pour those eggs into Molly’s pan and stir them around.”
“Aw, Ma, let Molly stir them around. I’m gettin’ too old for this cooking stuff. Besides, she’s a girl.”
“You are most certainly not too old for ‘this cooking stuff.’ In this household everyone does their share.”
“Sure can’t wait ’til I’m growed up,” he muttered.
“Even ‘growed-ups’ help out!” his mother replied.
All through the meal Cord tried to catch Mrs. Malloy’s eye, but she steadfastly refused to look at him. Daniel, on the other hand, gazed at him with intelligent blue eyes and peppered him with questions in between bites of scrambled eggs.
“What’s your horse’s name?”
“How old is she?”
“About three years. Got her when she was just a filly.”
“Can I ride her?”
“No. She’s too much horse for a boy your age.”
“Do you like venison jerky?”
“Yes, I do.”
“What about chocolate cake?”
“Well, sure, son, everybody likes chocolate cake. You gonna bake one?”
“Nah. But I keep hopin’ my mama will bake one someday.”
Mrs. Malloy said nothing at all. When the last slice of toast disappeared, Daniel and Molly scooped the dishes off the table into the dishpan in the sink, and Cord waited for orders from his employer.
Five minutes went by while Mrs. Malloy sipped her coffee. Finally he cleared his throat and she looked up. She looked paler than ever this morning.
“You want me to milk your cow, ma’am?”
“How ’bout I fix your front gate?”
“Your gate. Yesterday I accidentally knocked it down.”
“Oh. Yes, do repair it.”
“And the fence? Wood looks half-rotten, and—”
“I’ll need to get lumber from the sawmill in town. You have a wagon?”
She didn’t answer.
“Then there’s the barn roof and the corral and the front porch step and the rusted door screen and...” Hell, she wasn’t even listening.
“Yes, fix it all, please. I have accounts with the merchants in town if you need...nails or...things.”
“Kin I help him, Ma?” Daniel called from the sink.
Molly splashed soapy water at her brother. “An’ me, too?”
“We’ll see,” said Mrs. Malloy quietly.
Cord picked up his hat from the hook near the back door. “Guess I’ll be going on into town, then. You want anything from the mercantile, ma’am?”
“A newspaper. And some flour and a bag of coffee beans. Maybe one of chicken mash, too.”
He studied her hands, cradling the china coffee cup. The knuckles were reddened. Daniel and Molly were making plenty of noise having a soapsuds-splashing contest, so he risked a question for her ears alone.
“Miz Malloy, how long have you been on your own out here?”
She glanced up at him, then quickly refocused on her coffee. “Seven years.”
“Uh, is there a Mr. Malloy?”
Her shoulders stiffened under the faded green calico. “There is. Or rather there was.”
“What happened to him? The War?”
“I assume so. He went off to fight and he never came home.”
Cord’s first thought blazed through his mind like a fire arrow. What a damn fool. “If it’s not being too nosy, how have you managed all these years?”
Her laugh surprised him. “Believe it or not, until six months ago I had a hired man.”
It was his turn to laugh. “Sure hope you didn’t pay him much.”
“No, I—Why do you ask?”
He stuffed back a snort. “I can’t see that your hired man did a da—Darn thing around the place.”
She set her cup down with a snick. “Most assuredly he did not,” she said, not meeting his eyes. “But I trusted him around my children.”
He stared at her. “Ma’am, you don’t know me from Adam. How come you trust me around your children?”
She met his gaze with calm gray eyes. “I don’t really know why, Mr. Winterman. I just do. Only once before have my instincts been wrong, and that had nothing to do with my children.”
Eleanor rose and moved into the kitchen. “Children, stop that!” She rescued the suds-soaked dish towel, and when they rattled past her out the back door, she wrung it out and hung it on the rack by the stove. When she turned back, Mr. Winterman’s chair was empty.
She bit her lip and watched her new hired man push carefully through the screen and walk out the front door with a slow, easy grace. She couldn’t tell him everything. She just couldn’t.
The two kids tumbled down the porch steps after him. “Watch out for that loose board,” he cautioned.
“What loose bo—?” Daniel’s shoe snagged on the rotted step and just as he was about to take a tumble Cord scooped him up under one arm.
“That loose board.” He set the scrawny form on the ground. “Watch where you put your feet.”
Cord headed for the barn, Molly tagging at his heels. “Where ya’ goin’, mister?”
“Need some coffee and flour and chicken mash for your mother and some lumber to repair the porch step.” And the fence and the gate and the barn and...
“Kin I come?” Daniel asked.
“Maybe. If you tell me where your ma keeps your wagon and ask her permission.” The boy danced off, leaped over the loose porch step and slammed the screen door.
Molly tugged his sleeve. “I’ll tell you where the wagon is. It’s out behind the barn. But I don’t wanna go to town,” she added.
“You don’t? Why’s that?”
“Cuz everybody there’s bigger’n me and...and Mr. Ness yells at me.”
The girl gazed up at him with huge blue eyes and he went down on one knee in front of her. “How come?” he repeated.
“Cuz I knocked over his candy jar once. But I didn’t mean to, honest. It just fell over when I reached in to get my lemon drop.”
Daniel came flying off the porch. “Ma says I can go!”
The wagon was behind the barn, all right. It should have been chucked onto the trash heap. Cord had never seen a more rickety pile of boards and rusted wheels. Probably wouldn’t hold even a light load of lumber.
In the barn he led out the gray gelding and lifted a saddle off the wall peg. When he blew off the dust he groaned. The leather was so dry it practically creaked.
“Got any saddle soap, son?”
Daniel sent him a blank look. “What’s that?”
“Stuff you rub on leather things like saddles to keep them soft.”