The nails pinched in a line between his lips gave Teagan’s mouth an iron tang but it wasn’t unpleasant. The sun had warmth and the morning’s chill had burned off under its strength. Below his boots the grass was showing peeks of green and there were buds on the trees. Spring was coming early this year and he happily drove home another nail in an ongoing effort to repair the crumbling fencing around the pasture.
It was futile, really, the task was too large for him and it wouldn’t be finished until his uncle sent someone down from the main house to do it but a start had to be made. As he pounded another nail into place he knew it was another he had made and that felt better than waiting. Maybe, this year, he’d get the spring repairs done before his uncle could spare someone and wouldn’t that surprise him to no end.
As if his thoughts had conquered the man, the sound of a horse caught Teagan’s ear and he stood up from his crouch. It wasn’t a surprise to see his uncle riding down the lane from the road, neither was it a surprise to spot the second rider following a half pace behind him. Teagan felt his shoulders tense but he crouched back down and hammered his frustrations out on another nail.
“What do you think you’re doing?” His uncle’s raspy strong voice rolled out even before he hopped his rounded body from the saddle.
Teagan spat out the nails and didn’t look up. “Spring repairs, Uncle Robin, as always.”
“Spring repairs! Good god child are you trying to kill yourself? Or me?”
“Really, Uncle, there’s no need to be so dramatic.”
“Dramatic? You look like a corpse!” Robin hurried over and took up his nephew’s hands and wasn’t surprised to see his fingernails were tinged blue. “How long have you been out here?”
Teagan felt his mouth tighten into an unhappy line. “I’m fine.”
“Stop, now, and get some water.”
“Uncle.” But he’d long since learned not to debate it too much, his Uncle just made him feel more exhausted if he fought him. He placed the hammer back into the wood carry box and dropped the nails back into their pouch. The older man had already moved to the scoop a tin cup of water and was hurrying back. It gave Teagan a moment to study the other man, the one left holding the reins. He wasn’t a face he knew from his uncle’s estate or from the town and it made him curious but he knew better than to ask.
“Here, and sit down!”
He accepted the tin pressed at him but refused to sit like some child. “Thank you.” He was tired and he knew he must look like a two day old corpse. He’d been pretty pale when he’d woken up, surprised by the dark circles under his eyes and he knew being outside working hadn’t made him look hale and healthy. “What brings this visit uncle, not that it isn’t always a treat to have you come by.”
“Ah?” He glanced over his shoulder. “Come up here boy, he doesn’t bite.”
The man holding the reins nodded and moved first to tie the horses off to one of the sturdier fence rails before he came to stand behind the elder’s shoulder. It gave Teagan a better look at the fellow, taller than he was but not by much, quite a bit wider in the shoulders and a lot of that was muscle from how the man moved. His hands were rough, his skin was tanned with a slight sunburn across his nose and cheeks. His hair was an unpopular length, too short to pull back into the single tail most men were wearing but too long to hold any real style. It fell in shaggy layers when he swept his hat off his head and glowed copper red in the sunlight. Green hazel eyes that watched silently but didn’t appear dim witted or dull were squinted against the late morning sunlight. Even though Teagan had pulled on work clothes of simple style and cut, the silent stranger was dressed more poorly, truly in work clothing.
“Here now, Teagan, don’t let his scowl worry you, he’s a good sort.”
“Daniel O’Raian, this is my nephew Teagan Walsh.” The silent Daniel inclined his head but said nothing. “Daniel is my new woodsman, he’s going to catch poachers and the like.”
“Since when have you worried about poachers, uncle?” He raised an eyebrow. The stranger was used to hard work, that was obvious from the strength in his shoulders and arms but he looked too gruff, too cold for a woodsman.
“True better said to make sure no one poaches too much.” Robin grinned and smacked Daniel on the shoulder in a friendly way. “I figured since you’re too stubborn to come up to the house or into the town and he’ll be only three miles away, it made good sense to have him come by and do the chores that need doing about here. When he’s not busy with his… woodsman duties that is.”
It was a small pause but Teagan caught it and started to have a good idea that Daniel O’Raian wasn’t under his uncle’s employee to stop poachers. “Really, I don’t need that much help.”
“Poppycock, boy! Don’t be so proud. He’s a strong lad, in a month you won’t know how you got by without him.”
He sighed and knew better than to debate the issue. “There is a lot to be done this year.” He admitted and his uncle would have to send someone.
“Good, now get inside and rest, before you fall down. I’ll show Daniel around the place and he’ll be by tomorrow. Want to get him introduced around and settled in to Henry’s old cottage before nightfall.” Robin grinned at winning another battle and patted his nephew on the side of his pale face.
“Thank you and Mr. O’Raian, take your time settling in. In spite of what my uncle may have told you, I manage quite well.” He knew he was being dismissed so that his uncle could tell the stranger all about how dire and ill his health was and frankly Teagan was too tired to bother protesting.
The stranger nodded again and muttered a small, “Yes sir” with a deep but barely audible voice. He followed the slender frail man as he carried the wooden tool box toward the barn.
“Walk the fence with me lad.” Robin clapped the taller man on the shoulder again and Daniel followed silently as they walked along the old pasture. “Teagan is my sister’s child, poor thing, she died of a fever after birthing him, he never knew her. Looks just like her though, not a lick of his father in him, she was always frail and sickly too.”
Daniel nodded but was keeping a keen eye on the pasture. The fence was a mix of wooden rails and stonewalls and both needed repairing.
“Boy’s father, was a good man, a loyal man, he died of the dreaded cough a couple of winters ago, left poor Teagan alone out here but the boy is too stubborn to move closer to people. Just sheer luck he’s not caught his death yet, his blood’s too thin.”
“Fields won’t give enough hay.” Daniel broke in softly.
“Ah? Oh don’t mind that, I’ll send down plenty of fodder for him and you both, just get the barn dry and patched up.” He was a touch winded now, he’d followed the fence up the gentle hill at a quick pace and had forgotten he was an old man now. Robin stopped and stared out across the acres he’d given his sister when she’s wed, the fair sized house and barn, the square patch of garden and the pastures. Most was fallow now, in disrepair since his brother in law had passed away and Teagan had been too proud to say just how much help he really needed.
They could have stood silently like that for a day or a year and he doubted the young man beside him would break it. Robin sighed. “He’s a good man, but proud, stubborn. I’ve children now but I think of him as my own, Daniel, do you understand me?”
“The doctors told us four or five times he’d never live out another year and yet here he still is. He keeps to himself too much, I don’t want you to just see the roof is mended and the horses tended. I know we’ve only met a few times but I hear you’re a good sort, someone to be trusted with anything. Keep your eye on him for me.”
Robin glanced over to the young man and had to scold himself. He’d been thinking of Daniel as older than Teagan but his nephew’s fragility was as deceptive as Daniel’s too old, distant eyes. If the man beside him was twenty five he’d be shocked cold with surprise and Robin lowered the silent man’s age down to closer to twenty. It was his eyes, so distant and wary with little warmth in them that made him seem so much older. That and the sense that the quiet man could literally handle anything that crossed his path with steady nerves and strong hands. Poor Teagan was older, by several years if his guess was correct but his smaller, thin frame and bright hopeful eyes made him seem so much younger.
It had been his wife that had insisted that he ask Daniel to check on Teagan, but not for the reasons Robin had assumed. He’d thought it was a great idea, that Teagan would gain so much from regular social contact that he’d lacked since his father had passed away. The fact that Daniel could get the farm back into good order was a happy side note but his wife and shaken her head and scolded him. It wasn’t for Teagan’s sake she’d made the suggestion but for Daniel’s. When he’d asked her to explain, she’d rolled her eyes and cursed all men as fools. It had been the only time he’d questioned his choice to marry such a younger woman but since he valued her insight, and thought his own reasons stronger, he’d brought Daniel to the farm.
“Come along, Daniel, we’ve still several stops to make before tonight.”
Daniel nodded and followed his employer back down the hill toward the house and horses. As he gathered up the reins and moved to hold the bridle so the older man could mount the steady horse with greater ease, he caught sight of movement on the porch. He glanced up and spotted the frail, dark haired man standing by the door.
“You won’t stay for lunch, Uncle?”
“Can’t, m’boy.” Robin groaned as he swung himself back into the saddle. “Expected over at Mallory’s for lunch, promised him a word when I was by again.”
Teagan nodded. “Very well, thank you for stopping in Uncle.”
“Take care, lad, I promise I’ll be by again soon and come up to the house. Elizabeth wants to make sure you’re getting enough food sent down, you know how she worries.”
That made Teagan grin a little. His uncle’s wife was barely older then he was and had grown up in the town teasing him when they were children. She was a good woman but he knew which one of them worried more. “I’ll ride up there soon.”
“Good! Send word if you need anything.”
Which was how he always said goodbye. “Travel safe, uncle.” It wasn’t his aging, rotund uncle he watched but the silent new woodsman. The man slipped into the saddle with ease and sat the horse like an expert as the pair rode back down his lane to the main road. He would just have to find a way to convince his uncle he didn’t need a watch dog once the spring chores were finished. As he went inside to rest for a while, he wondered if he could talk Elizabeth around to his cause.
Teagan woke as he always did, at what his sister had called an indulgent hour. He was always just too tired to wake at dawn, even after she’d left and it was just himself and his father. Since he didn’t have a cow to care for any longer and the chickens didn’t mind waiting, there wasn’t much worry if he slept a bit later than was decent. He yawned and dressed, shaved and washed up and stepped out into the warming spring damp to attend his chores, and nearly tripped over an upturned hat filled with eggs.
That wasn’t a normal occurrence. He bent down and picked up the hat and carefully took the eggs inside transporting them to the basket he normally used. It wasn’t many but the hens were laying very well this year and he’d taken to saving up some of the extras for his visits up to the manor house. Elizabeth traded him milk, butter and cheese for the eggs even if she would have sent them anyway.
The hat, now emptied, turned over in his hand and the number of people that it could belong to was fairly limited. Teagan found the owner in his barn. The silent man’s coat was off and tossed over a stall door and he had one of the draft horse’s hooves raised up and caught between his knees. Daniel didn’t look up but Teagan knew the man knew he was there. He waited until he let the hoof down, one strong hand patting the animal’s flank.
“I’ve your hat.”
“Hmmp.” Daniel grunted before clucking at the horse and lifting another hoof.
“I can do my own chores just fine.” He dropped the hat on top of the man’s coat, balancing it on the rail and moved to break out the feed for the horses.
“They’re fed.” Daniel muttered, checking the work with the pick before dropping the hoof. The horses and chickens were surprisingly well tended and it had only been the hooves that had shown any sign of the slightest neglect. He couldn’t picture the slighter man muscling the large draft horses into raising a leg even if he’d wanted to.
Teagan sighed, tried not to sound huffy and moved to start mucking out the stalls.
“Done that too.” He moved to the draft horse’s head and scratched at the beast’s ears. That earned him a whicker and some soft nuzzling.
“Careful, Buttercup is a nipper.”
He gave the horse a few more pats and scratches before clucking some more and guiding the last of the three horses to be turned out in the smaller, better repaired side pasture. “We worked that out already.” He swatted the lazy horse’s rump and left it to trot off startled from the barn.
“You don’t need to tend them.” Teagan folded his arms across his chest and tried to look stern. It must not have been very effective because his new farm hand just stood quietly for a moment and met his eye.
“They’re well cared for.”
It wasn’t what he had expected to hear. “Thank you.” It didn’t change the fact that he wasn’t helpless. “I can tend my own home.”
Daniel nodded. “Yes, sir.” And he moved to gather up the box of carpentry tools and out back to fix the loose shingles on the chicken coop. Animals secured first, so coop and barn, that was a given, then he would clear the house’s garden and get it tilled and ready for planting before moving to repair the fences. That should take him to getting the vegetable plants in and he’d focus on the repair work the house needed. After that he’d worry about firewood and harvesting. As he walked past the slender man to do his job, he saw storm clouds in his dark eyes. They weren’t brown, he noted, but an odd deep, dark green.
It left Teagan standing alone and caught between indignation and anger. He kicked a clump of hay and cursed but the hay kicked up dust and he sneezed violently. There just wasn’t anything to be done. He couldn’t fire the man, because he hadn’t hired him. It wasn’t like he could scare the man off, the new woodsman didn’t look like he scared easily. Apparently telling him not to do things didn’t work either. In the end he was left standing alone, feeling like a pouting child, before he gave up and went inside to try to pretend that the work he should have been doing was being done for him.
It was a short while to pretend, when Teagan had gotten over his anger and went outside close to noon to see if his visitor would be interested in lunch, he found the man and his horse gone. He’d arrived and left on his own and with just as little notice. Teagan found himself checking the horses and the chicken’s coop just to be fussy but there was nothing with the man’s work he could find fault with.