Much ado about mavericks, p.23

Much Ado About Mavericks, страница 23

 

Much Ado About Mavericks
 

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  Whip waved a ladle at her. “I shot an antelope today. We’re having stew for supper. Have a taste.”

  Walking over to him, she sipped some broth from the spoon he held. “Mmm. Beats the hell out of beans. Two weeks of beans every night gets damned old.”

  “It’ll be ready in another hour. I’m gonna let it simmer a while.”

  “That’s because you ain’t baked the biscuits yet.”

  He chuckled. “There is that.” He looked around and said, “I thought Ben went with you today.”

  “He did.”

  “Where the hell is he? I got news from the supply wagon.”

  “He’ll be around.” She shrugged and walked off. She’d paid no attention to where he’d gone and she didn’t care. At least she didn’t want to care.

  * * * * *

  The aroma of the antelope stew wafted over the cow camp. Ben breathed in a long smell, enjoying this stew like no meal he’d ever had before. At least he could enjoy something—Jake had avoided him like he was poison oak since they’d returned from Jump Creek Canyon.

  He took a bite, savoring the taste. This was his second helping and he was fairly full, but he ate the delicious stew anyway. Just as he scooped another spoonful into his mouth, he heard a wagon pull up. He turned to see a carriage—Reginald!

  Ben put his plate down and stood, wondering what the hell Reginald was doing here, and why he drove a carriage. He pulled the team to a stop, wrapped the reins around the brake, and hopped off.

  “Ben, old fellow! I brought you a surprise.” He opened the carriage door.

  Whip walked to him and shook his hand. “You’re just in time for supper. We got plenty.”

  Ben gritted his teeth, but stayed where he was. Why hadn’t Reg gone back to Boston with his sister?

  Ben held his breath, watching Reg open the carriage door. Out stepped Suzanne, giggling as Reginald held her hand. Then came their mother, who immediately approached Whip, then stopped and smiled brightly. “Good to see you.”

  He nodded. “Have something to eat.”

  “I will—it smells delicious.” Without looking around, she said, “Where’s my son?”

  Whip motioned toward Ben, and Mabel hurried to him. But not before Patience descended from the carriage like a queen visiting the commoners.

  “She was supposed to be gone,” Ben growled.

  His mother sighed. “She wouldn’t leave without you, she said. She’s redecorated the entire house in preparation for the wedding.”

  “There’ll be no wedding.” He watched Patience wave to him as if he’d be glad to see her.

  “That’s not what she thinks.”

  Just as Patience got to Ben, Peter Blacker rode in. “Looks like we have some fine female company this evening,” he said, grinning at Patience. He tipped his hat to her. “Nice to see you, Miss Morris.”

  Ben didn’t think so. At all. “Put your horse away, Peter, then help yourself to some of Whip’s antelope stew.”

  Peter smacked his lips. “Looks like this night will be a special treat all the way around.” Again, he tipped his hat to Patience and rode away.

  “This is no place for a woman,” Ben barked at Patience. “Get back in that carriage and go back to Boston.”

  “But Ben, the sun is setting. We can’t drive the carriage over these primitive trails in the dark.”

  True enough. The horses didn’t need to pay for her folly.

  “Sleep on the ground, then, and leave in the morning.” He stomped off toward the creek, not caring where he went as long as Patience wasn’t there. He figured one night of sleeping under the stars on a bed of sticks and rocks would send her back to town.

  But, for some reason, she seemed determined to have him. He didn’t know why—she couldn’t possibly love him. Patience used people to get what she wanted. More than likely, what she wanted was to be the premiere hostess in Boston. With him at the head of Morris and Graves, she had a sure shot at becoming just that.

  Equally determined to have Jake, Ben wandered to the creek and sat on the boulder where he and Jake had watched the stars. Patience was everything Jake was not—selfish, spoiled, and greedy. He hadn’t noticed any of those things in Boston, but this country seemed to bring out a person’s true character.

  Had he been as hollow as Patience the last eight years? The answer didn't please him at all, because his only goal had been to gain status and respect, and he didn’t really give a damn about all those fat robber barons. He wanted their money and their high regard.

  He’d gotten them both, and too late, he’d realized that neither had done him much good. All he had to show for all those thousands of hours of work was a narcissistic woman who relentlessly pursued him and a parsimonious boss who held his daughter as bait until Ben knuckled under.

  Hell, there were other places for a lawyer to work in Boston. Many firms had courted him already. But now he wasn’t interested in them, either.

  Dismissing any more confusing thoughts, he picked up a good-sized rock and threw it into the creek. The deep plunk didn’t satisfy him any more than Jake’s rejection of his proposal. Sighing deeply, he leaned back on the cold, hard rock and closed his eyes.

  Sooner or later he’d have to go back to camp and see to his so-called guests. He wished it could be later.

  * * * * *

  Patience tapped her foot impatiently as the bumbling men pitched her tent. Reginald stood and wiped the perspiration from his brow. “You’ll have to bear with me, sister, I’ve never done this before.”

  She hoped he’d never have to do it again, at least, not for her. Swearing she’d never set foot outside of a city again, she sighed, sat on a log and folded her hands in her lap.

  Oh, what a destitute place! She couldn’t, for the life of her, understand why Benjamin had waxed eloquent about his childhood home. Only sparse, scraggly trees dotted the brown mountains. The rutted, washed-out roads had jarred her nearly to the point of exhaustion. No, not one thing could be called beautiful about this land—the scenery consisted of dirt, dirt, and more dirt.

  Dust settled on absolutely everything! She shook her parasol, then sneezed at the flying dust. Her hair was dusty, her clothes were dusty, and the people here protected their water like gold, so washing was rare.

  Finally, a crusty old cowhand she’d heard called ‘Whip’ took one last swing at the stake. “Done,” he said as he strutted off.

  The nerve of him! Reginald would need much more help carrying her things into the tent.

  “Reginald, unfold my cot and put it in the back of the tent. Put the wash basin on the side, and my trunk on the other.”

  Her brother smirked. “Will this palace be suitable for your majesty?”

  “Hrmph!” Even her brother acted standoffish these days. “It will have to do. Now put my things in there and have one of the servants heat some water. I need a bath.”

  “There ain’t no servants here, lest you’re counting your brother.”

  Patience spun around to see that horrid woman in man’s clothing that Benjamin seemed to be friends with. Totally inappropriate, it was, making friends with the hired help. “I don’t recall speaking to you.”

  The woman who called herself Jake shrugged. “That would be my lucky day. But I’m in charge here, and you’ll do as I say.” She rested her right hand on her pistol. “I ain’t letting a single man come over here and waste time. Whip set up your tent, and that’s it.”

  “I shall speak with Benjamin, then.” She turned away, hoping Jake would leave. She noticed that Reginald had disappeared, leaving her at the mercy of the wild woman.

  “You just do that. And when he comes begging for men, I ain’t letting him have any.”

  “He owns the ranch, not you.”

  “Not yet, he don’t.”

  Patience held her breath until she heard Jake walk away. Or stride. The woman was most unladylike.

  She heard Reginald grunt and sought him out. Red-faced, he struggled under one of her tru
nks.

  “I told you to get a servant to help you. That’s much too heavy for you to lift by yourself.”

  He dropped the trunk on the ground with a thud. “Sister, I don’t think your hearing is quite right these days. Jake said she’s not sending you any help, and when she says something, she means it.” He chuckled. “Quite a woman, that Jake.”

  “What do you mean? Quite a woman. Hrmph! Not quite a woman is more like it. She dresses like a man!”

  He nodded and leaned over the trunk to pick it up. “And rides like one, fights like one, cusses like one, and everything else.” He chuckled. “Like I said, she’s quite a woman.”

  Hefting the heavy trunk over his shoulder, he wobbled to her tent and dropped it. “I hope all this is worth it.”

  “It is. Daddy wants him and so do I. I said I’d bring him back to Boston as my husband, and that’s exactly what I’ll do.”

  * * * * *

  Jake decided to get the hell out of camp before she punched that prissy-assed woman in her oh-so cute button nose. Servants, my ass!

  She headed down to the creek, cursing both Patience and her dandy brother. Suzanne and Mabel, too. Hell, they should’ve known better than to bring those two vultures to the roundup.

  Those woman-starved cowhands wouldn’t keep their minds on their business, and someone could get hurt. She’d bet her last dollar that Patience would be waggling her tail in front of them. But unless they wanted their pay docked, they better pay attention to the job at hand.

  Moseying up the creek, breathing in the peaceful evening air, Jake admitted she felt sorry for herself—something she rarely allowed. But this night was different. The man she loved didn’t love her, and even if he did, he would want to go back to that big house and fancy job in Boston.

  She came upon Henry, who stood beside the creek, throwing rocks in it. “Ain’t it about time you went to bed?”

  “Nope.” The girl flung a handful of pebbles and watched them scatter across the water.

  “What’s troubling you, then?”

  “It ain’t a what. It’s a who.”

  Jake kneeled beside Henry. “All right. Who is it that’s troubling you?”

  “Ben.”

  That sure as hell wouldn’t make any headlines in the Owyhee Avalanche. Her guts hadn’t faired too good, either, when it came to Ben. “So what did he do?”

  “It ain’t what he did—it’s what he didn’t do.”

  Snorting, Jake said, “So spill it. The whole story. I ain’t gonna ask you every little question.”

  “He didn’t pick me up and give me a hug. He only talked to that fancy woman. Hell, I bet she charges two dollars a poke.”

  “You ain’t supposed to cuss till—”

  “Till I’m twelve years old,” the girl finished. She sighed. “But damn, Jake, that’s an awful long time.” She slapped her hands over her mouth. Jake heard a muffled ‘oops.’

  Jake sat down on a rock and pulled Henry onto her lap. “Well, as far as Ben goes, I guess he’s got lots on his mind.”

  “Is it important stuff?”

  “Yup, mighty important. It’s all about that fancy woman and his high-falutin’ job in Boston.”

  “Where’s Boston?”

  “Thousands of miles east of here. Maybe someday you’ll see it.”

  “I hope not. Not if the folks there are all like Miss Morris.”

  “They ain’t. There’s nice people and nasty people, but mostly nice. Just like here. Most folks are nice, but there’s a few bad apples.”

  Henry stuck her lip out. “Miss Morris is a rotten apple.”

  Jake hugged the girl’s head to her breast. “She is that, but she won’t hurt you. Ain’t no one ever gonna hurt you again.”

  They sat there in silence, Henry’s head buried against Jake’s breast. She couldn’t think of anything else to comfort the girl, and knew she had to work through her hurt in her own way. Just like Jake had to.

  After a while, Jake said, “You go on to bed, now. You got an early day—you’re riding with me.”

  “Oh, goodie!” The girl hopped off her lap. “I’m telling the boys,” she said as she turned around and ran up the bank.

  A breeze picked up. Jake listened to the rustle of the junipers and the babbling of the creek. She thought about how the young saplings bent in the wind, and how the old trees stood against it. Sometimes their limbs would break. Henry was a sapling—she’d probably already forgotten her troubles.

  At twenty-four, Jake was just like one of those old, gnarled junipers. That’s why her heart broke.

  * * * * *

  As Ben reluctantly made his way back to camp, he saw Jake sitting on the bank of the creek, staring. He stepped louder so he wouldn’t startle her, and said, “Jake?”

  She got up and faced him, then turned to leave.

  “Don’t go.”

  Stopping mid-step, she faced him, but didn’t say a word. Neither did she make any effort to meet him—she just stood there, stiff as a board.

  “I’d like to sit with you for a while.”

  He took a step toward her, relieved that she didn’t retreat. She merely straightened up and stuck out her chin. He took two more steps and stood directly in front of her.

  “What do you want?” she demanded.

  He took her hand and caressed it, wanting to touch her everywhere. What did he want? Jake, day and night, for the rest of his life. “For right now, I’d just like to sit with you.”

  “No talking?”

  He shook his head. She pulled her hand from his and stared at him for the longest time. He could barely breathe. “Just sit with me.”

  Still she didn’t move. Ben could see exactly what she was thinking. Her heart and her beautiful blue eyes said ‘yes,’ but her brain didn’t agree. He hoped her heart won out. “Please,” he murmured.

  Pushing past him, she scrambled upstream until they reached the boulders where they’d met before, and where he’d just come from. She plopped down in the same place as she had on that beautiful starry night.

  Only she looked far more beautiful, even though she hadn’t changed a thing—the single braid of flame-red hair, the wool britches, the buckskin vest, and the ever-present Stetson.

  She sent him a scowl. “You gonna sit, or stand there with your teeth in your mouth.”

  He chuckled and sat beside her, careful not to touch her. Yet. “I was waiting in case you changed your mind.”

  “Your woman’s wanting to make servants out of my crew.”

  Laying his head back against the boulder, he sighed. “I’d really rather not think about her right now.”

  “Neither would I.”

  They sat there, watching the stars and listening to the creek running on as it always had. Someday, he and Jake would both be long gone but the creek would still be there, fresh and pure, supplying their grandchildren with water.

  He hoped. He had a lot of work to do before they got any grandchildren. Slipping his hand over hers, he held his breath, hoping she wouldn’t move away.

  She didn’t. Inching closer, he put his arm around her. She leaned into him, and he heard a little purr that warmed his heart. Maybe she wasn’t so angry, after all.

  He cocked his head and kissed her on the temple. Turning to him, she gazed into his eyes. He saw hunger there, nearly as much as he had for her.

  “You ain’t poking me tonight.”

  Startled at her vulgar assessment of his lovemaking, he could only say, “No, Jake, I’m not. I want to make love to you. Tonight, and every night.”

  “Thought so. Your tallywacker’s big as a horse’s. But we ain’t doing it for two reasons—one, I’m sore. Two, your woman’s sitting on her frilly little ass waiting for you.”

  He cleared his throat. “One, I’ll never make love to you if you don’t want to, and two, I’ll never marry Patience. I told you that. I want to marry you.”

  “Because you like me? Or because you care for me.”

  “Both. And
because I love you.”

  Her eyes got wider and her lips opened a bit, nearly driving him out of his mind. She shrugged, then, and said, “I love you, too, you big jerk.”

  Gathering her in his arms, Ben murmured, “Ah, Jake, will you marry me?”

  She pulled away and sat back. “Now, that’s another story. I ain’t going to Boston. I ain’t cut out to flit around like Patience. So don’t ask.”

  “I’m asking. We’ll live here.”

  His heart raced as she stared at him. Finally, she said, “No.” Standing, she hooked her thumbs in her waistband. “You ain’t thought this through. You told me yourself, you want to be some sort of a partner at that law firm in Boston. I ain’t marrying you until you’re good and sure you want to give it up.”

  “I’m sure, Jake.” She’d nailed the problem right to his heart. He had worked eight hard years. He earned that senior partnership and he deserved to get it, whether he married Patience Morris, or not. But did he still want it?

  “You ain’t sure.” She climbed off the rock and looked up at him. “When you are sure, I’ll be at the Bar EL.”

  One thing he was sure about—he loved Jake. Some way or another, he’d convince her to marry him.

  * * * * *

  Patience peered out her tent flap into the darkness for the umpteenth time, waiting for Ben. She saw a figure—it had to be that man-pretender—walking into camp, stepping over sleeping bodies, until she came to the little urchins who were sleeping by the fire. Kneeling beside each one, she pulled up their covers and kissed their foreheads.

  It was all an act, Patience decided. Jake would rather be a man than a woman, and couldn’t possibly be competent enough to take children under her wing.

  One thing she did know—if Jake was here, Ben would soon follow, and when he did, Patience would tell him a thing or two. The nerve of him, forcing her to bear the hardships of such an uncivilized country. If he’d only taken care of business and returned to her like he said he would, she’d have never allowed Seymour Johns to escort her to the Graves’ soiree.

  Or if he had proposed when she’d wanted him to, he’d have never come out here in the first place. Nothing about his father’s will needed his personal attention. And anyway, who cared about a smelly ranch in such God-forsaken country?

 
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