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Nevada Barr - Bittersweet.docx
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It was the first time he had ever called her by her Christian name, and she looked up, startled.

            “The way I figure it, I got no call to go on calling you Mrs. Ebbitt. Either Mr. Ebbitt’s dead or run out on you, and either way, according to my way of thinking, he’s lost his claim. You leave a property unmined for a while and pretty soon your claim’s no good. It’s anybody’s. So I figure you’re just plain Sarah Ebbitt now.” Nate was loud, argumentative.

            Sarah sat in the straight-backed chair by the stove, pleating and unpleating her skirt between her fingers.

            “You ought to have a husband and kids of your own,” he went on. “Not living with a dried-up old maid, keeping house for her and raising a half-breed Indian kid. You ought to have a man to look after you.”

            A war look came into Sarah’s eyes. “I like keeping house with Imogene.”

            “That ain’t the point!” He made a chopping gesture and banged the end of his little finger on the chair. “Damn.” He thrust the injured pinky into his mouth and got up to pace in front of the window. The storm had hit; rain drummed against the glass, obscuring the trees on the far side of the yard behind wavering curtains of gray. There had been no single drops to herald the downpour; it had come all at once, dinning on the roof and ringing down the stovepipe. It was dark enough to light the lamps, though it was just after two o’clock.

            The bedroom door opened a crack, then all the way, and Wolf came out. “Sarie? I’m having bad dreams.” Sarah’s relief was evident as she turned her attention to the sleepy child. She knelt and pushed the lank hair from his face.

            “What’s the matter, Wolf?” She laid the back of her hand on his forehead.

            Nate turned from the window. “Damn it, Wolf, go on, get yourself back to bed. Don’t be bothering us now.”

            Sarah folded Wolf in her arms. “Your pa doesn’t mean it, honey. What kind of dreams?” When she talked to the child, her shy, uneasy look evaporated, and her hazel eyes were warm, her small mouth soft. Wolf nuzzled into her shoulder.

            Nate picked the boy bodily off the floor out of the comfort of Sarah’s embrace. “Come on, kid. This ain’t the time.” To Sarah he said, “You stay put. We ain’t done talking yet.” Before she could say a word he was out the door, Wolf with him.

           

            The storm had broken before Imogene was halfway home, and she ran, her shawl pulled up over her head. Her skirts were heavy with water in a moment, and rain streamed off her face. Wet leaves blew against her, brown with the rain, clinging like seaweed.

            As she turned off the river road, up the drive, thunder cracked overhead and a prong of lightning threw the cottage and the yard into sharp relief. Imogene slowed to a walk, clutching her side, panting for breath. Nate stepped out on the porch and slammed the door. Imogene recognized him and stopped. Instinctively she backed against the side of the main house, where she was half-hidden behind the stone chimney.

            Nate carried Wolf under his arm; the boy’s face was tight with tears. Nate reached under the canvas waterproof over his saddle and jerked out his hat and coat. He jammed the protesting child into them, pulling the hat down around the boy’s ears. Then, carrying Wolf like a bundle of dirty laundry, Nate plunked him down on the top step of Addie’s back porch, where it was dry. “You stay put, you hear? Don’t you come in till I tell you.” And with that he strode back to the house and let himself in without knocking.

            “The nerve of that man!” Imogene whispered. Color rushed to her cheeks and she began to shake. She stepped from the shelter of the chimney and stared at the house. Her lips twitched, thoughts forming and changing as she watched the mute façade of the home she shared with Sarah. Rain formed icy rivulets and ran down her neck and collar.

            A chirping sound distracted her. She looked over to the porch where Nate had left his son. Wolf had managed to wriggle out of Nate’s mackinaw, and bareheaded and coatless, he played at boats in the overflow of Addie’s rain gutter. He was as wet as if he’d been tossed in the river. Quickly, Imogene bundled the child in her sodden shawl and ran for the house.

            The storm covered the sound of the front door opening.

            Nate held Sarah by the shoulders, her narrow frame crumpled between his hands. His face was pushed close to hers. “What kind of a life have you got here? Answer me that,” he was insisting. Sarah would not raise her eyes to his.

            Thunder rolled overhead, the wind abated, and for a moment it was still. Into the stillness, Imogene spoke. “A very fine life, Mr. Weldrick.”

            She stepped over the sill and put the bundle that was Wolf into Sarah’s waiting arms. “He’s soaked to the skin, Sarah. Perhaps you will take care of Mr. Weldrick’s son. It is clear he will not.”

            “Wolf!” Sarah cradled him to her breast. “No wrap.” She fixed Nate with a hard look. “Mr. Weldrick, if he catches cold…” She never finished her threat, but escaped into the bedroom with the child and slammed the door.

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