A willing spirit a ghost.., p.5
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       A Willing Spirit, A Ghostly Romance, p.5

           Cynthia Sterling
 
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CHAPTER FIVE

  Micah closed the gate and rode down the drive alongside Tessa's wagon. "You're riding Pigeon," she said. "How did you manage that?"

  "I think we've come to an understanding.” He reached down and stroked the mare's neck.

  "But how?” Goodness knows, she'd spent plenty of hours working with the stubborn animal, with little results.

  "Like this." He flashed the briefest of smiles and turned the mare around until she faced the wagon. With a nudge of his heels, he forced her to back up. Pigeon tossed her head and tried to turn, but he kept her in line. Now why didn't I think of that? Tessa mused. Horses hate to back up. Pigeon would probably do anything, including heading away from her beloved barn, to keep from being forced into this unnatural position.

  The sight of the two of them, backing down the drive, struck her as the funniest thing she'd seen in ages. Laughter bubbled out of her, straining the lacings of her corset. Micah turned the horse and fell in beside the wagon once more. "What's so funny?" he asked, grinning at her.

  "You are.” She fanned her face. "Oh, I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard."

  "Then I'd say you haven't laughed nearly enough. Glad I could oblige.” He lowered his head in a mocking bow, and slanted her a look from beneath the shadowing brim of his hat that made her catch her breath. When had she ever felt such a mix of emotions -- joy and abandon and even fear, from being around one person? Micah Fox had a peculiar effect on her, as intoxicating as wine, and probably just as dangerous.

  She looked away, and searched for a safe topic of conversation. The deer haunch hanging from his saddle horn caught her eye. "Where did you get the venison?"

  He frowned. "A friend of yours brought it by.” He didn't look very pleased with the gift.

  She knit her brow in thought. "Who was that?” Surely no one from town. . .

  "He said his name was Esahiwi -- Drinking Wolf."

  "Of course.” She relaxed against the seat of the wagon and smiled. She hadn't seen Drinking Wolf and his people for a while. Apparently they were back on the reservation after what must have been a successful hunt, if they had venison to share.

  The deer haunch bounced awkwardly against Pigeon's neck, making the mare skittish. "How do you come to know a Comanche brave?" Micah sounded irritable, though whether with her or the horse, she couldn't be sure.

  "He was my husband's friend, really," she said. "Sometimes he brings me meat."

  "Why?"

  She frowned. Why was Micah in such a surly mood all of a sudden? Was he angry because she'd gone to town without him? "I suppose because he knows I live alone."

  She drew the wagon to a stop beside the corral. Micah swung down off his horse and came around to help her alight. "I thought the tribes were confined to the reservations.” His grip on her hand was firmer than usual, and instead of releasing her right away once she was on the ground, he continued to hold her. Was he concerned about her association with the Indians? She didn't know whether to be touched or annoyed.

  "Most of the Comanches aren't," she said. "Or they wander off and on as it suits them. They leave to hunt and trade."

  "And to raid into Mexico."

  She nodded. "That too.” She'd heard plenty of stories about the atrocities the Indians perpetrated, but when she was face-to-face with her friends, she had a difficult time reconciling those reports with the reality she knew. Drinking Wolf and his people had been nothing but friends to her.

  "I don't imagine the townspeople have anything good to say about that."

  She eased herself out of Micah's grasp. "Some of them don't have anything good to say about anything, so I can't see how it makes much difference."

  He turned away and busied himself unhitching the wagon. "How did it go this morning, at church?"

  "All right. Better than I expected. Some women asked me to join a group that's working to establish a lending library in town."

  "Ah, well, you're on your way to being a society matron, then." He began unfastening the traces.

  She laughed, and the tight expression on his face eased some, as did the tension between them. "I did make one new friend."

  He glanced up from his work. "Who was that?"

  "The new commander at Fort Belknap. Major Alan Finch. I almost ran into the Army ambulance he was riding in as I was leaving the church."

  He looked away, his expression hidden. "Not exactly an auspicious beginning to a friendship."

  "Not exactly. But then he offered to drive me to the stage stop, where he was going to meet his wife coming in on the afternoon stage.” She brushed the powdery dust of the road from her arm. Yes, it was definitely time she added some color to her wardrobe. Next time she was in town, she'd look for a pattern.

  "Did you meet the major's wife, too?"

  "No. But I hope to soon. The major said he would have me to dinner to properly introduce me. Her name is Margery."

  The coupling chains clanged as they slipped from his hand and hit the ground. He fumbled twice retrieving them. Tessa was startled to see that his face had blanched two shades paler. "What's wrong?" she asked, rushing to his side.

  "Nothing.” He turned away from her. "Just overheated, maybe. Was the major's wife a pretty woman?"

  "Oh yes. Lovely red hair and that kind of flawless skin redheads sometimes have.” She smiled, remembering. "They make a handsome couple."

  "I imagine they do."

  She peered at him. "Are you sure you're all right? You look very pale."

  "I'm fine!" he snapped. He took a deep breath and spoke again in a softer tone. "Why don't you go into the house and change? I'll cut up some of this venison for dinner and hang the rest in the smokehouse."

  "All right.” She turned toward the house, but paused on the porch to look back at him. Why was Micah acting so curiously all of a sudden? Had Drinking Wolf said something to upset him? Or was Tessa herself to blame?

  #

  A week passed, and the subject of Drinking Wolf and the Indians did not come up again. Micah finished bringing in the hay and Tessa dried a bushel of green beans from the garden, stringing them together to hang under the eaves in the attic. In the evenings, she sat on the front porch and sewed until the last light faded. Sometimes Micah sat with her, mending harness or whittling clothespins from scraps of wood. The hours passed in companionable silence, though sometimes Tessa found herself watching him, wondering what secrets he kept locked inside of him, what hurts she had only glimpsed in the stubborn set of his mouth or the shadows that sometimes haunted his eyes.

  Those shadows loomed dark as he stood with Tessa on the front porch the next Saturday afternoon, waiting for the Army ambulance that would take her to dinner with Major Finch and his wife. "Have you ever been to Fort Belknap before?" he asked.

  She arranged the skirts of her new dress around her. Made of lavender calico sprigged with a design of green leaves, it featured the full gathered back, called a Watteau pleat, that she had seen on the fashionable town women last Sunday. "My husband went sometimes, delivering items he'd made for the Army, but I never went. I'm looking forward to it."

  "Don't expect much.” He stared toward the approaching dust cloud which signaled the arrival of her coach, the corners of his mouth downturned in an expression of disapproval. "Every fort I've ever been in was little better than a bunch of thrown-together huts around a barren parade ground."

  She glanced at him in surprise. "What were you doing that caused you to be in forts?"

  "I was an Army scout."

  The Army often hired Indians to serve as trackers and interpreters, so this news shouldn't have surprised her. But why hadn't he bothered to mention it to her before? Maybe it was because his experience hadn't been a pleasant one. He certainly didn't look too happy now. "Why did you decide to leave the job?" she asked.

  His lips formed a narrow line. "It was time to move on."

  There was more to the story than that, she was sure, but apparently this was all he was wi
lling to share. The knowledge stung. Would she ever really know the man beside her, or would she have to learn to settle for crumbs of information like this? Why did it matter to her anyway? Micah had his life to lead; she had hers. She adjusted her shawl around her shoulders. "I left your dinner in the pie safe. I don't imagine I'll be home terribly late, but in any case, you needn't wait up.” She felt foolish as soon as the words were out of her mouth. She sounded like a mother, or a wife. Why should Micah, her hired hand, care to wait up for her?

  The Army ambulance's approach saved her from further conversation. They waited in silence until it rolled to a stop before her. A corporal stepped down to wish her a good evening and open the door. She turned to say goodbye to Micah, but he was gone. The thought that he hadn't waited to see her off disturbed her, though that too was as much foolishness as her telling him not to wait up.

  Such unsettling thoughts vanished by the time the ambulance rolled through the picketed gates at Fort Belknap two hours later. True to Micah's prediction, the compound had little to recommend it. All the buildings were constructed of unpeeled logs chinked with mud. Some of the poorer quarters had only blankets for door and window coverings. Rows of canvas tents stretched out behind the wooden structures, their guy ropes festooned with drying laundry. The palisade itself was an unimposing fence of sticks and brush that served more as boundary marker than defense. But the major's simple house was freshly whitewashed, and inside, the rooms were festive with candles and vases of wildflowers arranged on tables and windowsills.

  "Mrs. Bright, how wonderful of you to come.” Major Finch greeted her at the door and bowed low over her hand. "Allow me to introduce my wife, Margery."

  Margery Finch had the porcelain skin and sapphire eyes of a French fashion doll. Even in a new dress, Tessa suddenly felt very drab next to her hostess. But the major's wife welcomed her with a warm smile. "I'm delighted to meet you, Mrs. Bright. I understand you swept my husband off his feet when he met you."

  "Rather, I almost ran him down," Tessa said as a private took her shawl.

  "Let me send one of the boys for a glass of wine for you," Mrs. Finch said.

  "I'll get it, ma'am!” A young corporal sprinted from her side. As Tessa followed her hostess into the parlor, she noticed a group of young men following them, like a bevy of courtiers in service to a queen.

  Though in residence scarcely a week, Margery Finch had obviously made herself at home. She introduced Tessa to various captains and lieutenants and the handful of military wives and daughters in attendance, never fumbling for a name. Everyone was quite cordial, though the men in particular barely glanced at Tessa. Margery garnered all the attention in the room, like an exotic bird set down in the midst of sparrows. "You seem to be settling in nicely," Tessa observed when they had completed a circuit of the room.

  Her hostess smiled. "I've lived on Army posts most of my life, did Alan mention that?"

  Tessa tried to hide her surprise. "No, he didn't say."

  "My father was a career Army man. My mother died young, so Daddy took me with him wherever he was posted, except for brief periods of schooling.” She surveyed the room, a half-smile on her full, red lips. "I feel at home here."

  Tessa sipped the wine the corporal brought her and thought how Margery Finch was truly in her element. The Major had nothing to worry about.

  "Military posts always have such a number of good looking men, don't you think?" Mrs. Finch said suddenly.

  The abrupt turn in the conversation startled Tessa. "Y. . . yes, I suppose so," she murmured.

  Mrs. Finch gave her a beatific smile. "I understand you're a widow. Perhaps I could arrange an introduction. . . "

  "Oh, no. Thank you, Mrs. Finch, but --"

  "Mrs. Finch, I --" A portly lieutenant with a thick black moustache approached them.

  "Please, call me Margery.” She smiled at the man, and Tessa wasn't sure if the instruction was for him or herself. The lieutenant apparently had no such doubts. "Margery, then, may I refill your glass?"

  While Margery dealt with the crowd of men vying for her attention, Tessa sought out a quiet alcove in the hallway. She was aware that her movements did not go completely unnoticed. As her hostess had observed, there were a number of handsome men in the room, and few women, so that with the least encouragement, she could have attracted an entourage of her own.

  She stood in her corner and sipped her wine more rapidly than was perhaps gracious, and avoided making eye contact with anyone. The thought of being 'on the market' so to speak, unnerved her, though underneath the nervousness ran a current of anticipation. What would it be like to have a man court her again -- to have that power to please and persuade, and to be pleased and persuaded in turn. . .

  "How nice to see you again, Mrs. Bright."

  The wine sloshed in her glass as she looked up and found herself face to face with Reverend Deering. "I hope you are doing well," he said, smiling.

  "Quite well, Reverend." She set her glass aside on a table. "And you?"

  "Quite well. Major and Mrs. Finch are a charming couple.” He leaned closer. "I've been meaning to come visit with you again soon. I have some questions to ask Mr. Fox."

  She eyed him warily. "What kind of questions?"

  "I'm trying to learn more about Indians. I have an idea for a ministry. . . "

  She bit back her smile. Of course. The Reverend was passionate about Indians. Why had Will ever thought to turn those passions toward her? As the Reverend sailed into an explanation of his plans for Christianizing the reservation tribes, Tessa studied him. He was undoubtedly a handsome man, intelligent, kind, and respectful. As Will had said, the perfect husband, except that he did absolutely nothing to stir her blood, to make her think of him as a man, and not just a minister.

  Perhaps it wasn't right to think such things. Especially about a man of God. "Mrs. Bright, are you all right?” Deering stopped his monologue and peered at her. "You seem rather flushed."

  She was saved from having to answer by the appearance in the doorway of a private announcing dinner was served.

  #

  Will watched the Army ambulance pull away, carrying Tessa with it. He'd started to go with her, to meet the new major and his wife, so to speak, and to look up a few old friends. But then he'd noticed Micah Fox scowling over by the corral, and determined he had other work to do. He'd promised Tessa he wouldn't run Fox off, but that didn't mean he couldn't do a little to discourage the man's feelings for Tessa. It didn't take a ghost to know the man was starting to think of her in ways that would come to no good end if not nipped in the bud.

  He concentrated on materializing, working up a strong mental picture of his former physical self. It seemed to take longer these days, as if the image of the old Will was fading. Haunting somebody as a bodiless voice was a lot easier, but it wouldn't do for what he had in mind for Micah Fox.

  At last he had everything in place, and he strolled over to where Fox was working a grindstone, sharpening a scythe. "I see she left you here to do the work while she went off to the festivities," he shouted over the whir of the grindstone.

  The scythe skidded against the stone, nicking the tip of Fox's finger. He sucked at the cut and glared at Will. "Did anyone ever tell you it's not polite to sneak up on people?"

  Will shrugged. "What do hermits care for manners?"

  Fox wrapped a handkerchief around the bleeding finger. "What do you want?"

  "I had a hankering to go into town and I came to see if you wanted to go with me."

  Fox's expression didn't lighten any. "What are you going to do in town?"

  "It's Saturday night. Thought I might get drunk.” He leaned toward Fox, a fellow conspirator. "When's the last time you got drunk?"

  Fox shook his head. "Thanks for asking, but I'm not interested."

  "Why not?” He looked down the road, in the direction Tessa had traveled. "She's been working you mighty hard. You deserve a night off. She's sure going to be having her own fun ton
ight."

  Fox looked up. Will could almost read his thoughts. He was thinking Tessa wouldn't like it if she came home and found him drunk. "Hey, she pays your wages, she don't run your life," Will said. "Every man's entitled to blow off steam, tie one on now and then."

  He followed Fox into the barn and watched him hang the scythe on a nail on the wall. He knew by the set of the man's shoulders that he had him then, so he wasn't surprised when Fox turned to him and said. "All right. I'll go with you.” He headed toward the horse stalls. "You know how to ride?"

  Hmmm. Here was a problem he hadn't anticipated. No horse on earth was going to let his icy self on its back. "I can ride well enough, but I can't stay in the saddle when I'm drunk," he said. "I think I'll just walk."

  Fox shrugged. "Suit yourself.” He went into the corral and caught the strawberry roan mare.

  "That horse is a runaway," Will observed. "Better choose another."

  "This one'll do."

  Will melted into the shadows and let him get the saddle on and the girth tightened before he showed himself again. Fox didn't know it, but he was going to be in for a rough ride to town, with a ghost walking along beside him.

  #

  The damask-covered dining table filled the room, china and silver gleaming in the lamplight. Margery Finch presided at one end of the table, the Major at the other, smiling at the arrayed guests, their gaze frequently flitting to one another.

  Tessa was seated at Margery's end of the table, with Reverend Deering on one side and a balding gentleman introduced to her as Sergeant Peterson on the other. "The man across from you is Lieutenant Hamilton," Peterson explained in low tones as the first course was served. "He has his eye on Carmen Miller, the young woman to his left. She's the daughter of the red-headed lieutenant at the end of the table.” His eyes twinkled as he helped himself to soup. "Her mother is on Hamilton's right, just to keep an eye on the young couple. Next to her is Hamilton's father, Major Hamilton, who would like nothing better than to strike up an alliance with Mrs. Lieutenant Miller."

  Tessa fought back a smile and accepted a dinner roll from a silver tray. "My goodness, how do you know so much, Sergeant?'

  He gave her a sly smile. "Didn't anyone tell you? I'm a terrible gossip!"

  She laughed. "Then I shall listen very closely to everything you have to say, and be careful not to give you any reason to talk about me."

  "Ah, but even then, all sorts of stories will be circulating about such a lovely young widow before evening's end.” Peterson waggled his eyebrows and she realized with a start that he was flirting with her. She took a sip of wine. It had been a long time since she'd felt this giddy. The attention of the assembled men was proving as intoxicating as the liquor.

  "Reverend Deering, I understand you yourself are newly arrived to the area," Margery said.

  Deering sliced into his beefsteak and nodded. "I've been here only a few days longer than yourself. It appears to be fertile ground for doing the Lord's work."

  Margery looked amused. "I've no doubt you could say the same for any Army post in Texas and the surrounding town. There's something about the isolation and hard work that inclines one towards sin."

  Margery spoke as if she had first hand knowledge, and Deering had the grace to flush. "I wasn't speaking of sin in general, Mrs. Finch," he said. "Rather, I was referring to my own calling to work among this country's native peoples. The nearby reservations are convenient for my work."

  "You want to be a missionary to the Indians?" Lieutenant Hamilton spoke from across the table. "No offense, Reverend, but do you have any idea what you're getting into?"

  Deering smiled. "No sir, and I've a feeling this is one case where ignorance really is bliss. But I'm certain the Lord is going to bless my work. Why, the very first day I was here, he sent a message directing me to visit Mrs. Bright here. And what do you think the first thing was that I saw when I arrived at her house?"

  The preacher had the attention of almost everyone in the room by now. Tessa wanted to disappear under the table. She knew good and well God hadn't been the one speaking to Deering that day, and the message he'd received hadn't been intended as anything to do with his supposed ministry to Indians.

  "What did you see?" Margery leaned toward him, eyes dancing with amusement.

  "An Indian!” Deering looked triumphant. "I knew right then and there that it was a sign my work would be blessed."

  Margery turned a curious gaze on Tessa. "You have an Indian at your ranch?"

  Tessa raised her chin, wishing she could will away the bright blush she knew stained her cheeks. "I have a half-breed who works for me."

  "How interesting," Margery mused.

  "Mr. Fox is interesting.” Deering dug into his steak once more. "And a hard worker from what I've seen."

  "We had a tracker named Fox out at Fort Inge,” Lieutenant Hamilton said. "Not very trustworthy. He up and disappeared in the middle of the night."

  Margery paused with her soup spoon halfway to her lips. "Is your Mr. Fox a tall, quite handsome man, with green eyes?"

  Tessa caught her breath. "Why yes, how --” She was saved by the bell, or rather, a crystalline ringing from the opposite end of the table.

  "Quiet everyone.” Major Finch tapped his water goblet, commanding everyone's attention. He held his wine glass aloft and smiled down the table at Margery. "I'd like to propose a toast to my wife, who has made me a very happy man indeed by agreeing to join me here."

  "To Mrs. Major Finch," chorused around the table.

  Tessa turned her attention back to her meal, but more than once during the remaining courses, she felt Margery Finch's gaze on her.

  #

  No one looked up when Micah and Will entered the saloon. They ordered beer, and the bartender served them without comment. Micah sipped his drink slowly, and looked around the place. A rickety piano sat at one end of the room, a thick coating of dust on its keys suggesting it served more for decoration than entertainment. A trio of scarred tables surrounded by mismatched chairs filled the needs of card-playing clientele, while everyone else was obliged to stand at the bar. That carved mahogany behemoth ran the length of the building. Brass-railed and equipped with cigar lighters that sent foot-high tongues of flame into the air when struck, the bar held pride of place second only to the polished gilt-framed mirror behind it.

  Micah watched in the mirror now as a young woman in a stained purple dress detached herself from a card game and wandered over to him. "Hello," she purred, leaning against the bar beside him. "You're new in town, aren't you?"

  He nodded, scarcely looking at her. Out of the corner of his eye, it looked as if her breasts were in danger of spilling out of the top of her dress. The smell of sweat and cheap perfume filled his head. "My name's Tina," she said. "What's yours?"

  "You can call me Mike.” It was the name he used when he wanted to avoid long explanations. He glanced at Will, but the old man seemed intent on watching a trio of card players.

  "Buy me a drink?" Tina asked.

  He nodded and signaled the bartender, who bought him another beer and some dark liquor for the woman. He scarcely listened as she talked to him, letting her words flow over him with the same soothing effect as the beer. He felt some of the tension ease out of him. Coming here had been a good idea. He deserved a night out after all the hard work he'd been doing. After all, Tessa was out enjoying herself. He certainly didn't intend to sit up waiting for her. Tessa Bright didn't own him.

  "Silent type, aren't you?" Tina placed her hand on his thigh. She squeezed, sending a jolt to his groin. "I like the strong, silent type."

  It had been a long time since a woman had touched him that way. Too long. He saw that knowledge reflected in her eyes. "We could have a good time together," she said. She slid her fingers between the buttons on his shirt. His heart pounded against the warmth of her hand.

  He was about to tell her yes, he would go with her, when he felt a rough hand on his shoulder. "Who do you think y
ou are, comin' in here like you got the right?"

  Every muscle tensed as he turned to face the drunk, a beefy man with graying hair and a roadmap of broken red lines across his bulbous nose.

  Tina took her hands from him and melted away into the shadows. Micah made a point of taking another sip from his beer mug, slowly.

  "Didn't you hear me, injun? We don't want your kind around here.” The slap of a single card on the table sounded like a gunshot in the room, and then everything was so silent, Micah could hear the drunk's heavy breathing. Out of the corner of his eye, he searched for Will, his only ally in the room. The old man had either taken off or was hiding, leaving Micah to fend for himself. It wouldn't be the first time.

  He sighed and set the beer mug aside. "If this is about the lady, you'll just have to wait your turn," he said.

  "I ain't talkin' about no whore. I'm talking about a worthless polecat of an injun thinkin' he can stand up at a white man's bar like he owns the place.” The drunk puffed out his chest, as if trying to make his body as big as his own picture of himself.

  Micah fixed the drunk with an icy glare. "I don't recall asking your permission," he said softly.

  The drunk's face turned flannel red, and the veins in his temples throbbed. The man looked as if he wanted to tear Micah limb from limb, but Micah had sobriety and youth on his side, which ought to count for something.

  "I'll show you permission!” The drunk opened his coat and pulled out a blue steel revolver. Micah swallowed hard. So much for the odds. He stared at the opening at the end of the barrel of the gun. He'd never been shot before. He didn't relish finding out what it felt like now.

 
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