Olivia was weeding her vegetable garden in the side yard when two riders turned up the drive. She squinted, shielding her eyes with her hand, and then smiled. Ernest – Jeremy’s big red horse – was hard to miss, even with the sun in her eyes. It was Jeremy’s attire that had confused her at first. No homespun or leather fringes today. He was sporting a wide-brimmed beige hat that matched his summer frockcoat. And who was that lady behind him, on the chestnut mare? Olivia almost laughed out loud when she saw that it was indeed Michelle – riding sidesaddle and looking miserable. She was clutching the saddle horn with one hand and holding her straw bonnet to her head with the other. Her deep blue cotton dress was the latest fashion, deeply off-the-shoulder and trimmed with a strip of white eyelet lace across the neckline. Tit-line is more like it, Olivia thought, as Michelle’s dress did not reach anywhere near the vicinity of her neck. Her horse was walking with a nice even gait, but even so there was a great deal of buoyancy going on under that low cut lace and Olivia couldn’t help an indulgent smile at the woebegone look on Michelle’s face.
Olivia was in no state to receive guests – her tangled hair was haphazardly pinned under a flat cap and she was wearing wide cotton trousers and a work shirt drenched with sweat – but she was far too glad to see her friends to worry about how she looked. She had grown weary of the company of her own thoughts, most of which began “if only” – which she had begun to consider the two most evil words in the English language.
Two weeks had passed since she’d sat on her horse and watched Little Boy, Mourning, and Laisha at their cabin in Backwoods. When she returned home she’d once again felt like remaining in bed – covers over her head, shutting out the world – but had forced her body through the motions of life as usual, preparing meals and cleaning. She spoke little. Mrs. Porter made a few comments about how withdrawn the once loquacious landlady had become, but Olivia made no reply, smiling as much as her lips would allow. In the evenings she sat on the porch, sipping wine or the contents of one of her rum pots, and watching the river. By now she was fed up with feeling sorry for herself and overjoyed to see her friends.
“Hullo Jeremy, hullo Michelle. You bought a horse!” she called out as she strode over to meet them.
Michelle did not wait for Jeremy’s assistance and slid to the ground with a thud. No one had ever looked more relieved to be off the back of a horse, but she proudly turned to stroke its flank as she said, “Jeremy won her playing poker.”
So he does play poker, Olivia thought. When he’d said he played cards on Saturday nights she’d been sure he was lying and in fact went to see a woman. Now she suddenly realized why she’d made that assumption. That was what her father had done – told his children he was going to play poker and then gone skulking over to Jettie Place’s house.
“She’s beautiful,” Olivia said. “Good to see you, Jeremy. How have you been?”
“Grand. Everything’s grand.” Jeremy had dismounted and stood next to them. “You’re looking elegant as usual.” He smiled.
Olivia knew he didn’t mean to offend; he was the one person likely to approve of the way she was attired. “Truth is, I hardly bother putting on a dress anymore. As long as I work outside a bit, I have an excuse.” She turned to stroke the horse’s nose.
“Those trousers look like you sewed two flour sacks together,” Michelle said.
Olivia pulled at the sides of her pant legs and turned around. “I paid Miss Streeter to make them for me, nice and wide. There’s nothing more comfortable for working. She even put ties around the ankles, so I can pull them in tight for walking in the woods. And since she’s the one who made them, I hardly get any disapproving looks from her direction.” She turned to Jeremy. “She really is a beautiful horse. Ernest must be glad to have some female companionship. What’s her name?”
Michelle replied, wearing what Olivia had come to fondly think of as her wicked smile. “It was Lady, but I decided to change it. Couldn’t resist Lady Mabel. Got the right color hair, don’t she?”
Olivia smiled, shaking her head at this misappropriation of the nickname she had given her overbearing sister-in-law back in Pennsylvania. She followed them into the barn and while helping them get the horses settled she turned to poke Michelle’s shoulder. “I never figured you to be one to ride sidesaddle.”
“It’s what she came with.” Michelle shrugged.
“You’d better get yourself a Western if you’re planning to do much riding. You try going very far sitting all twisted around on that thing, you’ll wish you didn’t have a back. Is Lady Mabel going to live in Detroit or at Jeremy’s cabin?”
“Actually . . . for the time being . . . I was sort of hoping that maybe she could live right here. Until I get a bit more used to riding.”
“But that’s silly. How will you ever get used to riding if you keep your horse so far away? If you board her at Thompson’s you can ride her out to visit with me every day. Not that I’d mind keeping her. If there’s anything I’ve got plenty of, it’s room in the barn and hay.”
Jeremy set his saddle over a rail and left Ernest at the trough. “Excuse me, ladies. I think I’ll take a little stroll.”
Michelle bent toward Olivia, shaking her head and whispering, “What do I want with a horse to take care of? Course I had to make a big fuss, like I was thrilled clear to heaven, but I got no use for her. I’m fine walkin’ out here to see you and if I’m comin’ with Jeremy I’d as soon ride behind him on Ernest.”
“Why do you think he gave her to you?”
“Don’t gotta think. He told me why. Thinks I’m going to ride all the way over to Ann Arbor with him. He’s gotta meet with them university people for something and said I should come along and after he’s done with them we can make a trip of it – go on ridin’ clear across the state, all the way to Lake Michigan.”
“What a wonderful idea. Here I’ve lived in Michigan all this time and I’ve never seen any of the big lakes.”
“So go ride one a them ferries to Lake Huron. They’ll give you your dinner and bring you home in time to sleep in your own bed. Or I can save you the trouble and just tell you what it looks like – big, blue, and wet. Why would I want to sit on a horse for gosh knows how many days just to get my stockings full of sand?”
Olivia made an O with her lips and let out a long burst of air. “You sure are a city girl. How’d you ever leave New York?”