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Authors: Leigh Greenwood

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BOOK: No One But You
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Well, now he had the chance. He'd been saying he wanted it, and now he couldn't fail. People more vulnerable than himself were depending on him.

* * *

The full impact of what she'd done hit Sarah when she walked out of the house the next morning and saw Salty standing by her loaded wagon, two horses tied behind it. She was going to marry a man she'd never seen before two days ago and hope he could come to love her children though he felt nothing for her. To raise her gamble from the reasonable to the unlikely, he was supposed to turn a failing ranch into a profitable enterprise.

She was crazy. She had to be.

She could say she'd made a mistake, that she'd changed her mind, but Jared was already seated in the wagon, smiling in that way which was so new to him. His eyes didn't hold the fear she'd seen so often in their depths. A boy with that smile must be looking to the future with less foreboding and possibly even a little hopefulness. If nothing else, Jared counted Salty as someone who saw him as a boy, not as a withered leg.

Ellen stood at the head of the horse hitched to the wagon, her hand gripping its bridle, proud that she'd been entrusted to keep him calm and under control.

Rose had followed Sarah outside. She moved closer and lowered her voice. “You know you got the best man, don't you? George will never find anyone to fill Salty's boots.”

Sarah didn't know how to reply. How could she tell her she didn't
want
to think he was the best man, because that might make her want him to stay after the ranch was profitable once again? How could she say she was intending to marry a man she didn't want when that wasn't true? “The children like him already.”

“Everybody likes Salty. We're going to miss him.”

Guilt. Between that and fear, Sarah didn't know whether she had made the best or the worst decision of her life. How was it possible to have made a decision she didn't want to make, feel guilty for having done it, yet be determined to continue on? Her thoughts were so muddled she didn't know whether she was just confused or about to lose her mind.

Her thoughts clarified as Zac and Tyler marched out of the house and down the steps to deposit two large bundles in the wagon. She turned to Rose and said, “I can't take that much.”

“Take them,” Zac pleaded. “If my drawers are full, George will say I don't need any new clothes, even if I've outgrown everything I have!”

Sarah was caught between relief that her children would have enough clothing to get them through the next year, and embarrassment that her need was so great. This was another grievance to be added to the accounts of Roger and his family. There seemed to be no end to the ways their lack of love was still hurting her children.

Rose didn't meet her gaze. “I added a few things I don't need any longer. If you can't use them, give them to someone who can.”

Sarah felt like a beggar. “I can't take all that.”

Rose grasped her hand. “Since the war, nobody in Texas has had everything they need. George and I want to share what we can. When things are better with you, I expect you'll do the same for someone else.”

Sarah couldn't imagine being in a position to help others as Rose was helping her, but she would find a way to do
some
thing.

Jeff came out of the house. George and the twins appeared from the direction of the barn, Walter and the other cowhand behind. Everyone had gathered to see them off.

Rose gripped Sarah's hand harder. “I'm going to miss you and your children. Promise me you'll come see us again.”

Sarah felt tears begin to well up in her eyes. “Thank you for your kindness.”

“Pshaw,” Rose said. “I'd keep you here for the company if I could.” She released Sarah and stepped back. “Now you'd better go. Salty looks anxious to start.”

The abrupt reminder of what lay ahead halted her tears. From this moment on, Sarah vowed not to be swayed by emotion. It had gotten her where she was now. Only rigorous control could make anything good come out of it.

“Write,” Rose called as Sarah descended the porch steps. Her feet felt weighted, her stride slow, her body resistant. She didn't know whether she was walking toward the familiar love of her children, toward an uncertain future with Salty, or away from the reassuring safety of the Randolph family. It didn't matter, she decided, because she was doing all of that.

“No need to wish you a safe journey,” George was saying as Sarah reached the wagon, “because Salty will see to that. But I do wish you success and happiness.”

Monty edged forward and winked. “Salty will take care of that, too.”

Hen belted his twin and stepped in front of him. “Let us know if you have any trouble with rustlers, ma'am.”

“Yeah,” Monty said. “With those thieving McClendons gone, it's been too quiet around here.”

Sarah allowed Hen to help her into the wagon, while Monty and George showered Salty with last-minute advice. “Your family has done far too much for us,” she told Hen. “Please don't feel you need to worry about us anymore.”

Hen shook his head. “George can't stop trying to take care of everybody, and Monty gets bored if he can't find some trouble.”

Trouble? She had enough to keep both men busy, but she and her family had to do this on their own.

Salty climbed up in the wagon and sat next to her. He reached for the extended hand George offered him and said, “Thanks for taking me in.”

“You more than earned your keep. I'm going to check on you, so don't be surprised when you see me ride up.”

Salty grinned. “I expected that. Now I'd better get going. I want to get halfway to Austin today.”

He untied the reins. Ellen quickly scrambled over the back of the wagon and perched on one of the bundles of clothes. They all waved as he turned the wagon and headed down the lane toward the Austin road.

“Why are we going to Austin?” Ellen asked. It was Sarah's question as well.

“I want to buy a few things.”

Sarah tried not to show the surprise she felt. Salty hadn't mentioned this to her, or she'd have told him she didn't have any money.

“What things?” Ellen asked.

“I won't know until you tell me something about your ranch.”

“What do you want to know?”

“How much milk does your milk cow give?”

“We don't have a milk cow. A wolf got her one night, and Mama didn't have money to buy another one.”

“How about chickens? Do you have plenty of eggs?”

“I don't know. Ask Mama.”

Sarah was mortified to admit to so many failures. “It's hard to keep chickens with coyotes around.”

“We can fix that. How about pigs?”

“I have two sows.” One of the hired men had shot their boar, saying he needed something to eat.

“How do you breed them?”

“I turned them out so they can breed with a wild boar.” She'd have had to turn the pigs out anyway, because she didn't have any feed for them.

“At least we've got the horses covered,” Salty said.

After a moment Ellen asked, “Is there anything else we have to do in Austin?”

“The most important thing of all,” Salty replied.

“What's that?” Ellen sounded excited.

Salty laughed. “I know your mother knows, but why don't you ask Jared? See if he knows.”

Seven

“You and Mama have to get married,” Jared said. “Is that what you mean?”

“Of course. What could be more important?”

Sarah thought Salty would have considered survival of the next twelve months his first priority. They needed to get all her cows branded and some rounded up to sell. Then they needed to find a way to protect a milk cow and chickens, locate her sows, and plant a new garden. Marriage was just a piece of paper, and in this case it signified nothing.

“Where are you going to get married?” Ellen asked.

Sarah didn't look at Salty as she answered, “We'll go before a judge.”

“I thought you had to get married in a church.”

“Marriage is a legal contract, which is why you need a judge,” Salty said. “People get married in a church so they can share their happiness with family and friends.”

“Mama married Papa in a church,” Jared remarked. “But I don't think she liked it.”

Sarah flushed with embarrassment. It was difficult to hide things from children. It was impossible to watch every word, the tone of her voice, her expression, when her life was gradually falling apart. How could she worry about such details when it took every bit of strength, every ounce of courage, to stave off panic, to keep them from knowing how close they were to disaster? At least they didn't know their father had been a dreadful husband and father and that she'd
hoped
he wouldn't come back. She still felt guilty for that.

If it didn't have something to do with horses or cows, Ellen quickly lost interest. “Can I sleep on the ground tonight?”

“You'll have to ask your mother,” Salty said.

“She made us all sleep in the wagon,” Ellen told him. “I didn't even have room to turn over.”

“The ground is dry, and I have a bedroll,” Salty said. “Maybe your mother will reconsider.”

Sarah felt a twinge of irritation. Ellen was her daughter; the decision about where she slept belonged to her, not Salty. She hoped he didn't think that just because he would become her legal husband he had a right to tell her what to do with her children.

“Salty will need his bedroll for himself,” she told her daughter.

Ellen wasn't ready to give up. “I'm tired of riding in the wagon. Can I ride one of the horses?”

Sarah was tired of riding in the wagon as well. The uneven road had jarred her body until her joints ached. Her discomfort was partially relieved by the bright sunshine that penetrated her clothing and warmed her body. The sun felt so good on her face it would have been easy to relax and let Salty take care of everything, but she was Ellen's mother.

She was about to object, but Salty spoke first. “They're not used to anybody but me.”

“Do they buck?” Jared asked.

“Sometimes.”

“A lot?”

“No. Just enough to show they don't like you on their backs.”

“Our horses never buck,” Ellen said. “I wish they would.”

“You'd change your mind after you'd been thrown a couple of times.”

“Did you get thrown?”

Salty laughed easily. “More times than I want to remember. I grew up a farm boy, so I didn't really learn to ride until I went to work for George.”

“I wish I could ride,” Jared said.

Sarah knew that was the thing that, more than any other, set her son apart from other boys his age. Most would have their own horse by now. To have a sister who could ride as well as any boy their age just made it worse.

“I'll have to give that some thought,” Salty said. “In the meantime, I'll teach you how to handle a buggy.”

Sarah swallowed her protest. She would have to talk to him about making promises he couldn't keep. She wanted Salty to do whatever he could to help Jared, but she couldn't have him raising hopes he couldn't fulfill.

“Now, why don't you and Ellen think of a game to play,” Salty continued. “I need to talk to your mother about the ranch.”

Sarah wasn't sure whether to relax or grow even more dispirited. By the time he fully understood the job he had promised to do, he might change his mind about marrying her.

* * *

“That was a mighty good supper,” Salty said. “I'll have to take you along when we trail cows to Abilene.” They were seated around the dying embers of their cook fire.

Salty sat between the two children, cradling his coffee cup between his hands. Jared, lying on his side and leaning on his elbow, followed every move he made. Ellen sat cross-legged, her attention equally centered. Across from them, Sarah knelt to stir the coals. The smell of wood smoke and countless stars twinkling in the limitless expanse of the Texas sky provided a peaceful respite from the stress of the day.

“I want to go to Abilene, too,” Ellen said.

“Salty was teasing,” Sarah told her daughter. “Women don't go on cattle drives.”

“Why not?”

How did you explain the conventional reasons for keeping men and women apart in certain situations to a girl who defined herself by the work she liked to do? Ellen liked horses and cows; therefore, she didn't see any reason why she shouldn't be included with men who liked the same things. She'd had little opportunity to see other children, so she didn't know that what most people expected of girls was very different from what they expected of boys.

“We don't take boys or girls,” Salty said. “You would be away from home for several months, and it can be very dangerous.”

“What's dangerous about herding cows?”

“There are Indians who don't want you crossing their land. Sometimes rustlers will shoot anybody who tries to stop them, but the most dangerous thing is a stampede.”

Sarah listened to Salty explain the dangers of rounding up, branding, and trailing a herd to market. He had an incredible way with children. During the long hours they were forced to spend in the wagon, he'd kept up a steady conversation that made the miles pass so quickly it hadn't seemed long before they had to stop for the night. Though it wasn't possible for Jared to help as much in setting up as Ellen, Salty kept him enough involved that he wouldn't feel left out.

Now he was explaining the intricacies of a trail drive like he expected Jared to head out on his own the next day, and the best part was, the boy was so interested he seemed able to forget that such an undertaking wasn't possible for him. It wasn't something Sarah wanted to do, but she could see the excitement in both of her children's eyes. For them, it was like listening to a fairy tale, and Salty was the magician who spun the magic.

She took all the dirty plates to the nearby stream to scour them with fine sand. Listening to the conversation without being able to understand what was being said was like listening to soothing music. The low, easy flow of Salty's bass voice served as a foundation for the children's eager sopranos that rose and fell like sparks in a capricious wind. Sarah couldn't remember the last time her children had been so excited. The worst men she'd hired had caused them to withdraw into long periods of silence. It was a relief to know that wouldn't happen with Salty. It was doubly important because once they were married, she couldn't just fire him.

She'd begun the day worried she'd made a serious mistake in choosing Salty. Sitting next to him in the wagon had made her so tense it had taken her over an hour before the muscles in her shoulders could relax. When she managed, she started to worry that he would try to take over the decision-making. But that fear had been soothed, too. It wasn't so much one big thing as several little ones that led her to believe he wouldn't act like nearly every other man she knew. But no sooner was that worry relieved than the physical attraction was back.

By the time they'd stopped for the evening, she was relieved to have something to think about other than Salty. By the time they had finished eating, she felt almost normal again. Or so she thought. She wasn't aware of her own disquiet until she realized she had been scrubbing the same plate for several minutes.

She put it down and picked up another. What was wrong with her? Why was she feeling so unsettled? Her children were being entertained. They'd had a pleasant trip. They would reach Austin in plenty of time tomorrow to manage all their business and start home early the next day. Salty had been cheerful and pleasant. She couldn't have found a nicer man, or one who was better with children. Her errand to the Randolphs had been more successful than she'd had any right to expect. What was bothering her?

The plate fell from her slackened grasp and clattered noisily on a rock. Merciful heavens! She was jealous! Of her own children!

How could she be? They were wonderful children who'd had few occasions to act like normal seven-year-olds. They'd never laughed or played silly games with other children. They'd never gone to parties or stuffed themselves on desserts and sweets. They'd never had nice clothes or two parents to tuck them in bed at night. Nor did they have the usual family of aunts, uncles, cousins, and doting grandparents. And despite these deprivations, they never complained and worked as hard as they could. How could she possibly be jealous of them?

Because Salty was paying more attention to them than to her.

It was ridiculous. She couldn't possibly be jealous of somebody she didn't want. And yet, apparently she could. She could have understood it if he had been as handsome as Roger, but Salty's looks weren't what attracted her to him. He was just an average man, and she was a grown woman who'd been on her own for six years. She had more reasons than she had time to catalogue why she didn't want to be attracted to any man, so it irritated her that she should be so foolish.

She picked up the last plate, scrubbed vigorously, then rinsed it in the stream. The forks were cleaned similarly, driven into the sand a few times. Sarah washed her cup and glanced over at her children as she dried it. They were still focused on Salty, their eagerness visible even in the dimming evening. Occasionally a reflection of firelight flashed in their eyes. They looked so happy, so full of hope, she couldn't remain apart from them a moment longer.

It took only a few more minutes to complete her task. When she rose to her feet and turned to go back to the wagon, the children were seated on either side of Salty. He was speaking softly, but they listened with rapt attention. Maybe that's why she was attracted to him. Any man who could cast such a spell over her children in so little time could probably do the same to a grown woman. Familiarity would cure that. It was easy to be entranced by someone you'd just met, but it was difficult to be equally interested months later. By the time a year had passed, she'd probably wonder what she'd ever found so fascinating.

Having worked her way to that conclusion, she wondered why she didn't feel better.

* * *

“Salty has an extra bedroll,” Jared was telling his mother. “He said I could use it if it was all right with you.”

Salty had spent several hours on the long trip trying to think of things he could do to help Jared feel better about himself. He'd told both kids stories, talked about roundups, and made secret plans for a surprise for Sarah. All of these things had included Ellen. Now, Salty didn't want to slight the girl, giving her brother something she herself had asked for, but Jared needed an association with a man that didn't depend on his sister. Salty also hated to put Sarah in the position of perhaps denying her son something he wanted, but it was a risk he needed to take. He hoped she would see it as an opportunity for Jared and consider it on that basis alone.

“Did you ask Salty if you could use it?” Sarah asked Jared.

“No, but Ellen did,” Jared said.

Sarah turned to her daughter. “It was sweet of you. Not every sister would do that for her brother.”

Ellen looked sulky. “I didn't ask for Jared. I asked for me.”

“What did Salty say?” Sarah asked.

“He said it wasn't proper for young girls to sleep out with men. When I asked him why, he said I had to ask you.”

Sarah's face flushed and she stammered, as though unsure of how to respond. As Salty suspected, she hadn't explained some of the basic facts of life to her daughter. He regretted having put her in such a difficult situation. He couldn't remember that anyone had ever had to tell him the facts of life; it seemed he'd always known them. But he'd had a group of guys to hang around with. Ellen and Jared didn't have anyone.

“That's not a very easy conversation,” Sarah said. “Let Jared sleep out with Salty tonight. You and I will sleep in the wagon, and I'll explain.”

“Explain what?” Ellen pushed.

“The birds and the bees.”

“What do birds and bees have to do with sleeping outdoors? It's night. Everything's asleep!”

Salty couldn't help himself; a sputter of laughter escaped before he could stop it. He almost lost control when Sarah shot him an angry look. She was so darling when she wasn't sure what to do. Not that she looked helpless. She was about as helpless as Rose, and everybody knew George's wife could handle anything. Sarah had some of the same appeal: strength combined with vulnerability. Salty had no interest in a woman who would cling to him like a vine, depending on him to do everything for her except breathe. Nor was he attracted to a woman who had to prove she could do everything as well as a man. He felt a man and a woman could be versatile without forgetting what Mother Nature intended.

“I'll get the bedrolls,” he said to Jared. “You can lay them out while I empty the wagon for your mother and sister.”

“I'll help.” Ellen climbed into the wagon. “I can hand stuff to you and Mama.”

With the three of them working, the wagon bed was cleared in a matter of minutes. It would have been even sooner if George and Rose hadn't given Sarah so much. Salty didn't know what Rose had put in those two bags, but he knew that
all
of Zac's clothes wouldn't take up so much space. He wondered how Sarah was going to react when she got home and found out what was inside.

BOOK: No One But You
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