Excerpt from Texas Lily

     
     Lily tried not to think about what she would say to Ralph Langton when she found him. A planned speech would just terrify her. As she cantered the gelding down dusty roads, she set her mind to wondering what Roy was doing right now, worrying that she wasn't there to continue their lessons. Running a ranch and trying to educate her son at the same time would be difficult.
     For the hundredth time she wondered if she had done the best thing for Roy by uprooting to Texas where books were few and far between and teachers were nonexistent. But at the time, the alternative had been too painful to consider. She had come to accept her life here, and Roy knew no other, but the suggestion to sell the land had set all the old worries loose.
     The thought of abandoning Jim's dream prevented Lily from seriously considering selling. She didn't know for certain that her husband was dead. Perhaps the horse had just thrown him, and it was taking him a while to walk back. He could have hurt himself and some friendly Indians could have taken him in and were nursing him back to health. In Texas anything could happen. She would hope for the best and do as Jim would have done.
     That thought held Lily as she found the group of riders making a circuit of the Langton ranch. She hailed Ralph, and the older man halted his horse to greet her. The others ambled onward, expecting him to catch up when he was done.
     "Lily! Good to see you. What are you doing out here all alone? Jim would be furious."
     He said this with a genial smile that acknowledged his polite phrases had little to do with reality. Lily returned the smile. Ralph Langton was one man who understood that she could hold her own. He had nothing to prove by thinking of her as his inferior. He was old enough to be her grandfather and had been married for more years than she had been alive.
     "The way things stand, I'll be doing everything on my own shortly," said Lily. "I may as well get used to it. The men are threatening to leave rather than take orders from a woman. I can't fool them much longer into thinking Jim will be back, Ralph."
     Lily shook her head to keep him from offering sympathies. She didn't want sympathy. She didn't want to cry. She wanted to keep going until she couldn't go anymore. "I heard you have a man named Cade here who has the experience to act as my foreman. What do you think?"
     Ralph immediately looked concerned. "Well, I don't know, Lily." At her stubborn expression, he hesitated. "Why don't you ask him yourself?" He yelled over his shoulder, and one of the riders ambling down the road swung his horse around.
     Lily had already noted the man. He sat head and shoulders above the others, and his shoulders reminded her of a bull they had in the paddock. Her eyes were always drawn to those few men who stood taller than she, but the size of this one was intimidating. Then she realized why the men back at the store had laughed at her. They had told her about the one man in the territory who could make her look small.
     Anger welled, as it always did when someone made fun of her height. She should have been born a man, she had been told more than once. Well, she had done her best to turn herself into one. She would behave as one now. She sat tall in her saddle and waited to see the rest of the joke that had been perpetrated on her.
     The man's long black hair was straight as a stick but evidently clean. With a shock she realized his bronzed features and angular cheekbones were undoubtedly Indian, although she suspected something of the Spanish in his heritage also, if for no other reason than the proud arrogance of his nose and the jut of his square jaw. This was not a man she could control with a few sharp words.
     Lily was almost willing to admit her mistake in seeking him when she noticed the odd way the man, Cade, held his hands on the reins. They were practically sitting in his lap.
     In another moment he was close enough for her to see the kitten draped across the saddle in front of him. A kitten! Lily could scarcely keep her eyes from the untidy sprawl of fur until she recognized the unseemliness of her gaze. Flushing, she looked up to the man's dark eyes. If there was a flicker of something behind that impenetrable obsidian, she could not interpret it.
     "Cade?" She had been told he had no last name. Looking at him, she could see he didn't need one. It would be akin to giving a family name to a wolf. She just hoped he didn't have the intelligence of a buffalo. As he stared without speaking, she continued nervously, "I've been told you have the experience to manage a cattle ranch. Is this true?"
     "I ran Colonel Martin's operation over near Galveston for a spell," he acknowledged evenly, scratching the kitten behind the ear to keep it still.
     Lily wanted to grab the kitten and tell him that was no way to treat a cat, but aside from the fact that the animal seemed perfectly content, the idea of grabbing anything from such a location warm her cheeks. She turned her concentration back to matters at hand.
     She had heard of Colonel Martin and the size of his spread and was relieved but still suspicious. "How long is a 'spell'?"
     There was a suggestion of a shrug beneath the straining shoulders of his faded blue work shirt. "Couple of years."
     "And why did you leave there?"
     Throwing the big man a look, Ralph intervened. "He was unjustly accused of killing a man. He spent some time in prison before Martin could get him out. The colonel thought it safer if he went elsewhere to avoid angry suspicions. I'll vouch for Cade's integrity. I'll hate to see him go, but you can offer him a better place than I can, if he wants it."
     Lily looked up to see if there was any change of expression on the stranger’s face, but Cade continued looking at her with disinterest. For some reason, his disinterest was as tantalizing as his size and the kitten. She had learned long ago that she was no beauty, but out here men were inclined to pant over anything in skirts. Or trousers, she amended. She was young and had all the necessary female attributes. She expected at least some degree of interest, but he treated her as if she were part of the landscape.
     "I don't suppose you would be interested in working for a woman, would you?" That wasn't how she had meant to ask, but now the words were said, she couldn't take them back.
     "As foreman?" At her nod, he questioned, "Would I be required to sleep in the bunkhouse with the rest of the men?"
     That jarred her awake. Was he married then? Hastily, Lily revised a few estimates and rethought the problem. She was more determined than ever to have this man in her employ. Having another woman on the ranch would be heaven.
     "There's a small cabin one of the hands built for his bride, but they moved on a year or so ago. It may not be in good repair, but I'll see that you have what you need to fix it up if that's what you require."
     He nodded and exchanged a glance with Langton. Gathering up his reins, he gave Lily a perfunctory nod. "I'll be out Sunday morning to discuss terms."
     He rode away, leaving Lily to stare after him with incredulity. The man was as arrogant as his nose.
     Ralph grinned. "He don't talk much, but you hear it when he does. He'll do the job for you, Lily. All you got to do is persuade your men to take orders from a half-breed."
     Hell and tarnation. Lily shot Ralph a look of frustration. "Why can't anything ever be easy?"
     He laughed as she rode away, but it was a laugh of confidence. Lily turned her mind to persuading a bigoted bunch of peacocks that if they wanted a man to give them orders, it was going to be a red man.
     * * *
     "But, Mama, we always go into town on Saturday." Tall and stringy, with an unruly lock of dark hair falling across his tanned brow, Roy propped his hands on his hips in imitation of his father and glared at his mother.
     "I'm tired, Roy. I would rather just sit here and admire the sunset. Why don't you go see if there's a ripe watermelon and we'll picnic by the creek?"
     "If I had a horse of my own, I could ride into town with the men," he complained, ignoring her suggestion.
     Since Jim's disappearance, Roy had become more rebellious than ever. Lily sighed and stared out over the paddock. Her husband had lost a son by a previous marriage to a riding accident, and he had refused to allow Roy to ride. It had been a mistake, but Jim had interfered so little in the raising of the boy that she had allowed this one anomaly, understanding the reason for it. She supposed Jim had made a good father as these things went, but now she had to pay for that one mistake.
     "I'll see what we can do when the time comes," Lily promised. "Why don't you have Luke harness up the wagon? We'll go to town for a little while."
     Instead of whooping for joy, the boy looked suddenly lost and frightened. "Dad isn't coming back, is he?"
     "I don't know, Roy. I just don't know." She wanted to take him in her arms and hug him, but he had made it clear some time ago that he wasn't her little boy any longer and he didn't appreciate being fussed over. She would be the first to admit that she didn't know how to deal with this stranger she had carried in her womb for nine months. No one had ever given her lessons in little boys.
     Roy blinked back a tear and ran toward the barn. Big boys don't cry. How early they learned. Lily sighed and went to fetch her bonnet and call Juanita to join them.
     In town, they hitched the oxen to the stable's corral fence. Laughter carried from the big barn out behind Ollie Clark's place. Drunken voices drifted out of the town's two saloons. But a few women in calico and bonnet still went in and out of the general store and lingered to exchange gossip along the street. Saturday was the only day of the week when they had the chance to visit, and they drew out the time as long as they could.
     For the main part, the women ignored Lily in her trousers and she ignored them. They had little in common. She couldn't discuss babies or recipes, and they couldn't talk cattle or cotton. But even though she felt as lonely as she had when her sisters talked fashions and beaux, Lily still felt sorry for women with no more intelligent interests—men didn't have the world's corner on arrogance.
     Acknowledging her own faults with a smile, Lily let Roy slip away to the candy counter while she followed Juanita to the shamble of shacks behind the town. Juanita was a treasure Lily couldn't live without. Juanita was the one primarily responsible for those meals the men thought Lily had cooked. Juanita had practically raised Roy while Lily was working beside Jim in the fields. And if Juanita wished to visit a sick cousin and take her a pie, Lily would gladly tag along to see that she was unmolested. The shy cook and maid was terrified of men—and for good reason.
     Lily carried her rifle in her hand as they hurried around drunken farmers stumbling from the saloon. She seldom stayed in town this late on a Saturday, and Jim had always been nearby when she did, It had been a mistake succumbing to Roy's pleading, but it was too late to change her mind now. She knew most of the upstanding citizens of this town and the territory surrounding it. No man in his right mind would harm Lily Brown in plain view of half the town.
     But a drunken man was not in his right mind, as she well knew. She nodded a friendly greeting to a man who lifted his hat to her, but she hurried Juanita onward. The street they were entering now was not the most respectable. It housed squatters and ne'er-do-wells who had stumbled into the territory after all the land had been granted, and who shifted from one place to another looking for an easy situation. There were women here too, but they tended to be the kind who exchanged their favors for whiskey and trinkets. Juanita's cousin wasn't far above that state, but as far as Lily knew, the woman was the only relative Juanita had. She clung to her rifle and slowed her pace to the cook's smaller steps.
     "Take your bastardo and go to hell, bestia! Yo tengo better offers than your flea-ridden cabin. I don't need a..." The words evolved into a long string of vivid Spanish that even Lily could tell was mostly obscenities. Juanita halted and flushed, glancing toward the shanty where a woman stood outside ranting and raising her fist at some unseen male. Lily hesitated, her gaze caught by child sitting on the shanty's step.
     Gold curls surrounded a placid gaze fastened on a toy in her lap, oblivious of the woman's furious tirade. Lily glanced at the buxom, black-haired woman in the street and back to the child, finding no similarity in their features. And then a shadow stepped out of the shanty to fall over the child, and Lily caught her breath.
     The child lifted her head and waved pudgy fists, indicating a desire to be picked up. The large man knelt and lifted her into muscular arms that could have crushed. Instead, he held her tenderly, while catching the kitten that had been in the toddler’s lap.
     "I offer you a home and respectability, Maria," he said to the woman who had finally run out of curses.
     Lily fully understood the very American reply. Embarrassed at such language as well as the scene she had inadvertently stumbled upon, she hurried after Juanita.
     It was only later that Lily wondered how Cade would keep a child without a woman to care for her—and visions of glowing gold curls began to dance in her head.
     * * *
     Cade didn't arrive Sunday morning as promised. Lily set her jaw and stoically went about her chores, ignoring the grumbles of the men as she set them to their various tasks. She had promised them a foreman, and they were certain she was reneging on her promise. Hung over as they were after a Saturday night on the town, they weren't exactly willing to listen to reason. Nor were they particularly interested in listening to a woman's decisions. She read the rebelliousness in their eyes as she sent some to riding the fields and others to mending fences.
     Normally, Lily didn't allow herself the pleasure of anger, but she couldn't stave it off now. She had spent well over a month worrying herself to death over Jim's disappearance, but no one seemed to care about that. Their only concern was for their own male pride. She could lose everything she had worked for these last nine years, and it would all be the fault of every infuriating male she had ever come in contact with. The whole gender was highly overrated in her opinion. She only wished she could tell them all so.
     Instead, Lily hitched the wagon, checked her rifle, and headed into town. She had a very good idea where she would find one Cade Whatever-his-name-was.
     * * *
     Lily drove directly to the little shanty on the back street of the now-silent town. She was too angry to know what she intended to do when she got there, but Cade saved her the problem. As she drove through the dust she could see him sprawled along the front step where the child had sat the day before. His long legs appeared to take up half the narrow side street as he leaned with elbows back in the doorway. As she watched, he lifted his arm to drink from a flask in his hand.
     He was drunk. Fury flared even higher as Lily stopped near a conveniently placed public pump. Filling the pail with a few hard strokes, she stalked to where the man half-sat, half-lay, blissfully ignoring her. With a single swing of the pail, Lily drenched him from head to toe.
     Before Cade had time to do more than splutter and shake his head from the force of the deluge, Lily stepped back and launched into the tirade that had been building all morning.
     "You're going to cost me my ranch! Do you have any idea how long and hard I've worked and slaved on that blasted piece of dirt, and you'll throw it all to the winds feeling sorry for yourself? Hell, my husband's gone and I don't even know where he is, but I'm not sitting around moping about it. I'm keeping that ranch if I have to drown you to do it."
     He was beginning to rise like some great monolithic beast, stirring massive legs and flexing arms that resembled small tree trunks. If she hadn't been so blamed mad, Lily would have felt fear. Instead, she caught sight of a small golden head peeping out the doorway, and with more courage than sense, she darted forward, grabbed the child, and headed back for the wagon.
     That brought the monster to his feet with a roar.
     The child laughed and clapped her hands as Lily set her on the wagon seat and her father stormed down the road with murder in his eyes.
     Lily picked up her rifle and calmly aimed it at him. "I'm taking her out to the ranch. When you're sober enough to ride out, you can come claim her."
     Cade stalked right past her to the oxen's heads. With a swift jerk of his bare hands, he dismantled the yoke, rendering the reins useless. Giving Lily a look of pure rage, he stalked past her again, this time in the direction of the house.
     For the first time, Lily acknowledged the trickle of fear running down her spine. She had dealt with the ignorant and the stupid, she had learned how to handle violence, she knew how to demand respect from the best and worst of men, but she had never come in contact with a man quite like this before. He didn't respond in the same manner as other men. She had fully expected this one to follow sheepishly after her when he'd had enough of the drink. For all she knew, he could very well be locating his own weapon right this minute, and she was helpless to do anything but run.
     She wasn't running. Lifting her rifle protectively, Lily stepped away from the wagon and the child. She wasn't letting an innocent get caught in the crossfire, if it came to that. But she sure as hell didn't mean to walk back to the ranch. He broke the yoke. He'd darned well better fix it.
     She lowered the rifle again in surprise when Cade staggered out of the house carrying a doll's cradle under one arm and a child's feather mattress under another. The child squealed with delight as he dumped the load into the back of the wagon. Without giving Lily a glance, he stalked back to the house.
     When he returned bearing a dresser spilling small cotton garments and glimpses of lace, Lily hurriedly began arranging the articles in the wagon bed and fastening them down so they wouldn't slide too much. The doll's cradle looked handcarved and beautifully done. The doll inside had once had a lovely china face, and her long linen nightdress was now well worn with time.
     She dodged out of the way as Cade returned and flung in a bedroll and the rails for a child's bed. Without a word, he made one final trip to the house, this time carrying out a splendidly tooled Spanish saddle, a bundle that undoubtedly represented his own meager wardrobe, and saddlebags that appeared too heavy for any normal man to carry.
     After dropping the last of his worldly possessions into the wagon, Cade walked past Lily and toward the stable. Unable to do anything else, Lily started to climb into the wagon seat when she noticed a small gray kitten peering around the corner of the house. Deciding that as long as she was adopting the man's family she might as well adopt his cat too, Lily went to collect the stray.
     The kitten had other ideas. Scratching and spitting, it leapt from Lily's grasp and darted to the safety of the wagon wheels. Lily was on her hands and knees under the wagon bed trying to remove the animal when Cade returned, leading his horse.
     If he had anything to say about his employer's unladylike position, he had the sense to leave it unsaid as he hitched his horse to the back of the wagon and leaned over to scoop up the snarling kitten in one mighty fist. While Lily hastily backed away from his too-close proximity and stood up to dust herself off, Cade dumped the kitten in the child's lap and went around to the front of the wagon to mend the yoke with wire he had brought with him.
     Lily climbed to the seat and waited uneasily for Cade to finish. With his horse tied to the back of the wagon, it was quite apparent that he didn't mean to ride. The idea of having the man beside her on this narrow seat didn't sit at all well. If he was drunk, he gave little sign of it as he worked steadily at repairing the damage. She didn't know how she would react when he claimed the remaining portion of the bench. She fully meant to keep the reins to herself, but what chance had she against his obvious strength if he decided otherwise?
     Before Lily could thoroughly panic, Cade finished his mending, walked around to the back of the wagon, and throwing himself in, collapsed against the bedroll. He passed out cold before Lily could urge the oxen out of town.
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