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Authors: Montana Marriages Trilogy

Mary Connealy (10 page)

BOOK: Mary Connealy
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His pa had said, “Let’s share her, boy.”

It made Wade sick to think it now, and to stop his head from working, he sat up and fished his pint of whiskey out of his saddlebag and took a deep pull on it, trying to drown out the sound of his father’s filthy suggestion. His pa had gotten in the habit of thinking himself above the law. And that included the laws of God. Once a man started thinking that way, everything he wanted to do was right.

Surely even his father’s arrogance didn’t extend so far that he meant share the china doll…. Wade’s mind veered away from the thoughts and swallowed more of the rotgut. What Pa had
meant
was he’d take the land and Wade could have the woman. But that wasn’t what Pa
said.
And even if Pa intended to leave Cassie to Wade, Pa would still be her husband and Wade wouldn’t be able to marry her and treat her honorably. Even the hint of something so foul happening to the china doll drove Wade into a rage.

When Pa had said those words, “Let’s share her,” Wade had lunged.

Mort, in his seventies and half crippled from arthritis, had backhanded Wade so hard he’d been knocked to the floor. Then he’d kicked Wade in the ribs until Wade had cried and begged him to stop.

Mort had grabbed his hair and jerked his head back and roared, “You come at me, you’d better be ready to win, you whinin’ pup. You’re eighteen years old but you’re lyin’ on your belly crying like a baby girl. Now I expect you to back me up today.”

Wade should have crawled out of the room and come back with a gun. Instead he’d followed his father’s orders and humiliated his china doll. He’d mocked her in front of that crowd. He’d played the fool because he always did.

He thought about how much he hated his father. How often he’d dreamed of having the strength to beat him into the dirt. How often he’d had nightmares that ended in his own death at his father’s hands. But his other favorite dream ended when he killed his father. He woke up half crazy from all those nightmares, and only whiskey would quiet the torment.

Now Wade drew deep on his brown bottle, then lay on his back and nurtured his anger and fed his hatred, focusing it on Red Dawson.

The rage boiled in Wade’s stomach, a killing fury stirred in him, and he rolled back over, picked up his rifle, and took a bead on Dawson’s door. If Dawson stepped outside at that instant, he’d die.

Wade was ready. He was finally ready. He was finally man enough to kill.

He waited and watched and wanted and hated.

Cassie had been rehearsing what she’d say when Red returned. She was determined to talk at least a little, since she’d been mostly mute the whole time they’d been together. Griff had wanted an intelligent conversation with dinner. He’d always said she couldn’t hold up her end because she was so uneducated. Which was true. She’d quit school at fifteen when she got married. And he’d pointed out that her mind was naturally childlike, as was the case with most women. She thought that was true, too, because inside her head she spent a lot of time screaming and complaining and making sharp, crude remarks—very childish.

But Griff needed to be allowed to discuss his day. He said a man couldn’t relax properly without that. She had learned to smile politely and nod and make encouraging comments to keep him talking. She would try to talk enough to let Red tell her about his day but not so much as to annoy him.

“Everything’s ready. If you want to wash up, we can eat right now.” She hoped she wasn’t being bossy.

Red smiled wide. “It smells great. To walk in and have a meal set down in front of you is a real nice thing, Cassie. It makes me feel like a king. Thank you very much for this.”

Cassie was dishing the ham onto Red’s plate and she almost dropped it. Making dinner was her duty. The notion that Red would thank her for that almost knocked her over. She nodded and almost smiled, but she controlled the silly impulse. “There’s water warming in the fireplace. I could ladle it for you.” She set the ham down and moved toward the fireplace where she’d settled a pot of water to warm.

“No, I’ll get it. You’ve done enough.” Red waved her away and hurried to scoop water into a basin. He set the basin in the sink, rolled up his sleeves, and washed his hands all the way to his elbows. Then he washed his face and ran his hands into his hair, finger-combing it. He took the bowl outside and tossed the water and came to the table.

While he washed, Cassie spooned a plateful of potatoes, gravy, ham, and biscuit for each of them and hung a coffeepot over the flames to be ready when dinner was done.

As Red pulled out his chair, Cassie sat quietly, ready to memorize any critical word he said about the potatoes she’d whipped so smooth or the gravy she’d fussed over to rid it of the tiniest lumps. She needed to confess her use of yeast on the biscuits because he would no doubt disapprove of extravagance. And she was afraid she’d made too much of everything and it would go to waste. Or too little of everything and Red would go hungry. She took small servings herself, even though the wonderful smell of ham had been torturing her for an hour. She would take more later if there was any left.

She picked up her fork and lifted the first bite of the luscious meat to her lips, when Red said, “We say the blessing first, Cass.”

She almost dropped her fork. Those were words her mother had always said to her as a child.
“Before we eat, we ask God to bless the food, Cassandra.”

Griff said it was a meaningless ritual.

Cassie laid down her fork and folded her hands in her lap. She nodded at Red then bowed her head.

There was a long silence and it took all of Cassie’s willpower not to peek at Red and see if he’d prayed silently and was now eating without her while she sat, eyes closed, waiting. When Red finally spoke, it wasn’t like the sweet, memorized prayer her mother had always said. Red just talked to God.

“Father, Cass and I got married today. You were there, Lord, I felt You there. Bless this marriage we began today and bless the soul of Lester Griffin. And take care of the babe, Lord. It’s a big responsibility. I need You to give Cass and me the wisdom to be good parents. Thank You for this wonderful meal Cassie made. Let us use the strength we get from this good food to do Your work on this earth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

Cassie lifted her head and said, “That was a nice prayer, R—uh…uh …” Cassie was struck speechless. She pressed her fingers over her lips as she realized that she didn’t know her husband’s name and found she couldn’t call him Red.

“What, Cass? Is something wrong?” Red looked worried and she saw him take a quick glance at her stomach.

Cassie dropped her eyes to her lap and whispered, “I…Red isn’t …” She glanced up at him, afraid he’d be angry at her stupid question, but she had to ask. She whispered, “Should I know your real name?”

He looked dumbfounded for about two seconds, then he grinned so widely that she lifted her fingers away from her lips and smiled back.

“I reckon a wife oughta know her husband’s name,” Red announced and started laughing. Cassie was amazed to hear the sound of laughter come from her own lips. It was a sound she hadn’t heard for three years. She slipped her fingers back over her mouth to stop herself.

She remembered the moment, the circumstances of the last time she’d laughed. Griff had asked her to marry him and she’d yelled, “Yes!” and laughed and flung her arms around his neck. He’d pulled her arms away from him roughly and shook her so hard her head had snapped back and forth and tears had come to her eyes. He’d told her she was making a fool of herself and to please try and moderate her voice and not flaunt herself.

Griff had corrected her from the very beginning, even before her mother died when he’d cared for the family accounts. Then, when he’d been put in charge of Cassie’s inheritance, he’d been even more strict. She accepted that because he was so much older and wiser. But Griff had always been kind, carefully explaining things to her and with incredible patience telling her he didn’t expect much from her until she’d had the chance at proper training.

But that day, he had shaken her so violently her neck stung and she could feel the bruises forming on her arms. She’d immediately apologized, and she’d begun the hard work of growing up so she could be worthy of a man as fine as Griff. She’d never, never shouted again and she hadn’t laughed out loud in three years.

Now Red was laughing, and she had laughed back. He didn’t seem upset at all. Cassie decided in that moment that it wasn’t what the rules were that was important. It was finding them out and obeying them. She would have to learn a whole new set of rules, but she could do it. She could be the wife that Red deserved.

“My name is Fitzgerald O’Neill Dawson. My mother was born in Ireland and she landed all her love for the Old Country right smack on my head with a single name.”

“Fitzgerald O’Neill Dawson?”

“It’s a mouthful.” Red turned to his ham and started cutting.

“It’s a fine name. Do you want me to call you Red?” She’d always called Griff by his nickname because he had dictated that she should. Now she waited for Red to make his wishes known. Cassie carefully imitated Red’s motions, picking up her fork and knife seconds after he did.

“Red’s okay. I doubt if I’d know to answer if anyone called me Fitzgerald of all things. Even my ma called me Red.”

“Tell me about your parents, Red,” Cassie asked politely. She was suddenly excited about the wealth of questions she could ask of a man she didn’t know at all. She could keep him talking for months.

“Well, let’s see. My pa was a parson. Ma had hair as red as mine, and there were ten children in all.”

“Ten children!” Cassie gasped.

“Yeah, I was the youngest. Six of the kids died of one thing and another, mostly before I was born. So, there are four of us grown. Let’s see…of the six that died, we lost one in the War Between the States. Another fought and got home okay, but scarlet fever went through and killed him. Another brother, the one that was next older than me, and the two sisters next older than him died of yellow fever before I was born. And I had a sister who died having her first babe. I was old enough to remember that.”

A somber expression crossed Red’s face as he recited this litany of death, but he didn’t dwell on it. Cassie didn’t expect him to. Death was a part of living and it made no sense to rail against it.

Red continued. “I’m a straggler anyway. Then losing those three that were next older, there’s a long spread of years between me and the rest of the family. Pa did his preaching on Sundays and owned a feed store besides. Ma and all us kids helped out. The whole bunch of them settled down young and started right in raising families. Last count I had five nieces and eight nephews. I guess I’m the maverick of the family, but there was always something that called me to ranching. Ma said it was the Irishman’s love of the land. Pa said I was a dreamer. When they opened Montana for homesteading, I jumped at the chance. They were old when I was born, near fifty, and they’ve both passed on now.”

“If you’re a rancher, why do you dig graves?” Cassie asked.

“I turn my hand to a dozen jobs in town to make this place pay. The general store lets me work off my bill. The blacksmith keeps my horses shod. I bought a horse at the stable in town, and I’m paying that off with a pitchfork. Whatever it takes to get done what needs doing.”

“And how did you decide to live in this cave?”

Red grinned and shrugged. “I’ve got a better home for my chickens and pigs than I do for myself.”

“Oh, no! This is a wonderful home,” Cassie protested.

“Do you really like it? Because I didn’t want to build a house for a few more years.”

“If you do build a house, whenever you do it, could we just add it on to this one?” Cassie asked. “I’d never want to give up that cold spring.”

“Yeah, sure, that’s what I’ve always had planned. It may be awhile.”

Cassie heard the note of warning in his voice. She said, “I like it just the way it is. When a house gets too big, it’s next to impossible to keep it warm. This is so cozy with only the fireplace burning.”

Cassie went back to her meal while Red talked. Asking questions was the perfect way to pass the rest of her life.

“Now tell me about your folks, Cass. You and Griff came from New York, right?”

Cassie was struck dumb. She had a mouthful of mashed potatoes, and she had to force herself to swallow them. She hadn’t been asked to offer much to a conversation in years.

Suddenly words wanted to rush out. She had so many things she wanted to say, the words jammed behind each other like piled-up logs at a narrow spot on a river.

She just looked at Red and shrugged silently, acting just as stupid as Griff had always said she was.

C
HAPTER
7

D
o you have brothers and sisters?” Red scooped himself a big bite of potatoes.

Cass found she could answer a direct question. “No, I am an only child.”

Red looked up from his plate. “That sounds lonely. Although I was so much younger than my brothers and sisters, in some ways, I was almost an only child, I reckon.”

Red ate his potatoes, then casually sliced a generous piece off his ham steak and laid it on Cassie’s plate. “I’ve got too much here.”

BOOK: Mary Connealy
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