Loner's Lady

Excerpt from Loner's Lady, by Lynna Banning....

Oregon, 1872

     She saw him coming up Creek Road and for a moment her heart stopped beating. Clutching the pitted garden trowel in one hand, she tucked a wayward strand of hair back under her blue sunbonnet and squinted into the late afternoon sun until her vision blurred.

     But it wasn’t Dan. She released the breath she’d been holding and studied the man. A worn-looking leather saddle weighed down one shoulder, and a dark hat slanted over his eyes. He walked with a slight hesitation in his gait, as if one knee was stiff. Just another saddle tramp looking for a meal.

     Ellen watched for another minute, then bent to the row of leafy vegetables and pulled up an extra half dozen carrots for supper. She couldn’t bear the thought of someone, even a saddle tramp, going hungry.

     She straightened again as the man turned in at her gate. It took him a long time to push open the rickety contraption she had cobbled together out of used nails and crooked sugar pine limbs. It hung off center, the rusted hinge held in place by a single screw. Another of the thousand and one things she hadn’t had time to fix.

     “Miz O’Brian?”

     Ellen stepped out of the vegetable patch toward him. “Yes? I am Mrs. O’Brian.”

     Jess dropped the saddle where he stood. “My name’s Jason Flint, ma’am.” Beneath the brim of his hat he studied her face for a flicker of recognition. Nothing. Under the floppy gingham bonnet, the woman’s eyes drilled into him like two blue steel bolts.

     “Most folks call me Jess.” Again, he waited for a reaction, but her sun-reddened features betrayed not a hint of feeling. Damn and then some. How lucky could he get?

     She stuck out a dirt-stained hand. “Mr. Flint.” She had a strong handshake for a small woman, but quicker than he could wink she tucked her hand back into her apron pocket.

     “Guess you’d like to know what I’m doing out here on your farm?”

     Her blue irises widened slightly, but she kept her face impassive. She’d make a good poker player, Jess thought. Or maybe she was just a careful farm wife who’d seen a good number of strays in her time.

     “Truth is...” he began.

     “You’re hungry,” she supplied.

     “Yes, ma’am.”

     Her hands went to her hips. “And broke.”

     Jess hesitated. “Well...” He’d sold his horse and most of his possessions three days ago so he could eat. Hell yes, he was broke. He’d expected her to frown or purse her lips and tsk tsk at him, but she did neither. Instead, she gave him a long look and headed for the back porch of the farmhouse.

     Jess let his gaze follow her, hoping she’d say something with the word “supper” in it.