The following morning both women awoke well before dawn. Pointing out the large supply of blackberries they had, Tara suggested they forego breakfast and make an early start. When Willow directed sad puppy dog eyes at her and mournfully droned "no coffee?" the blonde relented. They still managed to get underway within an hour of rising, as a cold drizzle began to fall. Will offered Tara her duster, which the blonde declined, insisting Will would need it, and simply wrapped a blanket around her shoulders. She did, however, accept one of the redhead's broad-brimmed hats.
The sky was an ominous steel gray for much of the morning, but the darkest clouds and heaviest rain stayed well to their south. Nevertheless, the muddy trail made travel slower than the previous day, and Willow was thankful that they'd only had to stop to push out of the muck twice in the hours before she spied the square arch of the DCP ranch entrance.
"There it is," she said excitedly, pointing to the large, rambling house that rose over the rolling green plain.
Willow's announcement was unnecessary, as Tara had already spied the huge building and was gazing on it in wonder. The two story abode had been constructed out of red oak logs, with dried mud packed into the gaps, and was easily a hundred feet wide with a covered porch that spanned the left half. Its style alone did not distinguish it from many others Tara had seen-on a smaller scale-in Dusty Hollow and on the rare trips she'd taken as far from home as Knotty Stump. What made her stare in awe, however, was the explosion of color. The house was painted with dozens of shades, each hue overlapping every other in nonsensical waves and swirls of paint. There was no rhyme or reason to the design; it was as though countless people had each painted a section, all oblivious to the work of the others. And yet it came together to form an almost magical whole. Tara couldn't help but smile at the sight.
The crack of a gunshot broke the stillness of the moment and Tara jerked at the sound. A short, stocky man dressed in black from head to toe stood in the middle of the gateway to the ranch, the butt of his shotgun resting against his thigh.
"State your name and your business!"
Tara pulled the blanket tighter around herself and shrunk down on the seat, reaching a hand out to clutch Will's arm. The redhead patted her hand and gave her a smile and a wink before turning to addressing their adversary.
"You tryin' to give me a heart attack, Leila?"
Tara's eyes darted to her companion before turning back to the black-clad figure that approached them. Leila? Tara watched with wide eyes as the woman-and as she approached, it was clear she was a woman, though Tara couldn't help but remain shocked at her attire-took off her hat and slapped it against her leg.
"Well, I'll be damned! So you decided to bring Trixie back to me, did ya?"
Willow hopped off the wagon and peered down at the woman.
"She's Miss Horsey now, and I won her fair and square."
Leila stared at the redhead with a blank expression.
"You're calling her 'Miss Horsey?' I weep for your future children...Miss Girl and Boy Child."
Tara had sat quietly during the exchange, but she couldn't suppress the giggle that escaped at last. Leila looked up in surprise and elbowed Willow in the ribs.
"Trixie's name isn't the only new thing around here. Aren't you going to introduce me to your gal, Will?"
"This here's Tara. Tara, this is Leila." The two nodded politely at each other and Willow gestured towards the house. "I was hoping y'all could put us up for a couple days."
"Shouldn't be a problem. Go on in and get settled; I'll put Trixie in the barn."
Willow nodded and grabbed several bags off the back of the wagon, brushing off Tara's offer of assistance and leading the way across the front yard to the wide front porch, where a half dozen cats were strewn about, sunning themselves on the painted floorboards. Tara stopped to pet a tan and white tabby who'd negotiated the narrow railing to inspect the new arrivals.
"Now I see why it's called the Kitten Ranch," Tara said, smiling as the cat nuzzled her head against Tara's palm.
"They're everywhere," Willow agreed, even as she opened the front door and several more skittered through the gap. "More every time I visit. Can't hardly keep them straight anymore, but I believe that's Emmy...she's a friendly one. If you see a snarly little reddish-yellow pipsqueak, though, best run the other way. She's meaner'n a sack of rattlesnakes."
Tara gave the purring cat a scratch behind the ears before following Willow inside. She found herself in a large room filled with a mismatched assortment of chairs, sofas, and tables of varying size, many obviously handmade and most of them well worn. Practically every square inch of the wide plank flooring was covered with festive woven rugs. Wooden carvings of wildlife sat atop most of the tables, windowsills, and the mantle over the enormous stone fireplace that dominated the west wall. To the left of the fireplace was a fully stocked bookshelf, while a door to the right of it led to the bedrooms upstairs, Willow explained as she dropped her bags in a heap on the floor.
"Come on, let's see who's around," the redhead said, indicating the open passage on the eastern side of the room, which led down a short hallway adorned with dozens of tintype photographs. Tara made a mental note to peruse them later.
They passed through a large dining room, which housed the largest table Tara had ever seen. Twenty ladder-back chairs surrounded it, with several more hanging from pegs around the perimeter of the room. Over a dozen place settings were neatly situated, and as they circumnavigated the table to reach the open doorway on the other side, Tara was hit by the scent of freshly baked bread, and could hear several voices. They stepped through the arch and into the kitchen, where a matronly woman sat at a small work table, peeling carrots and directing a younger woman at the stove.
"Not too hot, Nancy. You don't want to boil off all the water."
"Yes, Ma," she said politely, though Tara distinctly heard her quietly add 'I do know how to cook.'
"Smells good," Willow said, ambling over to the stove, where she was pulled into a tight hug.
"Where have you been?" the woman demanded. "You go away for months and then you think you can just show up for dinner?"
Tara watched with an amused grin as Nancy ruffled Willow's already unruly mop of hair.
"Don't stay away so long next time," the woman lectured before peering over her glasses at Tara, who was still standing just inside the doorway. Willow caught the look and quickly introduced Tara to Nancy and her mother Mary, affectionately known as Granny Mare.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance," Tara said formally, stepping toward the former, who engulfed her in a hug as well. Will apologized for her extended absence and explained that they'd just come up from Dusty Hollow.
"Have you known Will long, Miss Maclay?" Nancy asked.
"We just met this past week," Willow spoke up.
Tara noted with some concern the guarded looks passing between the two women and hoped they did not think too badly of her for traveling with the young man. Not like I had any choice in the matter, she thought, though they seem so fond of Will...I can't tell them he kidnapped me.
"Yes, he's been a great help to my brother and I," Tara added, deciding it couldn't hurt to let them know she had a male relative who was aware of the situation. Again she saw furtive glances passing back and forth, though both women seemed to be shooting disapproving looks at the redhead, not her. Whatever was troubling them, neither spoke of it.
"So, something smells good," Willow interjected suddenly. She cringed as she realized she'd already said so, but was anxious to steer the topic away from less potentially revealing subjects.
"Nancy...the stew," the elder woman reminded her daughter, who gave the large pot a quick stir. "Where's Carlotta? She should set two more places for dinner."
"She's fetching the rabbits from the cellar like you asked, Ma."
"If you tell me where everything is, I'd be happy to set our own places," Tara offered, but both women waved her off.
"You're a guest," Granny Mare stated. "Car can do it."
"You are staying a while this time, I hope?" Nancy asked as she threw another log into the fire.
"'Fraid not," Willow said, earning her several chastising glares. "I have a uh...delivery to make, so I'll be leaving in the morning, but I was hoping Tara could stay until I get back. Shouldn't be more'n two, maybe three days." Will avoided Tara's questioning glance and cocked her head as she noticed the distinct lack of noise in the house. "Where is everyone?"
"Harvesting, mostly" Granny Mare answered. "From the gunfire I assume you already ran into Leila playing Captain of the Guard, and I think Gina's in the game room. Go tell her to find you a couple of rooms."
"Dinner's in an hour," Nancy called after the pair as they exited the room.
Tara wanted to ask the redhead about the aforementioned 'delivery,' but was unable to do so as Will kept up a steady soliloquy of the merits of Granny Mare and Nancy's cooking prowess. They went back through the dining room and out the door on the side opposite that which they'd entered, ending up in a dimly-lit pine-paneled room. Tara spied several tables, one clearly dedicated to poker, another to chess. A bookshelf built into the wall near another, smaller, stone fireplace was filled with all manner of games: backgammon, dominoes, cribbage. Dozens of card decks and jigsaw puzzles were stacked haphazardly.
In the far corner was situated a bar, which Tara noticed for the sole reason that a woman was lying across it, snoring softly. Willow turned and held her forefinger to her lips as she tiptoed closer to the sleeper, waiting 'til she was barely a foot away before shouting "cock-a-doodle-ooo!"
Tara rushed forward several steps, but knew there was nothing she could do to prevent the woman from rolling over the back lip of the bar, which she did with a startled cry. In less than a second, a tousled head emerged, anger flashing in her dark eyes before they focused on the redhead and lit up.
"Oh, hey Will," she greeted cheerily, smoothing down her long, black hair. She pointed at a glass that had somehow managed to avoid toppling off the surface. "Drink?"
"No thanks, Gina. Granny Mare said you could tell us which rooms are free."
"Of course I can," the young woman said, jutting out her chin. "After all, Pam left me in charge."
"Did she?" Willow asked, trying not to laugh openly at the blackboard behind the bar, which stated in clear, bold chalk: Gone to Buzzard Gulch to sell stuff. Back by end of month. Gina is NOT in charge. -Pam.. The ranch's owner, Xita, was a former teacher, and Willow knew she'd been trying to teach some of the girls their letters, but it was obviously still a work in progress.
When she turned to follow the brunette out of the room, Willow saw Tara quirking her eyebrow at the sign and leaned in to whisper "don't tell her...she'll just erase it."
Gina led the pair back through the house and up a steep staircase to the second floor. Tara gazed up at the pitched ceiling, where two stained-glass windows reflected prisms of colored light onto the floor and walls. A hallway lay straight ahead, running the full length of the house, with doors on either side. Each had a small blackboard attached to it and a piece of chalk hung along the side from a length of twine. As they passed down the hall, Tara noted that most already had one or two names written on them. With only several exceptions, all were female.
"Is this an inn, or do all these people live here?" Tara asked.
"It's not an inn in the paying sense. Some do stay for only a few days, but most are here for longer," Gina provided. "I been here going on three years now."
"It used to be a cattle ranch," Willow added. "Cowboys would drive their herds up here for the summer, but it shut down after the drought in '56. Xita bought it and opened it up to women who had nowhere to go. Nowadays most of the folks stay long-term, and help support the ranch. Almost all of the food is grown or caught, and everything else is bought in trade for quilts or rugs or carvings or whatever someone can make. Pam makes a sellin' trip every couple of months."
"Nowhere to go? What do you mean?" Tara inquired, curious about Will specifying that it was specifically for women.
"Well, take Nancy, for instance. She ran away from her no-good husband when Carlotta was just a baby, and showed up with Granny Mare. Xita took 'em in and they've been the official cooks ever since."
"My folks tried to arrange a marriage for me back in New York," Gina said, scowling at the memory. "As soon as they started writing letters to cousins in Italy, I caught a ride on the first wagon train I could find and heard about this place from a midwife traveling with us."
Willow gave the girl a one armed hug and paused to point out the bathing rooms and water closets to Tara before continuing to relay the home's history.
"So there are people here from all over the country?" Tara asked at the conclusion of Will's monologue.
"Yep, this country and more, sometimes. Those photographs downstairs were taken by Wat-Yee, who came all the way from Canton to work on the railroad before ending up here."
They arrived at the end of the hall, where Gina pointed out two doors across from each other and excused herself. She went through a door in the far wall, which Willow said led down to a back porch off the kitchen.
"I'll take this one," the redhead said, pointing to the door on the back of the house. "It can get kinda loud out back in the mornings." Grabbing the stubby chunk of chalk hanging from her door, Willow carefully wrote 'WILL' on the slate in block letters, which she underlined several times. Tara turned to her own assigned room and similarly imprinted her claim on the space. Will hovered in the doorway while Tara entered her room and gave it a cursory inspection.
Blue muslin curtains were tied back from the large window, allowing the last rays of afternoon sun to stream in, gleaming off the recently white-washed walls. To the left of the window was a twin wrought iron bedstead, enameled in a cheerful yellow and covered with a sky blue afghan. Facing the bed was a small chest of drawers, its surface covered by several neatly folded quilts and a chipped porcelain washbasin.
"There's probably clothes in there if you need," Willow said, still standing just outside the door and indicating the dresser. "Something to sleep in at least. Someone's always sewing 'round here, and they just load up the spare rooms with what they can't use and don't want to sell. Anyway, just help yourself."
Tara nodded, feeling both awkward yet strangely at ease in the rambling house. She'd never spent much time away from home, and on those rare occasions was always in the company of her late father or Donnie. Her primary experience with travel came from serving drinks to people passing through Dusty Hollow on their way somewhere else. It was a new and exciting experience to be out more or less on her own, meeting new people who had been places she'd only read of. She hoped she wouldn't come off as a rube.
"Is this okay?" Willow asked as Tara chewed pensively on her bottom lip. "Do you need anything?"
"Everything's fine, Will," the blonde replied with a smile. "I'm just a little tired."
"Okay. Well, I'm just gonna go get settled and wash up. If you want to rest a bit, I'll let you know when dinner's ready."
"Thank you," Tara said softly. Will closed the door, and Tara could hear the one across the hall open and close. She sat down on the bed, which was surprisingly comfortable, lay back against the pile of pillows, and was asleep within minutes.