Monday, September 22, 2008

Chapter 4: The Fine Art of Being Subtle

Lily carefully set the oil lamp on the long, bench-flanked table that dominated the room. The sun hadn’t risen yet and the kitchen was silent and dark. She quickly lit the other lamps that variously hung and stood around the room as Fiona grabbed the large ewer from the stand by the door. Her heart was hammering hard in her chest and she self-consciously smoothed back the strands of hair that always seemed to find their way out of her long braid just when she wanted to look nice. Today, she was to meet the men and boys she’d been hired to care for. Today, they would be sizing her up, making their opinions of her. Most likely, they’d end up talking about how her biscuits were dry or how worn out her clothes were. Fiona had been chattering away at her, and she could barely hear her over the roar of nerves in her own ears.

“How did you sleep?” Fiona inquired, picking up a pitcher and peering inside for vermin. “Your first night in a new place, you know. Were you comfortable?”

“Uh, I was fine. I’ve never slept in such a fine bed before, but I think I can get used to it.” She smoothed her apron and shivered in the pre-dawn chill, thinking about how the whole main house was intimidating, far finer than what she was used to. She was used to living in a rough, two-room cabin with a grizzled, middle-aged bachelor. “I was probably more comfortable than I have been in a long time. I still can’t believe I’m gonna be staying here.” She smiled happily at her new friend.

Fiona’s red curls were a gleaming, fiery mass as she leaned toward the nearest lantern, tilting the ewer forward. “You know, I think there’s a crawly in here. Well,” she looked up at Lily and gave her an affectionate look that partially soothed Lily’s jangled nerves. “I can scarcely believe my luck either. We shall be wonderful friends, Lily, and I am so glad my uncle finally hired a girl my own age to talk to! Do you have any idea how utterly desolate it can be out here? Oh, dear.” She turned the ewer out onto the floor and made a face of disgust as a large brown centipede crawled across the rough-hewn planks of the floor.

“I reckon it’s a good thing that isn’t going to end up in Mister Lynch’s coffee.” Lily lifted her skirts gracefully and stepped on the offending insect with an unsettling crunch. “Well, Fiona, I get the feeling Mr. Lynch had less to do with hiring me than you did.”

“Now, now, you were perfectly qualified....”

Lily set about lining up flour bins and tins of lard on the wide worktable that lined one wall, desperate to start doing something familiar. “Maybe, maybe not. I guess we’ll find out by and by.” Seein’ as how you talked Mr. Lynch into hiring me and all, and right there on the spot, I sure hope I don’t let you down. She mused grimly. I get the feeling Mr. Lynch didn’t get much say in it.

Fiona had to the sink with the now insect-free pitcher, and was working the pump handle to wash it out. Lily was cutting the flour with lard by the time Fiona got the water going and came back to the table, bearing the now-heavy pitcher on her hip like a toddler. She set the vessel down on the table, then went over to the wood rack, choosing some likely pieces to use as kindling.

“So, “ Lily said, roughly mixing the crumbly biscuit dough on the workbench. “How many folks in all work here?”

“Well, let’s see...” Fiona struck a match inside the firebox and blew on it carefully, watching the fire catch and tentatively creep over the kindling. “There’s Uncle Erastus, and my Aunt Genevieve, who is away right now, Luis Santana....”

“Yes, I’ve met Luis...” Lily smiled fondly, remembering the puckish Mexican boy who’d carried her bags upstairs for her and who’d given her such kind words of encouragement. I reckon if it weren’t for that sweet boy, I think I might just have lost my nerve and bolted. I mean, Fiona opened the door, and here was this beautiful, fancy-talking Lady in this fine, fancy house. Almost thought I was in the wrong place....

“Tommy know, I believe he’s a Mormon.....George Washington Monahan, he’s an Irishman.” She fed a few sticks of tinder into the firebox. “He tells marvelous stories! And...well, of course you know Jesse...there’s Peter Bari. Oh, I wish this fire would light! It’s cold in here.” She blew gently onto the flames again. “They call him Saint, you know, but his name’s Peter.”

“Jesse told me about him.” Lily bit her lip, embarrassed as she remembered her brother warning her about this particular rather… colorful…co-worker. “Um…why do they call him ‘Saint’?”

“I’m afraid to ask. He’s a bit of a rowdy.” She picked up a neatly split log quarter and set it atop the growing fire. “And Lights The Storm Peltier.”

“I reckon he’s an Indian, then, with a name like that?” Lily smiled.

Fiona got up, wiping her hands on her apron. “He’s half Crow. But you’ll get to meet them all today. The only one who’s out on a run right now is your brother.”

Lily’s nervousness returned in a renewed rush. She felt her face flush and heat began to burn behind her ears. Fiona gave her a comforting one-armed squeeze. “Oh, don’t be shy, they’ll love you.”

“I just want to make a good first impression. Maybe I ought to go brush my hair....”

The door opened. Lily jumped. A sweet-faced young man with short, dark brown hair and spectacles stood in the doorway, shouldering a bundle of firewood. “Good morning, ladies.” He smiled amiably. “Wanted to make sure the woodbin was full. I know you don’t like it when it gets empty. I guess we like it even less, considering it means we don’t eat.” He chattered in a breathy, endearing babble. “Ma’am.” He nodded at Lily before loading the bundle into the woodbin, placing the considerable overflow on the floor nearby.

“Well, thank you, Tommy, but Storm filled that up last night after supper as I was tidying up. This is Lily McMillain; she’s taken the other housekeeping job. Lily, this is Tommy Page.”

His hands now free, Tommy pulled his brown hat from his head and held it in front of him. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am, I hope you enjoy working here.”

“Thank you, Mr. Page.” Lily forced herself to meet the youth’s direct, snapping gaze. He had an engaging smile and a boyish face she found comforting. She smiled, relaxing a little.

“Tommy,” Fiona said, a knowing look on her face. “Breakfast isn’t ready. You’re a little early, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, I understand. I was just making sure you had enough wood. I’ll be out in the barn. If you will be so good as to....”

Fiona finished for him. “Yell when we have coffee.”

“Yell...yes, Ma’am.” He nodded sheepishly at Lily, putting his hat back on. “Ma’am.”

“Mr. Page.”

They watched as Tommy sauntered out the door. Lily’s nervousness had partially turned to relieved excitement. Maybe this won’t be so hard after all.

“Uh huh.” Fiona shook her head when he was gone. “Well, that was transparent.”

“What?” Lily frowned, puzzled.

“Oh, nothing.” Here, let’s get the coffee going, shall we? I have a feeling we won’t be running out of wood for a while.” She deftly dumped a scoop of beans into the top of a hand-grinder and gave the crank a number of firm turns. A rich, roasted aroma filled the kitchen as she removed the drawer from the bottom and dumped the contents into the basket of a white-enameled tin percolator. “It’s the gent’s job to keep that woodbin filled. And I don’t nag them -if they want to eat, then they ought not have to be reminded.”

“Do they forget?”

“Well,” Fiona placed the percolator onto the now-warming stove and wiped the stray grounds of coffee from the worktable. “They have, but Storm often brings a load in during the evenings while I’m cleaning up. You watch, though. By tonight, we’ll be stacking the stuff on the porch.” She looked up at Lily, her green eyes twinkling with merriment .

“Surely....” Lily said nervously. “they’re not coming by here to get a look at.....well....”

Fiona tilted back her head and laughed. “Oh, Lily, don’t be so bashful, love! Of course they’re coming to get a look at you! Remember, you’ll be with these oafs day in and day out. You’ll get un-shy soon enough.”

“What if they don’t like me? Lily said, as she hefted a huge iron frying pan off the wall and set it onto the stovetop. She spooned a bit of lard into the pan and smeared it around.

“Don’t be silly. Tommy likes you. And I know Luis does.”

The lard in the pan had begun to hiss. Lily started cracking eggs against the edge of the pan and dropping their contents inside. “Really...?”

The door opened. Lily’s head jerked around, expecting Tommy again… A wiry man with a tousled shock of a deep auburn hair clomped into the kitchen, hefting an armload of firewood. “G’mornin’ to ya, lasses.” He quipped with a Mullingar-laced lilt. He started to dump the wood into the woodbin and stopped. “Whoa, this is already spilling over.”

Fiona stifled a laugh. “Just put it on the floor and come over here and meet Miss Lily.”

Wash carefully let the wood spill out of his arms into a pile beside the woodbin. He stood up and wiped his hands on the back of his trousers, then pulled off his hat. “Ah, you know, that’s really why I’m here!” He admitted cheerfully.

“I know.” Fiona chirped. “Miss Lily McMillain, this is Mr. George Washington Monahan.”

Lily met the man’s vivid blue eyes. “Mr. Monahan.”

“Oh, call me Wash, Miss, everyone does.” He grinned. “I’ve heard a lot about you! You’re brother’s glad you’ve come to work here, and I know the rest’ve us are, too.”

The Irishman’s warmth was like sunshine on chilly skin. Lily’s felt the remains of her anxiety melting away. “I’m so glad to meet you. I know I’ll like it here.”

“Well, good. Then you’ll stay, eh?” His eyes strayed towards the percolator. Look, lasses, I dinna suppose....”

“The coffee is on and we shall call you when it’s done.” Fiona chirped.

“Aye, good lass. “I’ll be in the barn.” He headed for the door, replacing his hat.

"I imagine you'll be in good company out there." Fiona quipped.

“Eh?” The jaunty Irishman turned around and cocked an eyebrow.

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Wash.” Lily nodded quickly, dismissing him before Fiona could make any more wisecracks. Although all the attention was embarrassing her, it was hard not to be infected by Fiona’s mirth.

“See?” Fiona giggled. “It’s not so bad, now is it?

Lily smiled, concentrating shyly on the sizzling bacon bubbling in the pan. “No.” She admitted. She was surprised at how excited she was at the idea of what her life might be like now, and relieved that the people here seemed comforting and eager to accept her. She couldn’t wait for the next new person to walk through the door, couldn’t wait to see who else would be part of her new life. Her fear evaporated like the fragrant steam whispering from the top of the percolator.

The door opened with an abrupt jolt. “‘Morning, England. Coffee ready?”

Lily’s head jerked towards the husky, cranky growl that cut through the morning dimness like a stone crashing through a church window on Sunday morning. She felt her insides clutch with fresh nervousness as she viewed it’s source.

A tall, broad-shouldered man barged insolently through the kitchen, opened a cupboard, and removed a cup. A black hat slouched rudely atop his tousled spill of almost-black hair. He shuffled over to the stove and poured some coffee as if he were on his last legs and here was the Elixer of Life.

It was…. Him. The Hell-raiser. The person her brother had warned her about. The person she absolutely didn’t want influencing her, her brother, or her life.

Fiona glared at him. He took a few casually noisy sips off the top, sighed, and then noticed the overflowing woodbin and surplus of wood. A smirk of knowing amusement crossed his face as he started back towards the door.

“Saint. Peter. Bari.” Fiona cut the name into scolding, annoyed bits. “Did you leave your manners in the bunkhouse?”

Saint turned around, sipping his coffee. He glared at Fiona, his eyes dark slits over the rim of the cup, like a feral dog unwilling to relinquish a bone he was chewing.

Oh, dear Lord, don’t stop him, just let him go! Lily’s mind howled as she felt her face beginning to burn. There were things in this world a body just ought not to try to attract the attention of. Standing here drinking coffee was one of them. She watched with dread as her tiny friend stared up at this tall, wolfish man.

“I know Storm didn’t cut all that wood.” Saint muttered. Lily couldn’t place his accent. He wasn’t local, that much was for sure.

Fiona ignored him. “Peter, I want to introduce you to Miss Lily McMillain. Lily, this is Mr. Peter Bari.”

Lily’s mouth went dry as the man turned dark, smoldering eyes upon her and gave her a searching sweep of regard, a slight smile of what she could only imagine was amusement breaking across his roguishly handsome face. “Ma’am.” He touched the brim of his black hat and nodded.

Lily was fairly certain that what amused him was the fact that her heating face was surely turning pink under his unflinching gaze. Unlike the others, this man clearly hadn’t a shy bone in his rangy, well-muscled body, and didn’t care what sort of impression he made. She realized abruptly she was a more than a little afraid of him. And if coffee might improve his mood, she sure didn’t want to interrupt his drinking of it now. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Bari.” She managed. She self-consciously pushed her glasses up onto her nose with a flour-dusted finger.

He nodded, his lips relaxing into a cocky smile beneath a long, slightly crooked nose. A dimple threatened to reveal itself in his right cheek as his face softened. “The pleasure’s mine, Miz McMillain.” The lightly accented growl of his voice curled strangely around his vowels, and hammered his r’s flat. “You can just call me ‘Saint’, if you like. I...well, I ain't much of a morning person.” He turned to go.

“Will you please tell the other gents the coffee’s ready?” Fiona said after him.

“I always do, England.” He said without turning around. Lily could hear his boots clicking across the stone slab outside the door. She felt herself deflate.

Fiona starting setting the table. “The nerve...”

Lily began transferring breakfast from the stove to serving plates. Her face tingled hotly as she wiped her damp palms across her apron. “You cannot convince me that he came in here…”

“He comes barging in here like that every morning.” She said, to Lily’s dismay. “"Not much of a morning person' indeed! The man isn’t human until he’s had his coffee. He’s awful. Uncle Rast is like that. Anyway, they apparently don’t have manners in New Jersey.”

“New Jersey?” Lily was surprised. She had almost thought he was from another country, with his dark, exotic looks and his different accent. “He sure doesn’t strike me as an Easterner.”

“Well.” Fiona poured coffee into the waiting cups. “”He knows his way around, if that’s what you’re asking.”

This tall, pushy …person... is going to come in here every morning and make me feel like…like…a tiny little bug? Lily felt like someone who had just finished off a delicious glass of fresh milk only to find a soggy fly in the bottom. She couldn’t imagine her fireball brother having to share quarters with this person. Do they get into fights? Everyone else is so….well, nice! She considered the masculine span of his shoulders and his height. Her brother was fairly tall, too, but he was gawky, still coltish in his movements. Saint had a kind of fluid gracefulness about him. “He’s kind of…tall… for an express rider, isn’t he?”

“He’s not a rider. He drives the stagecoach. Never lost a cargo. That’s one reason my Uncle doesn’t fire him on the spot. Uncle Rast doesn’t like him at all, I’m sorry to say, but Saint is reliable driver. The man can handle a team of horses.”

Fiona had removed another cup from the cupboard, poured it, and was stirring a third spoonful of sugar into it as Lily removed the biscuits from the oven. Fiona swept one up, deftly buttered it, and stuck some bacon into it before rolling it up into a linen napkin. Lily began to open her mouth to ask, when the door swung open yet again and a strikingly beautiful young man, with Native features and a jet-black braid hanging to his waist, hurried in. Lily’s eyebrows shot skyward in surprise as Fiona pressed the coffee into one brown hand and the wrapped bread into the other.

“Thank you, Fiona.” He said softly, smiling, then regarded Lily. “You’re Miss McMillian.”

“Yes. You’re Mr. Peltier.”

“Yes.” Dimples appeared in his cheeks. “But to you I’m Storm. Sorry, I have to….” He started towards the door, gesturing apologetically.

“I know.” Fiona said, shooing at him to hurry. “Ride safe.”

He gave Fiona a glance as he hurried back out, an enigmatic whisper of a smile playing across his sculpted features.

Lily cocked her head at Fiona, waiting for an explanation for the royal treatment.

“Well…” Fiona explained, gesturing after him. “He never lets the woodbin get empty.”

© 2008 Regina Shelley


Sarah Rose said...

Do I sense a bit of interest between the fiery Fiona and the swarthy Storm? Hm?

Yay! I'm giddy at having found good writing for free!

'gina said...

Gonna have to stick around and find out! ;-)

Thanks for reading!

Teacherman said...

Found your site through the Dyscalculia Forum. Love it already. I'm an insatiable reader and would much rather do that than watch TV. I'm kinda an old guy (60) so I remember my oldest daughters love of "Young Riders". I'll tell her about the site.


'gina said...

Hi, Teacherman, and welcome!

Thanks so much for the kind words! I'm so glad you like the story. Anyone who remembers Young Riders surely knows that it is one of my inspirations. We loved that show (and I'm really glad that seasons two and three are now available on Netflix, at least.) I have a pretty long list of inspirations for this thing, actually, ranging from The Unforgiven to Westward the Women to Gunless and quite a few things in between.

I should probably go back and visit Dyscalculia some. I pruned back a number of sites I visited so I would be less tempted to mess around online and hopefully more focused on this and my other projects. It's a good site with some great people on it.

Hope your daughter comes and checks us out! And again, glad to have you join us!

McKenna said...

Omg, I hope Fiona and Storm have something goin' on here.

'gina said...

I'm not sayin' nothin'! You'll have to come along for the ride to find out! :-)