Much ado about mavericks, p.26

Much Ado About Mavericks, страница 26

 

Much Ado About Mavericks
 

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  “I’m taking her to your tent, Patience. Have someone move your trunk to Ma’s tent.”

  Patience shot him a glare. “I won’t have that woman in my tent!” She jutted out that sassy chin, spun on her heel and headed back. Jake figured she’d guard that tent with her life.

  Jake pulled away from Ben and glared in Patience’s direction. “I wouldn’t lay down on her bed if it was the last one in the world.” She gathered her strength and walked to her own bedroll. “I’m sleeping here, under the stars, just like always.”

  Suzanne returned with Mabel’s bag and clean rags, and soon, Whip carried a bucket of steaming water. Ben headed for Patience’s tent. Jake couldn’t understand why he ever wanted to be around such a nasty-natured woman. But who ever understood the ways of the heart. She sure as hell didn’t.

  Sitting cross-legged on her bedroll, she held her arm out and said, “Get on with it.”

  Whip held out a flask. “I brung you a little nip of whiskey.”

  “You’re a good man.” She took it, and enjoyed a long draw, then glanced up at Mabel. “You gonna dig them rocks out of there, or am I gonna have to do it?”

  Next thing she knew, the most horrid caterwauling erupted. She shook her head and smiled. It could only be Patience. Ben had thrown her out of her tent, after all.

  She couldn’t help but smile when he ambled up sporting a crooked grin. “Your room awaits, madam,” he announced with a flourish of his hand.

  Henry ran around him, stopping in front of Jake. “You should’ve seen him, Jake! He done grabbed that bitch and threw her over his shoulder and carted her off like a sack of spuds. Ol’ Patience was a kicking and a screaming.” She snorted and added, “Ben ain’t so stupid, after all.”

  Jake had to chuckle over that one, patted the girl on the head, then told her to bed down. Turning to Ben, she said, “I told you, I ain’t sleeping in her bed.”

  “You’re not. I moved Suzanne’s cot in.”

  “What did you do with Miss Dreadful?”

  “I put her in the carriage. I’ve arranged for a cowhand to take her and Reginald to the stage just as soon as he gets back, whether it’s light yet, or not.”

  “That might take a while. He’s liable to get himself into trouble out there. I don’t guess he knows a whole helluva lot about tracking rustlers.”

  Mabel stood and told Whip and Suzanne to take the supplies to the tent. Jake took a couple more gulps of whiskey, enjoying the fire all the way down to her belly.

  “I got more where that come from,” Whip said.

  “Bring it,” Mabel told him. “We’ll need it to clean the wound.” Addressing Ben, she said, “Take her to the tent. I want a couple more lanterns, too."

  Jake had never seen Mabel take charge, and while she sure as hell wasn’t happy about staying anywhere Patience had been, she recognized authority when she saw it. She struggled to her feet, taking care not to jar her injured arm.

  Ben held her around the waist like she was a cripple. Just in case the strays were watching, she swatted his hands away. “I can walk on my own.” Which she did, although she was so dizzy she could barely stay upright by the time she got to the tent.

  “You’re trembling—let me help,” Ben said as he opened the flap.

  But she made it to the cot and flopped down before he could do anything. The jolt sure as shootin’ didn’t make her arm feel any better. She must have bruised the bone. “More whiskey.”

  After he hung the lantern on the hook in the middle of the tent, he told her to lie down. He took her boots off her, then kissed her lightly on the lips. If her arm hadn’t hurt so damned bad, she’d have grabbed him and kissed him back. And then some.

  Ben left to get more lanterns, then Whip ducked through the flap carrying a bucket of steaming water in one hand and a full bottle of whiskey in the other.

  “I’ll take that,” she told him.

  He handed her the bottle and set the bucket beside the bed. “You best take another slug or two before Mabel comes. She’s planning on using that to clean your wound.”

  Uncorking the bottle, Jake took a couple of gulps and drawled, “What a waste.” She offered the bottle to him. “Drink?”

  “Naw,” he said, grinning. “Mabel would kick my ass.”

  “I’ll have one for you, then.” The whiskey began to do its work, and Jake giggled. “You and Mabel kinda like one another, huh?”

  “She’s a fine woman.”

  “Damned if she ain’t.” Jake drank some more, appreciating the smoothness of this fine whiskey. “She don’t mind giving an order when it’s needed, neither.”

  Ben came in with two more lanterns so she held up the bottle and smiled. “Hey, handsome, have a drink!”

  He pushed her down on the cot and shook his head. “Ma’d kick my butt. You’ll have to drink alone tonight.”

  She giggled again, so happy to see him. She wanted him to kiss her. “Your little bitty ol’ ma’s got you and Whip plumb buffaloed. Who’d have thunk it.” There, they wouldn’t think she’d had too much to drink if she kept up regular talk. But damn, she sure wished he’d kiss her. If he got any closer, why, maybe she’d just lay one right on those full lips of his.

  She sat up and took another couple of swallows. Hell, it didn’t even burn anymore, so she slugged down a few more gulps. Ben squatted beside her, and she gazed at those manly eyes. Ah, that was bullshit. Eyes didn’t make him so damned . . . well, she wanted him because, well—it was those broad shoulders—no, his muscled thighs and tight butt. Sighing, she had a few more belts, you know, since Mabel was coming and all.

  Ben had the hand of her sore arm and stroked her palm with his thumb. Damned if she didn’t want to jump him right in front of Whip. But she hadn’t had that much to drink. She took another slurp and wiped her mouth with her sleeve.

  Ben looked at her wound, then gazed into her eyes. “Are you feeling all right?”

  She licked her lips and grinned. “You keep rubbing my hand like that and you’ll find out.” Oh shit! She shouldn’t have said that with Whip in the tent. “I’m feeling a might dizzy. Best have another drink.” After she did, she asked Ben, “You sure you don’t need a little nip?”

  He leaned over her and nibbled her ear. “My own special kind of nip,” he whispered.

  She damn near came off the cot.

  Whip cleared his throat and said, “I think Mabel wants me to, ah, boil some more water.” He chuckled as he left.

  “What the hell’s he laughing about?” But she didn’t want to talk, she wanted to kiss. Still grasping the bottle with her good arm, she hooked her wrist around Ben’s neck and pulled him down on her.

  “Jake?”

  “Shut up and kiss me.”

  “You’re pouring whiskey down my neck.”

  * * * * *

  “Benjamin Stoddard Lawrence!” his mother huffed as she ducked through the flap of the tent. Ben sprang up, banging his head on the tent pole.

  “Leave that girl alone. She’s hurting.”

  Whip came in carrying a stool, which he placed beside the cot. Mabel sat on it, wetted a cloth in the hot water, and dabbed at Jake’s wound, then took the tweezers and plucked out a pebble.

  Jake didn’t even blink an eye, although Ben knew it had to hurt like blue blazes. She winked at him and said, “I think I need just a teensy bit more firewater.”

  “Sorry, Jake,” his mother said, “but I’m using the rest to clean your wound.”

  “Damn.” Her hand flew over her mouth. “Scuse me, ma’am, ain’t supposed to cuss in front of a lady.” She giggled, then burped. “I think my innards need cleaning more than that little cut.”

  “Hush up, now.” Mabel tweezed another pebble. “I’ll be quick. Sometimes quick, albeit rough, is better than slow and easy.”

  Jake rolled her sleepy eyes at Ben. “Ain’t that the truth.”

  Ben nodded, then smiled at her, ready for her any way he could get her. But not drunk. He’d never seduced an inebri
ated woman, and he didn’t plan to start now.

  “Hold still,” his mother ordered, “and try to relax.”

  He watched her extract the pebbles and chunks of dirt, one at a time, taking care not to damage any more tissue, and periodically washing the wound with whiskey. Jake winced a time or two, but other than that, he would have thought she was at an afternoon tea party. The very picture nearly made him chuckle, but he didn’t think that would be too wise at the moment.

  “I’ll need to stitch this, Jake,” his mother said as she threaded a needle. “If you want, you can have another drink of whiskey.”

  “Yes, ma’am.” She sat up, her head wobbling a bit. “Trouble is, I done poured it down Ben’s neck.”

  His mother pulled another bottle out of her bag and handed it to Jake. “Here’s some more. I keep a bottle for medicinal purposes.”

  Jake worked on the cork, but couldn’t loosen it. Ben took the bottle out of her hands, opened it, and gave it back.

  “I could’ve done it,” she grumbled, tipping the bottle and taking a few gulps, then weaved around some. “I think I’ll take a little snooze.” Sagging back into the cot, she muttered, “Ben, sleep with me.” She shut her eyes. “Just this once.”

  Mabel studied him, making him squirm like he used to when she caught him stealing cookies. He wondered if she already suspected that he’d made love with Jake. Probably so—it never paid off to underestimate your mother. And if she did know, she’d be expecting him to propose. What she didn’t know was that he had proposed, but that Jake turned him down.

  He wanted her, any way he could have her. He’d be happy to stay in Owyhee County and run the Bar EL as long as he had Jake by his side. In fact, he’d already considered telling her that he’d stay if only she’d agree to be with him every day of their lives to the very end.

  “I’ll start the stitching now.”

  Ben held Jake’s hand while Mabel stitched. Jake didn’t complain or whine once, and hardly even winced.

  “You done yet?” She hiccuped, then giggled and gazed at him with bleary blue eyes. “I know why you don’t wanna lay with me.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “It’s your mama.”

  “Hold still,” his mother chided. “Two more stitches, then I’ll wrap the bandage on your arm.”

  “I’ll lie with you if you marry me, Jake.”

  She snorted, garnering another scolding from a grinning Mabel, then said, “I wanna marry you, but I ain’t living in Boston.”

  “I’m staying here, on the Bar EL, Jake. With you.”

  “You are?” She struggled to sit up, but Ben pushed her back down.

  “I am. Now hold still so Ma can finish up.”

  She relaxed, shutting her eyes. “Well hell, Ben, I’ll marry up with you, then. But I ain’t cooking and—” she belched, “I ain’t giving up my job. Take it or leave it.”

  “I’ll take it.”

  “Now, you stubborn mule, kiss me.”

  “Done,” Mabel said. She put her tweezers and knife back in her bag. “I’ll leave you two lovebirds alone.” As she stood, she told Jake, “Welcome to the family. You’re such a special woman—I had hoped Ben would come to his senses.”

  Jake’s eyes were glazed, but she held Ben’s hand with a grip that could bring a man to his knees. “You’re gonna be Mr. Benjamin O’Keefe!” He chuckled and she frowned. “No, wait a minute, I’ll have to change my name. I’ll be Mr. Jake Lawrence.” She cocked her head and gazed at him, eyebrows raised. “Ah hell, that ain’t right, either.”

  “How about ‘Mrs. Benjamin Lawrence’?”

  “Naw, that don’t sound right. If someone hollered ‘Benjamin,’ I’d be waiting for you to answer.” She offered him the bottle. “Have a slug—it’ll grease up your kisser.”

  He declined, thinking she’d had enough for both of them. “But then, you don’t look like no ‘Jake,’ neither.” She took another swig, then reached over the side of the cot and set the bottle down. “Are you gonna kiss me, or are you just gonna sit there with your teeth in your mouth?”

  Lowering his head, he gently brushed her lips. “Want more?” he whispered.

  She let out a loud snore.

  * * * * *

  Jake woke with a raging headache and a burning arm. Her mouth tasted like the wrong end of a cow. For a moment, she gazed around, getting her bearings. She was still in Patience’s tent. If she didn’t have a bad taste in her mouth before, she sure did now.

  She sat up slowly, waiting for her head to follow her body and favoring her left arm. At least her roping arm worked. She saw bright light around the seams of the canvas and cursed herself for sleeping in on a working day.

  She worked her boots on—a tough thing to do with only one decent arm, and slowly ducked through the flap. The bright light felt like needles bored into her eyeballs. Blinking a couple of times seemed to make it better. Lordy, she’d never had such bad effects from tipping a glass or two.

  “Jake, you’re up!” Whip said, handing her a cup of coffee. “Here, I think you need this.”

  “Hell, I’m fine.” Other than her guts rolling and her eyeballs damn near falling on the ground every time she blinked. The coffee tasted good, and, after a few minutes her mind cleared a bit, although her stomach still rebelled. “Where’s Ben?”

  “Sit down,” he pointed to a log by the fire. After he sat beside her, he said, “He’s out with the herd. We’re short-handed, so he only sent two crews out looking for cows.”

  “I best be getting out there, then.”

  Whip shook his head and took a slurp of coffee. “Nope. Mabel said you was to stay in camp today. Told me to hogtie you if necessary.”

  She stood, wishing her innards would calm down a bit. “You, and what other ten men?” Although she sure as hell didn’t mean what she said. A day off sounded mighty good.

  “Ben said you was to keep an eye out on Fred. Him and a couple of others are sleeping over yonder.” He nodded toward the other side of the camp. “He’s been out cold since they brung him in. Still breathing, though. Mabel patched him up some—took the bullet out and bandaged him up.”

  “One gimp looking after another, huh?”

  “Sorta like that. Throw in an old man who ain’t good for nothing but cooking, and you got it right.”

  “Where’s Crazy Jim’s crew?”

  “They ain’t back, yet. Reginald went with them.”

  She stood, threw the last dregs of her coffee on the ground, then whistled for her horse.

  “You ain’t going nowhere.”

  “The day’s a wasting. Now, help me saddle Blue. My left arm ain’t working too good.”

  “Time to call in the cavalry.” He stood, favoring his knees. “Mabel!”

  Blue and Mabel got there at the same time. “Put that horse back, right now,” she told Whip, then whirled on Jake. “As for you, get your little behind back in that tent.”

  “I got work to do. It’s roundup.”

  “Your work is to get well, Jake O'Keefe. If you go out to the herd today, you’re liable to get a fever. Then, instead of being out for a day, you’ll be out for a week. As foreman of the Bar EL, you have a responsibility to stay healthy.”

  Jake reckoned the truth of the matter, but the thought of shirking chapped her hide.

  Mabel smiled. “And, as my daughter-in-law, I want you well.”

  “Daughter-in-law!”

  “That’s right. My son proposed and you accepted. We’re quite delighted.” She sniffed and frowned. “I think we’d better get his new bride cleaned up.”

  “Bride? Hell, I ain’t wearing no dress or nothing. I can rope and ride and brand. I ain’t no good at women things. Besides, I ain’t going to Boston.”

  “Suzanne!” Mabel called. Jake winced at the noise but tried not to call attention to her infirmity. Mabel turned back to Jake. “She’ll bring soap and towels. We’ll help you back to the tent and clean you up without getting that bandage wet. You’ll need your hair washed, too.


  A bath sounded like heaven, and Jake had no qualm about that, but not here. Not now. “Mabel, there’s men all over!”

  “I’ll post a guard.”

  Jake scoffed at that notion. Still, a bath sounded real inviting. Plus, she didn’t want to stink when Ben came back for the noon meal.

  “And you’re not going to Boston. Benjamin’s staying here at the Bar EL.”

  Why did that not make her happy? Maybe because she knew that in a few years, after the novelty wore off, he’d want to return to Boston and read the law. He’d told her he had made lots of money. Not that she thought money would draw him—it was the law. Being a fancy lawyer had to be a bigger draw for him than riding the range, chasing after a bunch a bellering cows.

  Before she could think of a thing to say back to Mabel, Crazy Jim led his crew into camp. While the other cowhands took care of the prisoners, Crazy Jim rode over to Jake.

  “We got a couple of the rustlers,” he said as he dismounted, “but there’s more out there.”

  “Did you get their boss?”

  “You already got him.” He loosened his gloves one finger at a time. “It’s your buddy, Fred. Said Patience sent him to disrupt the roundup so’s Ben would go back to Boston and marry up with her. Says she’s gonna, uh,” his gaze lowered, “well, she’s gonna have his baby.”

  Jake’s knees nearly buckled. She felt light-headed and her heart broke into hollow bits. But she sure as hell wouldn’t let Crazy Jim, or anyone else, know it. She swallowed hard and tensed her jaw. Looking him right in the eye, she asked, “Does Ben know this?”

  Shrugging, he said, “Don’t know. Ask him.”

  “It’s none of my business.” But she knew what she had to do for the good of the Bar EL and the good of her heart—get rid of them both. “Have someone ride up to Silver City and fetch a preacher. Then you ride out to the herd and take over for Ben. Send him to me.”

  Crazy Jim shook his head. “Damn, I thought better of him than that.”

  Jake sighed. “So did I, but he’s got to do the right thing, and we’ll make damn good and sure he does.”

  Chapter 19

  Jake sat on the log, staring into the fire. Her arm hurt and her heart ached. Crazy Jim had been gone nearly half an hour, but Ben hadn’t returned yet. She honestly didn’t know what the hell to say to him when he did.

 
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