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Authors: Lauraine Snelling

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BOOK: Pearl
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But her shock rankled like a burr dug into his socks. Except a person could dig a burr out and throw it away, a far easier chore than digging out the sight of flashing blue eyes, a slightly turned-up nose, and hair the gold of a Kansas wheat field ready for harvest. One thing for certain, she had no trouble speaking her mind and making her ideas real clear.

Marrying him was not even a consideration.

So why did the thought of her plague him like a sore tooth? He remounted and nudged Buck on down the gully to the riverbed and back to the ranch. They wouldn’t know the actual count of the herd until branding time, but things were looking good. Now if the weather held through calving—freak storms were really hard on the newborns—and if the rains came when needed, and if—There were far too many ifs in ranching, but there wasn’t anything he’d rather be doing the rest of his life.

Other than sharing his homeplace with a lovely blond woman rather than smelly old Beans. Did his future wife have to be that particular blonde, or would another woman do?

He stopped at the edge of the meadow, studying his herd of horses grazing in the fetlock-deep grass. Didn’t look like old Bay, a mare he’d caught wild and gentled, had taken again. He’d bred her to a paint stud from the Triple Seven Ranch, hoping to get a paint colt. She was slab-sided instead of nicely rounded like a mare about to foal. He’d known she was getting up there in years but had hoped for one more foal out of her. She threw good colts.

He rode nearer the herd, all of them still skittish after not being handled all winter. Like other ranchers he turned most of his horses loose in the fall to let them fend for themselves, rounding them up again in the spring, keeping only two or three horses pastured near home. He always kept Buck on the homeplace.

He’d become more than just a good horse. He was a friend.

‘‘So, you thinking what I’m thinking, fella? That old mare just might make a certain young girl very happy and would keep her safe too.’’

Buck snorted as if he understood.

The next thought remained just that. Perhaps that might make the older sister happy too. If he and the boys built a pole fence around that area behind the hotel and a pole shed by fall, what could be her argument?

‘‘You’re what?’’ Ruby stood on the top step of the porch, so Rand had to look up to her, not much but enough to make him want to take a step backward.

He didn’t.

‘‘As I said, I have an elderly mare who would be a great horse for Opal. My boys and I will fence this area off.’’ He waved at the field behind Dove House. ‘‘It should be enough pasture.’’ He paused, wondering why she wasn’t more pleased with the idea. ‘‘I know how bad Opal wants to ride, and this old horse is so wise, she’s perfect for a beginning rider.’’

‘‘But . . .’’

Flummoxing Ruby set his lips to smiling, but he camouflaged that by rubbing his mouth with one leather-gloved finger.

‘‘Opal would have to carry water to her and sometimes ride her out for extra pasture if things dry up some.’’ He nodded to the buckboard where Beans and Joe waited patiently. ‘‘I thought of getting barbed wire but didn’t want to wait for it to come from Dickinson.’’

‘‘Mr. Harrison, why?’’

He could tell she was frustrated by the color staining her cheeks. She looked too pale from the winter anyway. Needed to get out in the sun some. ‘‘Guess, if you like, I could bring you in a horse too. I mean, if you are worried about Opal riding alone. Got a right pretty little filly’’
For a right pretty filly
. He wisely kept the finish of the thought to himself.

‘‘Mr. Harrison, I-I cannot afford a horse at this time.’’

‘‘Hey, Mr. Harrison!’’ Opal came charging around the corner of the porch and leaped to the ground, her pigtails bouncing higher than her head. ‘‘Can I pet Buck?’’

‘‘You can ride him if you like.’’

‘‘Really?’’ Her gaze pleaded permission from her sister like a pup smelling a steak bone.

‘‘You have to be careful.’’

‘‘Ru-by.’’ This said with a touch of impatience. ‘‘I am always careful.’’ She grinned. ‘‘Well, mostly.’’ She stopped in front of the buckskin and waited for him to sniff up her arm, her shoulder, and her hair. His puff of breath in her face made her giggle. She stroked his cheeks and rubbed under his forelock.

Rand watched Ruby watching Opal. Talk about visible love, love written so plainly on her face that even a dolt would recognize it. He felt the need to grab his chest for the pang that pierced his heart.

‘‘What are you building with all the poles?’’ Opal directed her question to the two men on the seat of the buckboard.

Ruby closed her eyes for a second. When she opened them, she flashed an indecipherable look to Rand. ‘‘They’re going to build a fence around our field.’’

‘‘To keep Johnson’s cow out of our garden?’’

‘‘That too.’’ Rand agreed.

‘‘What?’’

‘‘Mr. Harrison has a horse that he thinks you might like to have.’’

Opal’s eyes widened, her mouth dropping open. As if afraid to believe it, she squeaked, ‘‘Really?’’

‘‘But you have to promise to take good care of her.’’ Rand tried to look stern and only halfway succeeded before he caught a hug head on as Opal threw herself at him.

‘‘Oh, Mr. Harrison, you are the best, the most . . .’’ Opal leaned back enough to gaze up into his face. ‘‘I get a real live horse of my own.’’ The awe in her voice and face made him shift slightly back.

‘‘Your sister agreed.’’

Opal threw herself at Ruby, leaving Rand feeling something, he wasn’t sure what. Bereft perhaps? He’d not been hugged like that since he’d said good-bye to his sister’s children the summer before when he went to Ohio to buy his bull. There was surely something to be said about being hugged by a little girl with adoration in her eyes.

Or by her big sister.

Rand cleared his throat. ‘‘All right if we begin the fencing?’’

‘‘Yes, and thank you.’’ Ruby paused for a heartbeat. ‘‘Could we repay you a small bit with supper here at Dove House?’’

‘‘That you may surely do. Beans, there, might take a lesson or two.’’ Rand touched the brim of his hat. ‘‘Thank you. If you want to ride now, Opal, I’ll give you a boost.’’

‘‘Guess I’ll have to ask Charlie to bring the mounting block back out.’’ Ruby smiled to the men. ‘‘I’ll see you for supper then.’’

‘‘How far back does your property go?’’

She shrugged. ‘‘You’ll have to ask Charlie. Seems he said we have two acres, or it could be more than that.’’

‘‘Beyond that cottonwood tree?’’

‘‘Yes, but those shacks back there aren’t ours.’’

‘‘Good enough. Where is Charlie, by the way?’’ Rand tipped his hat back slightly.

‘‘On his way to Dickinson.’’

‘‘Wish I’d known. He could have gotten us some barbed wire.’’

‘‘I thought cattlemen didn’t believe in barbed wire.’’

‘‘We don’t, but this isn’t exactly the open range.’’

‘‘You should have made that clear to Johnson’s cow last summer.’’ The arch of her brow told Rand she was teasing. Sure beat being razored by the edge of her tongue.

He boosted Opal into his saddle. ‘‘You can ride without the stirrups?’’

She nodded, her eyes shining. ‘‘And I neck-rein him, right?’’

‘‘Just ride around the field out here where we can keep an eye on you. Get the feel of riding again.’’

‘‘Yes, sir.’’ She gathered her reins in one hand and evened them up. ‘‘Thank you.’’

‘‘You are most welcome.’’ He patted Buck’s shoulder. Captain McHenry had taught her well.

‘‘Thank you, Mr. Harrison, you have given her the dream of her life,’’ Ruby said quietly.

‘‘I’m serious about a mount for you also.’’

‘‘I think we’ll do with one horse, at least for a while. Give us time to get used to having a big animal like that.’’ Ruby watched as Opal leaned forward to pat Buck’s shoulder, the sun picking out the gold tints in her strawberry hair.

‘‘You can be real proud of her.’’

‘‘Oh, I am. She’s all the close family I have left.’’

‘‘She reminds me of my little sister. How she loved to ride. Fearless as could be too.’’ He shook his head. ‘‘And now she has a little girl of her own. Hard to believe how fast time goes by.’’ He slapped his gloves against his thigh. ‘‘Guess I better get on out there and help with the fencing. I’ll see you later.’’ He smiled up at her. Leaning against the porch post, she was pretty as any picture he’d ever seen.

Maybe he’d bring in that filly after all, and the three of them could go riding. She sure had seemed to enjoy herself with Captain McHenry.

Now why did that thought make him set his feet down like he was stomping grasshoppers?

CHAPTER NINE

Now why’d he go and do that?
Ruby frowned.

‘‘You all right?’’ Milly paused to look where Ruby was staring. ‘‘Of course.’’ Ruby glanced across the field.

‘‘He’s a right nice feller, wouldn’t you say?’’

Not usually, but today . . .
Ruby mumbled something under her breath that she hoped sounded like an agreement and returned to the kitchen. Seeing that Daisy had the trays ready with sandwiches, cookies, hard-boiled eggs, and coffee for selling during the train stop, she went back to the door. ‘‘You better go tell Opal the train should be in pretty soon.’’

Taking care of the train passengers was one of Opal’s and Milly’s main chores and was a source of regular income for the hotel. Because of the good food, more than one guest had chosen to stay over in Little Missouri rather than go east to Dickinson or west to Beach. Not that many stopped in Little ‘‘Misery’’ without a definite purpose, like hunting for game or for land.

The train whistled, the girls hurried out to get themselves set up, and for a few minutes peace reigned in the kitchen. Ruby had just poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down to finish writing that letter to the Brandons when a shriek from the second floor brought Daisy in from the ironing and Ruby off her chair, leaving a spreading ink blot on her paper.

‘‘What now?’’

‘‘That’s Belle, and something sure upset her this time.’’ Daisy followed right behind Ruby as they flew up the stairs.

The cuss words flying from Belle’s lips would do a stevedore proud, but they burned Ruby’s ears.
What now? What is she going
to try to blame on me or charge me for this time?
Ruby didn’t bother to knock, just pushed open the door. ‘‘What’s—?’’

‘‘Cat! That’s what! Look, there in my drawer.’’

Ruby looked to where Belle pointed. Daisy knelt in front of the half-open drawer.

‘‘Would you look at that?’’ Daisy whispered, a stark contrast to Belle’s bellow.

Cat lay on her side in the froth of lacy unmentionables, two still-damp kittens nuzzling her belly.

‘‘Wait until Opal sees this.’’

‘‘She ruined my things!’’

Ruby turned to the fuming Belle. ‘‘I distinctly remember reminding everyone to close drawers and boxes. Charlie told me to, and now I really know why.’’ She joined Daisy on her knees.

‘‘She’s about to have another,’’ Daisy whispered.

‘‘How do you know?’’

‘‘Look at her. She’s straining to push it out.’’

‘‘How many will she have?’’

‘‘Three, four—seen up to six.’’

‘‘And Opal’s going to want to keep every one of them.’’

‘‘Cats are at a premium here. Not too many around. Coyotes think they’re prime pickin’s. Saw one carried off by a hawk once. ’Course that hawk didn’t last long after it took some of the chickens too. My ma waited right inside the hen house with a shotgun. Nailed that ol’ hawk with one blast.’’

‘‘Never mind telling your stories now,’’ Belle ordered. ‘‘Get that cat out of my things.’’

‘‘You can’t move her now. It’ll get her all upset. You want her to leave her babies?’’

‘‘I-I . . .’’

Ruby looked over her shoulder to see Belle caught in a quandary. ‘‘But she’s ruinin’ my . . .’’ Another string of swear words blued the room.

‘‘She hasn’t ruined anything!’’ Daisy rose to her feet and advanced on Belle, shaking her finger all the while. ‘‘I will wash your underthings as soon as we are able to move her. If you’d have kept your door and your drawers closed like you were warned to, this wouldn’t have happened.’’

BOOK: Pearl
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