He sat down next to her, and though Millie opened her eyes, she didn’t glance his way, merely absorbed his nearness. Keeping her gaze on the paper, she continued drawing a scene of three women she assumed were tanning a deer hide.
As badly as she knew what had to be done, the energy it would take was currently beyond her. Perhaps if she ignored him he’d go away. A smile almost touched her lips at the absurdity of that. Seth was not a man who could be ignored, nor one who would leave a woman sitting in the middle of the prairie by herself, no matter who she was and how much he despised her.
She flinched and the pencil shot across the page.
“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” he said.
“You didn’t.” She set the pencil on top of the paper resting on her lap, and shifted slightly to make sure her skirt covered her ankles, just for something to do. “This one wasn’t turning out like I wanted.”
“I think it’s very good.”
Unable to accept praise of any kind right now, she frowned. Mrs. Ketchum had said a good wife didn’t ask questions, but Millie was as far from being a good wife as could be.
Gesturing toward the tepees, she asked, “Why’d they set up their homes here? They weren’t here yesterday.” She stopped shy of adding, “when you took me riding.” Reminding herself of that joy right now would spoil the memory, and someday she’d want it to be pure, so she could smile when it came to mind.
“Per-Cum-Ske wants to go to Washington with me,” Seth answered, plucking a blade of grass to twirl between his fingers.
She still hadn’t looked his way, couldn’t, but hearing his voice, and seeing his hands out the corner of her eye, had her heart thudding again. “Why?”
“To make sure the needs of his people are heard.”
“I thought that was why you’re going.”
He tossed aside the grass. “It is, but others have gone before me, and things haven’t improved. He has no reason to believe they will this time, either.”
The distress in Seth’s voice had compassion swirling inside her. No matter what her issues were, they didn’t change him. He was a good person who cared deeply about the Indians and his duties to oversee their welfare.
“Will you let him go?” she asked.
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“Are you still planning on going soon?”
“Yes. Before the end of the month.”
Knowing she couldn’t ask him to wait until December again, since she’d seen for herself how important the trip was, Millie searched for another topic. “Where do they get the poles for their tepees?”
“They bring them with them,” he said. “When they leave there won’t be a single sign left behind that they’ve been here, except some trampled grass.”
“What are they made of, the walls of the tepees?”
“Hides they tan and sew together. Then they decorate them with die made from berries and such.”
“They’re very resourceful people,” she said.
“Yes, they are. There was a time when the land gave them everything they needed.”
Millie nodded. Seth had explained the way things used to be for the Indians one night while eating supper. During the silence that settled between them now, she picked up the pencil and filled in the deer hide on the drawing.
The clothes of the women—one wearing a leather tunic-type shift, and two others wearing cotton dresses they’d cut off near their knees—had been filled in, as well, when he let out a sigh.
Unable not to, Millie glanced his way, and the sincerity in his eyes had her dropping her gaze instantly.
“I didn’t come out here to talk about them,” he said.
Sorrow tightened the skin on her cheeks and a heaviness invaded her stomach, yet she nodded.
“I came to apologize to you. I’m sor—”
“Don’t,” she insisted, swallowing the sob burning her throat. He held no fault in any of this, and she couldn’t bear to hear him apologize. “Please don’t say you’re sorry.”
“I am. I shouldn’t have—”
“Please, Seth.” The tears were back, pressing hard and making her blink. Taking a breath, she said, “I’m sorry, too, but that’s not... I can’t...” An explanation wouldn’t come out. How could it when she didn’t know what she was trying to say? What she could say.
“What do you want me to say?” he asked.
Millie thought for a moment, wondered what Rosemary would say, and if she had the wherewithal to pull her sister up right now. The uncertainty in Seth’s voice—a man who was so full of confidence—was like a knife slicing her heart in two. Knowing her sister would never say what Millie was about to didn’t stop her. Right now she had to be herself, and be honest with him.