Tom Harte had never been east of the Mississippi. Some days he regretted it and felt a pang of inferiority when he stacked his travels against those of his uncle. On nights like this, however, he found it hard to imagine anything more desirable than a porch swing and a cold Montana sky ablaze with the piercing light of a full moon.
He contented himself with a passive rhythm, so slow that it seemed the beating of his heart and the gentle breeze were all that controlled the swing. There had been a few wolves howling in the distance, but they had since ceased their mournful dialogue, leaving the wilderness surrounding the ranch house dark and potent in its silence.
Heck's fiddle sawed discordant through the wall behind him, and Tom glanced over his shoulder through the curtained parlor windows when a chorus of girlish giggles accompanied the laborious tuning. He smiled when he heard the fiddler entreat Nola to take a seat at the piano and help him bring a Foster tune to proper life. He hadn't had much occasion to speak to the woman, but he could imagine that her tired and worn features were alight and blushing furiously as she glanced sidelong at Print.
The merry chatter behind him dimmed as the opening chords of "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" commanded the attention of those gathered.
Tom closed his eyes and listened to the sentimental tune with twinges of discomfort. He could remember his mother humming it as she went about the house in worn calico, keeping the homestead in impeccable order for the hopeful return of her husband, his father, from battle.
It was a cozy thought, keeping the hearth warm until the return of a loved one, but one more suited to the long, deathly separations of war than--
A floorboard creaked softly, a curiously sudden silence immediately on its heels. He waited, nearly surrendering to the impulse to turn and look at his visitor, despite having a fair idea of who it was.
"Tham?" Another creak.
Tom turned. Sun Fu stood half-exposed in the moonlight, her hands clasped before her against the cold. Shallow, shuddering breaths hung in the air before her lips. She wore only a cotton dress, one of several Nola had bought in nearby Sheridan with part of the Moncrieffe cattle money. Taking a portion of Print's share, she had expertly sized and outfitted all the girls in the first Western clothes they had ever worn. He was no judge of pattern and style, but he could tell that it was too thin for a sharp and cold night such as this.
He rose, slipping off his heavy wool coat, and swept it around her without a word. Sun made to shove it away, murmuring something he interpreted as concern for his own comfort, but he grasped the lapels together and held her prisoner within the confines of his scent and warmth.
She surrendered readily, snaking her arms through the sleeves and hugging herself with such pleasure that Tom felt a stab of jealousy at the damned thing.
He backed away and resumed his seat on the porch swing. His eyes never wavered from her, and the swing soon held two. An odd chorus began as the beam above creaked, his heavy boots thumped on the floorboards, and silk slippers scuffed in a harmony Tom did not feel.
As the silence lengthened, an anxious prickling intensified along his neck. It didn't seem right, this silence. On the trail, hours passed without a word as everyone tended to their business. The language barrier had, for days, kept him from even attempting to talk to Sun or any of the others. Print could babble like a spring brook to the birds or a brick wall, it made no difference; but he had rarely thrown away a word in his life. When he spoke, he expected a result. Chinese girls who knew only numbers for names and "Onkle Pren" could not deliver on that count.
But he could change that. He had to, if he was to ever try putting his thoughts into words. If he waited much longer, it would all become too tangled to tackle. With no little shame, he was certain that if he ever turned away from one thing in defeat, it would be Sun Fu and all the new, unwelcome emotions she provoked.
In all his years, he'd never heard his simple name spoken with such feeling. She couldn't understand a word he said, but hearing him was enough and what she wanted. Well, he would oblige.
"This is good country," he said, "but it seems the decision's been made to take you and the others off to `Frisco." He ventured a look out of the corner of his eye and saw that she was watching him intently. Such attention would have made him squirm in the past, or at least force his eyes elsewhere. Yet he found himself wanting nothing more than to hold her haze with his own.
"You'll be learnin' more things than I could ever teach. It'll be better for you to go." He snorted. "Oh bullshit. Who am I trying to fool?" He shook his head and returned to contemplating the moon in silence.
Slowly and stealthily, two cold and slender hands slid over his, clasping it lightly. Sun turned his hand so his palm faced up and, with languorous strokes of a finger, marked him with an invisible brand.
The skin tingled and grew warm from her touch, the sensation nearly crowding out the puzzlement at what she was doing. But the mystery was short-lived when she finished the last stroke and whispered two syllables of spidery delicacy.
Tom understood. "So that's how you look on paper," he murmured. He closed his hand around her fingers, rubbing them with a broad, calloused thumb.
He had never before felt so alone as he did with her tight beside him. With her every look and gesture, simply by her presence, he saw all too well what he would not have in this life. The thick roll of money nestled in his breast pocket didn't seem so powerful after all. It did not hold the answers to what ailed him. All that it could buy - his own ranch and a herd to start business - were not what he wanted at this moment.
At this moment? Forever.
Yet it was all fleeting, this joy and pleasure. Vanishing into the dark like the wisps of breath that hovered on their lips, pluming before their eyes, only to float away into nothingness. Like a dream. Like his dream that had hounded him for the last several days on the trail.
She had more solid and real matters to tend to. Like English, for one, and learning the ways of this bizarre land that had been forced upon her. She had to learn, and San Francisco was her destination. Lung Hay had suggested it and, at a loss for alternatives, Print had agreed with Nola seconding the motion. His opinion hadn't counted at all, but it was no wonder. Only now was he realizing his detached manner was reaping a damned bitter harvest.
His palm still tingled from where Sun had written on it, an unwelcome reminder of what must be done versus what he wanted.
A prompting squeeze from her hand roused him from his self-pitying thoughts. He sighed and stared at their hands as his fingers continued to lazily caress her own.
Heck's bow veered, the sour note crashing through Foster's delicate music. Sun jumped, then giggled at her nervousness.
Her laughter brought him warmth, his somber resolve strengthened his own, her fragility gave him purpose, and her whole being gripped his mind, heart, and body.
It would be a damn desolate winter, but spring always came, and he found himself in the familiar rut of forcing optimism. He knew he was a gloomy creature by nature, but had often put his head down and plodded ahead, trusting to hard work and a bit of luck that every endeavor would have a good end.
Spring would return, and so would she. But would he be what lured her back? He had the sense that she was the sort at home with hardship, met it bravely head-on and did what she could to reach the other side. The country was still very wild, but he suspected it had already sunk its claws into him. Already plans were formulating in his mind, and the other day he found himself reckoning materials for barracks and how many hands were needed to man the herd he dreamed of starting. He would be staying, and the territory needed women like her.
He needed a woman like her.
She's not even gone, he thought, and I already want her back. What can I do to make her want to come back? His intuition that the land itself would call her wasn't strong enough that he'd be willing to bet on it.
He could imagine what Print would say if he dared ask for advice. After laughing himself into a coughing fit, he'd totter off muttering to himself about calf-eyed nephews. He would be of no help.
Tom's mind rolled, tossed and weighed a dozen different gestures and words, but he could settle on none of them. Nothing seemed right, nothing felt apt for what he wanted to tell his wise and brave Sun Fu.
A hand tugged on his, snapping him out of his thoughts. Sun Fu pointed furtively over his shoulder, a shy, hopeful smile curving her full lips. At first he thought she was indicating she wanted to go inside, but he soon realized that she was instead pointing at Heck's music.
It was no longer the well-worn Foster, but a mournful tune. For all I know, Tom thought, it's all about the regret and pride of an idiot like me.
The music changed, drifting from sad to slow and intimate, and Tom felt its power through the glass panes behind him all the more powerfully because it seemed he and Sun Fu were inhabitants in a world of two. The way she looked at him now, the artful pull of her lips into a smile, made him believe that all she could ever desire was within him to give. It was invigorating and terrifying all at once.
Her eyes were alight with an innocent hope. The night Heck had played around the campfire and Print had swept Nola into a dance, Tom remembered Sun Fu laughing and looking at him with invitation. He had fought the urge to follow his uncle into the foolish antics of a swain, ill-equipped as he was at the game, but the darkness gave him shelter and a small measure of confidence.
She was leaving any day, and he did not want to hear a song of regret again and immediately think of himself.
He held out his hand and when her fingers curled around his as they rose, he felt the promise in the tender grip.
At last, she seemed to say. I am yours. Tonight. Tomorrow. And always.
By the time they reached the last step of the porch and stepped onto the dusty yard, he was envisioning his ranch, a business of men and horses, with a home that held two hearts.
She would leave for California, but it would not be the end.
He led, and their steps were at first stumbling and erratic. With some embarrassment he realized he was a poorer dancer than he originally thought. But Sun Fu's giggles at her own clumsiness smoothed over his smarting pride.
She slipped her fingers through his and hesitated only slightly to lay her cheek against his chest. He responded by settling a hand over her waist, slender and slight, even under the bulk of his coat.
A small sigh escaped her, carrying with it the last of his regret.
I am yours.
And I yours, Sun Fu.