Painted Montana Sky: A Montana Sky Series Novella, page 3part #3.50 of Montana Sky Series
“I don’t see how you can ride astride, so I’ll put you sideways on the saddle. You’ll have to hook your good leg over the horn. I’ll ride on the rump. Domino’s going to wonder what the heck we’re doing,” he livened his tone in an obvious attempt to make her relax. “But he’s a good steady gelding, so we won’t have any trouble.”
During their conversation, Oliver had been petting Dove’s head and talking to her.
“Son,” Tyler said to Oliver. “I want you to bring Domino over to that boulder.” Tyler indicated with his chin which one he meant.
“Yes, Pa.” Oliver gave Dove one last pat, leaped to his feet, and ran to the horse and pony. He led them over to the rock.
“Here we go.” Tyler scooped her into his arms and carried her to the rock.
If she didn’t hurt so much, Lily would have enjoyed being in his arms. As the situation was, pain from the movement made her bite her lip to keep from crying out.
He set her down on the surface and held her until she found her balance. “You steady?”
“Yes,” Lily murmured, sure her cheeks must be red from embarrassment. In spite of her wet dress, when he had picked her up, heat flashed through her, unlike anything she’d ever felt before.
Tyler climbed on the rock behind her. He wasn’t much taller than her, only a few inches, and there was just enough room for the two of them. He turned her, and she looked up at him, their faces close enough to kiss.
Tyler’s eyes focused on her mouth, making her heart run crazy, and she wondered if he was thinking the same thing. He looked away and extended a hand for the reins of both the horse and pony. “Unbuckle the scabbard and put it on your pony.” he told his son. “Then fetch the rifle and sheath it.”
They waited while Oliver followed his father’s directions. When he was finished, the boy ran over to them, carrying his father’s hat, and gave it to him.
Tyler set the hat on his head and handed back Domino’s reins. “Hold his head, son.”
“Can you give me a little jump, Miss Lily? “Tyler spanned her waist with his hands. “Put your hands on my shoulders now and…”
Her fingers squeezing his strong shoulders, Lily bent her knees and sprang up as much as she could, given stiff muscles and a lame leg. Pain lanced from her hip and into her thigh.
He lifted her onto the saddle.
Lily yanked up her skirt to give her room to move. With a gasp of agony, she awkwardly crooked her leg around the roping horn.
“’Atta girl,” Tyler said, his voice encouraging.
Lily steadied herself into the deep saddle, trying to find a comfortable spot, but there wasn’t one. She looked at the ground, and a wave of fear hit her. Her thoughts jumped back to the accident—to soaring over a fence, feeling her mount’s legs catch, the fall…. Dizzy, she swayed and grabbed Tyler’s shoulder to steady herself.
His hand covered hers, and the other slid around her waist to brace her. “I’ve got you.”
Just touching him made her feel safe. The wave of dizziness passed.
“You ready for me to let go?”
“Yes,” she fibbed, knowing they had to get to the house before they became ill from the cold.
Tyler jumped off the rock, took the reins from Oliver and gave them to Lily, and gestured to the other pony. “Mount up, son.”
Lily clutched the reins, careful not to shorten them. She didn’t want the horse to move.
With the ease of a monkey, Oliver scrambled into the saddle of his pony.
Once the boy had gathered the reins, Tyler scooped up the blanket-wrapped dog and handed her to Oliver. “You hold her tight, hear?”
“I will, Pa.” Clearly aware of his responsibilities, Oliver sat tall and straight, one arm clutching the dog.
Luckily, Dove must have realized what was going on, for she didn’t struggle.
Tyler walked over to the fire and kicked some dirt over it, making sure the flames were smothered before returning. Approaching the horse, he put his foot in the stirrup and swung up behind Lily. He eased his arms around her and took the reins from her hands.
“You all right?” he said in her ear, urging the horse forward.
Lily shivered and kept both hands firmly around the horn. “Yes,” she said, although it felt like her stomach bounced in time to the clip of the horse’s hooves. The nightmare of her accident teased at the edges of her mind. But the feel of Tyler’s arms around her kept the worst of the memories at bay.
After several moments, Lily realized she’d been holding her breath. She released it and then unconsciously relaxed against Tyler’s chest.
“’Atta girl,” he murmured. “You’re doing just fine.”
It doesn’t feel like I’m doing just fine.
Tyler hadn’t held a woman in his arms since Laura left. Hadn’t even sought out one of the prostitutes at Hardy’s saloon. Fact was, with Laura’s betrayal, he didn’t have the urges he use to. But now, holding Lily, Tyler’s body came awake, and he vividly remembered what he’d been missing. He shifted his weight, grateful to have the bunched up folds of her skirt between them to keep secret his reaction to her.
Lily was slender and light, not at all like Laura’s buxom curves, and he liked that she felt so different—almost fragile. But she had to have a streak of toughness in her to be out and about with that lame leg, not just staying home where circumstances would be easier for her.
For the first time, he wondered why she was out here by the river. With her limp, he doubted she’d come to take her dog for a walk. Was she meeting someone? She’s not Laura, he reminded himself. Besides, if she came here to meet a man, I’d have seen him. Not that it’s any business of mine if she is!
As they drew close to the ranch, Habakkuk Pendell, his foreman, strode out of the barn, accompanied by Patches, a black and tan shepherd mix. The man glanced their way, pushed up the brim of his brown hat, and hurried toward them with a bowlegged stride, worry written all over his seamed face.
Patches trotted beside Habakkuk, his ears and tail up in a friendly pose, although if Lily had come alone, the dog would have barked the alarm.
“Take the dog from Oliver,” Tyler ordered.
The foreman reached up and lifted the animal out of Oliver’s arms. He gave a bemused glance from the dog to Lily.
Patches pranced beside him, trying to sniff Dove.
“Bring the dog,” Tyler ordered. “Once we’re in the house, I want you to send Hank to town. He’s to go to the livery and tell Pepe that Miss Maxwell is visiting with us, and that I’ll be driving her back to Mrs. Murphy’s.”
Tyler urged the horse past the foreman and the dogs and toward the house, stopping in front of the porch. He dismounted and tied Domino’s reins to the porch rail. Then he reached up to span Lily’s waist. He could feel the whalebone in her corset and had a fleeting wish that she wasn’t wearing one.
Lily’s lips were pressed tight and white with pain. She dropped her hands to his shoulders.
Tyler lifted her from the saddle, but in spite of his care, she winced. He set her down as gently as he could, then held her to make sure she could stand on her feet. “Can you walk up the steps, or do you want me to carry you?”
“I’ll carry you.” He swept her into his arms.
The door to the house opened, and his cook and housekeeper, Mrs. Pendell, peered out. Her pale blue eyes narrowed, she set her square jaw.
“Hello, Mrs. Pendell,” said Oliver, clattering up onto the porch. “We’ve saved a dog. Its name is Dove.”
“Tyler Dunn, who do you have there?” She took a closer look. “You two are sopping wet.” She held the door open and waved to usher them into the house. “Get inside by the stove before you catch your deaths.” She pointed at Patches, who obviously wanted to follow Dove inside. “Stay out here where you belong.”
Tyler turned sideways to avoid knocking Lily’s feet on the frame, then walke
Oliver and Habakkuk trailed after them. The foreman carried Dove, still wrapped in a blanket.
Mrs. Pendell handed her husband a thick rag, and he began rubbing Dove’s fur.
Tyler straightened, took off his hat, and hung it on a peg near the door.
The housekeeper gave Lily a penetrating look. “Have you had an accident, Miss…Mrs.?”
“Miss Lily Maxwell. It’s an old injury. I fell and made it worse. I’m just achy, but I’ll be fine,” she stated in a tone of resolution that belied the stiffness of her body.
“You should have seen it.” Oliver leaped into the conversation, eagerly relating the story, complete with flourishing arm gestures.
Mrs. Pendell placed her hands on her hips. “Tyler Dunn, you go soak the cold out of you,” the housekeeper said in the no-nonsense voice she’d used on him since he was a baby. “Take dry clothes with you.” She pointed to Habakkuk and then to the stove. “Bring that creature over here where it can warm up. Oliver, go and get two blankets out of the chest, then you go with your Pa.”
Habakkuk and Oliver hurried to obey.
Tyler lingered, reluctant to leave the side of his guest.
“Miss Maxwell.” The housekeeper turned her attention to Lily. “I think a hot soak would do you good.”
Lily clasped her hands together, a look of entreaty on her face. “Do you have a tub? A soak sounds wonderful.”
Tyler winked at her. “Better than a tub. We have mineral hot springs. Good for what ails you.”
What in the world! Her eyes widened, and her mouth pinched. “Hot springs? Outdoors?”
He grinned at the proper expression on her face. “Outside, under God’s blue sky.”
Her face fell. “Oh.”
The housekeeper shot him a reproving glance. “We have bathing spots, Miss Maxwell. One for women, which is perfectly respectable. I use it myself. I highly recommend doing so. Don’t you worry about Tyler, here. He’ll bathe in the men’s pool.”
Lily twisted her hands in her lap, need warring with propriety.
“I will help you.” The housekeeper patted her hand. “So you can be comfortable.”
Lily glanced at her dog. “But Dove…”
Tyler touched her shoulder. “Dove will be fine, staying with Habakkuk by the stove. Now, Lily, no more arguing. I know from experience that the hot springs are good for sore muscles. I’ll carry you there, and Mrs. P, here, will bring towels and dry clothes.” He glanced at the housekeeper. “You have something she can wear?”
“Of course. I’ll lend her some of mine. P’raps my blue muslin will suit.” Mrs. Pendell tilted her head and pinched her ample waist. “I could fit two of you in my clothes. The skirt will drag on the ground, but since you’re not walking much anyway, that doesn’t matter.”
Oliver arrived in a rush, two woolen blankets in his arms. He handed the brown one to his father and a blue one to Lily. She thanked him and draped it over her front.
“I gave her the blue one for her eyes,” said his son with uncanny sensitivity.
“That won’t do.” The housekeeper made lifting motions with her hands. “Tyler, help Miss Maxwell to her feet so I can get this blanket around her. Then I want you to carry her to the bath, while I gather towels and clothes for you both.”
They gently wrapped Lily until only her face was free, like a little child just out of the bath. And indeed, the blue of the blanket deepened the violet color of her eyes.
Tyler had an impulse to kiss the smooth skin of her cheek. He caught himself almost as quickly as he had the thought and stepped away from her proximity.
Mrs. Pendell frowned at Tyler and motioned for him to pick up Lily.
He hesitated, grabbing a breath as if he was about to jump on a bronc or dive into an icy lake. Excitement and reluctance in equal measure. Then he bent down and scooped her into his arms.
~ ~ ~
This time when Tyler lifted her, Lily had a little dip of excitement in her stomach. Trusting him, she wiggled her arms out of the blanket, slid them around his neck and prepared to enjoy being held in his embrace. His skin was cool to her touch, and she felt a stab of guilt about keeping the man from warming up.
He carried her out the side door of the kitchen, and in spite of the spring sunshine, Lily shivered, missing the warmth of the stove. They walked between the house and the barn, past a garden, henhouse, smokehouse, and pigpen. In the middle of a small meadow on the other side of the house, she saw a majestic oak, rising in solitary splendor. The outstretched limbs canopied a picnic table and benches.
A small stream ran placidly through the meadow and danced over rocks as it neared what Lily assumed were the hot springs, disguised behind tall, weathered wooden fences. She supposed the one covered with climbing roses, just starting to bud, was for the women.
When Tyler carried her around one of the fences, she saw a pool of water lined with big rocks that looked like they’d been moved into place to provide comfortable seating. The stream ran alongside the hot pool. A thick board dammed the channel between the two. The board was raised to allow the cold water of the stream to flow into the spring.
The two-sided fence made half a box around the pool, screening out the house and the sight of the “men’s” hot spring downstream. From the open sides, Lily could see the view of the grassy meadow and distant purple mountains. A rock garden with flowers nestled under the shade of a willow tree. The fluttering leaves cast dancing shadows over the pool.
“It’s so lovely,” she murmured.
“My mother wanted beauty around her when she bathed. So she planted the flowers. Said her soak was her only quiet time, and she wanted to enjoy it.” Tyler set her down on a bench tucked against the fence. “I think that’s as fur as I can help ya, Lily,” he said in an exaggerated drawl. “Although…” His words trailed off, but mischief sparkled in his gray eyes.
Heat rose to her cheeks, and she looked away. “I’ll be fine with Mrs. Pendell’s help.”
The housekeeper hurried around the side of the enclosure, her arms full. “Off you go, Tyler. I’ve put dry clothes out for you.”
He flashed Lily a wink and a grin, then strode off.
Pursing her lips, the housekeeper stared after him. “Well, Miss Maxwell, you just may be the tonic that man needs.”
“What do you mean?”
“I haven’t seen him so light hearted since….” The housekeeper shook her head, her cottony white hair fluttered. “That’s not my story to tell. I’m just glad to see him in good spirits.” She set the clothes and towels on the bench, and then extended her hands. “Here, grab hold of me and stand.”
Lily put her hands into the work-worn ones of the housekeeper and allowed the woman to pull her to her feet, knowing with the amount of pain she was in, she couldn’t undress without help. At the thought, she flushed with embarrassment.
“Pretend I’m your personal maid.” Mrs. Pendell carefully helped her out of her clothes. “Perhaps you’ll think us uncouth, bathing without clothing. Sometimes, visiting ladies will keep on their undergarments. However, as you see we are perfectly private. No man at this ranch would even think about peeking.”
Naked, Lily stood shivering and self-conscious in the open air. She’d thought she’d long since lost her notions of personal privacy, given the help she needed for so long after her injury for her most basic needs, and sometimes on the bad days ever since. But she’d never before bared herself to the sky. A breeze blew over her, popping goose bumps on her skin.
Mrs. Pendell pointed toward a flat rock on the edge of the pool, “That’s where the steps are. Let me help you in. I’d join you, but I have dinner on the stove.”
“I understand. I can’t have you burning Mr. Dunn’s dinner.”
Leaning on the housekeeper’s strength, Lily hobbled to the stone, then with Mrs. Pe
“Now move over,” commanded Mrs. Pendell, pointing to a spot. “You’ll find a comfortable rock next to the steps. It’s lower, but judging from your height, the water should be right up to your chin. If you want it colder, mover closer to the stream.”
Lily followed her directions, slipping sideways and settling lower into the pool. A few minutes passed before her body adjusted to the heat. Soon she was able to relax and lean her head back against a smooth round stone that made a perfect headrest, or it would if her thick braided bun wasn’t in the way. She reached up and pulled out the hairpins, allowing the plait to flop free. Then, she folded the hair into a cushion for the back of her head.
“How do you like it, Miss Maxwell?” The housekeeper hovered next to the pool, an anxious expression on her face.
Lily released a contented sigh. “It’s heavenly, Mrs. Pendell. Just heavenly.”
“Will you be all right alone while I see to supper? I’ll return in about twenty minutes.”
“Twenty minutes will be lovely.” Lily looked up at the woman to give her a grateful smile, squinting her eyes against the sun. “I appreciate all your help.”
The woman’s bulldog chin relaxed. “You just enjoy yourself.” She gathered up the discarded clothing, turned, and left.
Alone, Lily opened her eyes and stared at the sky, dreamily trying to match the vivid hue with the paints in her box. “My picture!” She sat upright, remembering that she’d left her easel and paints by the river. She berated herself for her forgetfulness, then realized they couldn’t have carted them to the house anyway. They’d be fine where they were, and she was sure Mr. Dunn…Tyler wouldn’t mind retrieving them. Good thing I left my portfolio at the boarding house.