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Authors: Montana Marriages Trilogy

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BOOK: Mary Connealy
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The men bandied their crude jokes and shoved each other, trying to get close to her.

The parson fell to the ground beside her, and arms jerked him sideways until he disappeared in the crowd. Someone slid his arm around the girth of her protruding belly and pulled her hard against him.

Her head started to spin, and her knees threatened to give out. The mob pressed closer and more hands clung to her, touching her, sometimes improperly, but there were so many that each bit of contact was as much a violation as the next, regardless of where that touch occurred. She wished she could sink beneath the dirt that sheltered her husband.

“Miz Griffin will marry me,” a voice thundered from the back of the crowd. The men turned at the harsh, tyrannical voice that overwhelmed even this rough assembly.

Cassie recognized that awful voice. Mort Sawyer had arrived.

A huge black horse pranced right up through the middle of the mob. Mort seemed unconcerned if he trampled anyone under iron-shod hooves, and the men seemed to know it. They snarled and grumbled in protest, but they fell back far enough to allow the man through, like wolves giving way before the leader of the pack.

Five other horses followed the black, driving the mob back farther. Cassie recognized several of the riders, particularly Wade Sawyer, the young, hungry-eyed son of the rancher. The younger man rode one pace off the lead horse. Wade studied her with piercing green eyes that sent a shudder of fear climbing like a scurrying insect up the back of her neck.

“Miz Griffin, I’m mighty sorry to hear of your loss.” Mort tipped his black Stetson. He spoke like a man paying heed to a social nicety with no emotional interest in his words. And why not? He didn’t really know her. She’d taken pains to never speak to him and to stay out of his sight. And the little Mort had to do with Griff had been unpleasant. Tense meetings over the natural spring just behind Griff’s house, one of the few in the area that flowed freely even in the dry season. Mort Sawyer had the bad habit of turning his cattle out during the long summer months, so they could drink from that spring.

Mort dispensed with his hollow expression of sympathy and returned to his usual imperious tone. Mort’s ability to dominate with that voice made Griff’s endless chiding sound like playful schoolyard banter by comparison.

Mort Sawyer, the name Griff had spoken with his dying breath.

Most of what he’d said toward the end was incoherent, so if he was cruel, she didn’t hold him to blame. If in his delirium he knocked her to the floor a few times, it wasn’t his fault. He’d fallen into a stupor, occasionally rousing to swallow a few drops of water or rant at her for letting him get so sick.

Then, as Griff’s breathing became shallow and his eyes fell shut, he found the strength to speak one last time. “Sawyer never got the spring while I lived.”

Cassie remembered the triumph in Griff’s voice, like his life had been a success and now he could die happy.

“I reckon Miz Griffin’s comin’ with me. Parson, let’s get it over and done.”

A howl of protest exploded from the other men and brought Cassie back to the present. The volume of the noise forced Cassie back a step. She ran into someone and turned to face the heavy, tobacco-chewing man and be assaulted by his breath again.

Mort Sawyer’s son, Wade, pushed his mount past his father and reached for Cassie. He leaned down, grabbed her under her arms, and yanked her up onto the saddle to settle her in front of him. Her legs scraped painfully on the saddle horn.

Wade turned to his father. “I want her, Pa.”

“She’s mine, boy. We’ve had it out. The spring’s gotta be in my hands.”

Wade lifted Cassie’s chin roughly until she looked straight into his eyes. She’d looked into those eyes before. Too many times.

Wade had the habit of dropping by her home when Griff was gone. He’d done it too often for it to be chance. Now he studied her with those weird, bright green eyes, the color of envy and rot. Wade Sawyer was responsible for one of the few true acts of defiance Cassie had to her name. She’d learned to shoot. Practicing when Griff was away. And she’d kept a gun close at hand all the time.

Of course, she didn’t have it now when she needed it.

Wade sank his fingers painfully into her jaw and leaned his face so close that for a second Cassie thought he meant to kiss her. She jerked her head sideways to escape his grasping fingers and pushed at the hand that shackled her waist but couldn’t dislodge Wade’s grip.

He was amused by her struggles. Only inches from her, Cassie saw he had a black eye and a slightly swollen lip that seemed to underscore the violence in him. She thought of Red and the black eye she’d given him and wished she’d been responsible for Wade’s.

He said loudly enough for the crowd to hear, “Well then, I guess you’re gonna be my new mama.” Then Wade kissed her until she felt bruised. Releasing her, he looked at her with greedy eyes that didn’t match the humor in his voice. Dead serious eyes that claimed her in a way no marriage could.

Mort edged his horse next to Wade’s and grabbed Cassie then hefted her into his lap. His beefy arms settled around her, even before Wade’s had left her body.

The touch of the two men induced shudders so violent that she lost a battle with self-control, just as she had this morning with Red. She wrenched against Mort’s grip and started shrieking like a madwoman.

She caught Mort Sawyer in the belly with her elbow, and his response was a mild grunt. He wrapped his arms more tightly around her fat middle and roared, “Where’s the parson?”

She struggled more wildly, kicking at Mort’s leg and making his horse prance sideways. She looked around at the men. They had all fallen back and seemed content now to watch the show.

She heard the parson say, “I’ll not marry a woman to someone against her will, Sawyer. I won’t stand before God and conduct such a travesty. This isn’t something you can dictate. You let her go right this—”

Mort’s horse charged forward under his master’s skillful hand. Mort reached down and grabbed the parson by the front of his black suit. He lifted the man onto his tiptoes with one hand while he controlled Cassie with his other. “You’ll marry us, Parson, or I’ll take her home, and when she’s broken in, maybe after she’s given me a son or two, she’ll agree nice enough.”

Wade laughed, but it was a sickening, hollow sound. “I’m gonna have a baby brother.”

Mort shoved the parson back and he fell to the ground. A man who would do that to a preacher would do unspeakable things to his wife.

Darkness spun in front of her.

A quiet voice behind her cut through the noise. “I’ll marry Mrs. Griffin, if she’ll have me.”

Cassie’s head cleared, and as she twisted around to locate the owner of that kind voice, her eyes focused on Red Dawson. The man she’d hated more than any other on this earth ten minutes ago.

“Beat it, Dawson. She’s mine,” Mort Sawyer said.

Cassie remembered Wade’s eyes. Even though she had always been sheltered, she knew terrible things were in store for her if she was taken to the Sawyer ranch.

Mort marched the horse straight at Red.

Red stopped the horse by patting its nose. “Whoa, boy, easy there.”

Then he looked at Cassie. With a voice as out of place as a breeze in the midst of a tornado, he asked, “Whattaya say, Cassie, will you marry me?”

“Parson, it’s settled. We get it done now!” Mort roared.

Cassie heard the violence in Mort and recalled the foulness in Wade and smelled the filth in her nearest other suitors…and saw the decency in Red’s eyes. She still hated Red Dawson, although less than she had a few minutes ago. Or more correctly, she now hated other people more.

Unless Griff’s grave opened this minute and let her jump in, Cassie didn’t see as she had much choice. A minute passed as the chaos went on around her and the trampled grave stayed closed, and as if someone else spoke out of her lips, she said, “Yes …”

She almost said,
Red,
before it occurred to her that Red must be a nickname. She didn’t know the name of the man who proposed to her. It was humiliating to ask him.

Somehow it seemed less humiliating to just say, “Yes, I’ll marry you.”

C
HAPTER
3

C
assie was a widow one day and a newlywed the next.

The wedding was held at the cemetery with a good share of the wedding guests standing on her dead husband’s grave.

She didn’t so much have wedding guests as she had a lynch mob. Twenty-five armed men wanted Red Dawson dead. Cassie thought that no doubt one of Red’s murderers would then insist on marrying her. If the pattern continued, she’d be forty or fifty times a widow within the next few hours. At that rate, Divide would be a ghost town by the weekend.

Cassie Griffin’s contribution to Montana.

Red had reached up to take Cassie off Mort’s horse. Mort had spurred his horse away, but Red had caught the reins and soothed the animal while glaring at Mort.

“You will do the right thing, Mort Sawyer. Before God and all these witnesses, Cassie has refused your offer of marriage and accepted mine. Now let her down.”

Cassie felt the hands on her body, not sure who all was touching her. But Red lowered her to the ground. She suspected that “all these witnesses” was a better incentive than “before God.” Considering his treatment of the parson, Mort didn’t seem to be much interested in what God saw when He looked into Mort’s black heart.

Red pulled Cassie to his side, looked down as if to check that she was in one piece, and then reached his hand down to assist Parson Bergstrom in standing.

“Let’s get it done quick, Parson.” Red slid his arm around Cassie, and Seth did some shoving to get to her side. The crowd grumbled, but even Mort Sawyer only made noise.

“Do you, Cassie Griffin, take Red Dawson to be your lawfully wedded husband?” The parson spoke the words so fast it was obvious he was scared to death.

To Cassie, that didn’t speak well for the man’s trust in eternal life. But maybe he believed well enough, he just didn’t want to pass through those pearly gates into eternal life right now today.

Someone said, “I do.” Cassie suspected it was she.

“Do you, Red Dawson …” The parson repeated the most abbreviated version of marriage vows Cassie had ever heard—though in truth she hadn’t heard many. The parson used an economy of words, most likely planning his escape all the while.

The service took about two minutes, including the time it took for Red to get Cassie off Mort Sawyer’s horse. How he managed it Cassie didn’t really know. There was a relentlessness to the way Red moved. He seemed unconcerned with the hostile explosions surrounding him.

The only rational thought Cassie had about Red was if she’d blackened Griff’s eye the way she’d done to Red, the punishment would have been severe and swift. She expected nothing less with her new husband. Hopefully Red would wait until they were alone to mete out her punishment.

Wade Sawyer was openly furious, but his father controlled him, maybe thinking the cold-blooded murder of an unarmed man in front of dozens of witnesses might be too much for even a Sawyer to walk away from.

Cassie was summarily married, and Red took her arm and led her away from the mob toward the stables. He stooped to pick up his shovel on the way.

Cassie remembered the argument she’d seen Muriel having with Red in the same spot where the shovel lay. “Muriel nagged you into marrying me, didn’t she?” Cassie looked at Red fearfully. Now Cassie veered from grief and shock to humiliation.

“I did what I thought was right, I reckon.” Red hurried her to the stable, whether because he had work to do or because he was looking for shelter from the horde, Cassie couldn’t say.

Then she thought of the way Wade had looked at her and the tyrannical way Mort had taken her from the other men. Well, she’d made the best of a bad situation. She’d come up with a plan.

Death.

Marrying Red Dawson was her second choice, and it was a poor second. But, all things considered, she’d do it again.

They moved on toward the stables, her wedding guests prowling around behind them. Cassie had a moment to wonder if possibly Red lived in the stables. She really didn’t know the man at all. She’d seen the red hair a time or two around town, and fortunately his nickname was easily recalled. But Red Dawson, along with almost every other person in Divide, was a stranger.

Red went into the stable and headed for a saddled buckskin that was half as tall and a quarter as pretty as the magnificent bay Cassie had ridden to town bareback when Griff died. The bay had been stabled here ever since.

Cassie looked over at the regal animal who stood eating in a stall. Seth had gone for Griff’s body without taking Cassie along. He’d brought her dress and Griff’s suit because she quoted Griff’s careful deathbed instructions. Seth had fed and watered the other bay, left out at the ranch. That one was a matched partner to the one she’d managed to bridle and climb onto after a long struggle. The two horses were the only livestock Griff had left when he died.

Red didn’t even look at the bay. He hung the shovel on the back of his saddle, turned to stretch out his hand to her, and said, “I’ll give you a leg up.”

“I’ll ride my own horse.” She realized with a start those were not proper words for a wife to say to her husband.

His ordering her onto his horse, telling her what to do—that was something familiar. Her objecting—that was rude.

She clamped her mouth shut, determined to be as good a wife to Red as she’d been to Griff. But they really did have to take the horse.

“The horse belongs to the bank.” Red held his hand out, waiting for her to come to him.

Cassie shook her head, trying to rattle the words around inside her head so they made sense. “B–Belongs to the bank? I don’t understand.”

“They’re mortgaged, Cassie. Your place has a lien on it for the property, the livestock, and the contents of your home.”

“Griff mentioned a loan. But surely the horses…we brought them west with us. They were from my parents’ stable. I know they were paid for.”

“They were paid for then…maybe.”

BOOK: Mary Connealy
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