The Farmer and the Wood Nymph by JoAnn Smith Ainsworth
Waking alone on a mountainside, Lilah recalls nothing about her life, except a strong belief that some man somewhere loves her. A well hidden wedding band holds the hope that man will come to rescue her. But when her salvation comes in the form of a farmer resembling a Viking God, Lilah struggles to stay faithful to the ideal she cannot remember.
Ernest Nolan finds the vivacious beauty wandering in the wilderness and hopes that true love will be his at last. Spontaneous and exciting, Lilah is everything his careful heart has longed for. But a decent man never trifles with another man’s woman. The mystery of Lilah’s identity and that wedding ring must be resolved.
Searching for answers, these two opposites discover that differences can bring both attraction and difficulties. Can they overcome the obstacles and learn to walk a path of love and harmony?
Lilah recalls nothing, but a well hidden wedding band brings a belief some man somewhere loves her. When a farmer resembling a Viking God comes, Lilah struggles to stay faithful to the ideal she cannot remember.
Ernest Nolan hopes true love will be his at last. Lilah is everything his careful heart longs for, but a decent man never trifles with another man’s woman. The mystery of Lilah’s identity and wedding ring must be resolved.
Wyoming, June 1895
Ernest Noland’s contented world shattered late yesterday with one bullet. In the front bedroom of the family farmhouse, Cousin Ida Osterbach hovered between life and death. Ida was Ernest’s only family in Wyoming. The remainder of the family still lived back East. The doctor couldn’t say whether she’d survive the loss of blood. She hadn’t yet returned to consciousness when Ernest checked on her this morning. He vowed to pursue Diablo Avilos—the murdering bastard responsible—even if that trail led deep into the Badlands.
In the sullen gloom of pre-dawn, the men of the posse saddled horses and tied on bedrolls and grub for a week. They would ride at first light, following the trail south through the high mountain plains. Ernest bitterly regretted he wouldn’t know his cousin’s fate until his return.
If I return.
Apprehension tensed back muscles as he threw a well worn saddle over the stallion belonging to Jared Buell, Ida’s fiancé and neighbor rancher. The farm’s workhorse would never survive a grueling mountain trip. Ernest wasn’t a man who relished change or looked to violence. Only family honor forced him to ride away from the predictable farm routines he craved, towards an unpredictable future.
The low conversation of the men, the whinnying of horses and the clank of metal stirrups reminded Ernest that he wasn’t hardened to long days in the saddle. A man of the soil, he knew these upcoming days on horseback would test his strength. In his thirty-four years, he’d traveled only once. After the shooting death of Ida’s first husband two years ago, he rode the train from his parents’ Illinois farm to Buffalo in northeastern Wyoming. He came to help rescue his cousin’s farm from bank-threatened foreclosure. He’d defend Ida again, even if it meant sacrificing his own life.
Ernest tightened the cinch with a powerful tug and checked his gear one last time. Leather creaked as he threw himself into the saddle and adjusted the stirrups to his long legs. He turned the horse in the direction of the other members of the posse assembling around the tracker and pressed his lips into a grim, determined line.
Whatever it takes, I’ll do.
* * * *
Lilah’s eyelids fluttered open. Gradually, awareness emerged. Slender, green stalks defined themselves from an unfocused haze. Her cheek pushed painfully against lumpy surfaces. Dawning realization transformed the lumps into pebbles and small stones. Bewildered, she rubbed the throbbing and swollen lump beneath her tangled mass of raven-colored hair. By the size of the lump, she might have been unconscious for some time. “It’s a wonder I wasn’t attacked by animals.” She breathed a prayer of gratitude heavenward.
Hand to the ground, she pushed herself upright. The green stalks materialized into colorful patches of bright-pink alpine phlox, yellow buttercups and the bushy, low shrubs of a high plains meadow. She shook her head to get the cobwebs out and dragged herself to her feet, disheveled, with torn clothing matching the bruising and small cuts on her flesh. No memories appeared recalling her circumstances before waking up in this meadow.
God help me.
Anxiously, Lilah looked out over the distances as if seeking answers in the cloud-free sky or from the snow-capped peaks. It was early in the day according to the sun’s placement. Birds nesting in nearby trees cheerfully greeted the risen sun. The sounds of fast moving water came from behind a row of cottonwoods and willows, but no human was in sight. No breakfast smells, no subdued voices of people waking to a new day.
She shouted at the top of her lungs. “Where is everyone?”
The birds stopped chirping, but no one answered. Fingers of fear traveled down her spine. She flung her arms wide, jumped up and down and shouted, “Where am I?”
Again, no answer. Dread gripped her when another realization struck. “Who am I?”
The last words jarred to her core. She remembered her first name, but what about her family name?
Standing stock still, she coaxed her mind to reveal the secret, but no revelations surfaced. She couldn’t remember where she lived or why she was alone in the wilderness. Could she have been captured by renegades and somehow gotten away? Did she get lost from a wagon train? Putting palms to temples, she pressed hard, forcing down slowly rising panic. She chanted words of hope. “God protects. God provides.”
Panic retreated, but only a short distance.
“ There’s a reason in God’s universe why I’m here.” Instinctively, she knew she could trust her wellbeing to the Almighty. “When I’m found, I’ll have answers.”
She forced herself to believe in a rescue. “I’m in the middle of nowhere with not a house in sight. I have no gear, no clothing and no food. Well, Grandmother used to say that God helps those who help themselves. I must make do.” How she remembered her grandmother’s truism and not her own name was a conundrum.
Drawing in a deep breath, she savored the crisp, mountain air and rubbed the chill off her exposed skin. When ready to face the day’s uncertainties, she set about putting things to rights.
The apron she wore was untied and her cotton dress twisted awkwardly on her body, so she tugged the bodice back into place. “Look at the quality of this stitching.” Her garments fit as only a skilled seamstress could manage. If they could afford a good seamstress, her family could afford to hire men to look for her.
Lilah held out the sides of the skirt and the petticoats underneath and gave them a good shake, brushing away bits of dirt and vegetation. “How did I get all this stuff on me?” She took off the apron and pulled out burrs sticking to it before retying it. Gingerly, because of the lump on her head, she pushed long strands of black hair under the robin’s-egg-blue sun bonnet she wore. Then she straightened her shoulders. “That’s better.” The emptiness of her stomach made food a priority.
An hour later Lilah sat on a large and well-made tablecloth under a cottonwood next to the creek, surrounded by things scavenged nearby. A heavy bough would serve as her weapon against night-marauders. She discovered she could climb trees if need be. As luck had it, a block of cheese lay in the chilled waters. Incongruously, a kitchen knife was still stuck in its middle. She drank her fill at the creek and ate a small portion of cheese, afraid to eat too much, not knowing how long she must wait for rescue.
Taking advantage of the increasing warmth of the day, she stripped and slid down the embankment for a bath. She found where creek water splashed up into a circle of rocks, making a still-water puddle. Kneeling, she studied her reflection. An oval face with arched eyebrows and long, black lashes accented lavender eyes. Her once ivory countenance was reddened by the sun. Only the skin protected by her clothing stayed white. “From now on, I’ll stay in the shade as much as I can.” As she cleansed herself, the stinging calmed down in the skin abrasions.
She scrambled back up the embankment to dress before sitting on the tablecloth and leaning against the cottonwood tree trunk. She used the knife to cut slices from a loaf of bread she’d found lodged in the convoluted branches of a Manzanita tree. Birds had pecked holes in it and ants had crawled over it. She ignored the holes and brushed off the ants.
Food is food.
Although fear still lurked at the base of her spine, all these bits of luck built confidence.
Rested, she decided to forage again. Debris in her ankle-length, walking boot made standing uncomfortable so she sat on a nearby rock and unlaced the boot. She noted it was of good-quality, brown leather and only recently scraped up. She shook out dirt and brushed off the bottom of her cotton stocking.
While pulling the boot back on, she pressed against the heel. With a click, it moved aside, revealing a hollowed-out area to hide valuables. Something small and wrapped in white cloth was wedged in there. Curious, she drew out the square of linen and unfolded it on her lap. Her jaw dropped when it revealed an old-fashioned, gold ring.
Holding the ring to the morning sun, she saw engraving inside. She twisted the gold ring until sunlight hit just right. Squinting, she made out the worn lettering: Beloved wife. Love forever.
Lilah gasped. “I’m married!”
* * * *
The gloom of another predawn sky matched his grimness as Ernest crept silently over the bed of needles in this high alpine forest, a Colt 44 primed for danger. Although he’d hunted on mountain slopes like this hundreds of times, today was the first time he’d stalked a human. It didn’t sit easily with him. Despite his considerable size and strength, he preferred the gentle ways to those of violence.
To be truthful, it wasn’t a man he stalked. It was the man’s horse. While the posse sneaked up on the sleeping outlaw, Ernest was charged with keeping the man’s horse from whinnying. His task was to lead the horse out of the outlaw’s reach. Downwind of the animal, Ernest worked his way stealthily across the forest floor.
The end was near. The man who shot his cousin would soon be on his way to the Johnson County jail in Buffalo. Ernest’s lips formed a hard line. The man deserved to be locked up, kept forever away from decent people.
After that, he’d be done with the unpredictability of a posse and could return to the steady routines of farming.
* * * *
Lilah yelled triumphantly to the empty sky. “Somewhere there’s a man who loves me.” She believed it as surely as she could touch the wedding band now circling her ring finger.
Chewing on a lengthy stem of grass, she stretched out under the low-hanging branches of a willow, listening to the sounds of small creatures moving through meadow grasses. Whenever fear threatened to overwhelm her, she remembered Daniel walking through the lion’s den and put her safety in the hands of the Almighty.
One thing she’d discovered these past hours was that she wasn’t an adept frontier woman. Her traps for small animals and birds failed, as had her attempt to make a fire. She’d picked berries, but her small supply of food would dwindle. Many more days of waiting and the food would run out.
Despite the seeming hopelessness, Lilah believed with all her heart that the Powers That Be would see her rescued. She twirled the golden wedding band on her finger, taking solace from the action.
“ I must be losing weight.”
The ring didn’t fit perfectly.
* * * *
Ernest stepped carefully to prevent overturning stones or snapping twigs. Causing noise could spook the outlaw’s horse. His heart pounded in his ears.
The posse had tracked the outlaw for three days and, this morning, spotted him where he bedded down in a grove of pine. The trees and boulders which provided cover for capture also provided cover for an escape. Ernest was determined to deny Diablo Avilos that escape. He’d hide the horse and prevent the outlaw from returning to his native Mexican homeland.
A low whinny stopped Ernest cold. He hadn’t realized he was so close. Dropping to his haunches behind scrub brush, he peered ahead. Concentrating, he could see an indentation of a gully. The concealed hollow proved deep enough to hide Diablo’s horse behind surrounding brush. The dappled gray gelding waited impatiently.
As he crept closer, the horse shied, its eyes widening with apprehension. Murmuring soothingly, Ernest slowed his approach, giving the gelding time to accept him as a friend. He was patting its neck and reaching for the reins tied loosely to a sapling when he heard a crunching noise. The small hairs prickled at the back of his neck. As he turned warily toward the sound, Ernest felt a glancing blow to the base of his skull. The blow stunned him and he dropped the Colt 44, which slid though the leaves and into the gully. Shaking his head to throw off the effects of the blow, he whirled and tackled the shorter, stockier man. As they fell, locked together, he stared into a scarred, hate-filled face before slamming into the ground.
“ Voya matarlo,” Diablo growled as he drew a long-bladed knife. Ruthlessness blazed through his dark eyes. “¡Muerte!”
Ernest gave a shout to alert the posse. Years of handling farm emergencies taught him decisiveness. Clenching his hand into a fist, he connected with his opponent’s jaw and seized the wrist above the knife. Sweat seeped down Ernest’s forehead and into his eyes as he strained to thwart the outlaw’s efforts to embed the razor-sharp knife into his belly. Sounds filtered in from the posse running to his aid.
Each man strained to subdue the other as they rolled back and forth on hard-packed pine needles. The gelding, its eyes wide in alarm, pranced frantically, attempting to keep away from the rolling men. When the loosened reins unraveled from the sapling, the horse fled.
Ernest screamed. Diablo had bit his right arm near the wrist. Only the heavy flannel work shirt saved him from having skin ripped out. He swung a fist, connecting with Diablo’s face and forcing the outlaw to release his bite.
Ignoring the searing pain at his wrist, Ernest gained leverage and transferred all his torso strength into his right arm to push the blade towards Diablo. The outlaw’s writhing feet slipped on the pine needles. Ernest’s fierce resistance forced the outlaw’s hand backward as he fell. The honed blade slid across Diablo’s throat, slicing an artery.
Ernest scrambled backward, out of the range of spurting blood. His breath came in gasps as he stood over the dying man. The outlaw seemed resigned as his eyes glazed over. A gurgle as blood flowed down Diablo’s throat and into his lungs was the only sound.
* * * *
Lilah set out the repaired trap before dusk when the animals came to drink from the creek. She sacrificed strips of lace from her petticoat to fasten notched wood she’d been lucky enough to find among scattered debris. “Maybe this time I’ll be successful.”
She bent over her task, shaded by low-hanging willow branches. The creek water created soothing noises as it flowed over rocks. After placing small pieces of bread and cheese inside as bait, she adjusted the release for the trap door. Setting the apparatus aside for the moment, she got up and walked to the puddle of standing water. The late afternoon sun lost much of its power, but Lilah could see well enough to know that dark circles had crept in around her eyes. Her face looked strained.
As she slowly got back on her feet, colorful meadow wildflowers caught her eye. No matter how ugly the reality, she never lost her appreciation for beauty. “I’ll pick some.”
Early afternoon was spent repairing the animal traps. Now, she was preoccupied by flowers. In her heart of hearts, she understood that, given a silver dollar, she’d spend half on daily bread and half on beauty to feed her soul. She sang as she picked a bouquet.
* * * *
A woman’s voice.
Ernest rubbed his eyes with the back of a bloodied hand. He twisted in the saddle to check on the other riders several hundred yards behind. The posse rode leisurely on this return trip to Buffalo, relaxing after the grueling pace to catch up with the outlaw. No one looked as if he’d seen or heard anything out of the ordinary. It was the evening of the day when Diablo was killed. He was bone tired and fearful of hallucinating.
The men were talking among themselves, probably about Diablo. Ernest had volunteered to ride out front as lookout just to avoid rehashing the morning’s bloody fight. The sheriff had them bury the outlaw in the gully where he died and Ernest was given Diablo’s horse as compensation to his cousin.
There it was again. A woman’s voice. It drew his attention to the distant horizon and a high plains meadow where a dark-haired wood nymph in a sun bonnet rose up from the earth, clutching a multicolored mass. Ernest gawked, fascinated by the lithe creature, until she turned and sank back into the earth.
He rubbed his eyes again. The slanting rays of a setting sun must be blinding him or he was hallucinating. After all, his head still throbbed from Diablo’s pistol butt. Logic told him to ride on, to chalk this up to delusion. A woman, alone, in the middle of nowhere, made no sense whatsoever. A folklore wood nymph made even less sense.
Uneasiness deep within refused to go away. Curiosity battled with common sense, forcing him to investigate even as he told himself it was an illusion. He halted his horse. “Hold up.”
Russ Quentin, the stocky, hard-muscled and no-nonsense foreman of the Bar J Ranch, rode up. “What’s the matter?”
Ernest pointed toward the line of trees. “I saw a woman in that meadow.”
“ I don’t see anything.” Russ wrinkled his brow and shaded his eyes with his hand. “What would a woman be doing out here? We’re some distance from a town and it’s not like we’ve even seen a cabin around here.”
“ I know.”
“ That blow on your head affected your eyesight,” Russ joked. “Get your mind off petticoats. Those are stars you’re seeing.”
Ernest grinned, sheepishly. He handed the reins for Diablo’s horse to Russ. “Probably, but I won’t feel right not knowing.”
“ Go on.” Russ signaled the rest of the men that there was no danger and to catch up. “You’ve earned your right to be foolish. We’ll wait here.”
* * * *
Lilah crouched deep into the meadow grasses and froze even as she reached to pluck another flower. She’d heard something. Cocking her head, she strained to identify the sound. No use calling attention to herself if the sound came from a grizzly or a mountain lion.
Horses. Voices. Relief poured through her.
Scrambling to her feet, still clutching the bouquet of meadow flowers, she turned toward the hoof beats and her rescuer. A muscled, square-jawed man with flowing, straight blond hair under a wide-brimmed, felt hat, galloped toward her on a spirited black stallion. “My husband is the most handsome man I’ve ever seen.” She spoke aloud, hardly believing her good fortune.
As he drew closer, she discerned high cheek bones, dazzlingly blue eyes, a mouth made for kissing, and a stubborn chin. He was clad in a stained, loose-fitting plaid shirt and denim pants, with something wet and dark splashed on them. Filthy or not, she couldn’t look away from him. Why did no bell of recognition ring in her amnesiac brain? Surely, she should remember such a husband.
“ I don’t even know his name.” No matter. She’d count her blessings and be grateful.
Gazing past her husband, Lilah saw that he’d left the rest of the rescue party behind. “He wants our first moments together to be romantic ones.” It suited her to have no one near. It would be less awkward explaining how she hadn’t the least memory of him.
Lilah threw down the bouquet of flowers and ran swiftly, arms outstretched, towards her Viking god.
* * * *
Her brain must be addled. She’s calling me “darling”.
Ernest took his time dismounting, not wanting his size and bloodied appearance to scare this delicate creature. If only he had some way to wash off Diablo’s blood. Here was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen and he must reek to high heaven.
Too late to worry about that.
As he led the horse toward her, closing the distance, he tipped his wide-brimmed hat in greeting. A flesh and blood woman threw herself against him, wrapping her arms tightly around him and pressing full breasts against him. Ernest’s heart sped up, threatening to pound its way out of his chest. Illusion had given way to tangible reality.
Reluctantly, he pried loose her arms and set her back on her feet. As much as he hated to peel her away, it wasn’t in him to take advantage of an addled woman. “Hold up, there. You have me mistaken for someone else.”
Her bruised face crinkled in puzzlement. “Husband, don’t you know me?”
Mustering a tone of polite formality, he stiffly replied, “Regretfully, Ma’am, I’m not your husband. I’m not married.”
He could kick himself for letting the “regretfully” slip out. Even as he remembered the sharp stab of regret that shot through him upon learning she was married, he realized it was unwise to expose his vulnerability to this unknown flesh-and-blood wood nymph.
A look of disappointment spread across her sun-kissed face. Her eyes narrowed and focused on his bloody shirt as she asked, warily, “He sent you to rescue me instead of coming himself?”
“ No, Ma’m. I’ve never met him. I don’t know your husband.”
She cocked her head. “Who are you, then?”
“ I’m Ernest Nolan from the Osterbach farm near Buffalo. I’m with that posse.” He pointed toward the dismounting men in the distance before looking down at his blood-stained clothes. “I apologize for my appearance. I was in a knife fight with an outlaw. He lost.”
“ Thank goodness. I thought that was your blood.”
“ Some is.”
She came closer, pulling a lace-edged handkerchief out of a torn apron pocket. Taking his hand into hers, she wiped at the dried blood.
“ There’s a creek just over there.” She pointed toward a stand of trees. “You can clean this off.”
“ Later. How did you come to be here?” He asked the question in as unthreatening a manner as he could muster. “Were you traveling and got lost?” He looked at her torn clothing. “Were you ravaged?”
She gave up on the dried blood, dropped his hand and stepped back. “I can’t remember.”
“ What?” Ernest’s heart beat increased.
“ I think I got lost.”
He rubbed his chin. “What’s your name?”
“ Lilah. That much I do remember. But not my last name.”
As much as he hated to broach the subject, he said, “Tell me about your husband.”
“ I thought you were he.”
Lilah held up her left hand and wiggled her fingers. The golden band glinted with the morning sun. “This ring and its inscription—Beloved wife. Love forever—are all I know about my marriage.”
Ernest looked around the meadow for clues on how Lilah got this far away from her people. There was no structure nearby, not even a shed. “Where are you staying?”
“ There.” She pointed to a large willow tree with drooping branches some yards away. “At least since I woke up without my memory. Before that, I don’t know.”
“ Where’s your horse?”
“ I don’t have one. I have no idea how I came to be here, but I did find broken pieces of a wagon and some food.”
This woman didn’t fit into the niches into which Ernest organized his life. Instead of crying, she was curious. Instead of panicking, she was talking with him as if they’d met on the sidewalk in town. With farming, every seed became a particular plant. Each responded to a particular method of watering, fertilizing and harvesting. This woman exhibited no recognizable structure. Everything seemed fluid. He rubbed the back of his hand over his face. “How will you get home?”
“ I don’t know where home is. I thought you came to rescue me.”
Ernest shook his head, thoroughly bewildered. Maybe she was an illusion after all, created in a brain hit too hard by a pistol butt. Yet, he’d never seen an etching of a folklore nymph wearing a sun bonnet and an apron.
* * * *
I’ll have to take control. He seems bewildered.
“ Look. I can’t stay here.” Lilah pointed toward the posse and his horse. “Suppose I hop on that horse and we go see if any of those men over there know me.”
He looked relieved. “I’ll give you a boost up.”
“ Wait,” she said, remembering the bouquet she’d thrown down. “I want to fetch my flowers.”
Her handsome rescuer look puzzled. “You’re thinking of flowers at a time like this?”
She frowned. Men never understood. “Certainly.”
“ You just suggested riding toward a group of strangers. Are you planning to defend yourself with flowers?”
“ You’re a posse. You’ll act honorably.”
He nodded his head. “They’re honorable men.”
“ If nobody there knows who I am, I’ll need my beautiful flowers to keep my spirits up.”
He looked unconvinced.
Lilah sprinted to the dropped bouquet before her rescuer could object. Squatting to pluck the fallen flowers from the ground, she noted how pleasingly her blue gingham skirts billowed out against the green of the meadow grasses. Even in adversity, she could find a glimmer of artistic beauty. While adjusting to this disappointing turn of events, she made an art of precisely arranging pink mountain-heath against sticky purple crane’s-bill. Reddish-brown wild buckwheat and white tufted evening-primrose followed next. Lastly, she plucked two long blades of grass, wrapped them around the stems, top and bottom, and tied them off.
Finished, she rose slowly, squared her shoulders and turned to face whatever fate threw at her. Her precious bundle clutched in her left hand, Lilah looked at her rescuer.
I’ll definitely wash that shirt if I can get my hands on it.
When JoAnn Smith Ainsworth carried wood as a pre-teen so her Great Aunt Martha could stoke up the iron stove to prepare dinner, she wasn’t thinking, “I could use this in a novel someday.” Yet, the skills she learned from her horse-and-buggy ancestors translate into backdrops for her historical romance and paranormal suspense novels. JoAnn’s debut medieval romantic suspense novels received 4 stars from RT Book Reviews. Her agent sold a paranormal thriller, EXPECT TROUBLE, which will release April 2014. Of her historical western romances released fall 2013, one reviewer said, “seamlessly, flawless writing.” Another said, “WOW, it was amazing! There was fun, excitement, adventure and so well put as a love story.”
For more, visit: http://www.joannsmithainsworth.com.
Twitter @JoAnnAinsworth or @JoAnnParanormal or Facebook’s JoAnn Smith Ainsworth Fan Page.
Contact her at JoAnnParanormal@gmail.com.
Amazon – http://amzn.to/Zgbls6
Barnes & Noble – http://bit.ly/HMX2KH
and an independent bookstore near you – http://www.indiebound.org/indie-bookstore-finder
MATILDA’S SONG (ISBN: 978-1-60504-195-7) / OUT OF THE DARK (ISBN: 978-1-60504-277-0)
POLITE ENEMIES (Book 1) (ebook: 978-1-61160-636-2; paper: 978-1-61160-590-7)
THE FARMER AND THE WOOD NYMPH (Book 2) (ebook ISBN: 978-1-61160-660-7; paper: 978-1-61160-898-4)
EXPECT TROUBLE (print ISBN: 978-1-61009-074-2) release April 2014
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