Beth's on-the-spot scheme to get out of an unwanted marriage doesn't go as planned...
Baiting the trap...
“No! No way, no how, under no circumstances, never!” I shouted, trying to put as much weight as possible into my voice.
It wasn't a whole lot. Nature had seen fit to give me the most girlish voice it could find to match my slight frame, something that caused those who didn't know my hard nature to underestimate me. Papa wasn't one of them.
His lip twitched, causing his mustache to do a little dance as his eyes narrowed. I did the same –the eyes I mean, not the mustache– meeting his stubborn glare with one I hoped was of equal ferocity. I reckon I came up a little short because he squared up, adjusted his Stetson, and put his hands on his hips.
“You're gettin' hitched, and that's final! Just ain't proper to have a girl nearin' twenty and still not settled! Heck, you ain't even been aimin' to settle!”
“Then you shouldn't have raised a cowgirl! I don't need and I don't want some smelly farmhand runnin' my affairs. Doin' needlework, washing clothes, cooking meals, bustling about a bunch of ill natured little brats.” I shuddered at the thought. “Do I really seem the 'settled' type to you?”
This one actually gave him pause, causing him to stop and give me a long hard look. Unfortunately, stubbornness won out in the end.
“Hey, gather up! It's time for what I told y'all about this morning!” he shouted to the farmhands all milling about doing their chores.
At that time we had seven in total after a good year previous had allowed us to expand the ranch and take in more stock. They were all hard workers and ranchers through and through – but I'd still rather turn spinster than marry any man who would seek to break me like a prized stallion with the ranch as his trophy.
Six of the seven lined up in front of us. I gave a short chuckle.
“And these are my options are they? Hell, I'd still be twice the cowboy of any of 'em even if I chose to ride side saddle! Which of them was able to break Beauty? Or Thunder? Oh, that's right, they couldn't! It was little old helpless me and I didn't need a husband to do it!”
The assembly mulled around as bits of embarrassment colored their cheeks. Papa fidgeted and toyed with the rim of his hat before biting his lip and redoubling his effort.
“You can ride, rope, and break with the best of them, but you still don't know the first thing about running a ranch proper!”
“And that's your doin'!” I shouted, real anger now overlapping my indignation. “I've been trying for years but you never put one lick into it because you were always planning to pass me off to some Hand! If mama were still alive she'd set you straight with a frying pan!”
That one hurt him –and me just as much– but it needed to be said. Unfortunately, it was then that I saw something in his eyes that I'd only seen once before. Desperation. He'd had it in his eyes the night mama had died and on that night he'd rode three horses to death –something he considered the ultimate shame for a true cowboy– trying to fetch help to save her. Papa wouldn't be letting this go.
“So I have to choose from our own Hands?” I asked sullenly.
His eyes lit up.
“Unless you have another feller in mind?” he asked hopefully.
“No, no man's ever caught my heart, so it'll have to be one of...” I stopped dead as I swept my eyes across the lineup of potential suitors. Something had caught my eye that might just get me out of this mess and settle Papa's hash at the same time.
“Well?” he asked, the excitement rising in his voice.
“So whichever one of our Hands I chose is okay?” He nodded. “And if you don't approve, you'll forget about all this nonsense and stop trying to marry me off?” He puzzled for a moment, then nodded again, figuring he had nothing to lose. “On your word as a man, a rancher, and a cowboy?”
“On my word,” he said seriously. “But I'm gonna Seal the marriage myself once you choose so just get on with it!”
I smiled as the trap was completed. Papa would walk naked through a cactus patch till he died of thirst before he'd go against his word.
“Alright then, I choose... you!” I said, pointing towards the assembly. The man nearest where my finger was pointing let out a whoop and tossed his hat in the air as I started towards them.
“I figured you'd choose Jode,” Papa said, a beam of joy in his voice. “I always reckoned the two of you would...” both his words and Jode's whooping came to a halt as I walked right past the line to the seventh farmhand who hadn't joined the lineup of suitors and removed my hat, dropped to one knee, and took one of their hands in mine.
“How about it, Maggie, will you marry me?”
The sole female farmhand on our ranch was so stunned she dropped the fork she was pitching hay with. From behind me I heard a loud “Ah Hell!” and the sound of a Stetson hitting the dirt.
“Why you sneaky, backstabbing, conniving, cow-pie-hearted, little trickster!” Papa roared once he'd frightened off the lineup of laughing farmhands.
“Language Papa, you'll scare off my fiance`” I said, laughing as his face started to purple. He knew he'd been had and now he had to swallow it.
“Um...” Maggie started but Papa started over her.
“I can't believe I raised such a snake!”
“I only became a snake because you were being bullheaded and you know it! Now are we done with all this marriage nonsense so I can get back to my chores?”
Papa looked like he was about to spit out another stream of cowboy curses when a bit of clarity suddenly entered his eyes. Looking back on it I imagine it was the same as what passed through my eyes when I'd seen Maggie pitching hay behind the lineup. I found myself squeezing the hand that I hadn't quite realized I was still holding.
“You know what, why the heck not?!” Papa said with what seemed to be a mix of mirth and lack of sanity.
“What?!” Maggie and I shouted in unison.
“Hey now, I never agreed to...” Maggie started again, but was spoken over once more.
“How's about it Mags, you'd have to put up with my surly cur of a daughter, but this could all be yours someday!” he said, spreading his arms to showcase the ranch around him.
Now it was Maggie's turn to pause. It must have been like being offered the forbidden fruit for a low farmhand to be offered the run of the place. Her hand tightened in mine.
This wasn't at all how I'd expected things to turn out and it was spiraling out of control faster than I could keep up with. If Maggie said no, Papa would make me choose again and I'd be right back where I started. I couldn't be forced to marry some roughneck, I'd may as well die outside as I would inside. My head was spinning and spinning and my stomach felt like it was tying in knots. And then, all of a sudden, everything just went blank.
I could feel arms around my back and under my knees. The gentle sensation of being rocked back and forth for a time. Something coming up underneath me to hold me steady. Then finally a gentle breeze to coax my eyes open. I found myself in the barn on a stack of hay bales, Maggie leaning over me and waving her hat to cool to my face.
I'd never seen her without her hat on and it struck me as odd at just how feminine she was. I confess I never got to know her all that well, just a few short words from time to time, but she'd always seemed just as rough around the edges as the men. Given that she worked just as well as them I guess I'd started to think of her just the same. That would probably change after what I was seeing now.
She had a thin, angular face, high cheekbones, and full lips that were cracked from the heated breath of her labor. Her nose had the slightest hint of a bridge and her eyes were a deep gray. Her hair –which I now realized she must keep tucked up in her hat– was long and wavy and fell about her face in loose strawberry blonde curls. She was beautiful, and something about the concern in those stormy gray eyes set my stomach a flutter.
“Hey now, come on back to me,” she said, continuing to fan me with her hat.
“Aw hell,” I murmured, “fainting like a damsel in a storybook sure ain't gonna help me get out of this mess!” I did a quick look around and saw we were alone. “Did... did you carry me here.” She nodded.
“Asked for some time alone to talk things out. You feeling better?” she asked sweetly. I nodded up at her and rose to a sitting position. “Good, now I won't feel so bad about this!” she shouted, swatting me with the hat she'd been using to fan me. “Do you have any idea the mess you got me into with this little stunt of yours?! I could lose my livelihood over this if your father thinks we were conspirin' to cheat him!”
“Wouldn't normally! But I've never seen him go off it like that, not even when Jesse forgot to lock the fence on the new Broncs and he was mad as a hornet then!”
“I'm sorry! It was my only way out of that mess!” I threw back at her, letting my desperation show.
“Well a little warning would have been much appreciated!” she threw back.
“Well then we really would have been conspiring!”
“Well... ah hell,” she surrendered. “Look, I can understand not wanting to marry, believe me,” she said, a hint of sadness entering her voice. She seemed to notice it though and shook her head to clear away whatever she was thinking. “But this stunt you pulled is a damn fool thing to do! You'll be lucky to get out with a tanned hide and me with a roof over my head. This ranch is everything I have in the world, I can't lose my place here...”
“No, Papa wouldn't do a thing like that, he's just trying to call my bluff...” I paused and looked at her for a time. She truly was terrified at the thought of losing this place. “Unless it's not a bluff,” I said, the glow of potential forming a smile on my lips.
“Pardon?” she asked warily.
“You love this ranch?” She continued to stare at me with concern but nodded slowly. “Well how would you like it to be yours someday? Well, ours technically, but you get the idea!” I said, taking her hand between mine excitedly. “And I wouldn't have to become maid, servant, and slave to some smelly cowpoke! It's perfect.”
I was positively beaming at the prospect until I looked into those eyes and saw the storm brewing behind them.
“You have to understand something,” she said slowly and carefully –much too carefully to keep the butterflies in my stomach from fluttering– as she lowered our hands to her lap. “For me, the Seal of a manager is as good as any preacher. If your father were to Seal us as you seem to believe he would... I would honor every promise as best I could to my dying day so you take that to heart before you decide to tease me with the chance at my dream just so you can escape your nightmare.”
With that she stood, put on her hat, and stepped away to give me time to think. At first I couldn't think of a thing, merely watched her check on the horses absently as she waited. Then it all came flooding in and I felt as much a foolish little girl as I ever had. That I could be so inconsiderate as to nearly ruin her life on my own selfish whim was something I would spend a good deal of time to apologize for no matter how this day should end.
Then it hit me, I could start making it up to her this very day. I hopped off the hay bale and dusted myself off, straightened the collar of my shirt, and tipped my hat at a rakish angle. She was watching me make myself presentable with a look somewhere between confusion and bemusement but I ignored it and approached, fighting to keep my stomach from knotting with every step. When I finally reached her I dropped to one knee –finding the ground to be remarkably soft– and took one of her hands in mine.
“I'm sorry for not taking your situation into account when I was tricking Papa. I've been dreading marriage for so long that when I saw you standing there it was like an angel come to save me. I didn't think of how much it could hurt you and I'd like to make good on undoing the damage that I might have caused. You mentioned that it was your dream to have the run of this place, right?”
She nodded, and for some strange reason seemed to be trying her damnedest not to laugh. I ignored it and pressed on.
“So here, with just the two of us, I'd like to ask you to join me on this fool's errand and see if we can't make both of our dreams come true.”
It was the finest speech I was ever likely to give and I was damned proud of the conviction I managed to put behind the words. I could only hope it was enough to convince her that I wasn't just some foolish girl playing mad at her Papa.
“Shit,” she said simply, a radiant smile taking over her face.
“Wha...” I murmured, at a total loss.
“You're kneelin' in horse shit... but I'll marry you anyway,” she said, breaking into full on laughter as I looked down to see the literal mess I was in.
“Ah hell...” Papa muttered upon seeing us, hand-in-hand, leaving the barn.
I matched eyes with him and this time I had just enough iron to make him break the contact first. I couldn't help but grin and gave Maggie's hand a reassuring squeeze as we squared up in front of him.
“We'd like you to Seal us,” I said simply, hoping against the nerves that threatened to steal away my words.
He gave Maggie a long hard look that for a moment made her hand go limp in mine, but after a time the strength returned. Papa scowled.
“Just one last thing first,” he said, then called Jode over.
The rejected farmhand looked more than a little sullen and refused to meet my eye. I swallowed hard over the lump forming in my throat, not liking this at all.
“Jode, what do you reckon' you would do with the back nine?”
The question came out of nowhere and took us all by surprise. I knew that the back nine was an extra bit of land Papa had purchased that hadn't been put to use yet, but that was about it.
“Well, I... uh...”
“Out with it!” Papa snapped.
“I'd take in a new stud and breed to the fillies so we can grow the line!” Jode shot out nervously.
Papa nodded then dismissed him with a wave, the man all too happy to oblige. Then he turned to Maggie.
“Well, what do you think a that?”
“I think it'd be a damn fool thing to do with winter on our heels. Even if they threw some good colts we'd likely loose them to the frost.”
Her voice sounded sure, but her hand had gone clammy in mine. Papa nodded impassively, his legendary poker face up in full force.
“So what do you reckon for it?”
“I...” she faltered, and for a second I was afraid the pressure had gotten to her so I gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. Papa certainly wasn't making this easy on her, but she managed to pull it together. “I'd lease the land to Randal Cain for the winter. I know he's overstocked and desperate for grazing fields. We'd have some extra cash on hand for the winter, free working and fertilizing for the back nine so we can start early when the frost clears, and likely a discount on his wool come next year.”
The dumbstruck look on Papa's face was worth every bit of anxiety he'd put me through with all this marriage business. Even I was impressed by her answer and my knowledge was purposefully limited on the subject. Eventually, slowly, Papa removed his hat and reached out to place a hand on top of ours.
“Well...” he said solemnly, all the rage having drained away.
“Well what?” I asked.
“Aren't ya gonna take off your damn hats so I can put my Seal on this arrangement?!” Okay, so most of it had drained away.
“You mean you approve?” I asked, removing my hat and pressing it to my chest.
A sour look was his only response as Maggie also removed hers and looked at me tentatively.
“Maggie Baker, do you swear to protect and care for my daughter, this land, and all others who live here when the responsibility to do so passes onto you?”
“I do,” she said without any hesitation. Papa turned to me.
“Elizabeth Declan, do you swear to love and support Maggie and help tend these lands for as much as and for as long as you are able?”
I, on the other hand, froze like a skeeter in a snow storm. The word 'love' echoed over and over in my mind. I could support her dream and help care for the land without a second thought. But love... now that was a whole other story altogether. I didn't even know what love was, I'd never really even had what I could call feelings for any of the boys in school and none of them had ever come callin' on me... I had to wonder about that. Maggie may be able to put in a days work like a man but she was a woman through and through.
“Remember what I said,” she whispered, taking me from my thoughts, “this is your last chance to back out of this, hon.”
There was a different kind of storm brewing behind those deep gray eyes of hers. This one, however, was full of such hope and promise of devotion that I found myself getting lost in that promise. She would never try to dominate or control me, limit me to 'woman-work' about the house and ranch. She would always be there for me, striving to make my dreams come true as I had helped hers.
“I do,” I said, barely breathing the words as the promise in those stormy eyes took away my breath.
Papa closed his eyes and let out a long slow breath, steeling himself for what was about to happen.
“Then as owner and manager of these lands I put my Seal on this Matrimony and welcome Maggie Baker into my family.”
I closed my eyes, a flood of relief washing over me...
“Now go on and kiss to put your own Seal on the union.”
...only to snap open in surprise. I turned to Maggie and saw my surprise mirrored on her face. We sat and stared for what felt like a full candle burn before she bit her lip and shrugged. We began the slow journey towards one other, her having to lean down due to my diminutive frame. I think I should have been more nervous than I was, this being my first kiss and all... but when our lips met for that barest moment, everything felt as right as rain.
“Now that that's over with, go on, git, the both of you!” he groused, shoving us toward the main house. “You'll have to stay in Beth's room for tonight, we don't have the daylight left to move my things to the off house and yours into the main bedroom.”
“But... what... huh?” I babbled, none of the words quite sinking in.
“But... what about our chores?” Maggie asked, also out of her senses.
He gave us a sour look and put his hands on his hips to take his, 'brook no arguments' stance.
“As if I'd let my daughters work on their damned honeymoon! Now git!”
“I... okay,” I managed, still stunned as Maggie and I made our way towards the house.
It may not have been the most intimate of weddings but I still found myself all a flutter as we made our way home together.
“And take a damn bath! Ya both smell like ya been rolling in horse shit!”
Definitely not the most intimate...
To be continued...