A willing spirit a ghost.., p.18
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       A Willing Spirit, A Ghostly Romance, p.18

           Cynthia Sterling
 
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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

  Tessa had heard people talk of women glowing. Brides supposedly glowed, as did expectant mothers. She'd never been sure what the expression meant until the next morning when she woke. She felt warm and filled with light, as if a candle burned somewhere within her. She woke smiling, and felt as if she couldn't wipe the expression from her lips if she tried.

  She rolled over, reaching for Micah, but found only the empty pillow, still warm from his head. The unexpected emptiness startled her, but reassurance came quickly. He'd probably just gone down to feed the horses, leaving her to sleep in, undisturbed.

  Wanting to repay this thoughtfulness with some kindness of her own, she dressed quickly and went downstairs to make coffee. When it was done, she poured two cups and carried them out to the barn.

  The Morgan gelding leaned over its stall and neighed in greeting, then kicked the boards as if impatient for breakfast. Surprised, Tessa glanced over into the hayrack. Empty. Fear flickered up her spine, but she quickly stamped it out. Perhaps Micah planned to turn the horses out to pasture shortly.

  Her gaze automatically moved to the place where he kept his saddle. The sight of the empty rack took her breath. He's just out for a morning ride, she told herself. Maybe he even rode out to check on the fire.

  Determined to believe this, she found herself nonetheless headed toward the tack room, seeking the reassurance of the sight of his possessions arranged around the room.

  The neatly made bunk looked no different. An old harness rested beside the bunk, ready for repair. The books she'd loaned him were stacked on a crate, along with an old oil lamp and a neat tower of gold coins.

  She gasped when she saw the money, and began to shake so violently the coffee sloshed onto the floor, splattering onto her boots. Setting the cup aside, she rushed forward and gathered up the coins, counting and recounting them. A hundred dollars. Twice the price she could expect to get for one of her horses. She turned and stumbled toward the stalls. Racing past each open door, she counted, then ran to the corral. She didn't have to do more than glance at the horses milling there to know that Pigeon, Micah's favorite, was missing.

  She clenched the coins in her hand, the money burning into her skin. The pain stabbed her as she closed her eyes, and images of last night rose to taunt her: Micah's hand, dark against the paleness of her breast; his hair falling like a thick curtain around her; his face, flushed with passion at the moment of climax. He had loved her so completely, and yet left her without so much as a note of explanation.

  "Nooo!” The keening wail tore from her throat as she hurled the coins over the fence, into the dust and straw and manure of the corral. She started back toward the barn, intending to saddle a horse and ride after him, but she stopped before she even pulled open the door. She wouldn't stoop to go after a man who didn't want her.

  She wouldn't risk seeing rejection in his eyes, or hearing from his own lips that their time together had meant nothing.

  Blindly, she set about feeding and watering the horses. She would go on. The daily chores of looking after the animals, cooking and cleaning, sewing and harvesting, did not wait for grief to heal or pain to dull.

  As she worked, she made a list of things to do, tasks to fill the time before she had to face her empty bed again. If she had a choice, she would work through the night, anything to avoid those dark hours when she knew from experience the pain would cut the deepest.

  She emptied a feed bucket and pulled her mind back to her mental list. The Library Society meeting was this morning. She'd need to arrange her hair and dress to drive into town. Perhaps Margery would come to visit this afternoon. . .

  The feed bucket clanged and bounced across the dirt when she dropped it. Margery! She and Major Finch were no doubt cursing her soundly for failing to retrieve them from their prison as promised.

  She hurried to the house and collected the makings of a cold breakfast: bread and cheese and jam, and the coffee pot, which she wrapped in a towel to keep warm and stuck in the basket with the food. She stowed this in the wagon, then hitched the horses and set out, driving as fast as she dared toward the old dugout.

  The log was still in place in front of the door. Tessa reined the horses to a halt and listened, expecting angry cries, but the cabin sat silent. Setting the brake, she climbed down and listened at the door. At first she heard nothing, then thought she detected the low murmur of a man's voice, and a woman's answering giggle.

  She dragged the log away from the door, then knocked. "Margery? Major Finch? It's me, Tessa."

  She was about to knock again, when the door opened slightly. Major Finch stood before her, dressed only in trousers, his hair disheveled. "We're not, um, ready just yet.” He glanced over his shoulder. In the dimness, Tessa thought she saw Margery sitting up in bed, swathed in a sheet.

  "Tell her to leave the food and come back tomorrow," Margery called, laughing.

  "I've brought breakfast." Tessa forced a smile, relieved to see that at least someone's love affair was going well.

  Major Finch returned the smile. "I confess I have worked up an appetite. Give us a minute.” He shut the door gently and Tessa retreated to the wagon to wait.

  She studied the dugout, which each year seemed to melt further into the hillside. When she'd first seen it, she'd been dismayed at the thought of living in little better than a hole in the ground. But with the resilience of youth, she'd made the hovel a home. She'd fought off loneliness and despair with the reminder that she had Will; that was all that mattered. In those halcyon days, she'd never imagined she'd end up alone.

  She looked up as the door to the cabin opened. Major Finch and Margery emerged, fully dressed, faces wreathed in smiles. "I'm glad to see you both looking so well," Tessa said.

  The major glanced at Margery. "We ought to be angry with you for tricking us this way."

  "But we aren't," Margery said, shaking her head.

  Tessa took the basket of food from the front of the wagon and unpacked it on the tailgate. She served cheese sandwiches and coffee, while the lovers exchanged long glances and smiles. She felt she could have driven off and neither of them would have noticed until some time later. "I'm glad to see you've worked out your differences," she said.

  Margery nodded. "We've had a long talk and I understand now that Alan was really just afraid of losing me.” She reached up and caressed his shoulder while a red flush crept up his neck. "And he knows now that I just want to feel important to him."

  He took her hand and kissed the knuckles, tenderness filling his eyes. "We've agreed to take time for each other every day from now on."

  Tessa looked down, fighting tears. Her friends' happiness made her own misery that much sharper, as if she were seeing acted out before her all that might have been, if only --

  "Tessa? Is something wrong?"

  She shook her head, even as tears rolled down her cheeks. "I. . . I'm fine," she stammered, even though everything about her betrayed her lie.

  "What is it?” Margery's voice rose in alarm. "Where's Micah?” She looked around. "Why isn't he with you?"

  "He. . . he left.” She had to squeeze the words past a knot in her throat. Just saying them was like facing the reality of his leaving for the first time all over again.

  "Oh, honey!” Margery gathered her close, wrapping her arms around her like a mother comforting a small child. It took all of Tessa's self-control not to dissolve into sobs.

  The major looked on, his face bearing the tortured expression of a strong man faced with a situation he cannot handle. "Do you want me to go after him? I'd be happy to give him a taste of his own medicine, so to speak. After all, I feel I owe you both for bringing Margery and me back together."

  Tessa tried to stem the tide of tears with her fingers pressed against her eyes. "No, thank you.” She attempted a smile and failed. "It's kind of you to offer, though."

  Margery patted her shoulder. "Let Alan drive you back to the ranch so you can rest."

  "
I don't need rest," she said, though she suddenly felt as if she were dragging the weight of a whole building behind her. But the thought of climbing into bed again terrified her. It would be too easy to pull up the covers and never come out to face the world again.

  She allowed Alan to help her into the wagon. Margery climbed up to sit between her and the major. "The Library Society meeting is today," Tessa said once they were on their way.

  "I'd forgotten all about it.” Margery gave the major a sly smile. "I suppose I've had other things on my mind."

  "They're going to finalize the plans today.” Tessa sniffed and smoothed her skirt. "For the board and the building."

  "Are you going to go?” Margery asked.

  She nodded. "Yes. I think it would be good. . . to get out of the house."

  Margery patted her hand. "Of course. I'll come with you."

  "You don't have to do that," Tessa said. "Stay with the major. I know it's what you really want."

  "Yes, it's what I want. But I also want to help Alan with his career. If that means smiling and making small talk with the town dames, so be it.”

  "You'll have them all eating out of the palm of your hand.” The major patted her knee. She leaned across and kissed him on the cheek.

  Tessa felt her heart pinch. Would she ever know that kind of comfortable, familiar love again -- the kind that comes from knowing a person for years, knowing them inside and out, through shared experiences and goals?

  "If you'll loan me a horse to ride to the fort, I'll return for Margery this afternoon," the Major said.

  "Of course."

  He saddled a gray gelding and departed with a kiss for Margery and a tip of his hat to Tessa. When he was out of sight, Margery turned to Tessa again. "Out with the whole story. You don't have to be strong with me. Heaven knows I've cried on your shoulder enough. It's time for me to return the favor."

  Somehow the tears came easier now, providing an unexpected release. When she could find words, she told Margery about waking alone after a wonderful night with Micah, and finding the stack of gold coins in the barn. "Why couldn't he at least leave me a note?" she asked.

  Margery shook her head. "He probably did this out of some noble, misplaced idea of love. He wanted to protect you from something, or save you the trouble of something else. Just like Alan thought he could protect me by sending me away. Men can be so foolish."

  "And yet we still love them," Tessa sobbed, with a fresh flood of tears.

  Margery gathered her close again, rocking her back and forth. "Yes, we do love them," she whispered. "Yes, we do."

  #

  Tessa's tears were like salt on a wound to Will, stinging him with every drop. He circled around her, searching his mind for some way to distract her. To comfort her.

  But in the end, he knew he didn't have that power in him. It was Micah Fox she wanted. Fox she needed.

  Last night, lying there with Fox as the fire raged over them, he'd realized a new respect for the man. They had more in common than he'd wanted to admit at first. They were both stubborn, refusing to back down. And they'd both won Tessa's love, in spite of their flaws.

  He stared at her, feeling a tightness in his throat -- an urge to cry and rage at God for bringing them to this impasse. In all the time since his death, he'd been accepting of his fate, grateful that at least he'd been allowed this in-between state of being, so that he had not left the life he loved, and the woman he loved, entirely.

  Now he only cursed his helplessness. If only he could help Tessa. But he was tired. So tired.

  #

  The Library Society meeting assembled in the home of Trudy Babcock. Tessa and Margery joined the others in the parlor, balancing china cups of tea and plates of delicate petit fours, exchanging small talk with the other women in a ritual Tessa suddenly found unbearably boring.

  Reverend Deering entered the room shortly before the meeting was to begin. He wore the same rumpled suit he'd had on the day before, the smell of smoke still lingering about him. He'd combed his hair, but haphazardly, as if managed without a mirror and without care. Despite this carelessness, and the weariness he must have felt, his eyes were alive with purpose.

  He walked to the front of the room and cleared his throat. "I'd like to address this group for a moment, if I may," he said.

  "By all means, Reverend," Trudy said. She settled into a chair nearby and gave him an encouraging nod.

  He looked out over them, and folded his hands behind his back as if about to give his Sunday sermon. "As most of you know by now, the chapel I built for the Indians burned last night."

  A murmur rose up among the women. Some of them had not yet heard the news and they were filled with questions.

  Deering waited for silence. "There has been some discussion that it may have been burned by vandals," he continued. "Whatever hand set the fire, I see it now as a message from God."

  More discussion among the ladies. Tessa smiled in spite of her grief. Only Deering would see this awful thing as a sign of direction.

  "I came here because I felt a call to work as a missionary to the Indians.” He captured their attention once more. "I realize now that I was attempting to wade into the river without getting my feet wet, so to speak. I expected the Indians to come to me to hear the message in the way I wanted to present it. I now know that a missionary is charged to go into the world, in this case the world of the Indians, and to bring the message to them in a way that will be meaningful to them.

  "Therefore, as of today, I am resigning my position as pastor of the Pony Springs church. I've already spoke to Robert Neighbors, who oversees the Indian reservations, about working as chaplain there. I hope you will understand why I have done this."

  The women raised their voices in protest and confusion. Tessa remained silent, nodding to herself. Despite everything that had happened, she couldn't help but feel that this was right. Reverend Deering had made some mistakes, but he was committed to his work. He would help the Indians all he could. They, in turn, would teach him.

  "I'm sorry I can't stay and visit longer, ladies, but I must be going. I have much to do to prepare for my new work.” He bid them farewell and departed, with much lively discussion in his wake.

  Mrs. Drake rose and raised her hands for their attention. "I believe we should get started," she directed. "Mrs. Tucker, would you present the treasurer's report?"

  Mamie Tucker stood and read from the sheet of paper in her hand. "As of August tenth, we have collected four hundred and sixteen dollars in cash and a number of books donated from citizens' personal collections."

  Applause greeted this news. Mrs. Tucker smiled and sat down.

  "Now we'll have a report from the building committee," Mrs. Drake said. "Mrs. Babcock?"

  Trudy perched a pair of half glasses on her nose and reviewed her notes. "In preparation for building, we have decided to appoint a board to oversee operation of the library," she said. "Various citizens, including our most generous donor, Mr. Hardy, have agreed to serve.” With a stern look, she quelled the murmurs that greeted this news. "But we'll also need two members from this group," she concluded.

  Margery's hand shot up. "I nominate Tessa Bright to serve on the new Library Board."

  Trudy looked as if she'd just swallowed half a bottle of Hostetter's Stomach Bitters. "I don't believe that would be appropriate."

  Ammie Smith raised her hand. "I second the nomination."

  Tessa looked around, flustered, "I really don't --"

  "Hush.” Margery took her hand and squeezed it. "You'd be perfect for the job."

  Trudy raised her head and regarded Tessa as if she were a particularly disagreeable child. "Board members must be examples to the community," she lectured. "They should be of exceptional moral character, unquestionable loyalty and impeccable reputation."

  Margery rose, her gaze pinning Trudy with a frightening intensity. "Are you saying Mr. Hardy meets those qualifications and Tessa doesn't?"

  Trudy
frowned. "Mrs. Bright is a single woman. She must naturally be held to a higher standard."

  "In the time I've known her, she has been one of the most giving, hard-working, caring people I've ever met," Margery declared.

  The lines etched on Trudy's forehead deepened. "I'm not surprised someone like you would be taken in by such a shallow thing as appearances. Even Reverend Deering has apparently mistaken youth and beauty for character. However, I know better.” Face alight with ill-concealed hatred, she turned to Tessa once more. "Ever since you came to town, you've been pulling the wool over people's eyes. I won't allow it to go on any longer. You are carrying on an illicit relationship with that half-breed who works for you."

  A gasp rose up from the assembled women, followed by a buzz of conversation.

  "If you are referring to Mr. Fox --” Margery began.

  "I don't care to know his name," Trudy said loftily. "He is a half-breed vagrant, from the lowest level of society. I could never condone --"

  Tessa rose, heart pounding, and faced the older woman. Her knees shook beneath her skirts, from a mixture of fear and sheer rage. "Are you saying if I discontinued my relationship with Mr. Fox, I'd be welcome to serve on your board?" she asked.

  Trudy's expression did not waver. "That would be one condition before we could give serious consideration to your nomination."

  Tessa nodded. She turned and looked out over the room. Margery still stood, her eyes full of sympathy for her friend. Ammie Smith clenched her hands in her lap, her cheeks bright pink with feeling. Some of the women looked away, ashamed, while others met her gaze with looks of righteous indignation.

  "When I was first invited to join this group, I was flattered.” Tessa's voice shook, but she made herself go on. "I wanted to be just like all of you, involved, part of the community, with friends all around me.” She swallowed hard, and continued. "For years I felt excluded, because of things I'd done or who I was. So I was grateful to have another chance.” Her gaze settled on Margery. Dear Margery, who nodded encouragingly, and gave her the strength to continue. "Now that you've let me in, now that you've made me one of you, I can't imagine what the attraction was."

  She gathered her skirts and walked from the room, head high, tears blurring her vision. It didn't matter. She didn't care to see in their eyes what they thought of her now. She had lost Will. She had lost Micah. She had lost everything that mattered to her. The opinion of these women was the least of her concerns.

 
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