Jacob Dunleavy saw his destination as he crested the hilltop.
The farmhouse needed some work and he hoped it would be his salvation.
It had been a long year. He needed a place to take stock. He was only 20 but he felt like he was nearer to death than a 50-year-old. But he had cheated death before. He had, in fact, been running from death for 2 long years.
But not his death.
Jacob put his hat in his hand and walked onto the porch. He took a deep breath and knocked.
Marnie Lambert had been sitting at the table in the parlor when she heard the knock. She hoped it wasn't the sheriff but there was nothing she could do if it was.
She owed money from hither to yon: Five dollars at the livery stable; two dollars at the commissary. And she couldn't forget the gambling debt that Wesley had left behind. His death had not absolved him of what he owed.
In fact, his death had put her into this bind.
"Cards," she groused. "That damned idiot. Not only did he get himself killed but he'll kill me, too."
With a loud sigh, Marnie walked to the door.
Jacob was surprised by the youngish-looking woman who stood in front of him.
Marnie was surprised by the youngish-looking man standing on her porch.
"Mrs. Lambert," Jacob said. "I heard you might need a hand with some things here. A man at the saloon told me."
Marnie laughed aloud.
"I need more help that you can give me, boy," she said.
"Jacob," he corrected. "Jacob Dunleavy. And you might be surprised how much help I can be. I can fix up the roof and help you with the planting. I did some farming back in St. Louis and some carpentry in Independence."
Marnie shook her head dismissively.
"You're a long way from Missouri, boy," she said.
"Jacob, Mrs. Lambert," he said. "Please call me Jacob."
"All right, Jacob," Marnie said with a hint of disdain. "Even if you could help me out with chores, it wouldn't be enough to help me along."
"It would be a start," Jacob offered, "toward helping you get along."
"I couldn't afford to pay you, so you best run along," Marnie rejoined.
"I didn't ask about pay," Jacob said. "We can discuss that when it comes time. You need some help, Mrs. Lambert. Joe at the saloon said you're a good person in a bad way."
Joe Long's wife was Marnie's only friend. Well, at the very least she was the lone friend who hadn't deserted her when Wesley had been caught cheating at poker.
"And you're a missionary," Marnie scoffed.
Jacob shook his head sadly.
"I'm a man with no place to go who needs to make amends for some things I've done," he said.
"You're barely a boy," Marnie said. "You're certainly not someone who is old enough to need amending anything."
"I'm older than I look," Jacob offered. "And I've been on my own for 7 years."
Marnie's eyes narrowed.
"You've been on your own for 7 years?" she asked. "OK, say I believe you. What brings you out west?"
If only you knew, Jacob thought, you wouldn't let me within a hundred miles of you. But he settled on a partial truth.
"I needed to put some distance between me and a bad romance," he told the woman.
Marnie knew all about failed romances. Wesley had seemed like a good man when they met. He had been funny and friendly and she had liked him instantly.
But in the last two years — since they came to Stover — Wesley had become a different man. Marnie had come to realize that Wesley's good manners had been forced upon him by his mother. Once he was outside of her influence, his natural personality brewed to the top.
He became a drinker, a gambler — and a batterer. Marnie shuddered at the memory.
"So you're willing to help me out around here, without pay, until I figure out what I want to do?" she asked.
"I'll work for room and found," Jacob said. "Mrs. Lambert, we can get this place fixed up and get a crop down. I can help you hold off the creditors until you can sell the crop. You might not make much profit this year, but there are some people who will pay for it before it comes in. It'll be less than you can make afterward but it should let you pay down some of what you owe."
Marnie bristled noticeably.
"I owe nothing," she said harshly. "The debts were left to me."
"That doesn't mean you don't have to pay them yourself," he countered. "If worse comes to worst, we'll have the place fixed up well enough to sell so you can have a bride's price for wherever you decide to go."
Marnie's eyes hardened.
"I will never be at the beck and call of another man," she hissed. "You remember that, Mr. Dunleavy. If I let you stay here, you work for me. I don't work for you."
Jacob held up his hands in submission.
"As you wish, Mrs. Lambert," he said. "I'll ask your permission before I do anything short of going to the privy. I reserve the right to decide that for myself."
Marnie wanted to chuckle at the bawdy joke. She enjoyed a good blue remark. Instead she squinted toward the man in front of her.
"The bunkhouse is a mess," she said. "You can clean it up and use it. After my husband's transgression, the hands refused to stay and work for a woman. But they made sure to tear up as much stuff as they could."
Jacob nodded sadly.
"Get it cleaned up and you can stay there for a while," she continued. "You'll start in the morning. You can start on the main house."
Jacob looked around.
"Do you have any stock left?" he asked. "Joe said you've been selling it off piece by piece to pay down some things."
"All of it," Marnie said sadly. "I sold the last horse and heifer last month."
"Do you mind if ask how much you still owe?" Jacob asked.
"I mind greatly," Marnie said with ice in her voice. "You can stay in the bunkhouse and help out or you can go on your way. What you can't do is ask me questions about my life."
Again Jacob held up his hands. But the door had already slammed in his face.
Marnie had to admit that Jacob was a hard worker. He had the house in decent shape in less than a week and he had selected a nice section of land for planting.
He had left for a few days and come back with a note offering to purchase the sight-unseen crop for less than it was worth but more than it would be worth if the sheriff foreclosed before it was reaped.
It would be enough to put a dent in the gambling debt and to have enough to see them through a few months. But it wasn't enough to get her out of the woods.
"It was the best I could do," Jacob told her. "I don't know if it is enough but it's all that's coming."
After two months, Marnie had still been closemouthed about her debts. But, Jacob had done some digging of his own and come up with an approximate number. He knew the number on the paper would only buy time but there was more if he needed it. Mostly he just wanted Marnie to keep faith in herself.
"When does he want to know?" she asked.
"Soon," Jacob answered. "If he doesn't buy yours he'll want to go somewhere else."
It wasn't exactly true. The answer needed to be soon but the buyer would not be doing any other purchases.
Marnie looked toward the ground.
"It won't be enough," she said with tears in her eyes. "It will only stave off the inevitable."
"Then we'll find another way, Mrs. Lambert," Jacob said as he patted her arm. "I made arrangements with the general store. We can get provisions on credit again. I've got the same deal with almost every merchant in town."
Marnie's eyes came upward quickly.
"How in God's name did you manage that?" she asked. "The townfolk have been less than friendly."
"I can be charming when I try," he answered. "I convinced them it was their Christian duty to help someone whose troubles are no fault of her own."
Marnie laughed aloud. Jacob shrugged again.
"I'll be their indentured servant until the debts are paid if things go belly up here," he added.
"Jacob, that is ridiculous," she said loudly.
"Hey, don't go charging a new wardrobe and I'll be OK," he said jovially. "If you stick to necessities, I'll have the decks clear in a year or two."
"You didn't have to do that," Marnie said quietly.
"I know," he said. "But I thought it would make things easier here — for you, I mean."
Jacob couldn't help it. He had come to greatly admire Marnie Lambert. She was a feisty one. As soon as Jacob had started working on the house, she had been right beside him. She wasn't the most skilled carpenter but she was learning quickly.
When the planting started she had toiled from daylight to dark, mucking through the loam and taking gentle care of Jacob's horse, which had been forced into beast of burden duty — to its chagrin.
She had joined Jacob on the rainy days and the sunny days. She had gotten sunburned and developed calluses on her hands. Jacob found himself respecting Marnie Lambert more each day.
"Besides, if this place goes to Hell, I got to have someone to feed me," he joked.
As the fall neared, Jacob worked himself tirelessly to try to get Marnie out of debt. He could have done it other ways — and in some ways he had — but he knew that Marnie would never accept that.
The house and land were now worth much more than when he arrived only seven months earlier. But Marnie was still as frosty as ever. It was a shame but he understood the reason.
Then the situation changed markedly.
A lone horseman came racing up the lane toward the farmhouse. Jacob left off the tilling and, grabbing his gun belt raced to intercept the rider. He arrived at the farmhouse just moments before the rider came into view. He had been expecting the gambler to make a play now the property held more value.
He had been waiting for weeks for a raiding party to roust the house. The amount owed was trivial to most gamblers. But Jacob knew it was a matter of pride with some of them. He had been unable to determine exactly who the gambler was. But the farmhouse and land was worth far more than the debt.
It was worth collecting by any means necessary.
"Mrs. Lambert," Jacob said urgently. "Stay in the house. We might have trouble brewing."
Marnie peeked out the window and came onto the porch.
"You don't give the orders, Jacob," she said. She meant it as a joke but it came out as harshly as many of her comments.
"Yes, Ma'am," Jacob said. "But you might oughta heeded that piece of advice."
Jacob had his gun in his hand.
"I'm pretty good with this but if he stops at rifle range, we're in dire straits," he said.
His life was back where it was a year or so before. He was standing with his gun in his hand and preparing to take another life.
Marnie laid a hand on his arm. It was an unusually intimate gesture.
"It's my nephew," she said. She hadn't removed her hand. Jacob took a second to hazard a glance toward Marnie and away from the rider.
She was watching him intently.
"Put the gun away, Jacob," Marnie said quietly. "It's my nephew on the horse."
Marnie had been unnerved by how quickly the gun had appeared in Jacob's hand. It was obvious that he was used to it. His pleasant features had hardened and suddenly he looked much older than he had only a moment before.
Jacob's gaze was set on the rider but Marnie could tell that he was aware of everything around him. When she put her hand on his arm, he had glanced her way but his eyes were still harsh.
The lively blueness that she had come to expect had turned to ice. She watched as he lowered his pistol but didn't holster it. He had proven that he could have it at the ready in an instant.
The horseman slowed to a stop by the hitching post. He was barely more than a boy. But Jacob knew that boys could kill as easily as men — easier sometimes because they hadn't developed a conscience yet. Jacob was living proof of that.
He remained alert as the boy bound forward.
"Auntie," the boy said. "Pa wants you to come. Ma is in a bad way."
Marnie glanced at Jacob.
He nodded and started to walk away. This was obviously personal business.
But Marnie's hand tightened on his forearm.
"Do you think I can be away for a few days?" she asked.
"You give the orders, Ma'am," Jacob said harshly. He was still smarting from Marnie's tone and her refusal to abide by his urgent warning. The adrenalin was still racing in his veins.
"Jacob," Marnie said softly. "I recognized Robert riding up the lane. I knew I wasn't in danger. I'm sorry, Jacob."
Jacob nodded but still started to walk away.
"I'd like your input in this," Marnie said. "Are we in a spot where I can go with Robert for a few days?"
Jacob took a deep breath and glanced out at the fields.
"Yes," he answered succinctly.
"I mean it, Jacob," Marnie said urgently. "You are certain you can handle things here?"
"Yes," he replied again.
"Robert, why don't you go in and wash up," she said to the boy. "Jacob and I need to get things set up before I can go. You can sleep in the spare room upstairs."
The boy didn't speak but moved toward the house.
"There is a stew on the stove," his aunt said sweetly. "Help yourself but make sure you leave enough for us."
When Robert was gone, Marnie gently took Jacob's arm again and guided him to a seat beside her on the swing.
"I didn't mean to be nasty when I came out," she said. "I was trying to joke with you. I know I'm not known for my humor but I've been try to work on it."
She noticed his eyes were still icy blue.
"You're pretty quick with a gun," she said to change the subject. "Anything you want to tell me about that?"
Jacob shook his head.
"You got some things off limits," he said. "I do too."
Marnie sighed and nodded.
"When I get back I would like to talk to you about some of the things I've kept off limits," she said. "You don't have to share anything but you've earned my trust."
Jacob did a double take. Marnie did not say things like this.
"As you wish," he answered.
"I think you should move your things to the downstairs bedroom while I'm gone," Marnie continued. "I was the in bunkhouse yesterday. I should have had you work on getting it livable. I didn't realize the roof was in such bad shape."
"It was on my list to fix," Jacob said. "I just haven't gotten to it yet. It was lower priority."
"Well, your comfort is a higher priority for me," she said. "You fixed up the house wonderfully. There is no reason that I should have a roof and heat when you don't. Besides, no one comes out here anymore to even think it is inappropriate."
Jacob realized Marnie's hand had not left his arm.
"I'm fine out there, Mrs. Lambert," Jacob said.
"I think it's time you call me Marnie," she said with a smile. "And I would prefer you move to the main house at least while I'm away. Once you get the bunkhouse fixed up, we'll decide what's best."
Jacob knew Marnie meant that she would decide.
"I should be back in two or three weeks," she continued. "That should be in time to get the crop in."
"Plenty of time, Mrs. Lambert," he said. "I would expect it will be a month before it's time. If need be, I'll be able to do it by myself."
"And kill yourself?" she asked. "Wait until I get back."
Jacob nodded again.
"If you think it'll be more than a month, let me know as soon as you can," he said. "I'll need time if I have to do it alone."
Two weeks after Marnie left, a letter arrived by post. The poor rider was almost shot for his trouble. But he waited for a reply.
It was from Marnie, telling Jacob that her sister-in-law was near death and it would be several weeks before she could return.
"Please handle the situation as you see fit," she wrote.
She concluded the note with, "Warmest regards, Marnie."
In many ways, it made life easier for Jacob.