“I hunt sometimes when I’m in the country,” Eleanor answered carefully. She put down her coffee and stepped to the doorway. Over Joe’s shoulder, she could see two horses tied to a post. One wore a western saddle like the ones she’d seen on the horses Lillian and Eden had ridden to the ranch. The other wore an ordinary saddle, and Eleanor felt some relief.
“Can I offer you a tour of the place?”
The “tour” was really just a ramble through the wilderness as far as Eleanor could tell. After three quarters of an hour of climbing up and around brushy hills, they came to a wide, stone slash in the earth through which a small stream of water trickled. Clumps of twisted, thorny trees with tiny fronds for leaves sat here and there scattered among the small boulders along the creek bed.
Joe dismounted her horse and led it to the edge of the water. The animal drank thirstily and Eleanor followed Joe’s example, dismounting and letting her horse drink too.
Presently, Joe asked “shall we sit in the shade, Miss Stephens?” and gestured to some large flat rocks as if they were a sofa in a well furnished drawing room.
Eleanor let Joe take her horse and tie it to one of the trees. The animals began to nose among the sparse weeds between the stones.
It came to Eleanor that if this were a novel, Joe would have some sinister plan to dispose of her here in the middle of the desert where no one would find her before the ravens had picked clean her bones.
But Joe made no violent overtures. Instead, she sat on the boulder nearest Eleanor’s and contemplated God knows what before breaking the awkward silence.
“Do you think your fortune can buy her?”
Eleanor raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that a rather suspicious-minded way to think about a generous offer to your daughter?”
Joe removed her hat and ran a hand through her hair, making Eleanor think uncannily of Eden. “I have good enough reason to doubt your intentions regarding my family,” she said.
Eleanor’s voice betrayed no trace of guilt. “I have only ever given Eden choices,” she told Joe. “And she has made them freely.”
“Freely? You’ve bound her with your money—at least you seem to hope to.”
“Do you have any idea how successful she is already? How successful she is going to become?” Eleanor asked. “I have done what I could to encourage her…But Eden would be Eden with or without my money.”
“Then why insist she take it?” Joe asked.
“Do you really think she doesn’t want it?” Eleanor frowned at Joe with incredulity. “She only fears you will hate her if she admits that she does.”
Eleanor wished desperately for a cigarette, but patting her pockets, found them damnably empty. “I can’t believe you don’t smoke,” she muttered.
At this, Joe reached into a pocket and pulled out two cigarettes. “Don’t tell Lillian,” she said, handing one to Eleanor and striking a match.
Anticipatory relief calmed Eleanor’s nerves as she leaned towards Joe and the match. “Sometimes, money is a curse, Mr. Smith,” she said.
Eleanor looked up and met Joe’s eye. “Eleanor,” she said and put out her hand as if they were meeting for the first time. Joe took it for a moment.
“I told her to take it,” Joe said.
Surprise crossed Eleanor’s face. “You did?”
“I told her to be your family. You need one, she says.”
“I suppose I do.”
Joe eyed Eleanor from beneath the brim of her hat. “Don’t mistake me,” she said. “I don’t trust you. But I trust my daughter. I’ve never known anyone besides her mother who is so honorable, so…loyal.” Joe picked up a stone and turned it over a few times in her hand, then tossed it away. “You’re lucky to know her.”
“Yes,” Eleanor agreed.