Authors: Texas Destiny
“Are you successful?”
He shook his head. “Nah, I leave the glory of success to Dallas and men like him. I’d just like to watch the sunset in peace.”
He tugged on his hat, and Amelia had the feeling something deeper dwelled within his words, something he had no desire to discuss. Although she could not see it, she was certain that he’d just thrown up a wall.
“Take a look around and see if you can think of anything else you need while I purchase the clothes. If not, we’ll be leavin’.”
He went into Mimi’s shop and returned a few minutes later with two large parcels. “Did you think of anything?” he asked.
“No, I feel guilty about all that you’ve purchased already.”
“Don’t feel guilty. Dallas won’t begrudge the purchase. He’s generous to a fault when it comes to those he cares about.”
“And you think he’ll come to care about me?”
“He already does, Miss Carson. Give you my word on that,” he said as he stepped off the boardwalk.
Amelia’s apprehensions began melting away. Perhaps the man behind the letters was as she had imagined him. She thought of Houston’s comment that she needed clothing for entertaining. One day she would delight the ladies of West Texas with parties and social calls—just as her mother had charmed the women from the neighboring plantations. Perhaps as the wife of a rancher, she would find a semblance of the life she’d known before the war, a life she’d thought would one day be hers.
A life shattered by men in blue and men in tattered gray.
Shuddering, she squeezed her eyes shut and forced the past back into the recesses of her mind. Her future lay before her, clear and untarnished, with a man who had shown her nothing but compassion and respect in his letters.
Amelia came to a halt as Houston placed the packages in the back of a wagon laden with supplies. A brown horse, tethered at the rear, nudged Houston’s shoulder. He reached into his duster pocket and brought out an apple. The mare grabbed it and began chomping greedily.
As Houston pulled a tarpaulin over the supplies, securing it in place with ropes, Amelia traced her fingers over an emblem burned into the side of the wagon. An “A” leaned over until its right side touched the left side of a “D.”
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Dallas’s brand. An ‘A’ and a ‘D.’ Joined.”
Joined. As in a partnership. As in a marriage. “Has he always had this brand?”
“Nope. In the beginning, he just had the ‘D.’ He added the ‘A’ when you accepted his offer of marriage.”
Deeply touched, she wished Dallas could have shared this moment when she discovered his gift. “He never mentioned it in his letters.”
“Reckon he wanted it to be a surprise.”
“A brand is important, isn’t it?”
“The choosing of it isn’t something a man takes lightly. Neither is the changing of it.”
“Is this why you think he cares about me?”
“It’s one of the reasons.”
“And the other reasons?”
“I reckon they’ll be real obvious when we get to the ranch.” He tied a final knot in the rope. “Ready?”
More than ready, she nodded. He placed his large hands on her waist. She grabbed his shoulders as he swung her onto the wagon. She sat and arranged her skirt, trying not to think about how the warmth of his hands had soaked through her worn clothing. Dallas’s hands would be that warm, his shoulders that steady.
Houston climbed in and settled onto the bench seat beside her. He released the brake and slapped the reins over the backs of the four mules harnessed before them. “Well, Miss Carson, take a last look around because where we’re headed there’s nothing but open land, cows, and cowboys.”
t was well past noon before they reached a small stream. As Houston watered and fed the mules and his horse, Amelia sat on a log, using a fork to dig beans out of a can that he had opened for her.
She couldn’t hear his words, only his voice, as he talked to the mare. Neither of them had spoken as the wagon had traveled away from Fort Worth. From time to time, she had glanced over her shoulder. He had never once looked back.
He crossed the clearing and hunkered down before her, his right shoulder close to her drawn-up knees. His black duster parted, revealing the gun strapped to his thigh. It served as a gentle reminder that she was headed toward an untamed land.
“My apologies for the simple meal, but I didn’t want to take the time for a fire,” he said quietly. “We’ll have a better meal come evening.”
“I’m truly grateful that you thought to bring some canned goods.”
Removing his hat, he studied her. “You’ve eaten worse.”
She smiled softly. “As a matter of fact, I have.” “Yep, me, too.”
Standing, he settled his hat on his head. “You can wash up by the stream. We’ll be leaving soon.”
Amelia rose and began to walk toward the water.
She glanced over her shoulder. His profile was to her again, and he seemed to be studying something in the distance. “Yes, Mr. Leigh?”
“Once, when I stopped by a stream to wash the dust off, I laid my hat beside me. A raccoon carted it away.” He ground his jaw back and forth. “If you were to take off your hat while you were washing up, some critter might haul it away.”
“I’m so grateful you shared that with me. I’ll make certain I guard the hat well.”
She thought he grimaced before he turned away. She strolled to the water’s edge and knelt beside the stream. The hat, with all its accessories, weighed heavy on her head. She had considered removing the bird or some of the ribbons. She had even considered pretending that she had never received the hat, but she had no talent for telling lies. Dallas would see through her deceit, and she didn’t want to risk hurting his feelings after he’d gone to so much trouble.
She dipped her hands into the cool water. She couldn’t recall Houston’s ever initiating a conversation between them. He politely answered her questions, but for the most part he kept quiet. Yet he had openly shared the story of the raccoon and his hat, although he had appeared uncomfortable reciting his tale as though he had feared offending her. She imagined he had been quite put out not to have his hat, since he seldom removed it.
She caught sight of her reflection wavering in the water, the bird bobbing with her movements. The hat was so incredibly unattractive. She wore it because Dallas had sent it to her, because it was a gift and she had received so few in her life.
She glanced over her shoulder and wondered if Houston wasn’t offering her a gift as well: an honorable way to lose the hat without hurting anyone’s feelings.
She rose and walked to the wagon where he was tightening the ropes that held the tarpaulin in place over the supplies. “You don’t like my hat,” she stated in as flat a tone as she could manage.
He visibly stiffened, his hands stilling. “No, ma’am.” He removed his hat and met her gaze. “I think it’s the most godawful ugly thing I’ve ever seen.”
Amelia released a tiny squeal and covered her mouth.
Regret reshaped his features. “My apologies, Miss Carson. I had no right—”
“No!” She held up a hand to stay his apology and moved her other hand away from her face to reveal her smile. “I think it’s awful, too.”
“Then why in God’s name are you wearing it?” he asked, clearly stunned.
“Because it was a gift from your brother.”
He slapped his hat against his duster. “Well, it’s not very practical. Your nose is already turning red.”
Amelia pressed her fingers to the tip of her nose. She could feel the slight prickling of her skin. She had worn a bonnet to protect her face when she’d worked in the cotton fields following the war. She’d hoped never to have to wear a bonnet again. “I’m not overly fond of bonnets,” she said as she gnawed on her lower lip.
“If a raccoon were to carry your hat away, you could borrow the hat I bought for Austin,” he offered.
“Do you think he would mind?”
He shrugged. “If he minds, he can keep his old hat. I just bought it because I didn’t know what else to get him, and we don’t get into town much. He might not even want it.”
“I don’t want to hurt Dallas’s feelings. The hat was a gift—”
“The hat was a way for me to recognize you. You’ve been recognized.”
A twinge of guilt still pricked at her conscience. “Do you think he’ll wear the band I embroidered around his hat?”
“No, ma’am. I can guarantee you he won’t be wearing it.”
“I could just pack the hat away, I suppose.”
“Got no room in the wagon for anything else.”
She knew that for the lie it was. A little less than half the wagon remained empty. “You really dislike the hat.”
“If you pack it away, there’s gonna come a day when company’s gonna come to call, and he’s gonna want you to wear it … in front of people who need to respect him. The way I see it, in the long run, you’ll be doing him a favor if it goes no farther west than this.”
“Are there raccoons around here?”
“I think I need to give my face a good scrubbing.”
He nodded. “I’ll find Austin’s hat.”
Amelia walked to the stream and knelt. Reaching up, she removed the hat and studied it. Dallas had bought it for her so he could identify her. It had served its purpose. She set it beside her and viciously scrubbed her face, praying he would never discover her deceit. She lifted her skirt and wiped the cool water from her face before casting a sideways glance at the hat. It remained untouched.
She rose to her feet and walked to the wagon. Houston handed her a black broad-brimmed hat.
“Are you sure Austin won’t mind?” she asked as she adjusted the positioning of the hat on her head.
“I’m sure.” He placed his hands on her waist and lifted her onto the wagon, then settled in beside her.
“I feel guilty,” she said as he reached for the reins.
He flicked the reins and the mules began to pull the wagon across the stream. Amelia waited until the wagon had cleared the shallow stream before glancing back. The hat remained where she’d left it.
“Do you really think a raccoon will take it away?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am. Maybe not today or tomorrow. But someday.”
The fire crackled softly, shooting sparks into the night. Despite the vastness of the black sky, an intimacy dwelled within the small camp, an intimacy that hadn’t existed in Fort Worth. Amelia wondered if perhaps it existed here because there were only the two of them, alone, surrounded by nothing but the dark shadows of the unknown.
She stole a sideways glance at her traveling companion as he sat on a nearby log and forked beans into his mouth. They had traveled through the afternoon in silence, her thoughts directed toward her hat and the raccoon, his thoughts … she had no idea where his thoughts had traveled.
He had set up a tent, tended the animals, and cooked a meal, speaking only when necessary to convey his needs. As he prepared the camp, he had moved with an effortless grace that always kept the right side of his body facing her. She wasn’t certain if he sought to protect his scarred face or to protect her from the sight of it. Perhaps it was a little of both.
“Are you married?” she asked quietly.
He jumped as though she’d fired a rifle into the night. His fork clattered onto the tin plate and flipped to the ground. He picked it up, wiped it on the leg of his trousers, and started moving the few remaining beans around on his plate. “Nope.”
He jammed the bean-laden fork into his mouth.
She knew his parents had lived in Texas when their children were born. She wondered if they’d lived elsewhere. “Did you grow up in Texas?” she asked, hoping to entice him into discussing his childhood, a childhood that had included Dallas.
“Nope. Lived in Texas when I was boy. Grew up outside of Texas.”
She furrowed her brow. “When did you leave Texas?”
“When the war started. When Pa enlisted, he signed me and Dallas up to go with him.”
Threads of Dallas’s letters wove through her mind. His military life had astounded her, given her cause for pride, but she had thought Dallas was nearly thirty and based on that knowledge, she’d assumed he had enlisted near the end of the war. She wondered if she had misread his letters, misjudged his age. “How old were you?”
“Twelve. Dallas was fourteen.”
“You were children,” she whispered, remembering so many young faces parading along the dirt road in front of their plantation.
“Pa thought we were old enough. Dallas was commanding his own unit by the time he was sixteen.”
The food she’d eaten rolled over in her stomach. “Yes, he gave me a detailed accounting of his accomplishments. I just didn’t stop to think how young he would have been when he enlisted. Sometimes, I wonder if it wasn’t actually a children’s war.”
He moved to the fire. “More coffee?”
“No, thank you.”
She watched as he poured the black brew into his tin cup before moving back. She had a feeling his movement to the fire was his way of signaling that he wanted to end that particular vein of conversation. Since he had an aversion to talking about the war, she decided to oblige him.
“Could I ask a favor of you?” she asked.
Houston had been waging a battle all evening, fighting to keep his attention focused on the writhing flames dancing in the night instead of on the woman sitting beside him. He didn’t think Dallas would appreciate how much pleasure it gave him to watch Amelia, but the lilt of her voice, a soft southern drawl that hinted at no hurry to be anywhere, the hope echoed in her words, was his undoing. Admitting defeat, he shifted slightly, met her gaze, and nodded.
“When your brother and I wrote each other, we didn’t describe ourselves, which is why we had to send something for identification. I was wondering if I could tell you what I think he looks like and you tell me if I’m wrong.”
“I could just tell you what he looks like.”
She shook her head vigorously. “No, I want to see how close I am to imagining him as he truly is.”
She sat on a small log, looking like a little girl waiting to be handed a piece of candy. He was willing to give her the whole jar, but in deference to his older brother, Houston merely shrugged. “Go ahead.”
She bit her lower lip. “All right. I know he’s tall, since you told me that. And I always thought of him as having black hair, like yours. Only it wouldn’t be as long. I think his hair might just cover his ears. It wouldn’t reach down to his shoulders.”
Houston nodded slowly, and her eyes brightened. He imagined the fun Dallas would have keeping those eyes shining. She seemed incredibly easy to please.
She closed her eyes a moment, then popped them open wide. “Blue eyes.”
Damn! He hated to disappoint her. He shook his head slowly. “Austin got our ma’s blue eyes.”
“Are Dallas’s brown, like yours?”
“Same color, but he’s got two.”
She leaned forward, pity filling her eyes, and he wished he’d just kept his mouth shut and not tried to tease her. What the hell did he know about teasing? For some reason, he wanted to hear her laugh again as she had with Mimi St. Claire. And he wanted absolutely none of her pity.
“How old were you when you were wounded?” she asked quietly.
“Fifteen. Thought you wanted to know about Dallas.”
Straightening, she gave him a quivering smile, and he knew he’d hurt her feelings again. Damn, he hated when he did that.
“You’re right,” she admitted. “My interests lie with Dallas.” She furrowed her delicate brow. “His nose is straight, not too big, not too small, and it sits right in the middle of his face.”
He was on the verge of asking her where else she thought she might find a nose when he noticed the glint in her eyes. She’d already forgiven him for his rudeness, was teasing him. She did it with such ease. He envied her that ability and could do no more than nod.
“He has a strong jaw,” she said.
He shook his head slightly, and the sparkle dimmed in her eyes.
“He doesn’t have a strong jaw?” she asked.
“Ain’t never seen it wrestle a steer to the ground.”
The sparkle that lit up her eyes was enough to blind a man. And her smile. Her laughter. Dear God, but a man could start to believe in heaven and angels and an eternity of peace.
She wiped a tear of joy from the corner of her eye. “I meant that his jaw was well-defined, like yours.” She reached out and trailed her fingers along his jaw.
He jerked back as though she’d seared his flesh with a red-hot branding iron. He could see the hurt and confusion swimming in her eyes, but he couldn’t explain to her about the needs that surged through his body with her simple touch, a touch that belonged exclusively to his brother.
“I’m sorry,” she stammered.
He crouched before the fire. “Nothing to apologize for. Tomorrow’s gonna be a long day. You’d best get some rest. You can take the lantern into the tent with you. I’ll want to leave at dawn.”
“Shall I wash the plate in that bucket of hot water?”
“Nope. I heated that up for you. Just leave your plate by the log, and I’ll take care of it.”
Picking up the lantern and bucket of water, Amelia began walking toward the tent.
Stopping, Amelia turned around. He stood beside the fire, the shadows playing over his profile. “Yes, Mr. Leigh.”
“Dallas has a mustache.”
“Yeah, one of those big bushy ones. The sides fall down around his mouth. Heard a woman say once that he was handsome as sin.”
“Thank you for sharing that with me. I never imagined him with a mustache. Good night, Mr. Leigh.”
“ ’Night, ma’am.”
She walked into the canvas tent, the tarpaulin he’d used to cover the supplies serving as her floor. She set the lantern on the small table and opened her bag. Gingerly, she brought out a stack of letters. She untied the ribbon and removed the letter from the first envelope. Sitting on the edge of the narrow cot, she tried to conjure up an image of Dallas Leigh as she now knew him to be. Brown eyes. Thick mustache.