Wyoming Territory, April
“S.H., I need a wife about as much as I need a square-dancing bull.”
Walker McKay released the steer he’d just branded and shoved his dusty Stetson to the back of his head. What would he do with a wife? He had it made: no interfering woman to tell him what to wear, when to eat, or whom to eat with. His life was his own, and he had no intention of changing it.
A cowboy galloped in, roped a calf, and then dragged it toward the branding fi re. Drovers tackled a heifer and held it to the ground while Walker applied the mark of the Spring Grass Ranch: a large S with a lowercase g intertwined in the bottom. Th ey had branded close to two hundred head since dawn; it would be close to fi ve hundred before the work let up.
“Yer as hardheaded as a blind mule,” S.H. complained. Sizemore Horatio Gibson --- “S.H.” to friends --- released the heifer, and the animal sprang to its feet bawling. Realizing she was free, she trotted off to join the others. Th e grizzled old man met Walker’s eyes. “How old will you be on yer birthday? Twenty-nine?”
“Yes. Why?” But Walker knew why. S.H. was on him again about an heir, or rather, the lack of one.
“Twenty-eight and nary an heir to carry on the McKay name. It’s a shame. Yer pa would sit up in his grave and spit if he knew how you were avoiding the altar.”
If Walker had a brother or sister, the pressure to marry and have a child would be off him and he would be free to concentrate on running the ranch. He scowled. He probably would have been a father by now if Trudy Richards hadn’t walked out on him. Walker still saw red when he thought of how he’d spent two years convincing himself that he loved that woman enough to marry her. It had taken her less than a day to prove him a fool. He could still smell her rose-scented perfume even as he recalled the egg on his face as a neighbor informed him that Trudy had beat it out of town on horseback, running off with a fellow who sold hats --- bowlers, no less; a drifter she’d met two weeks earlier at a town social.
Dust swirled around the milling cattle, who bawled when the ropes found their marks and hauled them in. Overhead, clouds drifted across a clear Wyoming sky. Only the unusually warm spring sun, stinging horseflies, and memories best forgotten marred an otherwise flawless day.Walker laid the branding iron across a steer’s rump. Disgrace was still a bitter pill to swallow. Never again would he allow a woman to make a fool of him. Not for S.H. or anybody else.
“You can’t let one woman ruin your whole life,” S.H. said, grabbing a steer and riding it to the ground. “You got to pray harder and ask that the good Lord will send the right woman. You got to produce an heir, son. Your pa worked hard for this land --- nearly killed himself building Spring Grass. It was work that put yer mama in an early grave. You don’t want to leave the ranch to strangers, do you?”
“I tried it Pa’s way and your way, and it didn’t work. I’m content with my life and I don’t intend to change it --- not now, and not any time soon.”
He had plenty of time to worry about marriage and kids. Youngsters were okay, but in Walker McKay’s book, women were good for just two things: cooking and childbearing, and not necessarily in that order. Other men might put up with being led around by their noses, but he sure as the dickens wouldn’t do it. After Trudy’s betrayal, it would be a cold day in July before he gave his heart to another female.
“Who’s gonna inherit the McKay fortune if you die? You ever think about that?”
Why think about it? He figured he had a good fifty years to settle the matter before his number was up. He wasn’t a gunslinger. He didn’t pick fights and tempt death to his doorstep. He ran a ranch, lived a temperate lifestyle, and visited town only when supplies ran low. He enjoyed hunting, catching a trout or two, and reading seed catalogues. Hardly the kind of lifestyle that threatened an early grave. He hadn’t even had a cold since the winter of ’62.
Longevity ran in the McKay family. Grandpa McKay lived to be way up in his nineties; Great-grandpa, ninety-six. If Pa hadn’t tangled with that bull last year, who knew? He might have lived to be a hundred.
Maybe by the time Walker was forty, he’d give serious thought to death. Right now he had his hands full running the ranch. He was responsible --- the ranch made a sizable profit each year, and he made sure that his thirty-five ranch hands were the first to help out when trouble hit the community. He went to church, took a bath regularly, combed his hair, and put on his clothes every morning all without a woman’s help.
“Let me tell you, son. You don’t put off what needs be done today. A man never knows how long he’s got on this old earth.”
A man S.H.’s age would naturally be worried about such things.
“Can’t we talk about this another time?”
“You ought to ask Willa Mae Lewis to the grange social Saturday night.” S.H. paused, knocking the dust off his trousers. “Now, that woman is as pretty as a prize heifer and bakes a mean rhubarb pie. Got the hips to birth a cow.”
“I have all the livestock I need, S.H.”
“Ruthie Gaines. Now there’s a fine-looking woman.”
“Vain. She’d rather stay home and stare at herself in a mirror than attend a social.”
“Spoiled. Get off my back, S.H. I don’t want a wife.”
A drover whistled loudly, ending the conversation. Walker stood and wiped sweat off his forehead. The whistle shrilled again and Walker turned, shading his eyes against the sun. A large bull, crazed with the need to escape the rope, twisted and bucked. Then, head bent and bellowing, the animal broke the cowboy’s grip.
“Watch out!” S.H. bolted for the fence as the bull charged. Walker turned too quickly and lost his balance. Staggering, he retained his footing, but not before images of an earlier scene raced through his mind. Frenzied cries, pounding hooves, and the spurt of bright red blood as the animal’s horns sank into Pa’s flesh.
“Walker!” S.H. shouted over the milling herd.
Other warnings sounded. “He’s headed your way!”
“Give him room!”
Before he could respond, the bull struck. Walker let out a muffled yell. The impact propelled him backward and spun him around. Reeling, he struggled to stay afoot and catch his breath. The animal whirled and then paused for an instant to snort and wag his head before charging again, eyes red with rage as he thundered in for a second strike.
Dropping to the ground, Walker curled into a tight ball, arms shielding his head. He gasped for breath, feeling a trickle of blood coursing down his chin.
This can’t be happening! Not to me.
Three ranch hands charged the bull, shouting, waving their arms in an attempt to divert the animal’s attention. Horns caught Walker in the side and he felt muscles tear, then blinding pain. Confusion broke out as other wranglers raced to the rescue, trying to divert the bull as it spun and lunged again, catching Walker in the upper thigh and tossing him like a rag doll. S.H. bolted to the fence where his rifle rested, shouting something Walker couldn’t make out. The bull struck again from a new direction. Walker struggled to stay conscious, trying to ward off the assault. From somewhere past consciousness he heard S.H.’s voice prodding him to produce an heir.
The bull was going to kill him.
I’m twenty-eight years old. I have all the time in the world…
He burrowed his face in the dirt. His time was up, his number called. The realization was as certain as life itself had been only scant minutes ago.
Riders galloped in and managed to divert the animal’s attention long enough for his men to pull Walker to safety. Drifting in and out of consciousness on a sea of pain, Walker opened his eyes to see S.H. hunched over him, getting in the way as ranch hands tried to cut the clothing from his wounds. The old man folded his battered hat against his chest, and tears rolled down his cheeks.
“Come on, S.H.,” Walker muttered. “It’s just a couple of broken ribs…”
But he didn’t need S.H. to tell him it was bad. He could feel blood oozing from his left side. Instead of S.H.’s voice, past conversations drifted through his mind.
I’ll think about an heir someday. I have plenty of time.
S.H. knelt beside him, openly weeping. “I tried to warn you! Didn’t you hear me?”
“I heard you…S.H…couldn’t get out of the way.” Walker struggled to focus, barely able to comprehend or respond now. Men were working over him. The pain in his leg felt like a branding iron.
“Hang on, son, hang on,” S.H. urged. “They’ve gone for the doc… don’t die on me, boy…”
I’m twenty-eight…got all the time in the world…
Reaching for the old man’s hand, Walker grasped it tightly. S.H. had been with Pa when he drew his last breath, had been with Spring Grass since Mitch felled the first tree. It was right that he would be here now.
“Saw the bull…couldn’t…”
“Lie still, son.” S.H. gripped his hand, and Walker felt the old man’s trembling. “You can beat this.”
“Take care of Spring Grass, S.H., and take care of Flo. She’s a good woman…”
“None of that talk. You’re not going to leave us, Walker. Hold on.”
Walker closed his eyes, allowing the gathering darkness to suck him under.
S.H. bellowed, “Where’s that doctor!” Sobbing, the old man sank back onto his knees.
I thought I had all the time in the world.
Boston, Massachusetts, June
I ’m dying. I’m dying, Wadsy.”
“You ain’t dyin’, honey chile. Now hold still and let Wadsy put this cold cloth on your forehead. Lawsy me, you’re hot as a poker.” The old nanny squeezed water from a cold compress and laid it across Sarah’s forehead. “Runnin’ off in this cold rain, entertainin’ the idea of marryin’ some no-good riverboat worker. What were you thinkin’, baby girl? Tyin’ yourself to some man who’d end up breakin’ your heart? Goodness, do you want your papa’s dyspepsia to fl are up again? He’s gonna have a conniption fi t when he hears what you been up to!”
Sarah lay on the bed, arms fl ung spread-eagle, staring at the ceiling.
Hank was a bit unstable, and Papa would point that out, ranting about how she’d known the “scoundrel” less than a week, but the riverboat worker had promised to settle down and devote himself tirelessly to family life. He’d vowed he was weary of traveling from town to town, wasting his life on women and strong drink. Unlike Papa, she didn’t have to know someone a hundred years to judge his character.
“I was this close to marriage, Wadsy.” She measured a minuscule distance with her thumb and forefi nger. “I could have been a bride.”
Wadsy groaned. “Praise the good Lord that he intervened. Law, girl, you’re going to put this ol’ woman in an early grave.”
“This close,” Sarah repeated. “Why did Abe have to come along when he did? Why couldn’t that old mare have thrown a shoe any other time but today?”
“You’re ‘this close’ to feelin’ the strap of your daddy’s belt to your backside, Sarah Elaine Livingston.” Wadsy lifted the cloth off of Sarah’s forehead and soaked it in a pan of cool water. “Good thing Abe came along when he did or you’d be in a fine how-de-do.”
Curling up into a tight ball, Sarah released her misery in wailing sobs.
“Now, child,” Wadsy soothed. “It ain’t the end of the world.”
“But it is!” Sarah cried. “All I have ever wanted was to marry and have children. Just look at me. I’m twenty-five and an old maid !” Sarah wadded up her pillow and wept into it. Her muffled voice came through the crisply ironed pillowcase. “I’m going to die before I ever get to be a wife.”
Every time she got close to the altar, someone interfered with her plans. When would she ever escape Papa’s attempts to suffocate her dream? When would she finally have the husband she ached to care for or an infant to call her own?
Wadsy rescued the pillow, clucking her tongue and shaking out the creases. “Never seen such carrying-on. Sit up, honey chile. Your nose is gonna be all red and uglylike. You’ll never find a husband if you have an ugly red nose.”
Sarah bolted upright, pinning Wadsy with a cold stare. “I’m never going to find a husband no matter what my nose looks like. And who cares? No one, that’s who!”
Old Abe could have helped today, but no. He had to come by the landing on his way to have the mare shod, spot her boarding the boat with Hank, and drag her off like an errant child. And the worst was yet to come. She still had to face Papa.
“We all care, baby girl. We just don’t want you goin’ off half-cocked and marryin’ the wrong man.” Settling her bulk on the side of the bed, Wadsy smoothed Sarah’s fiery red tendrils from her forehead. The dark-skinned woman had practically raised Sarah from infancy; she was like a second mother. “I know how your heart aches for a husband. Lord knows you’ve clomped around this house with a curtain over that unruly hair, wearin’ your mama’s gowns, gettin’ pretend married since you could toddle. Lawsy me, I’ve attended more weddin’s during your childhood than I can count, but marriage is powerful serious, baby girl. The good Lord intends marriage vows to be spoken in earnest. You got to get it right or you’ll live with the mistake the rest of your life. None of us want to see you go through that --- cain’t you understand?”
“Oh, Wadsy.” Sarah sniffed and then blew her nose into her handkerchief.
She knew she was spoiled and demanded her way, but how long could she stay under Papa’s thumb? Marriage was sacred and shouldn’t be entered into lightly, but the perfect man --- the one Papa insisted on, simply didn’t exist. Papa was rich beyond belief --- he owned his own railroad, half of Boston, and hundreds and hundreds of acres of abundant cotton land --- so he could purchase anything she wanted. Yet he was powerless to buy what she needed: a husband, someone to love and care for, someone who would love and care for her when Papa and Wadsy and Abraham passed on.
No amount of money in the world could assure that kind of happiness. Over the years dozens of young men, mostly men who worked for Papa, had courted her. Something --- usually Papa --- always interfered with those promising relationships. No one was ever good enough for her in her father’s eyes, though he insisted that she was being overly dramatic when she said so. Yet here she was, getting older by the minute and not a lick closer to a husband than she’d been the day Wadsy helped Dr. Mason bring her into the world.
“Come on, now.” Wadsy lumbered to her feet, taking Sarah’s arm and urging her up. The old nanny was three times Sarah’s size, her fleshy bulk swaying with the motion. “Suppa’s on the table, and there’s no need to make your papa angrier than he already is.”
Sarah dug her heels into the rug, refusing to be led to the slaughter. She knew that supper would be an emotional scene, with Papa vowing to send her off to Uncle Brice. She’d die before she’d live in Uncle Brice’s stuffy old mausoleum. His humorless laugh sounded like a crow lodged in his snout.
Wadsy’s eyes flashed with determination and she pulled, hauling her struggling charge across the Turkish carpet, out the door, and into the hallway. Sarah tried to get back into her room, but Wadsy blocked the door and called for Abe.
The towering black man quickly appeared at the bottom of the stairs, and Sarah’s heart sank. She shrank against the wall, trying to avoid his gaze, but the white-haired servant pinned her with a stern look that she knew meant business. His low-pitched bass rumbled deep in his massive chest.
“Come on down now, missy. Suppa’s gettin’ cold.”
“I’m sick, Abe. I have the sniffles and I feel flushed. Don’t make me eat with Papa!”
“Ain’t no use, Abraham. You’re gonna have to come after her,” Wadsy called. “She’s in one of her moods.”
Stiffening, Sarah fixed her body in a rigid stance, keeping an eye on Abe and a hand clenched on the banister as he slowly ascended the stairway.
“I’m too ill to eat.”
“Makes no difference to me if you eat suppa or not, but your papa wants you at his table while he eats his.”
Gently but firmly prying her hand from the rail, he swung her over his left shoulder and hauled her down the winding stairway. When the battling duo reached the foyer, Wadsy hurried to straighten Sarah’s skirts, avoiding the flailing legs.
Crossing her arms, Sarah refused to let her captors intimidate her as Abe transported her into the dining room. They might force her to sit at Papa’s table, but they would need a crowbar to make her eat. Or speak. Lowell Livingston glanced up when Abe stepped into the dining room, carrying Sarah over his shoulder. She made sure that settling her was no easy task. She kept her knees locked straight out and slid out of her chair twice before Abe could get her planted. Then the servant excused himself and left the dining room.
The mantel clock ticked away the seconds as Lowell fixed his daughter with a harsh stare down the long, silver-laden table.
“Exactly whom,” he began in an even tone, “were you about to marry this time?”
Sarah pursed her lips, focusing on the gold-rimmed plate. “I don’t care to discuss it. I’m dying.”
“You’re not dying. Wadsy says you have the sniffles and a fever from your reckless outing this afternoon. What were you thinking, daughter? Were you honestly going to run off with this man?”
“I was. And I’m thinking,” she answered in a carefully modulated voice, “that I want to get married, Papa!”
Leaving his chair, Lowell paced the floor. Sarah recognized the stubborn set of his jaw and knew it meant trouble. She’d stretched his patience to the breaking point.
“A dockworker? A common stranger? Have you no shame?”
“You make him sound terrible. He’s better than most of the other dockworkers. Name one man more suited for marriage.”
“Joe Mancuso, train master. An up-and-coming young man making a real name for himself at the railroad.”
“Mr. Mancuso doesn’t want to get married.”
Lowell snorted. “You can’t know that! You spent one evening --- one very short evening, if I recall --- with him.”
“I asked him.”
Lowell paused, looking faint. “You asked him?”
“I asked him. He muttered something and excused himself. I knew what that meant.”
“What about Richard Ponder? A splendid example of a young man going places. His parents are fine people. I spoke to them personally before I arranged the meeting. Twenty-six and already a station agent. Youngest man in the division to obtain such a position --- ” he paused to look at her. “You didn’t ask him to marry you, did you?”
Sarah shook her head. “He volunteered the information. His mother doesn’t want him getting married. Not now and, judging by his tone,not ever.”
Papa slapped his forehead. “Great day in the morning!” Sarah shrugged. He was clearly aghast at her candor, but how was a woman expected to know a man’s potential if she didn’t ask? If Papa could be nosy, why couldn’t she? Papa’s health was precarious. Three heart spells in two years reminded them both of his mortality. Wadsy and Abe were even older, and someday she was going to be completely alone. Alone. With no one to love her or for her to love. If she were married, losing Papa would still be devastating, but she could surround herself with her family and ease the pain.
She had seen the way Mama had looked at Papa during her illness --- as if he owned her soul. He’d looked back at her exactly the same way, with so much love and need in his eyes it took Sarah’s breath. That was what she wanted. Love so strong that even death couldn’t snatch it away. If it was wrong to seek that kind of devotion, then she was guilty as charged. Wadsy said she shouldn’t depend on others for happiness, but if she had her own home, babies to look after, and a husband to love, she could cope with the losses certain to enter her life sooner than later.
“Sit down, Papa. Remember your heart.”
“Humph. You remember my heart.”
The somber reminder calmed her. She did remember. She thought about it every day.
“I’m sorry, Papa. I love and respect you, and I don’t mean to be such a bother. I wish you could understand.”
Lowell sat down, allowing Will, their cook, to spoon thick slices of beef swimming in a rich brown broth onto his plate. Dr. Mason had advised him that he should eat more vegetables and fruit, and he said
Lowell was going to die from eating so much rich food --- but Lowell wouldn’t hear of it. When the cook moved to serve Sarah, she waved his efforts aside. “I’m not hungry, Will.”
“May I bring you some nice broth, Miss Livingston?”
“Nothing, thank you.” She watched Papa lather thick butter onto a slice of warm bread as she waited for the inevitable. This time she’d gone too far. This time he would carry through with his threat to send her to Uncle Brice. She couldn’t bear even the thought of a dreadful, hot Georgia summer full of long, boring days in Brice’s company. Tears of self-pity and hollow remorse threatened to break loose, and she quickly averted her eyes. Clenching her fists, she waited for the storm to break.
“I’m at the end of my rope, Sarah.”
“I know, Papa. I’m sorry.”
“Today’s little escapade has convinced me that you will be better off with your Uncle Brice.”
“Papa, no!” A tear coursed down her flushed cheek and hung on the tip of her quivering chin.
Slamming his fist down on the table, Lowell glared at her. “Daughter, yes! I can’t watch you every waking moment, and you have proved to be too much for Wadsy and Abe to handle. Wadsy will pack your bags and Abe will take you to the train Saturday morning. A year in Savannah will help to refine you and make you see the error of your ways before you drive us all into an early grave.”
“A whole year? Papa!” Her thoughts turned from self-pity to anger.
“I won’t go!”
She’d run away. She’d run so far this time that Papa would never find her. The times she’d been forced to endure living under Brice Livingston’s roof were intolerable. He was ill-tempered and would keep her confined if she did the least little thing to rile him. Brice wouldn’t let a man near her for the whole year. Why, last summer he’d locked her in her room every night! Papa couldn’t just ship her down South and consider the problem solved.
Brice had survived three loveless marriages, all ending in bitterness, and he had nothing but contempt for the bond she held so dear. He would strip her of her spirit and do everything within his power to color her outlook on life, love, and, most certainly, marriage.
Staring at her empty plate, she vowed softly, “I won’t go to Uncle Brice.”
“You have no choice.” Picking up his fork, Lowell speared a piece of beef, fixing her with a hard look. “End of discussion.”
Excerpted from WALKER’S WEDDING: The Western Sky Series, Book 3 © Copyright 2011 by Lori Copeland. Reprinted with permission by Harvest House Publishers. All rights reserved.