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No One but You
By Leigh Greenwood
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2010 Leigh Greenwood
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTexas, 1867
No one knew better than Sarah Winborne the importance of appearance when a woman needed to attract the attention of a man, but the barren countryside that still lay in the faltering grip of winter offered limited opportunities to tidy her appearance. A sharp wind had made it necessary to wrap her head in a wool scarf. Her ill-fitting wool coat disguised the soft curves of her body. Heavy boots contributed the final touch that made her appearance about as alluring as that of an escaped convict.
"Can I take the reins?" her daughter begged. "Just for a little while."
The aching muscles that arched across Sarah's back and down her shoulders nearly caused her to give in to her daughter's wheedling, but Ellen was only seven and her experience was limited to their plow horse. "We're almost there."
Ellen slumped down. "I don't see why we have to hire anyone to help us," she pouted. "I'm big enough."
Six years of dealing with hired hands who were lazy, stole from her, or watched her with hungry eyes had convinced Sarah she needed more than a hired hand this time. She needed a husband.
"You're a big help," Sarah said to her daughter, "but we can't do everything ourselves."
"I can help," her son offered. "Not like Ellen, but I can do some things."
Jared and Ellen were twins, but that's where the similarities ended. Ellen was well grown and sturdy. She enjoyed nothing better than working alongside her mother or the series of hired hands her mother had employed since their father went off to the war. Jared was as tall as his sister, but he didn't have her strength or her solid build. But what set him irrevocably apart from other boys his age was his withered leg. The doctor said it came from the umbilical cord being wrapped around his leg before he was born. Her husband had never forgiven her for giving him a disabled son. He didn't seem to care that she had given him a perfectly formed daughter.
"I know both of you will do all you can," Sarah said to her children, "but you're still too young."
"And I'm a cripple," Jared said. "Everybody knows a cripple is useless."
Sarah had tried her best to help Jared build self-esteem, but it was hard on a boy to have to watch his sister do all the things he was supposed to do. It wrung her heart to watch his struggle to be like other boys, to witness his efforts to mask his disappointment, to pretend he didn't care when all he wanted was to be normal.
The war had been over for two years. Her husband was one of many who hadn't returned, who'd died on some distant battlefield, their bodies unclaimed and unidentified. By the time he'd been officially declared dead, she'd managed to adjust to life alone. She had wanted to remain a widow, but food had to be bought and taxes had to be paid. She couldn't do that and pay a hired man. She decided to marry again because a husband wouldn't require any wages.
The idea of marriage cast a chill over her heart. She didn't want to be beholden to a man ever again, but her children needed a father as much as she needed a man to do the labor that was beyond her. But this time would be different. This time she would do the choosing. She would set the terms. She would have the upper hand.
"Why are we going to see the Randolphs? Do you know them?"
"In a way."
She had never met any of the Randolph men, but she'd heard how they'd come back to their ranch after the war bringing a bull to improve the quality of their herd, had stood up to a clan preying on their cattle, and had taken part in a successful cattle drive to Missouri with Richard King, the famous cattle baron and owner of the King Ranch. She'd also heard that the Randolph crew included several honest and responsible war veterans. She hoped to persuade one of those men to become her husband.
"What are they like?" Jared asked.
She knew he was really asking if they would like him. She'd heard that the oldest Randolph brother had been an officer in the war and that two younger ones had held the ranch against all comers. That didn't seem like a recipe for understanding a boy with a withered leg. She had to be honest with Jared. Trying to protect him had only led to more hurt.
"I don't know what they're like, but from what I've heard they're honorable men." They both knew honor seldom included an understanding of anyone who was different. She loved Texas and Texans, but the men seemed to feel that anyone unable to participate in typically male pursuits wasn't welcome to share their company. She could only assume they were too embarrassed, or incapable, of allowing themselves to show emotion. Emotion was considered feminine, and no Texas man could live with the thought that he might be anything less than thoroughly masculine.
Ellen pointed to a post that had a seven enclosed in a circle carved into it. "Is that their ranch?"
Sarah's stomach cramped and her chest felt tight. The idea of approaching the Randolphs had been daunting when it first occurred to her. Now that she had reached the ranch, her anxiety escalated, as did her doubts about her sanity in considering such a course of action and her fear that her mission would be fruitless, might even be seen as begging, asking for pity. Yet she would endure anything because she was faced with losing their home, her only means of supporting her children.
"It's their brand," Jared pointed out. "And the trail branches off here."
The trail was broad and well-worn, an indication that a lot of business was conducted from this ranch. That encouraged Sarah as much as it made her fearful: why would a successful, probably even wealthy family be interested in helping her? Being a war widow didn't give her any special distinction. There were thousands of them in Texas, many in worse circumstances than she. Nor would she trade on Jared's limitations. That would only make him feel worse about himself.
But she had no choice. She hadn't found anyone in Austin who would work for the wages she could afford to pay. That's what had propelled her on the desperate course of deciding to hire a husband.
"I don't see a house," Ellen said.
"Ranchers like to live in the middle of their land," Jared said. "That way they don't have to ride so far each day."
"I wouldn't care how far I had to ride," Ellen said. "That's the best part of owning a ranch." The girl loved horses.
The landscape felt as threatening as the circle of debt closing in around her. While they passed some areas of open grassland, much was a tangle of mesquite, chaparral, prickly pear, wild currant, cat's claw, and a dozen other varieties of low-growing trees, bushes, and vines, nearly all armed with vicious thorns. Come spring they would be covered with sweet-scented flowers. Some would produce succulent berries in summer that could be made into jam if one was brave enough to risk the thorns. All provided a hiding place for the longhorns on which most Texans depended.
"I don't see many cows," Jared said.
"That's because there won't be much graze here until spring," his sister said. "The cows probably stay near creek bottoms."
Sarah was more interested in looking for calves sired by the bull the Randolphs had brought from Alabama. She was hoping she could find a way to buy one of the bull calves eventually. She needed to improve her herd if she was to provide her children with an inheritance. She wasn't worried about the ranch surviving while she was gone. There was nothing left to tend except cows and horses. Since the cows were wild and the horses practically so, they could take care of themselves better than she could.
The mere thought of marrying a man she'd never seen was enough to make Sarah turn around, but she had to think of her children. Her daughter could look to a husband to take care of her future, but it was essential that Jared have a way to support himself. It might have been different if he'd been interested in learning a profession or becoming an apprentice, but he liked the ranch as much as Ellen. Sarah suspected he'd never be happy anywhere else.
"Is that their house?"
Ellen was pointing to a building that had just come into view. It was too far away to see any detail, but there was no question that despite its size, it was a house and not a barn. Who'd ever seen a barn with a front porch?
"It's big," Jared said.
Huge was a better word. It made her feel small, unworthy, presumptuous even to be here, much less to ask the Randolphs to give up one of their valued employees for her. Especially since her offer was rather unusual.
"It looks new," Jared said.
"It's made out of boards instead of logs," Ellen observed.
"It would have to be," Jared told his sister. "It has two floors."
"How many rooms do you think it has?" Ellen asked.
Sarah didn't know how many rooms, but maybe a family of so many brothers needed a house that big. She didn't know how many might be married, how many might have children. It wasn't unusual for whole families to live in the same house, especially since the war.
"I bet they have hundreds of horses," Ellen said.
"They would only need that many for a drive," Jared said. "I doubt they have more than thirty or forty."
Ironic that though Ellen was the physical child, she was the one most likely to exaggerate or romanticize a situation. Jared was the practical child, the one who wanted facts, who was likely to correct you if you were wrong.
As Sarah drew closer, she was able to identify several structures, the most imposing of which was a barn. She could understand the chicken coop, the sheds, and the bunkhouse, but she couldn't recall seeing a barn in Texas.
At first she thought the house couldn't be new, because the boards had had time to weather, but as she drew closer, she realized it had been painted a soft gray so it would blend into its surroundings. She liked the cleared yard, the trees planted for future shade, the beds she could imagine being full of flowers in the spring, the porch provided with several chairs for rocking in the cool of the evening. How was she going to convince any man to leave this ranch for a place so rundown the bank president had done everything he could to keep from having to foreclose on it?
"Do they have any kids?" Jared asked.
"I don't know." She hadn't been able to find out a lot about the family without asking questions that were bound to raise unwanted curiosity. One man who'd quit had spread such an unflattering description of her ranch that no one would talk to her. Even taking into consideration the economic depression that had gripped Texas after the war, the wage she could pay was not enough for a man to feel he was getting paid for his work. Again, a husband wouldn't expect to get paid.
"Do you think we can find anybody here who'll work for us?" Jared asked. "They have a bunkhouse."
Her ranch didn't have a bunkhouse. The men had to sleep in the shed. They hadn't liked doing that, but she'd refused to let any of them sleep inside, because there were only two bedrooms. More than one man had implied he'd be willing to work harder with more encouragement. Sarah had never had any doubt of what kind of encouragement they meant.
"I hope so," Sarah said.
"No one in Austin would."
She hadn't told the children what she intended to do. She was too afraid of the questions they would ask. She was even more afraid of what she would have to settle for. She was a realist. She didn't have much to offer besides herself.
But she refused to think about that yet. She still believed there were honorable men in Texas. She had no one else to fall back on. Her parents were dead, and Roger's family had turned cold when Jared was born. When Roger didn't return from the war, they cut her off completely. All she had to show for the bargain her father had made with Roger's family was a piece of land that was too large to be a farm and too unsuccessful to be a ranch. She had held out against the compromise nearly every widow faced-marry the first man who offered or risk starvation-but now she had no choice.
She had come too far to turn back, but now that she was here, she wondered if she hadn't been an idiot to attempt such a crazy plan. Regardless of any agreement she might make, it would be her husband's legal right to expect her to behave as his wife. She didn't want to be any man's wife ever again, but she would do it for her children. There was nothing special in that. Thousands of women were forced to do it even when there wasn't a war.
"I bet they have a dozen beds in that house," Jared said to his sister.
"I'd rather sleep in the bunkhouse," Ellen said, her eyes glowing.
"We'll sleep in the wagon just like we have since we left home," Sarah told her children.
"What if they offer?" Ellen asked.
"We'll politely decline. I don't want to be beholden to strangers."
"Wouldn't it be rude to refuse?" Jared asked. "You always said Southerners never turn away a stranger."
"I said they would offer them something to eat if they were hungry and a bed if they were sick. We're neither hungry nor sick."
"I'm hungry and Jared has a bad leg," Ellen said. "Doesn't that count?"
"We have our own food, and I don't want anyone pitying Jared," Sarah told her daughter. "We're here to find a man who can help us, not to beg for favors."
"It's not begging if they offer," Jared said.
Sarah wondered why she thought the Randolphs would be willing to help her. She had nothing to offer them, and she was asking them to give up one of their most responsible and dependable workers. Just because she was desperate didn't mean people would feel they should deprive themselves to benefit her. She looked up at the house that loomed before her. It practically shouted at her to turn around and go back. The feeling was so strong she pulled the horse to a halt.
"Why did you stop?" Ellen asked.
"We shouldn't have come," Sarah said to her children. "We have to turn around."
Jared looked around, apparently trying to find what had caused his mother to change her mind. "Did something scare you?"
The odds were stacked heavily against her, but what kind of mother would she be if she quit? It didn't matter if she was so scared she could hardly breathe. It didn't matter that she was practically selling herself to a man she'd never seen. No one else would take care of her children. Both were looking at her now, waiting for her to say something.
She was about to shake the reins and start the horse again when a voice stopped her. "Are you folks lost?"
Sarah spun around to see a man with broad shoulders and a lean body approaching with an easy, swinging gait and a hoe resting on his shoulder. Apparently he'd been working in a grove of fruit trees whose leafless limbs looked like outstretched fingers against the pale gray winter sky. She didn't know how she'd missed seeing him. He was as tall as the trees themselves.
Oddly, he gave her the impression of being as sturdy as a tree, able to bend when necessary but keeping his roots firmly attached to the ground. Maybe it was his expression that was an engaging mixture of curiosity and cheerfulness. Maybe it was his unhurried gait, the way he stood calmly waiting for her to reply. Or maybe it was simply clothes that fit his body comfortably without being baggy. Maybe it was his broad shoulders, and the powerful forearms she could see below his rolled-up sleeves. His voice had a low, slow, and distinctly Southern accent; his gaze was forthright. His gray eyes seemed to welcome her. Or it could be that she was so afraid of being spurned that anything less than outright rejection seemed like an invitation?
"We're not lost," Ellen told the man. "We've come to look for a hired man."
The man's brow creased. "Why would you think he was here?"
Sarah pulled her scattered wits together. "I need to find a man to help me with my ranch. I was hoping one of the Randolphs would know of someone I could hire."
The man's expression cleared. "You ought to go to Austin. You'll find plenty of men there looking for work."
"I've been to Austin."
"How about San Antonio? It's a far piece, but I'm sure you can find lots of men there."
She could find lots of men just about anywhere, but she didn't want just any man. If she had to marry him, he had to be someone special, maybe someone like this helpful stranger.
The man switched his hoe to the other shoulder, stepped forward, and extended his hand. "Howdy. My name's Benton Wheeler, but everybody calls me Salty."
Excerpted from No One but You by Leigh Greenwood Copyright © 2010 by Leigh Greenwood. Excerpted by permission.
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