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Seven Brides: Fern
By Leigh Greenwood
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 1994 Leigh Greenwood
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAbilene, Kansas-1871
Fern Sproull rounded the corner of the Drovers Cottage, spurs clanking, her fists tightly clenched. She skidded to a halt when she saw George Randolph standing on the porch in a deep study. "Piss and vinegar!" she muttered angrily. Then tilting her head at a defiant angle, she walked straight past him into the hotel.
"How long has that skunk been here?" she demanded of the man behind the desk, stabbing a slender index finger in George's direction.
"Keep your voice down," Frank Turner implored.
Only then did Fern notice that the windows had been thrown open to catch the breeze. George Randolph had probably heard every word she said, but she didn't care. It was about time he knew what she thought of him and all the rest of his clan. It infuriated her that people like the Randolphs thought money gave them the right to do anything they liked.
"It would ruin me if he and the rest of the Texans took their business to the Planters Hotel," Frank explained.
Fern leaned against the desk. "I wish they'd all go back to Texas and stay there."
"You might as well say you want to take the food out of my children's mouths."
"Why couldn't he get killed by lightning or run over in a stampede?" Fern complained, ignoring her friend's objection.
"I thought it was Hen Randolph you hated so much. George ain't done nothing."
"I can't stand any of them." She directed her words toward George, but he showed no sign of having heard her.
"If Hen killed Troy, they'll find out at the trial," Frank said.
"George will try to buy him off."
"You can't buy people in Abilene," Frank assured her.
"Half this town has already sold out to Texas cattle," Fern declared, pointing her finger again, this time at Frank. "The governor postponed Hen's trial until their fancy lawyer could get here. Now he's moved it to Topeka."
"How do you know it's a lawyer he's waiting for?"
"What else could that telegram mean? Besides, why else would anybody be coming all the way from Boston? You might have known nobody in Kansas or Missouri was good enough for them."
"Bert had no business showing you that telegram," Frank said, a frown creasing his brow.
"He was just trying to help. We got to stick together against outsiders."
"That kind of loyalty will get you both in trouble one of these days."
"Not likely anything I can't handle," Fern said with a confident squaring of her shoulders. "I've a good mind to tell George what I think of him and his murdering brother."
"I wouldn't if I was you," Frank advised. "That kind of talk is none too popular. I ain't the only one who makes his living off the drovers."
"Then you'd better start looking for another business. It won't be long before the farmers and respectable ranchers drive all the Texans out of Kansas. But not until after we hang Hen Randolph."
"Ain't nobody seen who killed your cousin," Frank pointed out gently. "I ain't saying it weren't Hen Randolph, but you got no way to prove it. And you know this town won't hang no Texan unless you got dead proof. Folks are afraid they'll take their business to Ellsworth or burn the town down over their heads."
"You're nothing but a bunch of cowards," Fern said angrily.
"No man likes being called a coward, Fern, especially them that is. There's a lot of Texans here right now, so unless you plan on staying away from town-"
"I mean to stay right here until I get a good look at that lawyer."
"-you'd better watch your mouth. If you don't, you'd better watch your back."
"You think George Randolph would shoot me?"
"No. He's too much of a gentleman, despite all you say about him, but that don't hold for everybody from Texas. When there's trouble, they stick together like they all had the same last name. Not that he needs any help," Frank said, gazing at George. "I hear tell he has six more brothers, each one meaner than the next."
"I don't care if he's got a hundred and six," Fern declared. "Hen Randolph will hang. You have my word on it."
The Kansas Pacific engine belched thick clouds of black smoke into the pristine Kansas sky as it slowed in its approach to Abilene. Inside the only passenger car, James Madison Randolph sat erect in his seat.
"Don't be fooled by its rough appearance," said the only other passenger, a talkative man with whom Madison had been trying to avoid conversation since Kansas City. "Charley Thompson only laid out our little town about a dozen years ago, but already it's one of the most important in the state. Someday it'll be the most important city in Kansas."
The man had introduced himself as Sam Belton, the owner of the largest land office in Abilene. Madison tried to ignore him, as well as the nearly overpowering noise and stench emanating from the stockyards that bordered the train tracks on the south, but failed on both counts.
"Of course, a lot of people are only interested in making as much money as they can while the cattle boom lasts," Belton continued, "but we got a lot of good solid citizens here who hate the cattle trade as much as I do. One day there's going to be farms as far as you can see."
Madison didn't have to study the countryside to know that farming would be a very chancy occupation. One glance had been sufficient to tell him it was as barren as anything he had seen in Texas.
But Madison had no thoughts to spare for Kansas or its future farmers. George would be waiting at the station, and with him questions that had gone unanswered for eight years. From the moment he stepped on the train in Boston, Madison had been dreading this meeting.
Madison reluctantly rose to his feet as the train came to a halt. He looked at his clothes and frowned. Travel had ruined his appearance. That and the heat. Kansas was nothing like Boston or Virginia, but it was depressingly like Texas. His three years in that state had been a nightmare he preferred to remember as seldom as possible. Preferably not at all.
Don't think about it. Just do it. Then your debt will be paid, and you can get back to your own life.
"You'll want to put up at the Gulf House," Belton told Madison. "It's not the most popular hotel, but the Drovers Cottage is full of Texans. We don't mind taking their money, but nobody wants to sleep with them."
The look Madison gave Belton caused him to leave the train without further comment.
Madison didn't know what he expected of Abilene, but he had thought there'd be a railroad station at the very least. Instead, he stepped out onto a bare piece of prairie as big as a military parade ground that separated the tracks from the buildings of the town.
His luggage landed at his feet.
The heat soaked up by his black suit made him feel twenty degrees hotter. He picked up his bags and headed toward the first building he saw. The words Drovers Cottage were printed in huge letters across the front of the three-story hotel. It offered shade, rooms, and, Madison hoped despite Belton's remarks, some modicum of comfort.
* * *
Fern felt her stomach do a double flip. The most gorgeous man she'd ever imagined had just stepped off the train. Sinking down on the open windowsill, she gaped at him, her mouth as wide open as her eyes. She'd never seen anything like him. He didn't even dress like an ordinary person. His clothes would have caused him to stand out in any gathering. In Abilene, they were sure to make him an attraction all by himself.
She was used to rough men, dirty from their work, coarse because of the way they lived, strong because they had to be. They were clean only when they came fresh from the bath. Then they moved about as though uncomfortable with their unaccustomed state.
There was nothing uncertain about this man. He looked strong and determined, like a young bull surveying a new territory he meant to make his own. He also looked polished and slicked down. His coat fitted his broad shoulders as tightly as her gloves fitted her hands.
As he stood there, gazing disdainfully around him, the remaining strength drained from her limbs. This man looked enough like George Randolph to be his double. He had to be another one of the Randolph clan.
But even as Fern felt anger cause her ebbing strength to return, she couldn't resist taking one last, lingering look at this Adonis who had caused her heart to skip several beats. If it had been another time ... if he had been another man ...
But he wasn't. He was a Randolph.
Reminding herself of Troy's murder, she resolutely hardened her heart. This man was her enemy. He had come to mock justice.
She meant to see he didn't succeed.
Madison's forward progress was arrested when his near double stepped off the porch. George. It unnerved him that they should look so much alike. There had always been a strong resemblance between them, but he had been a teenager when they'd last seen each other, George a man. Now it was like seeing himself in a mirror. It brought his past rushing back on him with incredible force.
The tangle of strong and conflicting emotions unsettled him. He had told himself he wouldn't feel anything. He hadn't wanted to feel anything. But one glance at the older brother he hadn't seen in ten years and he felt far too much to sort out in the short time before they came face to face.
Chagrined that his stride should have faltered, that he should have felt a vague desire to retreat to the train, Madison forced himself to step forward again.
They met in the middle of the wide, dusty expanse of barren ground. Two men alone.
"I told them you were alive," George said, staring at his brother as though drinking in every detail of his appearance. His words sounded like a sigh, the release of a long-held breath.
Madison hadn't expected George to fall on his neck with joy, but neither had he expected the first words out of his mouth to drive home, with the penetrating power of a steel-tipped lance, the agony of George's years spent wondering if he was alive.
Guilt. Too heavy and hot to deny.
Guilt because he had known that George would worry, because he hadn't written. Guilt for the fear that his family might somehow destroy the new life he had built for himself.
"I knew you'd come back."
They hadn't been reunited for a full minute and already George was trying to draw him back into the family imbroglio that had nearly suffocated Madison years before. He felt it as if it were a hand in the small of his back pushing him along. All the self-recrimination drained away.
"I haven't come back, George. I'm here only because Hen is in trouble."
"He was in trouble when you ran off and left Ma and the rest of them in that hell-hole without a man to protect them. Why come back now?"
Madison could feel his temper, never very far below the surface, pushing up, threatening to explode.
"Look, George, I didn't come back to argue over what I did eight years ago. If you don't want me here, I'll leave."
"Of course I want you here. Why do you think I came to meet you?"
"You have a damned funny way of showing it."
"Maybe it's because I can't decide whether I want to hit you or hug you."
Damn. George always had a way of twisting his guts in a knot.
"I guess you'd better hit me. I don't think they'd understand anything else in this town. Besides, it'll make you feel better."
"I guess they'll have to try," George said, as he stepped forward to throw his arms around his brother.
Madison stiffened, refusing to return the embrace. He didn't want George thinking he was giving up a single inch of his hard-won independence. He wanted to be welcomed, but on his own terms.
"Why didn't you write?" George asked as he released his brother and stepped back. "Everybody thought you were dead."
"You didn't. Why?"
"We're too much alike. I would have felt it."
Madison started to deny that-it seemed incredible that anyone could think he was at all like a man who was content to live on a cow ranch in southern Texas-but he couldn't, not when looking at George was almost like looking at himself.
"How did you find out about Hen? I could hardly believe my eyes when I got your telegram."
"It was in a company report."
"What kind of report?"
"I'll tell you some other time. It's not important now. Tell me about Hen."
"What good will that do?"
"I'm a lawyer. I've come to prove he's innocent."
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Madison realized that Hen had been fourteen years old when he left Texas. Madison knew even less about his younger brother than he knew about George.
He didn't know any of his brothers anymore. He hadn't realized until he had stepped off the train, not until the awful Kansas landscape brought back the reality of the Texas brush country, that he had been thinking of them as they used to be in Virginia. There, living in a large mansion with a dozen servants, it would have been impossible for a Randolph to commit murder. Here, in this savage land, anything was possible.
"Let's go inside," George said as they started toward the hotel. "You can't be used to this much heat back East. I thought you fancy swells wore white when you went to the tropics."
"Fancy swells might," Madison replied with some asperity, "but this is not the tropics. And I prefer to be thought of as a gentleman rather than a swell."
A trace of a smile lightened George's expression. "Prefer what you like, but everybody here is going to call you a swell. At best a tenderfoot. Nobody would believe you spent three years living in a dog trot."
Madison had tried to pretend those years never happened. There had been times when he felt like an animal, fighting and clawing just to stay alive.
"What are you doing in Kansas?" Madison asked. "It's a long way from south Texas."
"I came to look into some investments."
"Investments? With what?"
George cocked his head and eyed his brother.
"The Circle Seven is one of the biggest and most successful ranches in Texas. We've spent most of our money buying breeding stock to improve our herds, but we've had to sell off the old stock to clear the range. The profits have been so good we've been looking for ways to invest the extra money. Once we start selling our improved stock, we'll make even more."
"The Circle Seven? I thought it was the Running S. Did you buy a new ranch?"
"No. Rose thought we ought to have a new name."
George seemed amused by his surprise. "You have a nephew, too."
"Another male Randolph," Madison said, his expression sardonic. "Wouldn't the old man be pleased."
"Probably, but Rose was sorely disappointed. She's firmly convinced a girl would be the making of us all."
"How did you find anybody willing to marry a whole clan?" "She answered an ad for a housekeeper. Got us all shipshape in no time. It was just about the death of Monty."
Madison felt a chuckle rising within him. "I'd like to meet the woman willing to take on six Randolphs."
"Seven. I've been expecting you any day now for five years."
The chuckle sank and dissolved. Madison was slowly realizing that the past was not dead. For George, it never would be.
"I ought to talk to Hen."
The animation faded from George's eyes. "It can't be this hot and dusty in Boston," he said.
"It feels exactly like Cape Cod on a July afternoon," Madison replied sarcastically, angered by his brother's unexplained change of mood.
"You have a house there?"
George's putting him off irritated Madison. He wasn't a child. If there was something he needed to know, Madison wanted to hear it now.
"No, but Freddy's family does. I usually stay with them."
"Your friend from school?"
"Who works while you play?"
"Nobody works much in the summer. It's too hot in the city."
"Cows need tending year round," George observed, "whether it's hot, cold, raining, snowing, sleeting, or hailing stones as big as a hen's egg."
"That's why I choose to be a lawyer rather than a rancher."
They had reached the hotel porch and were about to climb the steps when a youth shot through the doorway and came to a halt directly in their path.
Excerpted from Seven Brides: Fern by Leigh Greenwood Copyright © 1994 by Leigh Greenwood. Excerpted by permission.
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