Owen chuckled and leaned against the side of the table, crossing one foot over the other. His broad chest stretched the front of his shirt and the buttons threatened to pop off in protest. “I didn’t kill him if that’s what you’re thinking. He died of fever, like most others ’round these parts. Buried him a few hours ago. This place isn’t for the weak…or ladies such as yourself. That’s why you have to go back home. You have no idea how rough life is out here on the prairie. I can’t be watchin’ out for you on top of doing what needs to be done to get this place running.”
She straightened. “I can take care of myself. And I’ll worry about how to run my land. Were you Mr. O’Brien’s steward or something?”
Owen shoved from the table and paced the floor. “No. Willy and I were working together. We managed to secure most of what we need to start breaking the land and prep it for planting next season. I’d promised to help him with his land and we shared this home while we were working together. Once both crops were planted, I’d build my own home.”
Gingerly, she slid the boot from her left foot, biting her lip to keep from screaming. Blood stained her stockings and she knew it would be difficult to walk tomorrow, let alone work, but she’d manage. She always managed.
She removed the left shoe with the same delicate movements, but her skin protested. The dried blood had cemented her heel to the leather. After a moment, she worked it free and dropped the shoe to the floor. Her stockings were ruined, the only dress she had left was ruined, her feet were ruined, and now her plan to save her sisters was ruined.
With a glance around the small space, she scrutinized the simple amenities. Dirt floor, wood stove, a straw pile in one corner, and a bed in the other. Simple, but it was more than she’d had for the last week. Seeing a sheet of paper on the floor near the bed, she recognized her handwriting and realized it was one of the letters she’d written to her cousin. Did he know why she was here? Was that why he was so insistent she go back home, because he was trying to steal her claim? A claim that would allow her and her sisters to start over. When their brothers had gone to war and her little brother and parents had died, managing the plantation had fallen to her and her sisters. They had to work the fields after their slaves had fled, but now the land was too scorched to grow anything.
“I know how to plow and plant. I’ll manage,” she said, her voice cracking from exhaustion.
Owen ran a hand through his hair and shook his head. “You don’t understand. This is man’s work. This ground is hard, not like what you’re used to in Georgia.” He faced her with a determined expression then his gaze slipped to her bloodied feet. “Dear God. What happened?”
She slid her feet back under her skirts. “Nothing. I’m fine.”
He dropped to his knees in front of her and glanced up with a look of terror, as if she’d just brought the cholera epidemic to his doorstep. “Don’t be stubborn. Let me see,” he said in a softer, concerned tone.
Abigail didn’t know if it was his pained expression or soft words that drew her to comply, but she lifted her skirts a little and extended her legs to show her feet. He ripped what remained of her stockings and pulled the material aside. She gasped at the sudden movement and loud tearing sound. With a gentle touch, he raked his thumb around the inflamed areas, jolting her upright.
“This could get infected. I’ll get bandages and clean the wounds. You need to rest tonight. Tomorrow, I’ll take you to Prairie City and you’ll be on your way.”
This man could say whatever he wanted, but Abigail wasn’t going anywhere. She’d fight to make this land work, to get her sisters out of their desperate situation back in Georgia. Despite his assurances that this was no land for women, she and her sisters could do this. They could do anything, so long as they were together.
She yawned. Her head felt like a cannon ball about to tumble from her neck. The warm air in the small one-room structure made her eyes grow heavy, and she rested her head on her arm for a moment before it slipped and smacked the tabletop.
He chuckled. “I’ll fix you some food. Then you should get some rest before you fall down.” Examining her feet again, he asked, “Whatever made you walk from Gardner in these shoes?”
“The coach ride took a day longer than I had expected, and when my cousin didn’t meet me at the station, I thought he had given up hope that I’d arrive. There was no way to contact him either, and no coach would come to this area.” She shrugged. “So I walked. Nothing will stop me from making this work. Not my feet, not some squatter, and not the harshness of this land.”
Owen shook his head then held a finger in front of her face. “One day. One day out here and you’ll be begging to return to Georgia. Trust me.”
Too tired to argue the point, she said nothing. While she still didn’t like the idea of relying on a man, she realized he’d be useful to have around until she got the hang of things here. In the morning, she’d convince him to help her build up her new land so she could bring her sisters over as soon as possible. Once the seven of them were back together, she’d get him to leave. Relying on a man anymore than absolutely necessary wasn’t going to happen again. Ever.