Spring Lee held tightly onto the reins of her wagon and cursed the blinding blizzard she was driving through. With her hat pulled low, muffler wound up to her eyes, and wearing the thick oversize buffalo coat given to her by her cantankerous grandfather Ben, she was dressed for the brutal weather. It was early afternoon and having spent the past fifteen hours helping a friend with a difficult foaling, she was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to get home, take a hot bath, and sleep. Instead, she and her mare, Lady, were as snow covered as the surroundings and could barely see the road. It was mid-April. By all rights winter should be on the wane, but the seasons in Wyoming Territory moved by a calendar all their own. Buffeted by the howling wind, she chanted inwardly: Another half mile. Another half mile. And she and Lady would be home. Up ahead on the deserted road, a horse appeared out of the storm. She thought she’d imagined it, but a break in the gusts showed the animal walking slowly, head lowered, its mane and body crusted with the elements. As she came abreast of it and stopped, she took in the bags attached to the saddle and the thick bedroll riding the rump. Where’s the rider? She scanned the area. Not seeing anyone, she got down and waded through the calf-high drifts. Urging the animal forward, she trailered its reins to the wagon’s bed, climbed back up to the seat, and resumed the drive.
She was familiar with the mounts of her neighbors, but she’d never seen this horse before. Had the rider been thrown and was hurt somewhere up ahead? Weariness and the freezing cold might have made another person leave the mystery for someone else to worry about, but she’d been raised better, so she kept an eye out for the rider as best she could. It didn’t take long. She rounded a bend and saw a hatless, snow-covered man slowly limping his way up the road. He turned to look back, revealing a brown-skinned, ice-crusted face. Upon spotting her, he waved frantically. When she reached him, she pulled her muffler down and yelled over the wind, “Climb on!” He didn’t hesitate, but his injury made the ascent slow. “Thank you!” he said, once settled. “There’s a couple of blankets under the tarp behind you! Wrap up!” While he complied, she got them underway. A glance over her shoulder showed he’d placed one blanket over his head and wrapped the other around his brown wool coat.
She had no idea who he was, but his story would have to wait. Getting them home came first. A short while later, the sight of her cabin filled her with a weary joy. She alerted her passenger, “We’re here! Go on inside and start a fire. I’ll take care of the horses.” Draped under the blankets, he climbed down and haltingly made his way to her door while she drove to the barn. By the time she got Lady and the man’s gelding bedded down and a big fire built in the grate to keep her other three horses warm, she was weary enough to lie down where she stood. Hating having to face the weather again, she rewound her muffler, pulled on her gloves, and stepped out into the frigid wind. Inside her cabin, there was no fire. The stranger, still wrapped in the blankets, was stretched out on her fancy new sofa, head back, snoring loudly.
She set his bedroll and bags on the floor. The younger, wilder Spring Lee would’ve given his foot a swift kick to wake him up, but the more mature version of herself settled for grumbling while tossing logs into the fireplace. As the flames rose, she viewed him. He was handsome, she supposed, but a pretty face often masked an ugliness inside, so she wasn’t impressed by the strong jaw or the pleasant features it anchored. “Hey! Wake up!” she called crossly. The wet blankets would ruin the sofa her sister-in-law Regan recently convinced her to buy, and Spring was the only person allowed to damage it. As he snored on, she shook his shoulder. “Mister. Wake up.” His eyes opened.
“I have a spare room. You can sleep there.” He looked confused. “Ruin my couch and I’ll feed you to a bear.” He startled. “Can you stand?” His eyes swept her face. The confusion gave way to wariness. Finally, he whispered, “Yes. Sorry for falling asleep.” She noted his shivering, but she was too bone tired to fire up the boiler to heat water for the hot baths they both needed.
“This way.” He rose, took a step, and cringed. “Is it your leg?” she asked. “My knee. Hurt it when the horse threw me.” She raised an eyebrow and he responded with, “The horse reared when a big cat ran into the road chasing a deer.” “They tend to do that. Lean on me,” she offered. “I’m too heavy for you, ma’am.” “I’m stronger than I look, so let’s try.
Otherwise, you’ll have to sleep here on the floor.” “I’d do fine in front of the fire. I have a bedroll.” She gritted out, “Just come on, please. You can be a gentleman after I’ve had some sleep.” He seemed amused by that. “Yes, ma’am.” With her supporting him, they slowly made their way to her spare room. Inside, he dropped onto the bed and offered his thanks. “You’re welcome.
” She opened a nearby trunk and withdrew blankets and quilts. Still wearing her buffalo coat, she made a fire in the grate. “Should warm up eventually. There’s a washroom through that door. Tub, too, but I’ve been gone a couple of days, so there’s no hot water for now. What’s your name?” “Garrett McCray.” “I’m Spring Lee.” “Related to Dr. Colton Lee?” he asked. “Why?” “I’m a reporter.
Here to do an article about him for my father’s newspaper.” Her brother had mentioned a reporter was on the way. “Colt’s married to my sister-in-law.” As if confused by her response, he studied her for a moment, before asking, “Dr. Lee is your brother?” “Smart and a gentleman. Rare as the white buffalo. I’ll bring your bags and bedroll. You should get out of those wet clothes.” She exited. Garrett stared at the empty space she left behind.
Did she live here alone? Did her brother and his wife reside nearby? Had her confusing responses been deliberate? His numerous questions about her would have to wait. Her advice about his wet clothes was sound. The last thing he needed was to be laid low by illness, so doing his best to keep his weight off his injured knee, he shed the blankets and his coat. Seeing no place to hang them, he laid them in front of the fire, then hobbled to the room’s lone chair to remove his boots. Raising his leg hurt. It only took a few more attempts to realize that between the pain and the boots’ tight fit, removal was impossible. The boots were new and so tight and uncomfortable that during the ride to Paradise he’d wanted to snatch them off and toss them into the nearest stream. Now his feet were probably so blistered and swollen, he’d need a surgeon to cut them free. She returned. After placing his belongings beside the chair, she asked, “How’s the knee?” “It’s been better.
Can’t seem to remove my boots.” He hated admitting that. “Can you raise your leg?” He nodded. She took off her big coat and let it drop to the floor. Back home women didn’t wear men’s shirts, denims, or gun belts, so he forced himself not to stare. “Show me.” He hadn’t any idea why she’d asked, but she didn’t appear to be in the mood for a discussion, so he raised his leg as requested. “Hold on to the chair.” He grasped the arms, she turned her back to him, and took his booted foot in hand. He forced himself not to stare again.
This time at her behind. “Yell, if you have to.” And before he could ask what that meant, she pulled with a strength that was surprising, and the boot came free. The pain put a catch in his breath, but he didn’t yell. Not in front of her. “Now the other one.” She repeated the process with the same expertise and once it was done, he melted with relief. “Thank you.” “Boots new?” she asked. “Yes.
Bought them a few days ago. Storekeeper said they’d be tight.” “Where are you from?” “Washington.” “Territory?” “No. District of Columbia.” Her thoughts on that information were kept unspoken. “I’ve water boiling on the stove for bark tea. It should help with the pain. Once it stops snowing and Odell clears the road, we’ll ride over to my brother’s place and see if he’s back.” “He’s not here?” “I’m not sure.
He left a few days ago to help with a measles outbreak over in Rock Springs.” “When will the road be cleared?” He wondered who Odell might be and hoped the doctor had returned. She shrugged. “Depends on how long it takes the storm to blow through. I’ll be back with the tea.” She picked up his wet coat and hers. His eyes followed her strong stride until she closed the door and disappeared. She was gone long enough for him to change into a dry union suit. He longed for a hot bath to take the chill off his bones, but he’d have to wait. With the door closed, heat was finally warming the space, but it was still cold enough to bring on shivers.
Outside, the wind continued to wail. Knowing gentlemen didn’t allow themselves to be seen in their underclothing by a lady, he climbed into the bed. He’d just settled under the quilts and blankets when a knock sounded on the closed door. “Come in.” She entered carrying a large drinking cup. “It’s hot,” she cautioned, handing it to him. It was and tasted awful. “What’s in this?” “Bark.” “From a tree?” “No, a dog. Yes, it’s from a tree—a willow.
It’s a Native remedy. Tried and true.” He kept his skepticism hidden but wasn’t sure he wanted more. “Drink it or not,” she stated as if having read his mind. “Your pain. Your knee.” Was she always so direct? Another question to add to his list. Still skeptical, he drank the rest and handed the cup back. “It’ll help you sleep, too.” She crossed to the fireplace and put in more wood.
“Do you need anything else?” “No. Thank you for everything.” “You’re welcome.” She departed. He cocooned himself beneath the small mountain of blankets and quilts. Thoughts of his enigmatic hostess and the sounds of the roaring storm faded away as he sank into sleep. Spring awakened in bed, pleased that the room was finally warm and she was home. The mare she’d been helping with had delivered a stillborn foal, which left her sad, but she knew nature wasn’t always kind. She wondered how the man down the hall was faring. Although McCray’s arrival had been anticipated, she hadn’t been involved with his travel arrangements, and certainly hadn’t expected to make his acquaintance in the middle of a snowstorm.
She admittedly didn’t like houseguests. She’d lived alone for over a decade and preferred her own company. If visitors needed a place to stay, the Paradise boardinghouse owned by her sister-in-law, Regan, offered rooms to rent. However, the reporter hadn’t asked to be caught out in the weather, so Spring supposed she’d have to be pleasant and put up with him until Colt took him off her hands. She left the bed and walked to the window. She didn’t hear the wind, but that didn’t mean the storm had passed. She looked out. Snow covered most of the pane, making it impossible to see anything other than that it was dark. The small clock on her nightstand showed the time to be a bit past five, so she’d been asleep almost four hours. She could use a lot more, but her stomach wanted food, and she needed to check on her animals.
The man was probably hungry, as well, so she dressed. The moment she opened the bedroom door, the scent of what smelled like stew made her pause. Curious, she continued the short journey to the kitchen and found her guest stirring a pot on the stove. “What are you doing?” she asked suspiciously. “Found stew in your cold box. Didn’t want to wake you, but I’m as hungry as the bear you threatened to feed me to.” He offered a ghost of a smile to her confused face before returning to his task. Spring was prickly by nature and a part of her wanted to rail at him for sneaking around her place while she was asleep, but her hunger took the lead. Without a word, she opened a cupboard, grabbed two bowls, and set them on the counter. “Thanks,” he told her.
She didn’t reply. Instead, she retrieved two forks and set them beside the bowls. He filled both bowls with the steaming mixture of vegetables and beef. Seeing that he was struggling to keep his weight off his injured leg, she picked up both bowls and carried them the short distance to her small dining table. Limping, he joined her and eased himself into one of the chairs. To show him she did have manners, she said, “Thanks for heating up the stew.” “You’re welcome.” For a few moments they ate in silence until he said, “This is very good.” “My sister-in-law, Regan, makes it for me.” “It’s spicier than I’m accustomed to.
” “She’s from Arizona Territory. Her cooking is mostly Spanish. She uses peppers and chilis.” He nodded his understanding. “How long have she and your brother been married?” Spring debated answering. He was a stranger after all but reminded herself Colt would undoubtedly expect her to be nice. “A bit over a year.” “Children?” “Two.” “And you?” She met his eyes. “Me, what?” “Do you have a husband?” She shook her head.
“An intended?” “Are you always this nosy?” He chuckled softly. “Asking questions is part of the job.” “No husband, and I don’t intend to have one.” “Why not?” “Why should I? I have land and horses. I’m content.” He eyed her as if he had more questions, but he kept them to himself. “I see.” She asked, “Are you married?” He shook his head. “No.” “An intended?” “My father says yes.
I say no.” It was her turn to chuckle. “What?” “That was quite the answer.” “Meaning?” “Either you have an intended or you don’t. Why do some men find it difficult to answer a simple question?” He opened his mouth as if to respond, then closed it. Smiling inwardly, she resumed eating. But he wasn’t done. “Are you one of those women who thinks poorly of all men?” “No. I know some who’re good as gold and others I’d not turn my back on. Not intending to marry either kind.
” “Society thinks a woman should marry.” “Good thing I don’t live by what society thinks. Otherwise, I’d’ve married the lecherous old snake my grandfather tried to shackle me to when I was eighteen. Probably be out of the penitentiary by now though.” He stared. She returned to her stew. Although he kept further questions to himself, there were unasked ones all over his brown-skinned face. They finished their stew at about the same time. “Do you want more?” she asked. He nodded and made a move to rise.
She stopped him. “You’re still favoring that leg. I’ll get it.” She brought their second helpings back to the table, acknowledged his thanks with a short nod, and asked him, “Did the tea help?” “It did.” “There’s more if you want it.” “I do. Maybe after I finish this.” “Still going to taste awful.” “Understood. Is that one of the remedies your brother uses?” “Along with everyone else out here.
My brother trained at Howard’s Medical School. Don’t write something wrongheaded and insulting about him using so-called savage concoctions.” “And have you feed me to a bear? Don’t worry.” She knew he was making a joke, but his face was so serious, she was thrown off her stride for a moment. “What do you do back in Washington besides ask a lot of questions?” “I read for the law at one point, but the newspaper is a sundown paper, so I make my living as a carpenter.” “What’s a sundown paper?” “The editor works on it in the evenings after his day job. My father owns the paper and I help when I can. He couldn’t take the time off work to interview your brother. I volunteered to make the trip instead.” “So you work as a carpenter and not a lawyer?” “Yes.
I prefer working with my hands.” Her eyes settled on them. They looked strong and capable like most men she knew, except for maybe banker Arnold Cale. His hands were as pink and pampered as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. He’d apparently viewed her hands, too. “What happened to your finger?” The top of her right index finger still bore the ugly black bruise from a hammering mishap. “Hit it with a hammer instead of the head of a nail.” “Ouch.” “Yes. I cussed a lot, but it’s healing.
” She flexed the battered finger. “Not the first time. Probably won’t be the last, either.” Lady ranchers didn’t have pink and pampered hands. “I’ve never met a woman rancher.” “I’ve never met a newspaper reporter carpenter. Makes us even.” Spring didn’t mind the conversation, but she didn’t want him to think her being friendly was an invitation to something else. He was a stranger after all, and she was a woman alone. “Do you have a sister?” “Yes.
Her name’s Melody.” “What would you tell her if she took in a strange man and they had to be alone together for a few days?” He stilled and searched her face. She waited. “I’d—I’d tell her to be watchful and careful, and to be ready to protect herself if need be.” Spring nodded. “Good advice.” Silence settled over the room for a few moments, before he said quietly, “You’re a very unique woman, Miss Lee.” “I also sleep with a Colt Peacemaker.” “Noted.” She stood and gathered up their empty bowls.
“I’ll get the water boiling for your tea and then go check on the horses.” While the water boiled, Spring went to her room to dress for venturing out. With the windows snowed over there was no way of telling what she’d be facing outside, but the wind had stopped, a good sign. He was still seated at the table when she returned. His curious eyes scanned the buffalo coat as she set it on a chair, but he didn’t ask about it. In the kitchen the water was ready. After putting the bark in and letting it steep, she carried a mug out to him and set it down. Under his gaze she put on the coat, did up her muffler, and donned her battered, wide-brimmed, gray hat. He asked, “Do all the women here dress like you?” “All the ones with sense. I’ll be back shortly.
Providing I can get out. If the windows are snowed over, the doors probably are, too.” Her hope was that the temperatures hadn’t dropped low enough to freeze the snow. Leaving him with the tea, it took a few shoves with her shoulder to get the back door open. Holding the lantern she’d lit, she stepped out into the knee-high snow covering the back porch. It was cold, the moon was just rising, and the snowfall had transitioned to flurries. Her land was covered by a beautiful glistening sea of white as far as she could see. According to her grandfather Ben, the tribes had different words for various types of snow, from heavy and wet, to light and fluffy, and everything in between. He’d never taught her the words though. With a gloved hand, she scooped some up, tossed it, and it floated light as goose down.
A blessing, at least for the moment. Were it heavy with moisture, making her way to the barn would be a lengthy, tiring struggle. Due to the snow’s sheer depth though, it would still take time, but its fluffiness would make the trek easier. Unable to see the porch’s stairs, she descended carefully. The last thing she needed was to fall and break something. As she reached what she guessed to be the bottom, the depth rose to midthigh. With the lantern held high, she waded slowly. The barn was a good distance from the house. With any luck, she’d make it before summer.