A man hired to work on a widow's farm finds himself in the midst of danger.
Ruth pulled the tea from the stove, squinting at the spray of steam. She poured the steaming liquid into a pair of china mugs, the last of her luxuries from her life back east. She glanced over her shoulder, frowning, but pushed away the negativity. It wouldn’t do to harbor ugly thoughts, not now when she was alone.
“I can’t remember Anna; do you take sugar in your tea?”
“As much as you can manage,” Anna replied. She dry-washed her filthy hands and offered a small, barely significant smile in the direction of Ruth. Her features were shadowed beneath her hat, still far too big for a woman her size, and a fine sheet of dust and grime shrouded her clothes. Her aged duster swayed gently from the coat-hook at the door. A shotgun rested beneath it.
“Sugar’s plentiful out our way,” Ruth replied, spooning heaps of sweet into the mugs. “It’s the tea that’s grown scarce. I’m hoping to refill my stock once harvest is done and gone, but that will still be a time. I do like my tea. It warms me some.”
Anna said nothing to this.
Ruth grimaced at the silence. “Your uncle didn’t leave me a scared, frightened child, Anna,” she chided. “I can take care of myself just fine. That don’t mean that I shouldn’t miss having him here from time to time. If tea fills some of the space, then so be it.”
The mugs tinkled in their saucers as Ruth approached. Anna took one of the saucers in a grimy hand and laid it before her, allowing the steam to dance.
“I can stop by more often,” Anna said, her voice low. “I don’t really have no place that I call home. Most of my work isn’t ’round here, but I don’t mind traveling from time to time.”
Ruth nodded, looking over her tea toward the wall. “If you want to stay here on account that this is what you want to call home, you’re always welcome, Anna.” She raised the cup to her lips and sipped; she preferred it scalding hot. “But, if you plan on coming here because you think that I need someone looking after me, then you best just saddle up and ride elsewhere. Just because I like having company don’t mean I need a protector.”
Anna laughed softly. A section of light spilled across her left cheek, exposing the youthful beauty that remained. “Uncle Winston always said you’d make mules blush with your stubbornness. He also said you was a better shot than he ever was.” She shrugged. “Still, I don’t like the thought of you having hired men ’roundabout while there ain’t nobody here but a widow.”
“Anna, if them men want to kill me enough, I suppose they can have at it.” Ruth rubbed her temple; she could feel an argument brewing. “Truth of the matter is, I can’t bring in harvest without your uncle and the men he usually hired took off once they shot him. I got rows of corn and stalks of summerwheat out there that need reaping, and I can’t do it without help. If that means hiring people I don’t know, then that’s what it is.”
Her niece frowned. “How Unc died should be enough for you to want protection. Don’t try and pass it off like you’re ready to go, neither. I don’t need that from you.” Anna tipped her hat back, and the webwork of burns and scars along her right jaw seemed to pulse, marring her features. “There’s more than one reason for someone to come out here with bullets and knives. I don’t want you being alone.”
Ruth’s forehead wrinkled. “What’re you getting at, girl?”
“Everyone I talked to for miles ’round seems to think Unc had a cache of money he’d stored up,” Anna confided, though even she looked skeptical. “They say he wanted to take you back east in the last days, to see the world you grew up in. They say it was something he’d been plannin’ at for years.”
Ruth choked, covering her mouth to keep from spitting hot tea everywhere. Once she’d swallowed, a raspy chuckle spat from her mouth. “That what they say, is it? That ol’ Winston had hisself a fortune buried someplace up here? And me, with no new dresses for goin’ on nine years?”
“It don’t matter if it’s true or not, the rumor’s done spread,” Anna replied. She jabbed the tabletop with her finger. “Them words is enough to send the wrong sort this way in no time. You could have bandits upon you at any point.”
“Bandits?” Ruth’s eyebrows raised. “Really, girl? You think I’m scared of bandits? Hell, it might be a fun way to go, all things considered. My husband died by the gun, and he went quick, but he didn’t go with one in his hand.” She gave her a dismissive wave. “Ain’t no bandits comin’ this way.”
“What if they’re already here?” Anna inquired. “These hired men – do you know anything of them? Or was they like most laborers, just wanderin’ in like the wind?”
“You wanna question ‘em, have at it,” Ruth grumped. “If you ain’t done so already. Three of them is stayin’ in the old tannin’ house. The fourth one said he was peachy sleepin under the stars.” She smiled at the thought of him; he seemed like such a good young man.
“Four?” Anna replied. Her face twisted in surprise. “You said you could only afford three hands this harvest.”
Ruth sipped her tea. “I liked this last one. He reminded me of my little brother. I can squeeze by with four, and it will help me get the work done faster.”
Anna chewed on her lip. “I don’t like this. Not one bit.”
“You didn’t like me hiring three, what’s the difference in addin’ one more? Honest to God, girl, I don’t think I could make you happy if I was able to raise your uncle from the grave. You’re welcome to stay long as you like, but don’t make things miserable for the workers. They got things to do in order for this farm to stay above water, and they don’t need some angry young woman badgerin’ them about where they been.”
Anna frowned. Ruth knew that stubborn frown all too well; it was the same look Winston would get when he’d lose an argument with her, but all the while his mind was conjuring ways to get around the loss and make it a win. Ruth also knew that Anna was much more dangerous than Winston had ever managed, and with her shotgun and whatever else she carried that shot lead, Anna would find out all that she wanted to know, and more.
Ruth only hoped that the harvest was done by the time her niece got it in her mind to shoot someone.