkled Mac’s brow. The unsettling realization that Sam had grown deeply attached to Jo settled over him.
“See,” Leif said with a grin. “Didn’t I tell you that would work? Kisses are the best thing for hurts.”
Sam untangled his arms from Jo and wandered back over to Leif, picking up his train. Innocently, he said to Leif, “Jo got a hurt on her neck, and Pa kissed it better.” His animated eyes looked to Jo to collaborate what he said.
A cough, sounding suspiciously like a chortle, shot loudly from Kirby, who until this moment had been unraveling thread, ambivalent to the goings-on around him.
“Oh she did! Did she?” Leif said to Sam, his glittering eyes turning to Jo with a devilish spark. Jo’s face flamed a brilliant red, and she ducked her head, swiftly hiding her eyes from Leif’s cheeky, impudent smirk. He looked like a cat, pleased after swallowing a fat mouse.
Behind his paper Mac glanced side-long at Jo and saw her shrink into the couch, an embarrassed and bright blush flooding her face from Sam’s revealing comment. He must have seen more than I thought. He bit his lip and focused on his paper, working concertedly to conceal his grin and remain impassive. Inwardly, he was near to bursting, amused by his matter-of-fact son.
Although unaware of his blunder, Sam wasn’t ignorant of the enjoyment it seemed to create for others. Wanting to make Uncle Leif and Kirby laugh again, he added loudly, “and on her lips too!”
“Bedtime, Sam!” Mac choked out, as he shot speedily from his chair and stalked across the room to Sam. Giving the little tattle a hearty tickling, he hefted him into his arms.
The room was swarming with suppressed laughter as Jo slunk further into her puddle of mortification at the base of the couch. Leif stared at Jo with a fat, tormenting smile plastered across his face, and Charlie was shiftily hiding his mouth behind his hand, doing a poor job of concealing his glee. His face grew redder and redder with the effort.
Through mocking eyes, Leif harassed, “Aw, let him stay up a little longer?”
Mac’s face was impenetrable, betraying nothing as he hauled Sam out of the room, ignoring Leif as he went. Jo missed their presence the minute they were gone as Leif’s teasing eyes rounded on her. Quickly caving under his scrutiny, she stood from the floor and promptly excused herself from the room. Her exit was followed by a burst of laughter from the parlor, even Charlie, her dear ally, could no longer stifle his amusement.
Grabbing her sweater off the hook, Jo slipped out the back door and took a seat in the rocking chair. It was still raining, but it had receded from a downpour to a lulling drizzle. Jo was antsy thinking about tomorrow and Mac leaving. She hoped that he would seek her out tonight so they could talk before he left to work with the threshing crew in the morning. Now that she was by herself and free from probing eyes, Jo could appreciate the hilarity of the parlor scene. A light grin broke across her face, remembering how quickly Mac had flung his paper to the side and jumped out of his chair to stop Sam from saying more. Jo turned her head as the screen door opened, hoping to see Mac, but it was Leif.
“Care for some company?” he grinned, with a repentant look in his eyes. Rolling her eyes, she tipped the rocking chair with her toe. Leif let the door swing closed behind him as he took a seat where she suggested.
“Are you going to be decent?” Jo asked, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye.
“I will. I promise,” Leif said, leaning forward in his chair and resting his elbows on his knees. They sat there together in companionable silence, just listening to the drizzle of rain until Leif mumbled, “You love him?”
Surprised by his blunt question, Jo swiveled to face him. A strange sober light in Leif’s eyes unnerved her. It was rare to see him so serious. He really wanted to know how she felt. Taking a leap of faith, Jo decided to be honest and trust him. She dropped her head back on the rocker and looked out into the rain. “I suppose I do,” she admitted.
Leif only nodded his head pensively. With one thumb he absentmindedly scratched the nail of his other thumb. “I want you to know…that no matter what…you always have a home here.”
Jo cocked her head to the side. “No matter what?” she questioned. “It sounds like you are trying to warn me.”
Leif chewed on his lower lip before replying candidly. “I suppose that’s because I am. I feel responsible for bringing you here. Mac…” Leif paused, not knowing exactly how to say what he wanted to, “I just don’t want you to get hurt.”
Jo’s defenses rose involuntarily. Who was Leif to assume she would get hurt? What did he know about what was between them? It was one thing to have her own inner voice warning her to be cautious. It was another to hear it from someone else’s mouth. She looked away from him, fighting back tears. Apparently, she wasn’t the only one who feared her hopes for Mac were futile, and it hurt.
“I’m sorry, Jo…”
“Why now, why say something now?” she interrupted him angrily. “Now that I’ve admitted I care for him…you’re going to tell me how hopeless it is?” Her eyes smarted. After all she’d been through today, somehow this conversation was upsetting her more than any of it.
“I didn’t say it was hopeless. Mac’s changed since you came here. I’ve seen it.” Leif sighed in frustration. “Believe it or not, my intention wasn’t to come out here and upset you.”
Ignoring her derision, Leif continued, “I really did just want you to understand that regardless of what happens with Mac, you can consider this your home. I know our arrangement was for the summer, but you can stay on and work here as long as you like.”
Jo turned back to him. He was staring at her intently, and Jo could see in his countenance that he meant what he said. Releasing her frustration, she said, “I appreciate that…I do, but I…well, I want my own home. It would never feel right to me, pretending this home, this family, is mine when it isn’t. I won’t be that disloyal to myself. ”
Leif nodded his head, fearing she’d say that, while at the same time understanding her motives. “So, do you have a plan then?” he asked.
She smiled at him dryly. “Besides hoping Mac loves me?”
Leif humored her with a half laugh.
Jo’s thoughts drifted back to that night two years ago when she sat at the kitchen table with her father and shared with him the feeling that life was passing her by. Jo gulped, and with a faraway look in her eye, she sighed softly and answered Leif, “I suppose I’ll see what lies downstream.”