Booted feet stomped impatiently on the porch, letting the caked and dried mud scatter in generous footprint-shaped piles. Matthew found himself one of the rocking chairs and began to unlace the boots, removing each with a weary grunt, leaving them next to his seat for the next day. He opened the door with a raw and sore hand, despite wearing his work gloves, from reseating old fenceposts bordering the south pasture. “Damn cows,” he mumbled as he entered the door, “why they scratch on those posts instead of a tree is beyond me…” The smell of baked chicken and potatoes stopped his commentary and he quickened his step toward the sink, recognizing his hunger at last, then grabbed the pump handle to raise and lower it a few times until the water clumsily sputtered from the spout, clearing away a day’s worth of caked dirt and sweat from his hands and forearms. Matthew dried his hands on a towel, pausing just a second to touch his finger to the embroidered lily he’d first admired a few short years ago. He squeezed his eyes shut for a second, willing himself to remember where he was instead of with her. Another sigh escaped from between his stubble as he sat at the table, gently raising the dark curls on his forehead just long enough for Mary to see more sweat and dirt smudged there.
“Hard day?” she asked.
“Mm-hmm.” Matt cut off a thigh and leg from the chicken and began to eat before it had a chance to land on his plate.
“How many fence posts do you have left?” Mary inquired without lifting her fork, slightly amazed that he left the other foods alone.
“Oh, that’s good. I figured you’d need to spend two full days on those after you told me about the damage those cows did. This way you can get to them after breakfast and finish up by lunch time.”
“Sure,” he replied, but thought, “I would have finished today if the ground weren’t so muddy.”
“The sunset shone pink on the easterly clouds today as they moved off, so we should have a dry night and pleasant weather tomorrow. I know the rain today must have slowed things some.” Mary began to cut her green beans in to bite-sized pieces for something else to do, feeling strained to get anything more than one word out of him.
“I’ll head out before you get here tomorrow morning. Leave the biscuits on the table so I can take them with me.” With that, he rose from the table and headed to his room, leaving Mary to eat her meal without him. Stopping at the doorway to his bedroom, he turned his head over his shoulder and said, “Look, you don’t have to wait for me to have supper. The agreement is for you to keep house and cook. I don’t need the company.” Without waiting for a response, he moved on and shut the bedroom door behind him. Mary let out a sigh and, resigning, finished eating. He was right about waiting for him, she knew. Now she’d have to ride the four miles to the boarding house in town in the dark. Fortunately, Duke, her horse, had learned the way in the last month and could carry her there blindfolded. Tonight would be fine since the rain had stopped, but she knew that future rainy nights might mean trouble. She resolved to let him have his supper in peace.
As she returned to the sink with the dirty dishes she again glanced at her reflection in the window, trying to stare out into the darkness. She wouldn’t be able to get answers from Matthew about the blond woman. Saul had never mentioned any other living soul, besides any of the three of them, not even the late wife. Matthew had only ever said, “Sarah would…” or “Sarah used to…” and trail off, as if the memory of her was so painful it prevented the use of words to remind him she was gone. Mary couldn’t help but feel Matthew needed the company anyway. Still, his grief needed time before… before what? Before he would be conversational? Before he would be civil? Whatever the answer, Mary would do her job and establish a routine. Besides, the morning might dawn with fresh possibilities.