A Swirl of Dust
Tess McKinnon wanted to put as much distance between herself and old Mac Reardon as possible. She ran down the dusty country road. It was a hot, muggy day in Brier Hill, Ohio. She wiped the sweat off her brow with the back of her hand, and listened to the sound of her dog, Buddy, panting as he ran beside her.
She looked up at the metallic gray sky that had been blue when she started out over three hours ago. Her shirt was wet with sweat. There were dark clouds. She would welcome a rain shower but a thunderstorm would mean imminent danger on the lonely country road. She looked out over the knee-high rows of corn. There wasn’t a house in sight; not even a barn where she and Buddy could take shelter.
The carpet bag felt heavy in her hand as it swung back and forth, and the other hand grasp a black quilted bag that held her computer. She was tired and growing weary. The sky was growing darker, but not as dark the past few days had been. Her stepfather, Mac Reardon, had been abusive to her mother. They’d buried her mother yesterday, and he had told her to be out of the house by two o’clock.
“I’ll leave now,” Tess said wondering how her mother had ever got mixed up with him. He stood unshaven, in dirty blue jeans, and a faded plaid shirt. He had a condescending expression. “Is it okay if I leave the trunk in my room? I’ll hire someone to help me.”
“It’s not your room anymore, girl,” he lashed out. “It’s Anna Mae’s son’s room now. I always did want a son—someone who can help me with this farm.”
“I’m sorry, Mac, but I …” Suddenly hot anger shot up inside of her. “Mama’s not even cold in the grave, and you’re marrying that woman tomorrow,” she hissed. “You are a low-down weasel, Mac Reardon, and I never want to lay eyes on you again. I’ll send someone for my trunk.”
He shrugged his shoulders. And when Tess heard the screen door slam, she breathed a sigh of relief.
It had been difficult to leave the trunk behind. Everything she owned was in it— journals, a manuscript, winter clothes, boots, a teapot, and an old sweater that had been her Mother’s. There were also a few Jane Austen books that her mother had given her. She couldn’t live without her books.
Tess ran faster. The countryside was a blur as she ran past fields of horses, and cows grazing. A truck sped by sending a blanket of dust through the air. She coughed and slowed to a brisk walk.
She opened the carpetbag and pulled out a bottle of water. She took a long swig, then cupped her hand and filled it with water.
Buddy lapped it up.
Then she filled it twice more for him. He looked up at her and smiled.
"Are you happy to be gone, Buddy?” She took another swig of water, and declared, “Mac Reardon is a psychopath and a thief. He should be locked up.”
Buddy whined and sat on his haunches.
“We’ve only gone five miles, Buddy.” She patted him on the head. “Fifteen more to go. If we’re lucky, we’ll be there by dusk. We’re going back to the cabin where we belong—where we’ve always belonged. We won’t have much, but we’ll have peace of mind. We’ll cool off in the creek.”
A shiny black SUV rushed by leaving a trail of dust. Then it pulled over to the shoulder and stopped. The stranger rolled down his window. Tess wiped her forehead with her arm and trudged over.
He stared at her, his dark eyes intense. “There’s not a house within miles. What are you doing out here alone? There’s a storm brewing.”
“I’m headed to Owl Creek. It’s not far from Brier Hill. I have a cabin there.”
“You shouldn’t be out here alone. I’m Sawyer Rhodes. I have a horse farm near your cabin. It looks like we’re neighbors. Get in.”
"Are you sure? Your car looks clean, and my dog is pretty dirty.” All the while, she was looking him over.
Her intuition told her it would be fine, and Buddy was wagging his tail. So, she nodded, and he climbed out of the vehicle.
Buddy licked the stranger’s hand.
“Ferocious dog.” He lifted the hatch.
Buddy jumped in, and Sawyer took the carpet bag from Tess and set it beside Buddy.
“I’ll keep the computer with me.” She clutched the quilted bag. “My life is in it.”
Sawyer smiled a wry smile. "There’s plenty of room.” he waited until Tess was settled in before he shut the car door.
She’d noticed a litheness about him when he walked around to the driver’s side—and climbed in with ease. He wore black hat, black jacket, and trousers. She guessed he was a Mennonite though she’d never seen a Mennonite driving a car this nice. She settled back into the seat. “Air conditioning,” she breathed in the new car smell of the leather interior. “It feels really good.”
“How long have you been walking?”
“Five hours,” she said, glancing at his profile. His tan face and lean body told her he worked outdoors. He’d said he had a horse farm. She’d noticed his lips right away; they were firm. His nose was straight. There was no doubt about it; he was incredibly good looking. Suddenly, she was aware of her own dust-ridden, sweaty body. She scooted toward the door to put distance between them.
“You must have wanted to leave pretty bad to set off walking in this heat.”
“I did.” She didn’t see any point in explaining because she was sure she would never see him again. He probably had a girlfriend. It was ridiculous to think that there was a remote possibility that he would have interest in her. “Do you want to talk about it?”
She put her hand to her forehead. “My mother was buried yesterday,” her voice quavered, “and my stepfather is getting married tomorrow. I had to get out of there. The sight of him sickened me. I had to leave my trunk there. It has my books in it and some sentimental things.”Her hand went to her throat with a look of disbelief, “I forgot my mother’s locket. She wore it every day—my father gave it to her on their wedding day. She gave it to me when she was dying, and I left it on the dresser.”
Sawyer reached over and touched her shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’ll go back and get your things. I have a truck at my farm.”
She felt unraveled. “I don’t know what to say. Why would you do this? Why do you care?”
“Somebody helped me once,” Sawyer said. “He was a stranger. I was down and out on my luck, and he helped me get back on my feet.”
He patted her shoulder. “It’s payback time.”
The cabin was hidden from the road, and there were ruts in the lane, but the SUV handled the terrain well. Tess was craning her neck, and when Sawyer swerved to avoid a fallen tree, she was jostled so hard she grabbed onto his sleeve.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
When she caught her first glimpse of the cabin, her eyes glistened. The cabin was her refuge. The rain beat down on the windshield, and when Sawyer turned off the wipers, the cabin was a watery blur.
Lightning streaked across the sky. “Let’s wait till the rain lets up,” he said. “Then we’ll make a run for it."
She turned and looked at Buddy. “We’re home, Buddy. We made it!”
“It’s huge,” Sawyer said. “Much more than I expected.”
“It’s three bedrooms, and the rooms are large. My father built it twenty years ago. The land belonged to my grandfather, and the cabin was built from the trees in the woods behind the house. It was my haven before my car broke down. I would come here to journal and paint. Mother deeded it to me last year when she got sick. My stepfather never knew about this place. Somehow we kept the taxes paid.”
“Looks like you had a big garden.”
“Yes, it’s all grown up now, but it’s not too late to get one started.” She pointed to the side of the house, her expression wistful. “There’s an orchard with the best apples in the world. My grandfather planted the trees.”
“It’s letting up,” she said. “Let’s make a run for it.”
Buddy bounded out of the SUV and started sniffing around the trees. Sawyer grabbed her carpetbag.
The rain stung her face as they ran towards the house, but it felt refreshing. She stopped when she saw the roses blooming. “Mama’s roses are still there. The garden just needs a good weeding.”
There was a clap of thunder, and Sawyer threw his arm around her shoulder and pushed her forward.
“The key is under the rock by the garage,” she yelled out.
She watched as Sawyer moved the rock and came up with the key. The rain was dripping off his hat. He fiddled with the key, and she sighed when it turned in the lock.
She stepped inside. The light was dim. She flipped on the light in the foyer. Everything looked just like she’d left it. It was more than a roof over her head. It was her home; her haven. It meant that she would not be beholden to anyone.
Sawyer looked around and whistled as he scanned the living room filled with antiques and couches and chairs upholstered in red plaid and moss green velour. It was striking against the warm hickory wood.
“This is beautiful,” he said. “How did you manage to do all this?”
“My mother sold off some antiques when Granny died, and we went to sales and auctions. We kept a few of Granny’s antiques, mixed old with new, and it turned out nicely. I’ll show you the dining room.”
As Tess led him across the room, she gestured to the bookcase that covered a wall and was filled with books. She pulled out a book. “Granny was a schoolteacher. She loved books. I grew up on Rudyard Kipling, Poe, and James.”
When Sawyer didn’t reply, she realized that he didn’t know about poets or the books she had mentioned. He was a Mennonite. They went to the eighth grade.
Their shoulders brushed when she returned the book to the shelf, and a shiver went through her.
It was then she noticed he was wet. “I’ll grab some towels.”They dried off with thick white towels that she found in the linen closet.
Sawyer looked around, admiring a painting she’d done a few years ago of her horse, Thunder.“You captured the spirit of the horse. Do you still own him?"
“I had to sell him when I went away to college. Money was tight. I have some great memories."
“You can get another horse. I breed horses. I have a horse ranch. I own seventy-five horses and a hundred acres.”
“Oh no, it will be a while before I can think about getting a horse. Money is scarce until I start teaching this fall.”
“You’re a teacher?”
“I’ll be teaching first grade at the elementary school in town. I just graduated from college. It will be my first teaching job.”
"Do you have a family?”
“No. Just Buddy. He’s like my family.”
“You’ll need some help. The inside looks good, but the outside is rundown. I’ll help you.”
“I’ll manage,” she said. “I don’t have money to hire help.”
She led him into the dining room. Mother wanted me to have a nice place to live.” “We sold Granny’s antique set, and it brought in enough money to put in a new well. And I splurged for a new dining room set.” She ran her hand over the smooth surface of the long table. “This is solid cherry from an Amish furniture store in Walnut Creek called Fritz and Thomas. Have you heard of it?”
“I work there,” he said. “I’m Thomas Shrock’s assistant.”
“I thought you owned a horse ranch.”
“I do. It was Thomas Shrock who gave me my start. I met him at a horse auction. I was short money to buy the horse I wanted, and he loaned me the money. He was the stranger I mentioned. Then he asked me if I could drive, and I became his driver, as well as, his assistant. ”
“Interesting how life works out. Sometimes you meet the right person and your whole life changes.”
Tess smiled as she lifted the glass globe off a brass kerosene lamp and peered inside to check if it had oil.
“So, you are a country girl, after all.” He looked pleased. “You use the lamp. It isn’t just for decoration.”
“Oh, yes, I use it. From an early age, I was taught to be thrifty.”
“My grandmother had one of these to make apple butter.” Sawyer squatted and ran his hand over the big copper bucket in the corner of the dining room, with long oar paddles.
“Yes. Every fall, we make apple butter outside on the patio. I love the autumn here when the air is cool and crisp. It’s a palate of colors. Good for a person’s soul.” The thought that she was alone now and would have to carry on the tradition by herself sent a twinge of sadness through her.
She pulled a Mason jar out of the pantry and set it in front of him. “This is for you.” She paused. “You should probably go now. It’s stopped raining.”
He picked it up. “Apple butter. Looks mighty good. Can’t wait to try it.” He gazed at her. “There aren’t any groceries in this house, and you know it. I can’t leave you like this. Let’s run into town, get a bite to eat, and then go by the grocery store?”
“You’ve already done so much. I’m sure you have things you need to do.”
“It can wait. Besides, I’m hungry.”
“I’m starving.” She patted her stomach. “I can’t even remember when I’ve had a decent meal. But I can’t go like this. I’ll have to take a quick shower.”
“Mind if I take a look around while you get ready?”
“Make yourself at home.” She turned to go upstairs to her room. “Will you bring up the oil for the lamps?” Tess called over her shoulder. “It’s in the cupboard under the sink.”
As Tess threaded her way through the crowded restaurant, to the buffet, for the second time, she told herself that she would never be hungry again. She had neglected her own needs while taking care of her mother. She hovered her hand over the chocolate Bavarian, but she convinced herself that the peach pie would be healthier. The velvety homemade ice cream was a guilty pleasure. As she placed the overflowing plate on the table, she noted Sawyer’s look of disbelief.
“What? It’s just a piece of pie.” Her spoon broke the crumbling crust and scooped up a piece of delicate peach pie and melting ice cream.
She felt his eyes study her as she scribbled on a scrap of paper between mouthfuls. She’d been multi-tasking for months and couldn’t stop. She wouldn’t rest until she was settled in with a roof over her head and food in the house.
“What’s on your mind, Tess?”
“Just making a grocery list. We don’t have much time.” She looked up from the list. “By the time we go to the grocery store, it might be eight o’clock before you get over to Mac’s to pick up the trunk. He goes to bed at nine, and he’ll be madder than a rattlesnake if anyone wakes him up.”
“No worries. Relax and enjoy your pie.”
Tess smiled. She couldn’t remember when she’d had anyone to help her. After her father died, her mother was lonely. Tess blamed herself for her mother falling into Mac Reardon’s trap. She would come back as much as she could from college to help, but it hadn’t been enough.
She put down the pen and gave her full attention to Sawyer. He had a cleft in his chin, which made him even more handsome. After the waitress refilled their coffee cups, she took a sip. Sawyer was right. She needed to slow down and be in the moment.
“This is nice,” she said. “Sorry, I’ve been so preoccupied.”
Tess reflected on how easy it had been to talk to Sawyer. She was usually reticent with strangers, but he had put her at ease. Admittedly, she had been in an emotional turmoil when he picked her up, and she hadn’t been able to keep a lid on how cruel Reardon had been during her mother’s last three weeks.
“I’d just as soon get it over with if you don’t mind,” Tess said. “I want to wash my hands of Mac.”
She dabbed her mouth with a napkin. “My mother made the biggest mistake of her life when she married him. He was conniving and somehow managed to convince her to intermingle her savings with his. When she needed money for medicine, he told her it was gone. He said he’d needed the money for back taxes on the house, and since he was putting a roof over her head, she should help. By the time I arrived, she was too sick to do anything for herself, and her pain level was a ten. She didn’t want to go to the hospital, so I called the doctor, and he came right over and gave me a prescription for pain medications to keep her comfortable.”
Sawyer eyes had darkened. He reached over and patted her hand. “There’s no excuse for such cruelty. I’m sorry your mother suffered. And I’m sorry you had to go through it alone.”
“I didn’t go through it alone. My father’s ghost came back.” She toyed with her coffee cup. “Mother saw him clearly, and I overheard conversations she had with him right before she died. There’s no doubt in my mind that my father was there.”
Sawyer narrowed his eyes. “Did you see him?”
“No, but I felt his presence. And others came, too. My grandparents and Aunt Nettie.” She took a deep breath. “Even my Aunt Nettie’s ghost lover, Edwin, was there.”
Sawyer drew back. “Ghost lover?”
His body language told Tess that this was a step further than he was willing to accept, but she persevered. “Yes. My Aunt Nettie had a ghost lover. He was a great help to her throughout her life. I grew up with Edwin and didn’t think it unusual, though Mother and Aunt Nettie warned me not to mention my invisible Uncle Edwin, lest people think the bed-and-breakfast haunted.”
“But it was haunted,” Sawyer said, seeming to relax into the conversation again.
“Of course, but Uncle Edwin wasn’t scary. He was my Uncle who played hide-and-seek with me and pushed me on my rope swing at the old oak tree. He would read stories to me on the bench in the rose garden. And Aunt Nettie always set a place for him at the table, but he never ate.”
Sawyer laughed, but Tess couldn’t tell whether it was humor or disbelief.
“He saved me more than once when I was small. I once disobeyed my mother and climbed up a ladder when I was five years old. He caught me when I was falling.”
Sawyer creased his brow.
"Anyway, the night Mother died, they were all there waiting for her. She wanted to go with them, but she was worried about leaving me alone in the world.” Tess’s voice choked. “I told her I’d be fine and that I would have my sweet memories of her to make me happy.” Tess brushed a tear away. “She asked me to take her locket off her neck, and she told me it was her most precious possession because my Father had given it to her on her wedding day. I put the necklace on, and she smiled and said she wanted me to wear it on my wedding day. Then she told me she loved me. She shut her eyes and was gone.”
“Don’t be sad. I haven’t even had a chance to cry. I’ll probably have a good cry tonight after I get he trunk and the locket.”
“You have a lot of courage, Tess. You’ve been through a lot. I wish I could’ve been there for you.”
“Thanks for caring. You’ve already done so much. The least I can do is buy your lunch.” She reached for her purse.
“I wanted to take you to lunch. I invited you.”
After Sawyer paid the bill, they went to the bakery, and he bought some chocolate chip cookies and an angel food cake with white icing he’d seen her admire. At the grocery store, he pushed the cart and helped Tess find the items on her list. He took out his wallet at the checkout.
“It’s too much,” she said.
“It’s only a hundred dollars. I can afford it.”
“I don’t feel right about it. I’m going to pay you back.”
She didn’t want to bother him with the gruesome details. A thousand dollars had come up missing from her purse two days before her mother had died. It was money she’d taken out of the bank for her mother’s medication. Reardon was a thief, and she knew she’d never see the money again.