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Authors: Leigh Greenwood

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BOOK: No One But You
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“Then how could you be proud to be my father?”

It was time to share a bit of himself. Salty didn't want to revisit the past, but he would if it could help Jared. “My father was a big, powerful man. There wasn't much he couldn't do. People used to brag on him, come to see him lift some log or bend iron with his bare hands. He was disappointed in me because I took after my mother's side of the family. She was so slender I used to be afraid she would break when my father wrapped his big arms around her.”

“Were your brothers big like your father?”

“I didn't have any brothers, but that's not what I wanted to tell you.”

“What was?”

“There was an accident. My mother died, and my father was paralyzed.” Salty felt his throat tighten at the memory of the pain he'd suffered at losing his mother. “From that day until he died, he was so bitter that he made everybody around him miserable. He was still a strong man, but he used his strength to break things when he was in a rage. He blamed me for the accident because if I'd been home when I should have been, I would have taken my mother to church instead of him. It didn't matter that he'd been angry and driven his buggy too fast on a slick road. It didn't matter that he'd taken a green horse instead of waiting until I got home with the older one.”

“He shouldn't have done that,” Jared said.

Salty sighed. “What I find so great about you is that you have the most positive attitude of any boy I've ever known. You don't blame anyone for what happened to you. You're not even angry about it.”

Jared's head dropped. “I am sometimes.”

“That's natural…but you don't let it get you down. You don't really resent that your sister can do things you can't. You don't whine or expect special attention. Instead, you look for things you can do.”

“Mama says I do lots of things to help.”

“I'm sure you do,” Salty agreed. “And as you get older, there'll be more ways you can help. There are jobs where having a withered leg won't stop you from being successful.”

“Is that man we saw at the Randolph ranch successful? He didn't look happy.”

Salty paused. “Jeff is very good with money, but he lets his bitterness keep him from enjoying his success and accepting his family's love.”

“They looked mad at him,” Jared pointed out.

“Sometimes he's so mean they get angry and strike back, but they do love him.”

“I'd never be mean to Ellen. She beat up a boy who made fun of my leg.”

Salty would like to have seen that. The boy would probably never live down having been bested by a girl. “You wouldn't be mean to

“I would if they did something to Mama or Ellen. I don't care if that's wrong.”

Salty reached over and tousled the boy's hair. “It's all right to defend your family, just like it was all right for Ellen to defend you. Jeff's brothers would do the same for him, even when he makes them so angry sometimes they want to knock him down.”

Jared thought about this. “I can't knock anybody down. I can't even stand up without holding on to something.”

“That's okay. You tell me if you have anybody who needs knocking down.” Salty flourished his fists in a parody of a fight. “I'm rather handy with these.”

Jared laughed. “You can't knock down little boys!”

“I can dunk their heads in a horse trough.”

Jared got serious. “Would you really do that?”

“Your mother and I are married, so everybody will expect me to take care of you and your sister. A good dunking never hurt anybody, and maybe it would make them think twice before doing things to hurt people.”

Salty decided they'd better stop before Jared thought up something else to ask. He didn't know whether Sarah would be angry that he'd shared such a personal talk with her son, but how could he consult her beforehand when he had no idea what Jared was going to say next? The ground would be even more treacherous with Ellen. People had all kinds of ideas about what could be said or done around little girls. He needed to tell Sarah what he and Jared had talked about, to make sure she understood that he couldn't anticipate what either child would ask. More than that, he needed to know how much latitude she would give him.

“We'd better get to sleep,” he said to Jared. “We have a long day tomorrow.”

“Will you let me handle the reins?”

He couldn't answer that without talking to Sarah, yet if he didn't answer now, Jared would think he was evading and stop confiding in him. “I'll have to talk to your mother first. She knows more about what you can do than I do.”

“Mama says I'm too young, but I'm not. Besides, I can drive a cart even though I have a useless leg.”

Salty agreed with the boy, but this was something he couldn't decide on his own. “I'll talk to your mother. If it's all right with her, I'll start teaching you how to handle the reins. Now go to sleep before you ask me something else that's going to get me in trouble.”

“You won't be in trouble. Mama likes you.”

Maybe she did, but Jared didn't understand that meant Salty was in for trouble.

* * *

They had been on the road for more than two hours the next morning, and Sarah still didn't know what Jared and Salty had talked about last night. He had questioned all three of them about their ranch, about what they'd done, what they hadn't done, and what they thought needed to be done.

She was surprised at how much Jared had observed despite his limited mobility. It was clear that he remembered practically everything he heard. It was equally clear that he'd thought through the information and come to his own clever conclusions.

Since they now had two wagons, Sarah held the reins of one and Salty the other. Most of the time the trail was too narrow for them to ride abreast, which forced one of them to ride behind. She didn't understand why this small separation bothered her so much. What was it about Salty that made her feel it was necessary to be near him? Right now he was explaining the intricacies of handling the reins to both of her children.

“If you have two horses, it's important to keep both of them equally in the bridle.”

“We don't have harnesses for two horses,” Ellen pointed out.

“That's because we've never had two horses,” Jared added.

“Well, we have two now, so that's something to remember when we
have double harnesses,” Salty said. “I'm going to pull off the trail and stop in the shade of that tree over there. I think it's time to give the horses a rest.”

Sarah wondered why Salty was giving the horses a rest so much sooner than he had the previous two days.

“Ellen, why don't you and Jared get some fresh water from that stream?” Salty asked. “Be careful not to stir up mud when you do.”

“I know how to get water,” Ellen said. “I'm not a baby.”

“I'll be sure to remember that.” Sarah thought he was trying to hide a smile.

“Why did we really stop?” she asked when the children were out of earshot.

“Jared asked me if he could be allowed to handle the reins today. He said it was something he could do despite his leg.”

Sarah was surprised by a stab of jealousy so sharp it shocked her. Why hadn't Jared asked her to teach him to handle a wagon? She should have realized this was something he could do that wouldn't be compromised by his leg. She also wondered why Salty was so much more concerned about her children than he was about her. Of course, she felt ashamed down to her toes for feeling this way. She should never have chosen him.

But she
chosen him, and she had married him, so she had to make the best of the situation. The only way to do that was to control her jealousy. So why did she open her mouth and say exactly the wrong thing?

“What if I say no?”


Sarah was wishing she could withdraw her words even before Salty's shocked response registered, but they were out and there was no getting them back. She felt like hiding in the catclaw thicket that bordered the trail. Instead she had to see if she could come up with something to keep Salty from thinking she was a spiteful, irrational woman who didn't have the best interests of her children at heart.

“You've put me in an awkward situation again.”

Salty's startled expression receded, to be replaced by one of impatience. “I didn't put you there. Jared did, when he asked me to teach him to drive the wagon. I couldn't say no, and I couldn't say yes.”

“But you said you'd teach him if I said it was okay.”

“Of course I did. Would you have preferred I outright refuse?”

acting like a jealous, irrational woman. Salty would have every reason to think he'd married a shrew and wish himself back at the Circle Seven. A failing ranch, two challenging children, and a complaining wife. She'd be lucky if he didn't ask for a divorce immediately.

“I'm sorry,” she said. “I don't know why I'm acting like this. You must think you've married a loony female who says one thing and then does another.” She turned away from him so the sun wouldn't be in her eyes.

“Why would I think that?”

She thought it significant he hadn't said
I don't think that
. “I don't normally act like this. I guess fatigue of the trip, worry of not knowing if I would find anyone who could help me, and the strain of trying to accustom myself to having a husband I have to include in my decision-making have stretched my nerves until I feel wound so tight I'll explode. Move over some, so I can see you without squinting.”

Salty relaxed, and a slow smile curved his lips. “Considering the circumstances, I wouldn't be surprised if you weren't ready to throw up your hands and do a little screaming. I'm told Rose overturned the supper table on her first night at the ranch.”

Sarah was so surprised the imperturbable Rose would lose her temper so dramatically that she momentarily forgot her own difficulties. “Why would she do something like that?”

“Ask Zac if you want the embellished version. The short version is that she worked all day to clean the kitchen and prepare supper. The men came in without washing, sat down and started grabbing for food, everybody talking at once, and no one bothering to recognize her presence. I think it was Monty feeding the dog from the table that was the last straw. I'm sure you will feel better when you get home. Everybody feels more comfortable when they're in familiar surroundings.”

“But you won't be in familiar surroundings,” she pointed out.

“That doesn't matter. For the last ten years, I haven't been anywhere long enough to call it home.”

She wondered if he'd like her ranch enough to feel at home—and if she
to him to feel at home. She also wondered why, after knowing her own mind for her whole life, she should be unable to string together more than two rational thoughts. All because she'd accepted a man who'd promised indifference to her. Only, he wasn't indifferent to her children, and her attraction for him only seemed to have increased.

Sarah made a decision. “I'd appreciate it if you'd teach
my children the proper way to handle a wagon or buggy. I don't know more than how to stop, start, and hold the reins in between.”

“That's the important part,” Salty replied. “Everything else is mostly a matter of style.”

Apparently no one had told the man that maintaining indifference didn't include smiling at her in a way that caused her heart to flutter and her breath to feel shallow and insufficient. He might think that was the way people reacted to each other when they were just friends, and his smile might appear ordinary to most people, but to her it communicated warmth and welcome, genuine and readily given. There was more, too, but it was hard to decide exactly what. It was like a promise of understanding, of compassion, of loyalty, fidelity, esteem—all the things a woman looked for in a man but never found. Sarah was probably imagining all of this because Salty had promised to rescue her and her ranch. A deluge of relief. Rebounding hope. Overflowing thankfulness. And continuing disbelief that she might have found someone who was as good with her children as she wanted.

“Here they come with the water,” Salty said. “I'd better help. I don't want them to give the horses too much.”

When he'd sent them off together to fetch the water, Sarah had wondered how the children would manage to carry two buckets, since Ellen had to support Jared as she was doing now with her right hand. But each carried a bucket in their outside hand.

“This bucket is for the horses,” Ellen said handing hers to Salty.

“This one is for us,” Jared said to his mother. “The horses aren't the only ones who're thirsty.”

Sarah held the dipper for her son to drink while Salty watched Ellen water the horses. She wondered what it was about this man that had enabled him to move into the heart of her family so easily. Ellen and Jared had felt varying degrees of fondness for the men who'd worked for her, but they'd never liked the same man, and they'd never liked any man the way they appeared to like Salty. Jared confided in him. Ellen wanted to be around him.

Her children had been the very best part of Sarah's life. Their love and devotion had carried her through many a dark moment, just as her love for them had given her a reason to carry on when she felt so tired and dispirited she thought she couldn't take another step. They were a family, a single unit. Maybe that wasn't enough, though. Mother Nature had decreed that it took a man and a woman to create a child. Maybe she'd also decreed that a child needed both a mother and a father, that one wasn't complete without the other.

Or maybe it wasn't Mother Nature at all. Maybe it was just that men and women weren't the same, and that children needed that dissimilarity because they learned different things from each.

Or maybe it was just Salty. He was kind and gentle, thoughtful and generous. Yet there was a strength about him that bred confidence, instilled a sense of security. There was nothing hazy about his thinking or confusing about his actions; you knew exactly where you stood with him, something every child needed.

Sarah was the one who couldn't make up her mind what she thought or felt. No, that wasn't true; she knew what she felt. She just didn't want to feel it. Her father and her husband had convinced her that life would be better without a man in it. She was sure that a strong, intelligent woman could succeed as well as a man. Their bodies were different, but their brains weren't, and it was the brain that provided all the answers.

Getting to know the Randolphs had caused her to question her conclusions. The love in that family was easy to see, even if there were moments of conflict. Was it possible that Salty was strong enough to carry a family on his shoulders, too, capable of a love that would cause him to put their happiness before his own?

Laughter scattered her thoughts. Salty had said something that caused Ellen to giggle. When he dipped his hand into the bucket and flicked drops of water on her, she shrieked with delight and tried to wrench the bucket away. He responded by holding it out of her reach and flicking water on her until she hid on the other side of the horse. When he reached across the horse to continue sprinkling water on her, she ran laughing to her mother.

“Salty threatened to drown me!”

Even though Jared was laughing, too, his practical nature asserted itself. “There's not enough water in that bucket to drown you.”

Salty hadn't left his position by the horse, but he was regarding them all with amusement.

“What did you say to make him flick water on you?” Sarah asked her daughter.

“Nothing. I was just teasing him because he was teasing me.”

“What did you say?”

Ellen blushed. “I just said I thought Zac Randolph was cute and funny but spoiled.”

“That doesn't sound like teasing to me.”

“Salty said maybe I should marry him when I grow up and straighten him out.”

“And what did you say?”

“I said I don't like icky boys because they grow up to be terrible men like him.”

Sarah didn't know which surprised her more, Ellen thinking Zac was cute or Ellen comparing Salty to
boys. She wasn't surprised that Ellen thought most men were terrible.

“You shouldn't say that to Salty,” Jared spoke up.

“I was just teasing him for saying I should marry Zac Randolph.” Ellen made a face. “Boys are awful little coyotes.”

Salty came forward. “Does that mean men are awful big coyotes?”

“You're awful big
,” Ellen said with a giggle before hiding behind her mother.

Having caught the tenor of the exchange, Jared was grinning. “I think you ought to dump the bucket of water on her.”

“Will you help me?” Salty asked.


That was as close to a joyous sound as Jared had ever uttered. His eyes were wide and sparkling with happiness. He was so eager to partner with Salty he couldn't sit still.

Ellen uttered a happy shriek and plastered herself against Sarah's back. “You can't dump the bucket on me. You'll get Mama wet.”

“What do you think we ought to do?” Salty asked Jared.

“You shouldn't wet Mama, but you can dump Ellen in the creek.”

“Tell you what,” Salty said. “I'll hold her, while you dump the bucket over her.”

“Don't you dare, Jared Winborne!” Ellen shrieked. “I'll sic Bones on you.”

Bones had been sniffing behind every bush and tree. Upon hearing his name, he abandoned his quest for game, barked, and trotted over.

Ellen peeped at the dog from behind her mother. “Bones likes me. Don't you, Bones?”

The dog barked. Apparently all one had to do was say his name to get a response.

“He's a boy,” Jared reminded his sister. “Boys always like boys better than girls.”

Sarah nearly laughed aloud at that sentiment. She was so astonished at finding herself in the middle of a silly game with both of her overly serious children acting like typical seven-year-olds that she hardly knew what to think. But apparently nothing was required of her beyond being a shield for Ellen.

“I think Ellen deserves to be punished for threatening you, don't you?” Salty asked Jared.

“Yes. Dump the whole bucket over her.”

“That might be too much. Suppose I hold her so you can flick water on her.”

There was a moment of hesitation when Salty looked at Sarah asking for permission. She had no brothers or sisters, so nothing like this had even happened to her. Maybe this was how children growing up in a normal family behaved. Both the children were laughing, so she decided to trust Salty. She nodded her permission.

Salty gave a whoop and grabbed Ellen around her waist. She shrieked and clutched Sarah. Salty pried her hands loose and dragged her over to Jared. Ellen threatened her brother with all kinds of terrible retribution, but Jared just laughed and started to flick water on Ellen with both hands. Jared was getting as much water on Salty as on Ellen, but that didn't deter Salty. He urged Jared to keep it up until the bucket was empty.

Jared probably would have done just that, but the moment Ellen's enthusiasm began to wane, Salty changed course. He released her and picked up the second bucket. “Want to get Jared back?” he asked.

Ellen's energy rebounded. She started flicking water at Jared. For the next few minutes, the children filled the air with a virtual shower of water. Ellen was no more accurate than Jared, and Sarah was soon as wet as Salty. He grinned wickedly at her and licked a drop of water off the end of his nose with his tongue.

That caused something inside Sarah to snap, and she was suddenly seized with a compulsion to throw water on Salty. It was childish, it was ridiculous, it was something she'd never done, but she couldn't stop herself. She dipped her hand into Jared's bucket, scooped up a handful of water, and with a laugh that was completely unlike her, threw it at Salty.

His response was instantaneous. Devils danced in his eyes. His grin promised he was going to retaliate.

“Let's get them both,” he said to Ellen.

For the next minute or so, the four of them sank into what Sarah would previously have characterized as a fit of insanity. They threw water at each other until they were all laughing so hard they were nearly helpless. That Bones punctuated their laughter with periodic barks only made everything funnier.

It was silly and childish but incredibly liberating. Sarah felt that she'd shed the weight of a lifetime of attempting to control her every thought and feeling, of being responsible for everyone's happiness. Anyone happening to come upon them would have thought they were lunatics, or at the very least immature and irresponsible. Sarah didn't care. The water was gone, her children were laughing like they never had before, and Salty was looking at her in a way that caused her to think that if this man could come to love her, she would be the most fortunate woman in the world.

The thought had a sobering effect. Had this unguarded moment, this small window in time when she'd thrown aside all control, revealed a need which had long lain hidden deep within her?

Ellen plucked at her shirt, which was plastered against her chest. “We're soaked,” she pointed out. Water had run down and wet the top of her pants. So much water had landed on her shoes that it had washed off all the dust.

Salty collected the buckets. “The sun will dry us soon enough.”

“Can we have another water fight someday?” Ellen asked.

“It was fun,” Jared added.

Her children had never experienced anything as simple and joyful as this. It was a sad realization for Sarah. She'd been so overwhelmed by Jared's deformity and the struggle to keep the ranch going that she hadn't stopped to realize her children didn't know how to have fun. And it was because
didn't know how to have fun. It had taken Salty to make her realize what they were missing.

BOOK: No One But You
12.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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