A willing spirit a ghost.., p.11
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       A Willing Spirit, A Ghostly Romance, p.11

           Cynthia Sterling
 
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CHAPTER ELEVEN

  "What's going on back there?” The driver rapped on the partition separating his seat from the enclosed ambulance.

  "It looked like you folks might need some help, so I thought I'd offer my services," Will said graciously.

  "Who are you?" the sergeant demanded. "Where did you come from?"

  "I'm Will. I'm a. . .a hermit.” He nodded toward the prairie outside the coach door. "I live out here."

  "Do you know how to get to Fort Belknap from here?" the sergeant asked.

  "Of course."

  The woman's eyes went wide. She stared at the sergeant. "You mean we're lost?"

  "Not anymore.” He nodded to Will. "This fellow says he knows the way home."

  "Drive straight until you come to the creek, then head left four miles. You'll hit the road to the fort. Turn right and you'll be there in no time.” Will settled back against the seat. "I'll go with you a ways, to make sure you don't get lost again."

  "Yes, sir.” The sergeant turned back around and popped the reins smartly across the mules' backs. The ambulance lurched forward and the woman almost tumbled into Will's lap. He steadied her, admiring the soft feel of her curves in his hands. With a rueful sigh, he let her go, knowing she wouldn't have felt his touch anyway, beyond the inevitable sensation of bitter coldness.

  The woman sat across from him, her arms folded across her stomach, eyes on the landscape outside. "Now you know my name, perhaps you'll tell me yours," Will said.

  "It's Margery. Margery Finch.” She barely glanced at him. Her eyes were sapphire blue, but marred by dark rings beneath them, as if she'd spent a sleepless night.

  "Well, Miss Margery, you appear quite downhearted. I wonder if I might be of help."

  She shook her head. "I doubt it. What do hermits know about being married?"

  "I wasn't always a hermit. I was married for seven years to a fine woman."

  Her mouth drooped. "I'll bet she never ran off from you."

  He shook his head. "No, she wouldn't have done that. She was just a girl when we wed. Her family disowned her for taking up with me. I was all she had."

  Margery's face softened. "I'll bet you never spent all your time working, ignoring your wife."

  Will rubbed his chin. Becoming a ghost hadn't exactly given him any insight into women. "Well. . . I did work a lot. A man's got to eat, after all. It's a hard life out here.” He straightened. "But she worked with me. Right alongside."

  Margery looked sadder still. "I can't very well help my husband in his work."

  "What does your husband do?"

  "He's commander of Fort Belknap."

  "Ah, well, sure you can help him."

  "How? He'd never let me go on patrol with him, and as for fighting--"

  "Not that. You can help him by doing nice things for his men, so they'll want to stay loyal to him. You can help out in the camp hospital, and entertain the other wives, take up good causes."

  She sank back on the cushions, pouting. "None of those things sound like any fun."

  Will chuckled. "That's why they call it work, ain't it?"

  She said nothing for a long while. The coach reached the creek and the sergeant bent down once more. "Turn here?"

  Will nodded. "Turn here."

  They had traveled another few hundred feet when Margery spoke again, her voice so soft he barely heard it above the creaking of the coach. "But how can I get him to love me?"

  Will scratched his head. "You don't think he loves you now?"

  She shifted in her seat. "He comes from a very fine family back east. I'm just a soldier's daughter. My dad worked his way up in the ranks. I never went to some fine eastern finishing school.” She sniffed. "I'm loud and I'm brash. I like bright colors and lively music. I always stand out in a crowd. I never minded not fitting in before, but now. . . "

  "Maybe he loves you because of all those things."

  She looked at him, blue eyes brimming with tears. "But how do I know he does?"

  Women made Will nervous when they cried. He could feel himself fading fast. If he didn't watch it, he was going to disappear right in front of her eyes and scare the bejeebers out of her. "Why don't you just ask him, then?" he blurted.

  She frowned. "I couldn't do that."

  "Don't see why not. You seem to have a firm enough command of the language."

  She studied him through lowered lashes, a look that would have made a more earthly man all hot and bothered. As it was, even Will was starting to feel a little sweaty. "Did you and your wife ever talk like that?" she asked. "About what you liked and disliked about each other?"

  He pondered the question a minute. "No. I can't say that we ever did.” It hadn't ever seemed particularly necessary.

  "Then you never really knew her.” Margery sounded sad. "If you never asked her, how could you know what was going on inside her head?"

  "I just did!” Though beautiful, Mrs. Finch was beginning to wear on his nerves. "I knew everything about her. Everything that was important to know anyway."

  "Who goes there?” The sentry at the Fort called for the password, but Will could already hear the cry going out for Major Finch.

  "I'd best be saying goodbye," he said.

  "No, you must stay, and let us properly thank --” Before she completed the sentence, the door was thrown open and Alan Finch was pulling her into his arms.

  Will vanished and drifted away. In a minute, they'd all wonder what had become of the old man, but he doubted if they'd try too hard to find him.

  He looked back over his shoulder once, at Margery and her major embracing. Would she take his advice to talk to her husband?

  Would things have been different for him and Tessa if they'd talked? It hadn't seemed necessary at the time. He always knew how to take care of her, and she let him. Why should things be any different now that he'd passed on? He was still older than her, and wiser. He could still look after her. Of course he could.

  #

  Deering decided to stay at the fort, while Micah and Tessa elected to return home. Tessa rode sedately from the palisaded walls, but she felt inside as if she was racing toward the sanctuary of her home. She longed for the days when she had hidden there alone. The pain and confusion she felt right now seemed a poor trade compared to the peace she'd known then.

  Micah rode ahead of her, silent as a statue. She stared at his back, wondering what thoughts and emotions his impassive expression concealed. Even Will, for all his dour stubbornness, had never made her feel so at sea, not knowing what she should think or do.

  At the ranch, she left Micah to unsaddle the horses, and escaped to the house. She went through the motions of preparing supper, fighting a weariness that made her want to crawl beneath the covers and sleep. When she awoke, things might be normal again.

  The door opened and she heard Micah's boots scrape on the rug. Keeping her back to him, she measured cornmeal into a bowl and selected an egg from the basket on the counter. "Tessa, about Margery --" he began.

  The egg broke against the edge of the bowl, shattering instead of cracking, bits of shell drifting into the cornmeal, gooey white coating her fingers. She grabbed a rag and began cleaning up the mess. "I'm really busy right now," she said. "I don't have time to talk.” Plucking the last of the shell from the bowl, she dumped in a half cup of water and began beating the mixture furiously. "I have a million things to do to get ready for the Library Society meeting here tomorrow."

  He moved closer, casting his shadow over the table where she worked. She grippedthe fork tighter, beating the batter into toughness.

  "I just want you to know. It's over between us. It was over a long time before I came here."

  She slid the bowl onto the table, not trusting herself to hold it anymore. "Why do you want me to know that?"

  "Because it seems to matter to you."

  She grabbed a skillet from the stove and dumped the batter into it with jerky movements. "Well, you're wrong. It doesn't matter to me at all. What
you do is your own business. Why should I care at all?” She knew she was talking too much. She should be quiet, but she couldn't stem this flood of feeling that manifested itself in an outpouring of words.

  He came up behind her, close enough to touch her, but not touching. His breath stirred the hairs at the back of her neck, sending tremors down her spine. "It matters to you," he said. "Just like it matters to me that you didn't sleep with that brave who asked you."

  "No it doesn't," she lied, holding onto the edge of the table. "It doesn't matter."

  He said nothing for a long moment. She could feel the heat of his gaze on her, wiling her to turn and face him, but she was rooted to the floor, unable to move. Finally, he turned and walked out the door, closing it gently behind him.

  She sank into a chair and buried her face in her hands, not moving for a long time, until the cornbread started to burn, and she got up and threw it out.

  #

  The members of the Pony Springs Library Society began arriving at ten the next morning. Mamie Tucker, whose children were well enough to be left with their father for a few hours, arrived first in a trim black buggy, followed shortly by Ammie Smith and Ada Drake in the Drake's piano box buggy. Trudy Babcock, enveloped in a cloud of Jasmine Nights, steered her old-fashioned cart into the shade of an oak and issued stern instructions to Micah on the watering of her horses. Margery Finch arrived last, in an Army ambulance with two soldiers as escorts. She looked lovely as ever, in a yellow silk frock and matching bonnet, though Tessa wondered at the dark shadows beneath her eyes that a brave dusting of powder did little to conceal.

  The meeting convened in the parlor, where Tessa served tea and cakes. The women were gracious, complimenting her home and her hospitality. "That is such a beautiful gate at the entrance to your place," Ammie Smith said. "Wherever did you get it?"

  "Thank you. My husband made it shortly after we built the house."

  "Well, he was quite an artist, I'll say that," Miss Smith said.

  "Making a gate out of iron isn't such art, if you ask me," Trudy sniffed. "My Jackie could do the same, if he wanted to. If I lived this close to the reservation, I'd have an iron fence around my whole place.” She made a face at Tessa. "I don't see how some people can stand it."

  "I suppose all Indians aren't so horrible," Mrs. Tucker said. "Mr Fox was most gracious when he stabled my horses.” She spoke as if the observation surprised her.

  "For an Indian, he's one of the handsomest men I've seen.” Ammie Smith gave her a sly look. "Perhaps that's the real reason Tessa keeps him around."

  Tessa flushed and looked down at her lap. She'd hoped to be spared such talk today, but obviously that was not to be. "Is it true you visited an Indian tribe?" Trudy asked.

  She raised her head to find all eyes on her. The women's expressions ranged from shock to avid interest. "Yes," she reluctantly admitted. "I went there on Reverend Deering's behalf.” She cringed even as she told this half-truth. Never before had she been ashamed of her friendship with Sun Bear and his people.

  "What does Reverend Deering want with the Indians?" Ammie Smith asked.

  "He intends to build a chapel for the Indians and wanted to invite them to worship," Tessa answered.

  "A chapel for the Indians?" Trudy sounded incredulous. "What an odd idea."

  "He feels a call to minister to the Indians," Tessa explained, eager to draw attention from herself and Micah.

  "What a fine Christian gesture," Mrs. Drake said.

  Trudy stirred sugar into her tea. "I don't know, Ada. I rather think the heathens are a hopeless lot."

  "How did you come to know these Indians well enough to introduce them to Reverend Deering?"

  Mrs. Tucker's question caught Tessa off guard. "Oh. Well, my husband traded with them."

  "Your husband.” Trudy smiled into her teacup. "Why for a moment I'd almost forgotten --"

  "Ladies, I believe it's time to talk of the library.” Mrs. Drake came to Tessa's rescue. As president, she stood and called the meeting to order. The treasurer's report showed the fund raising was going well, with a generous donation from Major Finch's family, and another from the saloon owner, Mr. Hardy.

  "I suppose our husbands have contributed so much to his wealth, he feels he owes us.” Mrs. Tucker's remark was greeted by nervous laughter.

  Tessa excused herself to brew more tea. "I'll help," Margery said, following her into the kitchen.

  If Tessa harbored any lingering feelings of ill will toward Margery after a night of wrestling with her conscience, these vanished upon seeing her friend's woeful expression. Margery sank into a chair at the kitchen table, eyes downcast, shoulders slumped.

  Tessa put the kettle on to boil. "Are you all right?" she asked. "You look as though you've been crying."

  "It's just the blasted dust in the air.” Margery dashed a tear from her eye even as she spoke. "Oh, Tessa, Alan won't speak to me!"

  "He's just upset. He'll come around.” Tessa sat opposite Margery and regarded her across the table.

  She pulled a handkerchief from her handbag and dabbed her eyes. "He's practically put me under armed guard. He says I endangered the lives of everyone at the fort with my foolishness."

  "You frightened him yesterday, running off like that."

  "I've said I'm sorry. He refuses to believe me."

  "Keep saying it. He'll forgive you soon.” But Tessa wondered. Had Alan Finch hardened his heart, perhaps in an effort not to be hurt again?

  Margery twisted the handkerchief in her hands and gave Tessa a sheepish look. "He says he told you about my affair with Micah Fox."

  Tessa looked away, afraid to speak.

  "It was a long time ago, I promise."

  "When you came here that first day, you didn't care about seeing me, did you?" Tessa said. "You wanted to see him."

  "I didn't know you then. And I thought it could be the same between us as it was before.” She looked down at her hands, folded on the table. "But it couldn't. Not when he. . . well, not now that I'm married to Alan."

  Something in her voice broke through the brittle shell Tessa had tried to erect around her feelings. An unexpected tenderness toward the woman in front of her seeped through. "You really do love him, don't you?"

  Margery nodded. "I love Alan. I may not always show it, but I do. And I want him to love me."

  Tessa leaned forward and took her friend's hands. "He does love you. I'm sure of it."

  The pain around Margery's eyes did not ease. "But I want him to show it. Is that too much to ask?"

  "I wish I knew what to tell you, but I don't."

  "The old hermit told me I should talk to Alan, explain how I feel."

  Tessa sat up straighter. "What old hermit?"

  "I met him yesterday, just wandering out on the prairie. He helped us find our way back to the fort, then just disappeared.” She shrugged. "I guess he was uncomfortable around the crowd."

  "What did this. . . this hermit look like?"

  "Oh, he was kind of a stocky fellow, barrel-chested, with silver hair and pale skin. Didn't look like he'd spent much time in the sun."

  Tessa sighed. Leave it to Will to become mixed up in this as well. "And he told you you should talk to Alan?"

  She nodded. "He said Alan couldn't know how I was feeling unless I told him. But now he won't even listen to me.” Her face crumpled and she held her handkerchief to her eyes once more.

  Tessa squeezed her hands, hoping to offer some comfort that words could not give.

  "At least I have you to talk to. That helps.” Margery straightened and offered her a brave smile. "And knowing you don't hate me."

  Tessa shook her head. "I could never hate you. I don't think anyone could."

  "I'd better go wash my face before I go back to the other ladies. I must look a mess."

  "You can go up to my room if you want. I'll just finish with the tea and be right out."

  "Thanks.” She slipped out of the room and Tessa began arran
ging clean cups on a tray.

  "Do you need any help with that, dear?” Tessa looked up as Ada Drake came through the doorway. The older woman looked around at the orderly kitchen and nodded approvingly. "You've done very well today," she said.

  "Thank you.” Tessa wondered what in particular she'd done to deserve this blessing. Was it the Darjeeling tea or the frosted tea cakes?

  Mrs. Drake moved closer. "I've taken a liking to you," she said. "So I hope you won't mind a bit of unsolicited advice."

  Tessa shook her head. What could she say, especially when Mrs. Drake spoke so kindly?

  "Mind you, I'm telling you what I'd tell my own daughter.” Mrs. Drake patted her hand. "You must get rid of that half breed. He'll cause nothing but trouble for you."

  The words stunned Tessa. "I. . . I can't just send Mr. Fox away," she stammered.

  "Of course you can.” Mrs. Drake nodded firmly. "If you need help, find an older man, or better yet, a married couple. Mexicans make decent servants, if you can't find Negroes. As long as you have that half breed living here, people will never stop talking about you."

  Tessa stared at the older woman and felt a sinking feeling in her stomach. Mrs. Drake was right. As long as she and Micah were living here together, no matter how innocent their actual relationship, those with an inclination to speak ill of her would never stop doing so. She could rail against the unfairness of it all she liked, but she couldn't change the way society operated. "Thank you for your concern," she managed to answer.

  Mrs. Drake nodded again. "I'd hate to see a young woman like you ruined at such a young age. You've made your share of mistakes, but now you seem inclined to make up for them. I'd like to help you get started on the right path.” She offered a kind smile. "Now let's have some tea, shall we?"

  Tessa picked up the tray and followed Mrs. Drake from the room. The older woman's words hammered in her head. Get rid of Micah. How could she? But then, maybe she'd done her best to run him off already. She'd lied when she told him she didn't care. But lies were like bullets fired from a gun -- you could never take them back once they'd been let loose.

  #

  Micah watered the horses belonging to the women from town and parked their buggies in the shade. He ignored those who ignored him, and gave no more than a polite nod to those few who batted their eyes and attempted to flirt. He knew they saw him as no more than an oddity or an entertainment. He was not a part of their world, and never would be.

  After seeing to the last of the animals, he walked to the house to eat. He thought he would slip into the kitchen and out again before anyone knew he was there. Just as he mounted the first step to the back door, he heard voices. He started to turn away, but the mention of his own name stopped him. Moving lightly as a cat, he crept forward and listened.

  "As long as you have that half breed living here, people will never stop talking about you.” He didn't recognize the woman's voice, though he wasn't likely to forget the self-righteous timbre of it.

  Tessa mumbled something unintelligible, and the woman's reply was just as indistinct -- something about Tessa's past? Micah leaned against the wall by the door and listened to footsteps leaving the room: an older woman's heavy tread, and the lighter tapping of Tessa's heels on the polished floorboards.

  An old anger flared in his chest as he stood there. How many times had he been in this position, forever on the outside, looking in, moving on the perimeter of people's lives? And yet he'd never stopped trying to force his way among them, foolishly thinking he could somehow earn their acceptance. He might as well try to change a law of nature as try to alter the rules of society.

  He straightened, staring at the back door, but not really seeing it. The old woman was right about one thing. He and Tessa didn't belong together. Not in any way that was lasting and real. It was time they accepted that, and got on with their lives.

  He'd promised not to leave her -- not yet. But they couldn't go on like this, both wanting each other, mistaking the desire for physical passion for something more enduring.

  Things had been so much easier with Margery. There'd never been any pretense between them, and little damage when their time together came to an end. That was the way it should be between two people from different worlds -- two people like him and Tessa.

  He turned from the house, a new resolve quickening his steps. He knew how to handle things now. He'd arrange it so he and Tessa both got what they wanted: a temporary relationship, to meet a physical need. And when the time came for him to go, they'd both be satisfied. Or at least a certain restlessness would be calmed within them. As for the deeper longing that nagged at the marrow, they'd have to look elsewhere for that, among their own kind, however that might be defined.

 
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