Falling Rock, Colorado Late October 1888
"I'm not one to go without a woman for long, missy."
When Honor McCall had first heard her uncle say those words, she'd been sitting beside him in the wagon on the drive from the farm to the cemetery in nearby Falling Rock. She'd trembled then. Now, standing at Aunt Harriet's grave and digesting what Uncle Lucas must have meant, she realized she'd never stopped shaking.
She did not want to marry her late aunt's husband. If only the God that Aunt Harriet had told her about would provide her with a means of escape.
Although her aunt had been a Christian all her life, Lucas wasn't allowing a funeral service. There was no one to attend the burial because only the grave diggers knew about the death. It was surprising that Lucas had driven Honor to the cemetery to watch the men dig the hole. Knowing him, that was more than she'd expected.
As the diggers lowered the crude, wooden coffin into the ground, Honor saw a flash of gray behind a group of trees. In a moment, it became a young man in a gray suit, coming toward them, and she knew she'd never seen him before.
Her heart knotted. Lucas would not be pleased by this turn of events.
The stranger had thick brown hair and broad shoulders that reminded her of Lucas. Though her uncle was at least twenty years older, both men were tall and well built. But the young man's clothes looked spotless, and he held what appeared to be a black Bible in one hand and an umbrella in the other. While Lucas, also in a gray suit, had liquor stains down the front of his jacket, and he gripped a half-empty whiskey bottle as though it were glued to his right hand.
Dreading a confrontation, Honor wished the young man would just go away. At the same time, she hoped he would stay. There was something in his presence that made her feel safe.
She'd been so overwhelmed by the death of her aunt, she'd hardly noticed the weather. Now she felt the nip of a fresh norther that had just blown in. Dark clouds gathered, and an icy wind stirred the pines that surrounded them. Her shivers deepened.
When the younger man reached the graveside, Lucas glowered at him. "What do ya think you're doing here, mister?"
"My name is Jethro Peters, but my friends call me Jeth. I'm just visiting here in Falling Rock. I live over in Hearten. I'm the pastor there, and when the diggers told me someone died, I came to see if I could be of help."
Lucas studied the minister, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging slack, the way it always did when something unusual happened to him. After a moment, his thick eyebrows drew together. His face turned red, and a crease appeared in the center of his forehead.
"Your kind ain't welcome here," he said, his voice rough and gravelly. "We don't need no preacher."
"Yes, Uncle, we do." Honor could hardly believe she'd found the courage to speak up. She knew she could be beaten for her words, but for her aunt's sake, she'd had to say what was in her mind.
Lucas scowled. "What did you say, girl?"
"I said that we need a preacher here today - at least, I do." Her voice was hardly more than a whisper. "Aunt Harriet was a Christian, and she would have wanted someone to say a prayer over her grave and read from the Good Book."
"I would be glad to do it," Jeth Peters said softly, "if you will allow it, sir."
Honor expected Lucas to curse the preacher and drive him away, but strangely, he kept silent for a few moments, staring at the younger man. Then he looked down at his dirty black boots. "All right," he mumbled. "Say what you have to and read from that there book you got. Then git. I ain't never had no use for do-gooders."
Jeth Peters nodded. In a clear voice, he read from the Bible. When he finished, he said a prayer.
The Bible reading sounded strange to Honor's ears, but the prayer made her feel warm all over. She longed to say "Amen" loud enough for her uncle to hear, but decided against it. One more word could set Lucas off, and that might embarrass the minister.
Rain started to fall before the diggers had finished covering the grave.
The minister opened his black umbrella and offered it to Honor. "Here," he said. "We wouldn't want you to catch a cold."
Honor shook her head. "I couldn't take your umbrella, sir, but thank you for offering. And thank you for coming today. I'm sure it was just what my aunt would have wanted."
The preacher's wide smile lifted her spirits for an instant. Then thoughts of what Lucas might do to her at home washed away those good feelings.
"Will you take my umbrella if I stand under it with you?" the young man asked.
Stand under it with him? He obviously had no idea how dangerous such an act could be for her. The young minister couldn't know that Lucas would never allow her to stand close to any man, especially a man of the cloth. But defiance suddenly gripped her.
To her own surprise, she lifted her head and said firmly, "Yes. I would be happy to share your umbrella with you. It is kind of you to ask."
Lucas took a swallow of whiskey from the bottle without comment. She wondered if he was aware of what had been said. Or was he too drunk to have really taken in what was going on? No matter, sooner or later, he would insist that Honor pay for the things she'd said and done here today, of that she was certain. She shivered again.
Jeth stood under a spreading pine, watching as the young woman and her drunken companion climbed into the wagon. She'd called the man Uncle. Other than that, Jeth hadn't learned anything about them. Still, he wanted to know more, especially about her.
Her eyes were honey brown, fringed with long dark lashes, and her skin was as pale as alabaster - and flawless. So was her softly rounded figure, in his opinion. Her hair had been hidden under a cotton bonnet, but a few dark auburn curls had escaped - enough for him to know that her hair was long and probably very soft to the touch. And she'd smelled as sweet as rosewater. His experience as a pastor had taught him to notice things about people that other folks might miss - like the fact that the young woman's face, despite all its beauty, didn't contain any laugh lines.
It wasn't surprising that a deep sadness appeared to encase her; her aunt had died. But Jeth wondered if perhaps joy wasn't something she knew very little about - even in the best of times.
Was she married? Betrothed? He hadn't had such thoughts about a woman since before he met his late wife....
Jeth glanced away. A lump now dwelled in his throat as well as his heart. Pain, sudden and strong, blocked out everything. When he glanced back, the wagon had disappeared beyond a clump of pine trees.
THE WINTER PEARL by Molly Noble Bull
Published by Steeple Hill Books
Copyright (c) 2005 by Molly Noble Bull