Hamilton Horse Ranch
Baker Prairie, Oregon
A GUST OF WIND hit the greased paper that covered the windows instead of panes of glass. Snow drifted down the chimney, and the fire flickered and hissed.
Luke crossed the small room and laid a fresh log into the hearth, thankful for something to do.
Another weak cough came from their bedroom. The strangled sound made Luke's chest ache as if she, not Nattie, had been coughing and wheezing for the past two days. She thought about returning to the bedroom to stand silent vigil over their sick daughter but knew she couldn't stand to watch the tiny chest struggle for breath any longer.
Suddenly, Luke couldn't breathe either. The walls of the small cabin were closing in on her.
She grabbed her coat and rushed to the door.
"Papa!" Amy laid down her wooden animals and jumped up from her place next to the hearth. "Can I come too?"
The five-year-old was used to going everywhere with Luke, and normally, Luke liked to have her around and teach her new things. But not now, not in this weather. She wouldn't risk Amy getting sick too.
"No," she said more roughly than intended. "It's too cold outside. Tell your mother I'm going to take care of the roof." Without another word, she escaped from the cabin.
The cold hit her like a tidal wave, but Luke ignored it and marched toward the stable. Two steps and she sank knee-deep into the snow. She struggled through the white drifts, her fists clenched in the pockets of her coat.
When she entered the barn, half a dozen horses trumpeted a hopeful whinny at her. Luke forced herself not to look at the empty stalls. She reached over the stall door and rubbed her hand over Measles's shoulder, feeling bones more prominent than ever before. "I'm sorry, girl," she whispered. "I'm so sorry. I'll go out later and get you some more moss from the forest."
But first, she had to knock down some of the snow from the cabin's and the stable's roofs before they caved in under their heavy burden. Oregon's winters were normally mild and rainy, so Luke hadn't built their home with so much snow in mind. The small cabin wasn't much more than provisional shelter anyway. Lichen grew on the log walls, and every morning, Nora had to sweep mushrooms off the dirt floor.
Luke had planned on installing wood floors in the new, better house she had wanted to build during the first summer in Oregon. But now that summer had passed and with so much else to do around the ranch, she hadn't gotten around to it. "Never mind,"
Jacob Garfield, whose family lived in the nearby town, had said. "You'll build a new house next year. You can't do it all at once. After all, you're just one man."
Her calloused hand rasped over burning eyes. You're no man at all.
In the past year, she had found peace with that fact, but now it started to feel like a failure again. If she were a man, maybe she could have built a better home, one with real windows and a cook stove, where Nora didn't have to cook over the fire. Maybe then Nattie wouldn't be sick all the time. If she didn't have to hide her secret, they could have settled down in town, with neighbors and a doctor nearby, instead of living isolated from the rest of the world.
Sometimes, Luke feared that Nora was lonely with no neighbor for many miles and no post office to send off her letters to Tess.
The rafters above her creaked warningly, interrupting her thoughts.
Luke carried a ladder outside, and with fingers that felt frozen, she used a shovel to relieve the stable's roof of its burden. Snow slithered into her coat's sleeves and dropped down her neck as she worked, but she ignored it. Every shovel of snow seemed to weigh a ton, and sweat mingled with the melting snow on her skin.
Finally, she had freed the roof of most of the snow and climbed back down. Her arms protested when she dragged the ladder through the deep snow back to the cabin.
More white drifted across the ranch yard.
Luke frowned and stopped. That's not snow. Lord! Are those feathers?
Then she saw the drops of crimson that marred the treacherous innocence of the snow. The ladder slid out of her nerveless hands. She bent down and touched one of the spots, confirming that it was blood.
Fear clutched at her as she followed the trail of blood around the corner. She already knew where it was leading. No. Please, no. Not this too.
Unusual silence greeted her when she ducked into the henhouse.
It was empty.
Only a tuft of bloodstained feathers and some broken eggshells littered the floor. On the perch, the battered-looking rooster helplessly flapped his wings.
Luke stared at him. Bile rose in her throat, and she forcefully swallowed. "You should have taken better care of your family," she said. "That's your job, you stupid rooster."
The rooster just crowed at her.
"Goddamnit!" Luke yelled back. She rubbed her palms over her cold face until her cheeks burned.
A coyote had gotten into the henhouse before, but that had been last year, when the winter had been mild. This year had brought the hardest winter that settlers in Oregon could remember. The river was frozen, and eighteen inches of snow covered the pasture. Half of their herd and two of their milk cows had starved because they couldn't get to the grass. They had run out of flour a week ago, and even if the snow hadn't blocked the roads and made it impossible to reach town, Luke knew that with the exploding prices, they couldn't afford to buy more than a few pounds of flour.
All she could do was hope for spring to come soon.
She jerked the board that had come loose next to the door of the henhouse back into place and waded through the snow, back to the ladder. There was no time to think about what losing the hens would mean for them or what Nora would think when she heard about it. The cabin's roof was flat, so the snow wouldn't slide off. It would pile higher and higher until the roof caved in and exposed Luke's family to the unmerciful elements.
Anger fueled her strength, and she shoveled wildly until she had scraped most of the snow off the cabin's cedar shakes. Then she paused, still clinging to the ladder, and stared down at the snow, the feathers, and the trail of blood.
* * *
Nora shoved open the door and tucked her shawl tighter around her shoulders. "Luke?" she called out into the white, frozen world. Luke had been out there too long, and Nora was starting to worry.
"Up here," Luke answered. "Go back inside. I'll be down in a minute."
Her voice sounded strangely hollow, and it wasn't just the snow that muffled and distorted all sounds.
"Luke?" Nora called again, with more urgency. She stepped out of the doorway and let the door fall closed behind her. Now she could see the ladder leaning against the cabin.
Luke scrambled down the ladder. Her cheeks flushed with panic. "Is Nattie...?"
"No, no, she's fine," Nora said. "Her fever finally broke, and she's no longer coughing. She'll be just -" The words died on her lips, and she stared at the tears that pooled in the corners of Luke's red-rimmed eyes. Her heart plummeted. "Are you... are you crying?"
In the almost two years that they'd known each other, through a lot of hard times, she had never, ever seen Luke cry. Even when one of the horses had stepped on her little toe and crushed it, Luke had bravely upheld her manly image. She had cursed but never cried - until now.
"No," Luke said and quickly wiped her eyes. "Of course not. It's that damn cold. It makes my eyes water."
Her attempts to hide her feelings from Nora hurt as much as seeing Luke suffer, but Nora let it go for now. Right now, making sure that Luke was all right was more important. "What happened?" She touched her hand to Luke's. The gentle strength of these hands had comforted and loved her for many months now, but this time, Luke's fingers didn't curl around hers in silent communication. They remained frozen.
Confused, Nora looked down and saw the red stains on Luke's coat sleeve. "Lord! You're hurt." Her insides trembled, and she reached for Luke's hand again.
"No." Now Luke's fingers intertwined with Nora's, instinctively soothing. "It's not my blood. It's..." Luke closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, she looked toward the henhouse.
Her silence said it all.
"The hens," Nora whispered. "All of them?"
"All but that useless rooster."
Nora took a deep breath. Then another. "Well," she finally said and forced a smile, "I bet he's not so useless when it comes to preparing chicken fixings. We could have potatoes, steamed squash, and turnips with it." That was about all that was left in their pantry - that and the can of peaches Nora was saving for Luke's birthday.
Her words didn't have the desired effect. Luke didn't smile. She didn't even make eye contact. "As soon as the snow melts away a little, you and the girls should move to town," Luke said. "I'm sure you could stay with the Garfields for a while."
"Just until spring." Under Nora's incredulous stare, Luke shuffled her booted feet. "Until I can build a better house."
A sigh formed a cloud of mist in front of Nora's face. "Luke, we talked about this before. The answer is still no."
"But before, we hadn't yet lost the hens and two of the cows," Luke said.
Nora was still shaking her head. Now that she had found a home and a person she loved, she wouldn't leave either of them.
Snow sprayed both of them when Luke kicked one of the white drifts in frustration. "What else needs to happen before you leave?" The normally gentle, calm Luke was shouting now.
"You'd have to leave too," Nora answered calmly. "We're either all going or all staying. I'm not leaving you behind. Through the good times and the bad times, remember?"
Gray eyes refused to look at her. Luke stared down into the snow and mumbled into her coat, "You made that promise to someone you thought was a man who could take care of you and the girls."
"I'm not talking about our marriage vows," Nora said. Back then, she'd had no earthly clue about love. She'd married Luke to give her children a better future in a new home. But somewhere along the two thousand miles from Missouri to Oregon, she had fallen in love. "Do you remember last year, when we stopped the oxen on that hill over there and looked down at this very place? Do you remember what I said?"
Luke's gaze wandered over the hill that was now hidden under the heavy cover of snow, then came to rest on Nora. For a moment, her eyes were alight with the memory and a slight smile trembled on her lips. "You told me you'd love me forever, through the good times and the bad, until the end of time."
"That I did. And while this," Nora swept her arm over the frozen landscape, "might look a little like the last days, I'm sure it's not, so my promise still holds true." She reached out and touched Luke's cheek, feeling the dampness of sweat, snow, and tears. "Luke, what's this about? What's going on in here?" She slid her hand down the thick coat and rested it over one bound breast.
Two cold hands closed around Nora's. "I just want you to be safe. It would be better for you and the girls to live in a real house and have flour and eggs and milk. I can't give you that right now." She dropped her hands from Nora's and looked away.
"And you think people in town and on the other farms aren't suffering this winter? Most of our neighbors lost more stock than we did." Just a few days ago, Luke had found two of the Buchanans' cows dead on their north pasture. At least it would provide meat for both families for a while. "These things are out of your control. There's nothing you could do about it even if you were a man. Or do you think that Jacob or Tom would be able to melt away the snow just with the heat of their manly gazes?"
"Of course not," Luke said, but her determined expression never changed.
Lord. Why did I have to go and marry such a pigheaded person?
Nora then smiled to herself. Maybe because she's also such an honorable and loving person.
"Luke, things are not that bad. So what if we have to eat potatoes, turnips, and boiled wheat for a few weeks longer? We have more than enough food to survive this winter. It just won't be the most varied cuisine." She nudged Luke, trying to establish eye contact. "If we run out of beef, you could go out and hunt. I hear the coyotes are well-nourished and tender around here."
Luke's gray eyes crinkled as her concerned features relaxed into a tentative smile.
"And spring comes early here in Oregon," Nora added. "The snow could be gone by the New Year, and then everything will look different."
The cabin's door creaked open. "Mama? Papa?" Amy's worried voice drifted over to them.
"We're here, Amy," Nora said.
Amy leaned forward, both hands clutching the doorway, and peeked at them, her lower body still within the cabin. They had forbidden her from setting one foot outside the cabin without them, and Amy was taking it very seriously. Her eyes widened when she took in the expression on Luke's face. "Papa, are you all right?"
"Yes, sweetie, I'm -"
Nora knew what was coming. She had heard that reassurance a thousand times before, and while she agreed that not worrying the children was sometimes worth a little white lie, she didn't want Luke to think she needed to lie to them and pretend to be strong all the time. "Papa is sad because the hens are gone," she said before Luke could finish her sentence.
"Oh, no!" Amy's little face transformed into a frown. "What happened to them?"
"I'll explain later," Nora said. "Now go back inside where it's warm. Be a dear and keep an eye on your sister. We'll be with you in a minute."
After a second's hesitation, the door fell closed.
Luke and Nora were left standing in the snow, staring at each other. More snowflakes dusted Luke's shoulders, and Nora brushed them away. "You are a hard worker, a wonderful parent, and the best husband I could wish for," Nora said. "But I want you to know that I don't expect you to have all the answers and all the solutions for every problem. I won't think any less of you if you don't know what to do every once in a while. You don't have to be strong all the time."
"But if I don't -"
One finger against Luke's bluish lips stopped the words. "We'll figure it out together, all right?" She took her hand away and waited.
Luke exhaled sharply, and the forming cloud mingled with Nora's condensed breath.
The image made Nora smile, and she bridged the space between them and pressed her lips to Luke's. "All right?" she asked again.
"All right," Luke whispered against her lips.
* * *
Luke leaned in the doorway, one arm wrapped tightly around Nora, and watched Nattie sleep. The rhythmic movement of the covers lulled her heart to a calmer beat. Finally, she let herself believe that everything would be all right. She vowed to get started on the new house as soon as the snow melted away and the ground dried.
"Here, Papa," Amy said next to her. "For you."
Something was slid into her hand, and Luke instinctively curled her fingers around it. She looked down into Amy's earnest green eyes.
"Don't be sad about the hens, Papa. You can have one of my animals."
Luke lifted the wooden animal to study it in the dim light of the room. It wasn't just any of Amy's carved animals. Her fingers rubbed over the tiny spots on the horse's flank. "Measles," Luke said. It was the first animal that she had ever made for Amy. The spotted horse was still Amy's all-time favorite, and now Amy had given it away to cheer her up.
Her throat constricted. A soft squeeze from Nora finally propelled her into action. She let go of Nora and knelt down to be at eye level with Amy. "Thank you, Amy," she said. Her voice trembled, and for a moment, she cursed herself, but then she felt Nora's hand on her shoulder.
You don't have to be strong all the time,
Nora had said. I won't think any less of you.
"I can't take your horse from you, sweetie," Luke said.
One of Amy's hands reached out, eager to take the little horse back, but then she stopped and looked back and forth between Luke and the wooden animal. "But I don't want you to be sad."
"Know what would really make me feel better?"
Luke nodded. "A big hug from you."
With a squeal, Amy threw herself into Luke's arms.
The trusting warmth of Amy's small body made Luke close her eyes. Maybe,
she thought as she laid her cheek against Amy's soft curls, maybe I really am a good "father" and provider. We must be doing something right if we have a daughter like this.
She opened her eyes and met Nora's smile with one of her own.
For a while, they forgot about the snow, the hens, and the lack of flour. Only love existed in the small cabin.
Hamilton Horse Ranch
Baker Prairie, Oregon
NORA SET THE POT on the stove. While she waited for the water to heat so that she could scrub the wood floor, she watched Nattie from across the room.
Her youngest was curled up in Luke's favorite armchair, a slate on her knees. She didn't know how to write yet, but her piece of chalk moved over the slate in a fairly good imitation. With her black hair, gray-green eyes, and the frown of concentration on her little face, she looked like a two-and-a-half-year-old version of Luke.
"Where's your sister?" Nora asked. Half an hour ago, before she had gone to sweep the bedroom and wash the windows, she had left Amy with the slate to practice her ABCs. As always, Amy seemed to have lost interest quickly.
Without looking up, Nattie shrugged, then mumbled, "With da horses."
It was as good a guess as any. Nora still remembered the last time Amy had disappeared. They had finally found her sleeping in the stall of one of their draft horses.
Outside, the dog that guarded the henhouse started to bark.
It wasn't the furious barking meant to chase off an intruder. Nora smiled. She recognized the dog's greeting. Luke was home. "Hush, Bear," Nora called outside.
The sound of Amy's crying drowned out the barking of the dog.
Nora's smile withered. Her heart lurched into her throat. She had rarely heard such upset cries from Amy. She pulled the pot from the stove and rushed outside.
Luke was just sliding out of the saddle, a frown on her face and a red-faced Amy in her arms.
"What happened?" Nora hurried over and ran her hands over every inch of Amy. At first glance, she didn't seem hurt, but she was still sniffling.
"She climbed up on the top rail of the corral," Luke said, her body trembling.
Nora took one of her hands off Amy to squeeze Luke's arm. "Did she fall down?" she asked.
"No," Luke said. "She tried to climb down onto one of the yearlings' back."
"What?" While far from being grown up, the yearlings had the unpredictable energy of an adolescent and certainly weren't safe to ride for a six-year-old. "What happened?"
"She got thrown off," Luke said. "Sailed right over the corral rails." The horror of that scene was reflected in Luke's troubled gray eyes.
Once again, Nora's hands flew over her daughter's form. "Did you hurt yourself?"
Red locks shook.
"She's fine," Luke said, but her voice was still shaky. "She landed on a big, soft patch of grass. I made her move her arms and her legs and examined her before I let her stand up. There's not a scratch on her."
"Then why is she crying?"
"She's not crying because she's hurt," Luke said. Her hands reached out to join Nora's in brushing the grass off Amy's clothes. "She's crying because I didn't let her get back on the horse."
Nora stopped in her attempts to dry Amy's tears. She closed her eyes in silent disbelief and shook her head. Where on God's green earth did she get that?
Certainly not from her. Nora had always been careful around horses, even a little afraid in the beginning.
When she opened her eyes again, she looked right into Luke's and had to smile. While Nattie might look like Luke, Amy was the one who had caught her horse fever. "Amy, I know you do remember what Papa told you about the horses." She glanced at Luke and paused, waiting for her to deliver the lesson again.
"Horses look tough, but they get scared easily," Luke said without missing a beat. "And they are really big animals, so if they run and you get in the way, you could get hurt."
"But they are my friends," Amy protested, sniffling.
"Do you remember how you bowled Nattie over when the two of you were racing to be the first to pet the puppy when we first got him?" Luke asked before Nora could think of something to say.
Nora smiled. Two years ago, Luke would have let her handle this while she slunk away to take care of her horse. Now all awkwardness regarding the children was gone. Luke had learned to reason in a way a child could understand.
"You never meant to hurt your sister, did you?" Luke asked.
"No." Loud sniffles almost drowned out Amy's answer before she finally calmed down enough to talk. "But now she has a bump, like you." She pointed at Luke's nose, looking almost a little jealous as if that little bump were a badge of honor.
"See?" Luke reached down and tapped Amy's nose. "So the horses could hurt you even without meaning to, just because they are so much bigger than you are. No going off to see the horses without permission. And especially no riding. All right?"
"Promise?" Luke held out her hand.
With a solemn expression, Amy laid her small hand into Luke's bigger one. "Promise."
"Can I go check on Measles?" Amy asked as soon as the handshake ended.
Luke exchanged a glance with Nora, then nodded. "But stay outside the stall. Don't get her all riled up."
When Amy ran off to greet Measles, Nora stepped closer to say a proper hello to Luke but then jerked back. "Ew. I thought it was Amy who reeked like that, but it's you." Instead of the comforting mix of leather, horse, and Luke, she now smelled the sting of manure.
Luke pinched a piece of her shirt and pulled it away from her skin. "I dove out of the saddle, hoping to catch Amy. Guess I landed in something not quite sweet-smelling."
"Guess so," Nora said and kissed her anyway. "Now go change."
* * *
Luke carefully breathed through her mouth when she slipped off her soiled shirt. She poured a little water into the washbowl and wet a cloth. Habit made her hurry through her ablutions even though they had taught the girls early on that they always needed to knock before they entered the bedroom. Still, a lifetime of getting dressed quickly was hard to forget.
She strode across the room and pulled a fresh shirt from the drawer.
"Luke!" The door swung open without warning. Nora rushed into the bedroom.
Luke's heartbeat doubled. She pulled the shirt up and pressed it against her bound chest.
Nora stared at her, looking as startled as Luke felt. "Sorry," she stammered.
"No, it's all right. Just..." Luke gestured to the door, then to her state of undress. "It's an ingrained reaction, and if something startles me, I just can't help it. Sorry." She forced herself not to hurry as she lifted up the shirt and slipped it over her head. Nora had earned her trust, and that meant not hiding anything from her - not even her body.
Glittering green eyes studied her, following the path of the shirt as it slid down.
Would she ever get used to Nora studying her body like this? It made her skin heat up and tingle, but at the same time, she still squirmed when Nora looked at her body with such intensity. "What?" she asked when Nora continued to stare.
Nora's gaze flitted up to meet Luke's. Embarrassment tinged her cheeks. "Sometimes, during the day, I almost forget what's under your clothes," Nora said, her voice low.
With stiff fingers, Luke jerked on the leather lacings that tied the opening of her shirt.
One determined step brought Nora within touching distance. Gently, she tucked the tail ends of the shirt into Luke's pants, letting her hands caress the body underneath. "It's not that I want to forget," she said. In the past years, she had gotten really good at reading Luke's moods and feelings of insecurity. "I know most people would consider it wrong," Nora said and leaned forward to whisper into Luke's ear, "but I really like what's underneath your clothes."
Warm breath brushed her ear, and Luke shivered. She reached out to slide her hands over Nora's hips and pull her closer.
Their lips met, and when Nora pulled away, she was panting.
"Oh!" Nora blinked, dazed. "You're so distracting. I came in to tell you that Measles had her foal while we were busy berating Amy for her little adventure."
"What?" Luke ran out the door, for once not bothering to put on the vest over her shirt.
A few hens hopped out of the way, flapping their wings, and the rooster crowed indignantly.
"I knew it," Luke told them. She had suspected that Measles would go into labor the minute Luke turned her back on her. Like many mares, Measles preferred to give birth when she was alone. Horses could stop the foaling process for days if they felt uncomfortable with being watched.
She bolted to the horse barn, not waiting for Nora who had stopped to pick up Nattie.
A week ago, she had put Measles into the large stall at the far end of the barn, where it was quieter. Curious horses poked their noses over the stall door as Luke strode down the center aisle.
"Papa!" Amy whispered urgently. "Look!" She had long ago learned not to shout around horses, no matter how excited she was. She was clinging to the stall door with both hands, standing on her tiptoes on a turned-over bucket to be able to see into the stall.
Luke stopped next to her and peeked into the stall.
Her eyes needed a moment to adjust to the dim light, but then she made out the contours of Measles, who was already back on her feet. She was nosing through the straw, rubbing her soft lips over the foal that lay stretched out in the straw.
"Look, Papa! The foal got red hair, just like me." Amy fidgeted excitedly on her bucket, almost knocking it over.
Luke heaved her up, into her arms. The girl was getting too big to hold her like this for much longer. "I see it," she said, not as enthusiastic. While the sorrel coat was nice, she had hoped for a colored foal. Measles's first foal didn't have any spots as far as she could see.
Measles softly nickered to her foal.
The long legs splayed and trembling, the foal finally stood.
A small white blanket, littered with reddish dots, covered the foal's hind end.
Nora stepped next to her, balancing Nattie on one hip. Now four pairs of eyes were watching the newborn foal stagger through the stall until it found its mother's teats and began to suckle.
Luke's heart sang. She wrapped her free arm around Nora and pulled her close against her side. Could life get any better?
"Papa," Amy's voice broke the comfortable silence. "Can the foal be my horse? I can teach her to be a good horse, like Measles."
Her surprised coughs almost made Luke drop the girl. "Um..." She looked at Nora.
Nora stared back. "Sweetie, you're just six years old. You're too small to take care of a horse, much less train a young horse."
Tears glittered in pleading green eyes.
This was the one thing Luke still hadn't learned: how to face those broken-hearted tears from one of her daughters. "You can help me with the foal," she said. "And if you do a really good job, in a few years, when the foal is grown up and has her own foal, that'll be yours and you can train her. All right?" She had promised herself early on that she would never tell Amy or Nattie that they couldn't do something just because they were too young or because they were girls.
Amy's small arms wrapped around her neck in a strangle hold.
"Luke Hamilton! That girl has you wrapped around her little finger," Nora said, but her voice sounded affectionate, not really scolding. She glanced down at Nattie. "Both of them do."
Luke leaned over and kissed her cheek. "All three of them."
"Papa?" Now Nattie was tugging on her sleeve.
"Yes, little one?"
"I want baby," Nattie demanded.
Nora's groan made Luke chuckle. "You want a baby horse too?" she repeated.
Nattie shook her head.
"Then what?" For Luke, it was often easier to understand Amy's needs and interests than that of her younger daughter. Never had she seen two siblings more different.
Amy rolled her eyes. "She wants a baby sister because I think it's boring to play with her."
Heat shot up Luke's neck and suffused her cheeks. She rubbed the bridge of her nose and sent Nora a helpless gaze.
Now Nora, equally red-faced, was the one who chuckled. "That's what you get for spoiling them. Now try to talk your way out of this."
"Thanks," Luke mumbled. She looked over into Nattie's gray-green eyes that were watching her expectantly. "Um... how about a kitten?"
Nora laughed so loudly that even Measles looked up from her nursing foal.
"Sssh, Mama!" Amy poked her in the shoulder. "No loud noises around the horses."
"Yes, Mama," Nattie agreed, quite seriously. Thankfully, she seemed to have forgotten all about her wish for a baby sister - at least for now.
Luke wiped her brow. This was the one thing that she could never give her family, no matter how hard she worked.
"Hey," Nora whispered into her ear. "Don't look so glum. You think either of us could survive a third little one like this? Let's try raising these two without going crazy, all right?"
Luke turned, touched her lips to Nora's, and promised, "I'll give it my best."