His bad leg. The leg that had been cut and sewn every which way already and sure as shootin’ couldn’t withstand another assault. He shook his head at the thought, his mouth twisting derisively as he considered her.
“Can I at least get down off my horse long enough to get a drink of water?” He leaned one hand against the horn of his saddle, shifting against the leather and easing his right foot from the stirrup.
“Canteen empty?” she asked, nodding at the leather-covered flask that hung from his saddle.
His eyes met hers with a level look that was no answer at all. Even as he swung his leg over the back of his mount, his narrowed gaze clung to her. And it wasn’t until he stood before her, dark and unyielding, that she realized her query had gone unanswered.
Her mouth tightened in annoyance and she tipped her head in the direction of the well just across the yard from where he stood. From her vantage point on the porch she watched as he turned away, his eyes almost reluctantly leaving the shapeless mass of fabric that enclosed her.
With stiff movements that spoke of sore muscles, he reached to pull the bucket from the depths of the well, his back wide beneath the worn cotton of his shirt. Deliberately opening his flask, he turned it up to allow a few drops of liquid to fall, and then, with a deft hand, he tipped the bucket to fill it.
“Who are you?” she asked, her eyes intent on his every movement.
“Roan Devereaux.” He lifted the dipper hanging from a length of binder twine and scooped it into the bucket, then drank thirstily while he soaked in her silence. With a twist of his wrist, he dropped the wooden pail back to the depths of the well and turned to face her.
The look of stunned surprise on her face had not had time to fade and he allowed a small smile of satisfaction to ride the corners of his mouth.
Her shotgun was pointed at the wide boards of the porch she stood on. As he watched, she straightened her shoulders a bit more, lifting her head, enabling him to see the fine color staining her cheeks.
“I owe you, Roan Devereaux,” she said quietly. “My father spoke of you more than once after he came home from the war.”
His nod accepted her words. “Is he ill?” His survey of the place revealed the signs of neglect that told him Charlie’s hand hadn’t been felt here for a while. Yet, there were horses on the place.
“He…no, he’s not ill. My father was healthy till the day he died.” She waved a hand at a small rise that began just to the north of the house, where a nondescript picket fence enclosed a plot of ground. “He’s buried there.”
“What happened?” Abrupt and harsh, his voice demanded details and the woman shrugged, turning back to the door.
“I’ll offer you supper before you leave, Mr. Devereaux.”
She’d turned her back on him, and without a by-your-leave stalked into the house, carrying the heavy shotgun by its barrel. His lips firmed as he tended his horse, loosening the cinch and leading the animal to the trough next to the well.
Waiting till the stallion had drunk his fill, he looked around once more. The bars of the corral delineated the enclosure where Charlie’s horses ran. Several tossed their heads now, all fillies by the looks of them, eager to kick their heels. The barn was good-sized, probably triple that of the house, he estimated. Charlie’d always taken good care of his animals. His daughter looked like she needed some tending, though, Roan thought with a grim-lipped smile. Plain as a gray mourning dove, she was. No wonder she didn’t have a man about. With that forbidding look she wore, it would take a needy specimen to try for her affections.
“I’ve dished you up some stew, Mr. Devereaux.” She spoke from the open doorway, and he tipped the brim of his hat, leading the stallion toward the hitching post at the side of the porch.
“I’ll be right in, ma’am,” he offered, rolling up his sleeves as he headed back to the trough to wash up.
She was at the stove when he ducked to walk in the door. There was room to spare, but his height had given him the habit of allowing a bit of space over his crown. She waved her hand at the towel hanging on a peg by the wooden countertop.
“You can dry off with that,” she said, turning to him with coffeepot in hand. A heavy china mug sat on the table, hugging the full bowl of steaming food she had served him. With spare movements, she filled the mug almost to the brim and then glanced at him, her manner hesitant.
He met her eyes. They were blue, darker than he’d thought, widely spaced beneath a fine forehead. Her gaze was penetrating, assessing, and he waited for her judgment.
“Want some milk, too?” she asked finally, nodding at her own brimming glass.
“Coffee’s fine,” he allowed, aware that she’d deemed him safe.
Nodding, she turned back to the stove, the pot clattering against the metal as she slid it to the back corner to keep it warm.
“Sit down.” The words held a measure of courteous warmth, as if she had finally remembered he was a guest in her home. Her own place held a bowl of the stew, and between them reposed a plate of sliced bread, side by side with a round of butter, moisture gleaming from its smooth yellow form.
“You churned today?” he asked.
She nodded, chewing on the first bite of food. “Once a week.”
“What do you do with it?” He selected a slice of bread and cut into the slab of creamy spread, smoothing it back and forth as he cradled the crusty heel in his hand.
“Sell most of it in town. Along with the vegetables and my extra eggs.”
“You alone here?” His voice was lazy against her ears, the faint drawl softening his words.
She stiffened and stirred the stew with her spoon. “Looks like it, doesn’t it?”
“Your brother around, Katherine?” The woman glanced up, her blue eyes widening with a faint trace of alarm.
“If you’re Roan Devereaux, you should know to mind your own business where my brother’s concerned.”
“Your pa spoke of him.”
“Did he now?” Her words were flat, disbelieving, as if such a possibility were doubtful.
Up against the wall of her distrust once more, he heaved a sigh of disgust. “You’re not what I expected, you know,” he said with a grunt of exasperation. “Your pa would have had me believe you were the best thing to come along in his life. ‘My daughter, Katherine,’ he used to say.” His voice was a close imitation of her father’s Irish lilt.
“Well, I am what I am,” she said, grinding out the words. “My pa’s dead and buried, and I owe you for dragging him off a battlefield in Virginia, Mr. Devereaux. If I can repay you in some way, I’ll do what I can. But we won’t be discussing my brother.”
“What happened to your pa?” he asked quietly, his spoon midway to his mouth as he listened to her terse speech.
She pursed her lips and clasped her hands at the edge of the table. “He was breeding a mare and the stud went crazy for a minute. Pa didn’t move quick enough. If he’d been just a few inches one way or the other, it mightn’t have happened, but one hoof caught his temple and he never woke up.”
“Were you here alone?” He watched as she brushed her fingers along the smooth edge of the table, intent on their progress as she touched the worn wood.
“Yes, I was alone.” She rose abruptly and reached for his bowl. “Would you like more stew?”
The matter was closed. Her movement, her pinched expression and her pursed lips told him she would speak no longer of the death of Charlie Cassidy.
He handed her the heavy bowl and nodded. She might not be overly friendly, but the woman sure could cook. “What kind of meat you got in that stuff?” He tilted his chair a bit as he watched her brisk movements.
His brow rose. “You shoot it?”
Her glance withered him effectively. “No, I hit it with a rock,” she said dryly.
He grinned. Perhaps with a little luck, he could get a new horse here after all. Apologies to the stallion he’d picked up for a song just outside of Lexington, but the horse wasn’t what he wanted for the long road he’d soon be traveling.
And maybe with a small dose of gentlemanly courtesy, he’d even find a bed hereabouts for the night. Anything would be better than the hard ground he’d been sleeping on lately.
The canvas cot he found in the barn was too short, and he grumbled loudly as he awoke for the third time since midnight. It creaked ominously as he shifted once more, turning himself over gingerly as he sought a modicum of comfort. The other choice had been the hayloft; even given the presence of mice, it might have been the better of the two, he decided glumly, staring into the darkness.