Wyoming Territory, 1878
Chase Logan removed his hat and ran his hand through his hair, feeling it fall against the collar of his leather coat. How the heck was he going to break the news to Mrs. Strong? What if she swooned, or worse yet, started crying? He had little experience with women. Decent ones, anyway. Resting his arms on the smooth leather saddle horn, he gazed at his destination in the valley below. If not for the smoke curling from its chimney, he might think the cabin abandoned.
Agreeing to this was the stupidest thing he’d ever done. How on earth had he been talked into it? At the time, delivering the news to Nathan’s wife hadn’t seemed like much. He was heading to Cheyenne anyway. The cabin wasn’t far out of the way. But now that he was here…
No use stalling, he thought, shaking his head. Best just get it over with and be on his way.
He nudged his mount down the slope of the hill as the sun disappeared behind a craggy black mountain. Streams of golden light reflected off the open expanse of low-hanging clouds, painting the gray sky with swirls of pink and yellow, bringing to mind a freshly spun spider web. Chase drew his heavy collar around his neck and hunched his shoulders against the blustery October weather. It would be a cold one tonight.
Chase lingered at his mount’s side longer than needed. Then he walked through the barnyard to the door and knocked. The low, metallic click of a gun being cocked resounded through the door.
“Who’s there?” a female voice asked uneasily.
“My name’s Chase Logan. I have a message for Mrs. Strong. Would that be you?”
“Yes,” she answered after three beats of his heart.
Anxiety clenched Chase’s chest. He wasn’t sure if it was the woman’s he was feeling, or his own.
“Say what you came to say, mister.”
“I rode with Nathan at the Bar T,” he said, still looking at the weathered boards in front of his face. “It’d be easier if we could speak without this door between us.” He waited as the cold nipped at his ears.
She didn’t respond. Chase glanced around the deserted yard, giving her as much time as she needed. Moments crept by. Finally, the door was unbarred and creaked open slowly, just wide enough to accommodate the tip of a shotgun barrel.
“Think you could put the gun down, ma’am, and open the door? I don’t mean any harm. I’m a friend of your husband.”
It felt like ages before the gun barrel gradually disappeared. The door protested loudly as it swung open to reveal a room that held several wooden chairs and a table. A rocker rested on a faded rag rug in front of the fireplace, and a cupboard sat forlornly next to the wall. Wood smoke and the wonderful aroma of freshly baked bread wafted on the air, making the room feel warm and homey. His stomach rumbled.
“I suppose it’s all right if you come in, being you’re an acquaintance of Nathan’s,” Mrs. Strong said as she stepped out from behind the door.
Chase drew his gaze from the potbelly stove, where something was simmering, to the girl—no, woman—who stood before him. She was young, as though she should still be home with her ma and pa, tending to younger sisters and brothers. Not here alone, being a wife to Nathan, a man surely over twice her age. And pretty too, with hair as pale as corn silk falling thick down her back. Her eyes, bluer than any Wyoming sky, seemed already to know his news; they were fathomless and sad.
“You’re Nathan’s wife?” he asked, arching an eyebrow.
“That’s who you asked for, isn’t it?” A small smile pulled at the corners of her mouth.
“Yes, ma’am. Just expected someone a bit more…mature.”
Mrs. Strong’s chin edged up. “Have a seat at the table, Mr. Logan. A cup of coffee will warm your insides.”
Chase shifted his weight from one leg to the other. Turning his hat in his hands, it slipped from his fingers and dropped to the floor. He quickly picked it up. Sweat beaded on his brow despite the coolness of the evening.
The woman poured two cups of coffee from a chipped enamel coffeepot. Her hands trembled lightly. “You have a message from Nathan?”
Chase swallowed. Best just to spit it out fast. “Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, surely I am, but…” He swallowed a second time. “Nathan is dead.”
Mrs. Strong stood across from him, motionless but for the rise and fall of her chest. Chase wished he were anywhere but here.
“How?” she whispered.
“Well…” Chase mumbled, assessing the situation. Her serious eyes were searching his. Although he believed he was a pretty honest fellow, at least compared to the next, there was no way he was going to tell her Nathan was killed in a barroom brawl, shot over a game of poker with a saloon girl sitting on his lap. No, he just couldn’t do it.
Stalling for time, he took the forgotten cups from her hands and set them on the table. He pulled out a chair and gestured for her to sit. He did the same, his mind galloping all the while.
“What happened was, uh…Nathan had the night watch and rode out around ten. It was stormy. Cattle were edgy. There was thunder and lightnin’ and…uh…well, ma’am, no one really knows exactly what happened, but he was dead when we found him in the morning.”
He jerked his gaze up to see what effect his story was having. He figured that if you had to die, that was a pretty honest way to go.
She sat motionless. Her knuckles whitened as she gripped the edge of the stained wood tabletop. Slowly, she lifted her gaze to his.
“Thank you for your trouble, Mr. Logan. Riding all this way to bring me this news. I’m sure it wasn’t an easy task.” She paused a moment. “I have beans simmering on the stove and a loaf of fresh bread. It’s not fancy, but it’ll fill your belly.”
Chase was puzzled. He’d expected tears, or even fainting. Not this cool, almost indifferent calmness. He didn’t know what to make of it.
“You don’t have to go to the trouble of feeding me. There’s plenty more on your mind about now.” But his stomach rioted at his words. Nothing would be better than a thick slice of fresh bread. He envisioned a huge bowl of beans, steaming and hot. The image persisted, making his mouth water.
“Nonsense. You must be famished.” She rose and took a bowl from the sideboard. Easing the hot lid from the cast-iron pot, she set it aside and then scooped heaping ladlefuls of beans into the bowl.
She was slender and straight, without many curves. Nothing like the saloon girls he was used to. They were well rounded everywhere a man could appreciate. By contrast, Mrs. Strong reminded him of a finely bred filly, young and fresh, willowy.
As she set the bowl before him, Chase cleared his throat, abashed by his wandering thoughts. She’d just lost her husband, for God’s sake, and here he was comparing her with sporting women. “Thank you.”
“I’m sorry I don’t have any butter for the bread, but at least it’s warm.” She put the lid back on the pot and folded the dishtowel. “I do have a bit of brown sugar, though, if you’d like some on your beans. Gives ’em a real fine flavor, if you have a sweet tooth.”
“No sugar, thanks,” he said, unable to bring himself to use any of her precious supply. He’d had some once when he was a boy. Couldn’t quite remember where, but the taste still lingered in his memory.
He shoveled an enormous spoonful of beans into his mouth, savoring their tangy flavor. “Ma’am, these are the finest—” Looking up, he stopped midsentence. Mrs. Strong was hunched over the dry sink. Her shoulders shook, but she wasn’t making a sound.
Swallowing hastily, he wiped his hands on his pants and stood, knocking the chair over with a bang. In two strides he was at her back.Return to Where the Wind Blows