Authors: Montana Marriages Trilogy
Some of that must have shown in her eyes, because Red stepped close and slid his arm around her shoulders. “We were married before God and man, this very day. My wife stays with me.”
Muriel’s eyes snapped with satisfaction. Cassie didn’t understand that.
Cassie nearly shook as she realized she’d bound herself to a man she didn’t know. A man she’d have to obey. Tears burned her eyes. This was a way out. She knew if she said the word, Belle could make it happen. Just as Red was strong enough to snatch her out of Mort Sawyer’s arms, Belle was strong enough to settle things her way. Cassie marveled at the woman, her strength, her confidence. Muriel had a glimmer of it, but this woman looked like she’d stand toe-to-toe with any man and come out the winner.
“Let me talk to her, Red.”
So Red and Belle knew each other? Why had Cassie never seen this woman before? There weren’t that many women. Surely Cassie wouldn’t have forgotten one.
“You can talk to her, Belle, but she stays with me.” Red’s shoulders relaxed. “If it helps any, maybe you should know Cassie gave me this black eye.”
Belle’s head whipped around to stare for long moments at the purple bruise. “Well, maybe she will be all right.”
Red let Belle come close. Belle rested a work-roughened hand on Cassie’s shoulder. Cassie felt the calluses through her dress. The hand was scarred and brown and so strong, Cassie wondered what Belle could hold on to with that hand.
“I know you took vows,” Belle said quietly, “but just tell me, if there’d been a choice, would you have married again today, a day after …” Belle fell silent, shaking her head. “Lester Griffin, worthless excuse for a man. Dead now. No surprise. How old were you when you married him?”
“I was fifteen when I first married.”
“William was my first husband. I’m on my third. I tend to marry stupid and they all tend to die, although Anthony seems to be hanging around so far.”
“She might have married fast, Belle, but she didn’t marry stupid.” Red settled his Stetson on his head and his voice sounded warm. Considering how tough Belle was, that warmth didn’t make sense to Cassie. It was almost as if he…pitied this woman.
Belle snorted. “I’ve decided
are the same words. I’ll bet if we had a dictionary, one would define the other.”
Muriel coughed and covered her mouth.
Cassie was shocked and almost smiled at the nerve. What would she give to have the courage to speak so to a man…to anyone?
“What’s done is done. I’ll take care of her. And you should have known better than to marry Anthony anyway.”
Belle jabbed her thumb over her shoulder at Muriel. “Except I had people like Muriel saying a woman has to have a man.”
“Well, she does, Belle.”
Belle turned around and glared at Muriel. “I didn’t.”
Belle, her back to Cassie now, stood solid, staring at Muriel.
Finally, Belle gave a harsh jerk of her chin as if it was decided. Belle turned back. “I reckon she’s right that you needed someone to take care of you, and I live a long way out. No one would have thought to come for me.” Belle’s brows formed a straight line, with deep furrows between. “But I’d have taken you in, Cassie. No woman has to have a man. But I reckon you needed someone. If you ever need a place to run, come to me. I live in a mountain valley through the gap worn by Skull Creek.”
Cassie realized she believed this woman. If Cassie needed a place, Belle would take her in. Tears burned her eyes as she nodded. “Thank you.”
Belle turned her eyes on Red. “You treat her decent. I’ll come and check, and I’d better like what I see.” With a deep sigh, she shook her head. “Seth, you got my order ready?”
“I’ll be at it awhile, Belle.”
“I’ll leave the wagon out front. I need to talk to the blacksmith, then I’ll stop by Herschel’s and see if they’d feed me on a Sunday.” Belle turned to Red and shot him a look that could have nailed a two-by-four to a fence. “I
stop by. Do you hear me?”
A smile bloomed on Red’s face. “I hear you.”
Belle’s expression softened. “You’re right. I never should have married Anthony. What was I thinking?”
Red tugged on the brim of his hat. Belle turned and weaved her way around Muriel. Seth handed her a wooden box full of supplies and followed her out, carrying another one. At the door, Belle froze. Seth almost ran into her from behind.
Cassie saw Belle staring out the front window of the general store at a building at the far end of Divide’s modest Main Street. Cassie saw the words
painted over the swinging doors to the building. The banker had said something about Cassie’s silk dress being worn by the ladies of the Golden Butte and then he’d looked nervous.
A dark-haired man had stepped out of that building on the arm of a woman dressed in a shocking red dress, starchy with frills and lace, cut up to nearly her knees in front.
Seth said, “I’m sorry Anthony stepped out just now.”
Belle turned her head with a hard jerk as if she had to physically tear her eyes away from the sight. “He’s in town more than he’s home, Seth. I’m used to my husband shaming me. I don’t care anymore.”
But Cassie saw the downward turn of Belle’s mouth and knew Belle did care. This hurt, and Cassie knew all about being hurt.
“What was I thinking?” Belle shoved the door and stepped out.
Cassie watched as the dark-haired man noticed her. The woman in red stepped out of his arms and flounced back into the building. The man—it had to be Belle’s husband, Anthony—turned and walked quickly in the opposite direction.
Belle went to her wagon as if nothing had happened and set her box inside. Then she walked directly away from Anthony with the thud of boots and the clink of spurs.
Red and Muriel exchanged long glances. Cassie remembered the pity she’d sensed in Red and knew Belle’s husband with another woman on his arm was a usual occurrence.
Settling his hat more firmly, Red rested his hand on Cassie’s back. “Let’s head out.”
Confused by that rare, frightening look at a woman who would stare a man straight in the eye and say her piece and feeling awkward about witnessing Belle’s shame, Cassie did as she was told and headed out, following Red. The way a woman was meant to behave.
She remembered the way Belle had looked at her, straight out along that hat brim. Eyes direct, speaking her mind, issuing orders that sounded like threats. Cassie felt like a huge world yawned at her feet. A world she might have entered if she’d had the nerve to go with Belle. But did that bold gaze and her strong words cause Belle’s husband to disgrace her?
Cassie would never follow Belle’s example. Instead, she obeyed. It was her place.
Muriel hurried and got the wrapped package Cassie had forgotten in the back room and handed it to Red. He walked beside Cassie to where Buck stood at the back door. He stored the gift in his saddlebag and slipped his hands under her arms and hoisted her gently onto the horse just as he had the first time. He hooked her knee around the saddle horn again, and she clung to it through the layers of calico. She had a much better grip without the silk and petticoats.
He jumped on behind, and as he did, Cassie dared a glance at his face. His jaw was set and his eyes flashed with anger.
Had it angered him that she’d listened to Belle? Was it the bills Red had paid? Was he remembering that she’d attacked him at the graveyard? It looked as if he’d wait and make her pay for misbehavior when they got home. She was grateful her humiliation would be, at least, in private.
She shuddered to think of the times Griff had been this upset with her. He hadn’t done it for a long time, but she well remembered the heavy belt he’d used almost daily when they were newlyweds, before she learned a woman’s place. Fear climbed inside her at what was to come until she could learn to please Red Dawson. Burning tears cut her eyes. Knowing men hated tears, she swallowed hard and stared at the horizon to keep them from falling.
They rode out of town in the opposite direction of Griff’s holding. Then Red leaned forward. She braced herself for his angry words.
“Buck is strong and you weigh next to nothing. I always run him flat out the whole way home, but we won’t be able to do that riding double. We’ll push hard for a while, though. I asked Doc and he said a gallop wouldn’t hurt the babe if you didn’t take a fall. But Doc said I shouldn’t trot, so we’ll take off fast. It’s a far piece to my land.”
She was so shocked at his concern for the baby she didn’t answer him. He rested one hand on her rounded waist to steady her and clucked at the horse. The short-legged horse shifted smoothly to a ground-eating gallop. No more talk was possible.
Although Cassie would have loved to enjoy the wild ride, she couldn’t relax until she’d received her punishment and made amends in whatever way Red demanded. She just held on and tried to make herself as small as possible.
It was the same thing she’d been doing since the day her mother died when she was twelve. Griff had become her guardian, and he’d helped her understand how much she had to learn. And though it was a terrible burden to him, he’d been left with the chore of being her teacher and wouldn’t shirk it.
assie woke with a start to feel strong arms carrying her.
Still groggy with the first deep sleep she’d had in too long, she rubbed her cheek against warm, coarse cloth and used her arms to hold herself steady.
She almost went back to sleep, when she heard a deep voice say, “Are you awake, Cass? I’ve got to set you down. I can’t do the door one-handed.”
Cassie’s eyes flickered open and she looked into Red Dawson’s face. They stood on the ground, beside his horse, and he had her cradled in his strong arms. In a split second it all came back to her. Griff, the funeral, her wedding, all those bills, Red’s anger. And here she lay with her arms wrapped around his neck. She pulled quickly away from him and he set her down. She carefully folded her hands, fixed her eyes on the ground, and waited for him to mete out the punishment she had coming.
It took her a second to realize Red was gone. He had walked on without her and was wrestling with a wooden door in the side of a hill. He got it open and said, “This is home, such as it is.”
Cassie stood, transfixed, staring at the door, wondering where her punishment was.
Red waved her forward. “Let me show you what little there is to see, then I’ve gotta do chores.”
Cassie obeyed. He waved her in and she flinched when his hand got too close, but she quickly controlled herself. Griff had hated that and punished her more severely for it.
She walked into a cave.
Red stepped briskly in behind her and brushed past where she stood frozen near the door. “The front part’s a soddy.” He pointed to an opening on the far wall. “I built it onto the mouth of a cave. The cave is my…our…uh…
“That one”—he pointed to another much smaller opening with a buffalo hide hanging over it—“is a smaller cave. It’s real cool because a spring comes out of the rock right there. We don’t have to haul water, and it keeps milk and butter chilled. I was real lucky to find this spot.
“The big cave has a second way out that I’ll show you later. It winds through the mountain some,” Red said. “What you need for food is in the cooler. That’s what I call the little cave, and what you need for cooking is here.” He walked across the room to a dry sink and a huge stone fireplace. He turned toward her. “You cook, don’t you, Cass? I can do it. I always have for myself. But…well…that is …”
Cassie nodded silently while he fumbled around asking. Then she forced herself to speak. “Yes, I’ll cook.” She’d been good at it at one time, but Griff had very special tastes and he had never been satisfied with her efforts.
She would have to learn all Red’s personal preferences in food now. If only she could feed him this once tonight without shaming him. For now he seemed to have forgotten his anger, although she knew a man never forgot for long.
Red moved to a wood box near the fireplace. “I’ll get a fire started then.” He hurried through the chore.
Cassie compared Red’s fireplace to Griff’s stove. Griff’s had been a huge rectangular monster with water wells and two baking chambers. It had levers to adjust the heat and keep the food cooking at just the right speed. Griff had been disgusted with her for running it so poorly.
Cassie had cooked over an open fire on the trip out West. She’d been better over a fire than she’d ever been with that intimidating cast-iron cookstove.
Red finished lighting the fire. “I’ll get a bucket of water so you can wash and have some for cooking. Then I’ve got chores.”
Red disappeared into the little cave and returned with a large tin bucket. “I’ll be late. If you’re tired and want to go to bed, it’s through there.” He pointed to the larger door. “I’ll sleep in the …” Red faltered. “I—I want you to know—I won’t b–bother you none, Cassie. Just take the bedroom. I’ll find a place out here.”
“What would you like for supper?” She didn’t recognize her voice. She didn’t recognize anything about her life. She was still too confused by the changes of the last day.
“Anything’s fine.” He shrugged and plucked a battered hat off a nail by the front door, hanging his nicer Stetson on the same nail. He was very close to her, studying his broken-down hat intently.
“I know it’s not what you’re used to, Cass.” He glanced up and away quickly. “I know it’s not fancy. When you…when Mort was grabbing you, I knew I had no business asking a lady like you to come out here. But I…there was no one else to…I had to step in.”
He was embarrassed. Cassie almost smiled when she realized it. The impulse shocked her. Griff hated frivolity. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d smiled. Red was worried that she didn’t like his home. Something eased inside her, and she laid her hand over his to make him stop torturing his hat.
He looked up at her and she saw the pure blue of his eyes. “It’s a fine home, Red. And I know what was ahead of me with Mort.” She couldn’t stop herself from squeezing his hand tight. “Thank you. You don’t have to sleep out here. We’re married and I understand what that means.”