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Violet's Mail Order Husband (Montana Brides #1), Page 2

Kate Whitsby

  “I hope you’re right,” Iris murmured. “I hope you’re right, for the sake of the ranch, because three cowboys aren’t going to be able to run this operation by themselves. They’ll need Pete and Wade working with them, and even five cowboys will be hard pressed to bring our herd to the sale yards come the end of the summer. They’ll need me working with them to do the job right.”

  “Then we’ll just have to break the news to your fiancé gently,” Violet replied.

  “And it isn’t just him, you know,” Iris continued. “The other two will have to agree to it as well. Even if my husband consents to me working the cattle, I still won’t be able to do it if your husband and Rose’s husband don’t want me there. Some men won’t ride with a woman, no matter how good she is or how much they need her help. All three will have to understand and agree.”

  “Then let’s just hope for the best,” Violet told her.

  “It isn’t just me that has to worry about how the men will react, either,” Iris remarked. “How do you think your husband will take it when he finds out you’ve been running the ranch behind Cornell’s back?”

  “That’s different,” Violet replied. “I haven’t been doing anything any other woman would do. I’ve only kept the house. That’s a woman’s work.”

  “Maybe, “ Iris admitted. “But you’re still overriding Cornell’s orders. You decide what food Rita cooks, you decide how much firewood we use to heat the house, and you manage all the other domestic affairs. You even keep the books. If Cornell ever found out, he’d be a lot angrier at you than he would be to find out I managed the livestock. He prides himself on running this place without any interference from any of us.”

  Violet touched her fingers to her lips. “I know. I dread the day he finds out.”

  “You shouldn’t,” Iris told her. “You should be proud of what you’ve done. You’ve done an excellent job keeping all of us fed and clothed and warmed in spite of Cornell’s efforts to impoverish us.”

  “It’s not as bad as that,” Violet insisted.

  “Yes, it is, and you know it,” Iris retorted. “Not only have you run the ranch and managed our affairs with masterful efficiency, you’ve kept Cornell in the dark the whole time. You’ve kept him blissfully unaware of your activities, so he’s happy about what he’s doing. He even thinks you’re his strongest ally around the ranch. I’d say that’s a pretty big achievement.”

  “It might be an achievement,” Violet replied. “But I still don’t want him knowing about it. Can you imagine what he would do if he found out I kept one set of accounts for the house and another, false set just for him. I shudder to think about it. Even you don’t want him finding out what you’re up to.”

  “I sure don’t,” Iris admitted. “I feel exactly the same way. I only hope our husbands understand when they find out. Aren’t you at all concerned about that?”

  “Sure, I’m concerned about it,” Violet replied. “What if they think we’re liars and frauds for deceiving Cornell? But what alternative did we have? To let Cornell squander our estate? I don’t think so.”

  “Somehow, I think the men will understand,” Iris declared. “I think when they find out the truth, they will take our side against Cornell. They’ll agree with us and help us to get back control of the ranch.”

  “Either way,” Violet pointed out. “There’s no sense worrying about it now. We have to get going to pick the men up from Butte. Get upstairs and change your clothes. I have to go to the kitchen to give Rita some instructions for later tonight, and I’ll go upstairs and get Rose. We can talk about this more on the trip down to town.”

  Chapter 4

  Iris ran up the stairs with her fringe flying, and Violet went to the kitchen to hunt up Rita, the cook. She found the kitchen empty, and after a quick glance into the scullery and the pantry, gave up the search. She had no time to look for the older woman before they left for Butte.

  She checked the fire in the big iron stove and added more wood to it. She peeked into the oven and found the haunch of beef roasting for their supper. She basted it with the juice in the pan and turned it around on the rack to brown on the other side.

  On the lower rack in the oven, she checked the plum cake for doneness. Then she shut the oven door and trimmed the vents on the stove. Rita wouldn’t be too far away. She would come back to the kitchen from wherever she was and finish cooking supper before the sisters came back.

  Satisfied with the preparations for their mail-order husbands’ arrival, Violet hurried upstairs. On the upper landing, she turned down the hall to the row of bedrooms at the back of the house. She knocked at the last door at the end of the landing and pushed it open without waiting for an answer.

  Rose sat at her dressing table. She gazed into the mirror but didn’t see herself. She often fell into a reverie in front of the mirror, seeing nothing but the passage of images in her own mind. An outsider might consider Rose intolerably vain for the time she spent in front of her mirror, apparently admiring herself. But this was simply Rose’s way of thinking about things.

  Rose snapped out of her trance when Violet entered the room. “Oh, you’re here. Are you and Iris ready to go?”

  “I am,” Violet replied. “Iris is changing her clothes. Pete is hitching up the buggy for us, and then we’ll go. Are you ready?”

  “Yes.” Rose pushed back her stool and crossed the room to her bed, where she picked up a satin shawl from the foot rail of the iron bedstead. “Shall we go down?”

  “Just a moment, Rose.” Violet laid a hand on her sister’s arm. “I want to talk to you about something before we go down. Here, sit down next to me.” Violet pulled Rose down onto the edge of the bed.

  Rose’s eyes flew open. “What is it?”

  “I just had a confrontation with Cornell about this whole mail-order husband business,” Violet explained. “So he’s a little bit emotional about it. You know he doesn’t approve of our plan.”

  “Yes, I know,” Rose replied.

  “I just want to make sure you don’t have any second thoughts about our plan,” Violet continued. “If any of us weakens, Cornell will attack, and the whole plan will fall apart. All three of us have to be firm in our resolve to go through with our marriages.”

  Rose stared at her eldest sister with wide black eyes. Violet saw her sister as a delicate fawn, blinking her soft, innocent eyes at a world of danger she couldn’t understand. But Rose was no innocent fawn. Even at the tender age of eighteen, she understood danger better than anyone could guess, and under her soft, gentle exterior beat a heart of iron.

  Rose would never waver on their agreement to marry mail-order husbands. If anyone second-guessed the plan, it was Violet herself. Her own loyalty to Cornell and her long history of complying with his wishes made her the most vulnerable link in their armor.

  “You know I won’t weaken, Violet,” Rose assured her. “You know I agree with you and Iris on why we need to do this. If Cornell asks me, I’ll tell him so. You know you can count on me, Violet.”

  “I know I can.” Violet patted her sister’s arm, but in her heart, she shuddered. In spite of all her assurances, Violet never fully trusted Rose. Her young mind seethed with secret thoughts and schemes. She noticed every nuance of every face around her at all times. Yet she knew how to tell people exactly what they wanted to hear in order to get what she wanted.

  Rose kept Cornell wrapped around her little finger. Cornell would never doubt Rose’s sincerity about anything. Cornell would never accuse Rose of disloyalty or foolishness, because Rose would never tell Cornell her real plans.

  When Cornell asked Rose about her agreement with Violet’s mail-order husband arrangement, Rose assuaged his concerns with flattery and declarations of her own helplessness. She spun the wool over his eyes until he lost the ability to accuse her of anything more than falling under her sisters’ influence.

  Violet didn’t like being forced to count on Rose but the three sisters had to form a united front against Corne
ll to bring this triple marriage to fruition. Their future and their fortune depended on it.

  “I know I can count on you,” Violet squeezed Rose’s hand and moved back toward the door. “Now let’s go down and see if the buggy’s ready. Cornell is in the library, so we can go out through the kitchen, and we won’t see him.”

  Rose smiled at Violet, and they went downstairs together. Violet glanced right and left when they reached the passage, but Rose didn’t give the surroundings the slightest consideration. She followed Violet to the kitchen, where they pinned on their hats before going out into the yard.

  The small yard separated the kitchen from the barn, and in the yard, they found Iris just about to get up into the driver’s seat of the covered buggy. Two horses stood between the shafts, while three others waited behind the vehicle, fully saddled and bridled.

  Iris’s attire couldn’t have differed more from her work clothes if she’d been a completely different person. She wore a gingham dress checked in beige and white. Crisp white cotton gloves covered her hands, and a feathered hat perched on top of the pile of hair on her head.

  When she spotted her sisters, Iris stepped up into the driver’s seat and took the reins. Violet handed Rose up into the back seat. Then she sat up front next to Iris. Iris clucked to the horses and drove the buggy away from the ranch house with the three saddled horses trotting easily behind it. The three sisters rode past the wide ranges with herds of cattle grazing, past a few other houses, barns, and outbuildings, and at last, hit the road leading out to the highway.

  Chapter 5

  Though they rode alone, the sisters kept silent until they passed underneath the big wooden sign over their front gate that read Rocking Horse Ranch. Violet didn’t like to break the silence at all. She would have ridden all the way to Butte with only her thoughts for company.

  But this mail-order husband plan was her idea, and the sisters should go over their strategy one last time before they met their men at the train station. But how to broach the subject? Rose and Iris approached the business from such radically different points of view. Whatever Violet said would ring amiss with one of them.

  Violet sighed. “Cornell sure is in a dither about this, I can tell you.”

  “You shouldn’t concern yourself so much with what Cornell thinks,” Iris told her. “He would work himself up into a dither no matter what we did as long as we did anything other than lie down and obey him. That’s the only thing he understands or cares about. You know that, Violet.”

  “I just don’t like making him so upset,” Violet replied. “He’s taken good care of us these last fifteen years. We should be grateful to him for that.”

  “He might have taken good care of us in the last fifteen years,” Iris acknowledged, “but he sure isn’t taking good care of us now, not with the way he’s letting the ranch go.”

  “I still find it hard to believe he would let it get so bad without realizing it.” Violet remarked.

  “Do you want to know something?” Iris replied. “I think he refuses to change his stance on the ranch because I’m the one who brought it to his attention. If I’d kept my mouth shut and let him figure out for himself that the ranch was in trouble, he would have done something about it long ago. He’s letting the ranch go out of spite because I presumed to tell him how to run his business. That’s what I think.”

  “I just can’t believe that,” Violet exclaimed. “It isn’t like him at all.”

  “Would you rather believe he’s grossly incompetent?” Iris asked. “Would you rather think he’s befuddled on account of his age, or that he’s just too short-sighted to realize the ranch is in danger?”

  “In danger?” Violet repeated. “Is it really in danger? I don’t think you ever put it like that before.”

  “I told you already,” Iris replied. “The ranch can’t go another year the way it is. We have five thousand head of cattle and two cowboys, and those two cowboys are aging fast. If we don’t get these mail-order husbands, we won’t have enough hands to bring the stock to the sale yards in the autumn.”

  “And then what will happen?” Violet asked.

  “We don’t have enough range to feed them all over the winter,” Iris told her. “If we don’t bring them to the sale yards, then come the spring, we’ll have nothing and they’ll starve to death. So you see, we need cowboys, and we need them now. Cornell refuses to hire any more hands. This marriage plan of yours is our only hope.”

  “Oh, heavens!” Violet gasped`. “You told us it was bad, but I didn’t realize it was as bad as that. If that’s the case, I’m glad we have this mail-order situation well on the way to completion. We don’t have a moment to lose.”

  “That’s what I told you,” Iris maintained. “I only hope we can keep Cornell at bay long enough to marry these men.”

  “I hope they’re the cowboys we need them to be,” Violet added. “I would hate to get them home and get married to them and find out later that they can’t do the job we need them to do.”

  Iris shot Violet a sidelong look. “I’m sure they will be. We have their letters telling us their experience and their backgrounds. It sounds to me like they are competent cowboys. At least, the one I’m marrying is.”

  “Mine is, too.” Violet took a folded paper out of the cuff of her sleeve and opened it. “Listen to this. ‘Dear Miss Kilburn, I trust this letter finds you well. I am just getting on the train in Santa Fe, on my way to you. Who knows, but I may see you before you get this letter. I have been working on a ranch down here near Jemez Springs, and we have just finished the spring branding. How are you getting on with yours?’ Do you hear that, Iris? How are we getting on with the spring branding?”

  “We haven’t done any spring branding,” Iris grumbled. “I told you, we don't have enough people to do it. Who is this mystery man, anyway?”

  “I told you before,” Violet replied. “His name is Chuck Ahern. He’s twenty-five years old, and he’s from Pecos, Texas. He’s been working all over the Southwest on ranches like ours. He’s even worked as manager on a few of them. He’s exactly what we’re looking for.”

  “That’s good,” Iris declared. “What else does he have to say?”

  Violet read the rest of the letter. “Your ranch sounds really nice, and I can’t wait to see it. Also I look forward to meeting your sisters. They sound like nice people, and the Fort House sounds like the perfect place to stay until we can get married.”

  “You told him about the Fort House?” Iris asked. “What did you do that for?”

  “Well, I couldn’t very well agree to have him stay in the main house, could I?” Violet folded the letter and put it back inside her sleeve. “I had to explain where he and the other men would stay between their arrival on the train and the wedding on Friday. He couldn’t stay in the main house with us. I’m surprised at you, Iris. Didn’t you tell your groom he’d be staying in the Fort House with the others?”

  “No,” Iris replied. “We never discussed that. He left all the arrangements to me.”

  Violet laughed. “Well, what did you talk about? Don’t tell me you spent all your time discussing ranch business. That would be just like you.”

  “We didn’t spend all our time discussing ranch business,” Iris shot back. “But I can tell you I made sure he knew his way around a ranch. He wouldn’t be much good to us if he didn’t. You and Rose can get all romantic with your men if you want to. We’re getting them in to work the ranch, and I’m making sure mine can, even if you won’t.”

  “So what do you know about him?” Violet asked. “What do you know, besides that he can work the ranch?”

  Iris blushed. “I’m not going to read our private letters to you, if that’s what you’re after.”

  “What?” Violet exclaimed. “I just read you one of mine.”

  “I don’t care what you did,” Iris snapped. “I never asked you to read the letter. You did that off your own bat. My letters with Mick McAllister are my private business. I’m not s
haring them with you or anyone else. So there!”

  “Well, at least tell us something about him,” Violet told her. “We have to know something about who we’re meeting at the station.”

  “He’s a cowboy,” Iris replied. “What more do you want to know? He’s from Yuma, Arizona. He has a twin brother somewhere in Georgia, and he’s a bronc buster in the rodeo. He’s worked on cattle ranches and cattle drives since he was fourteen years old, and he’s twenty-three years old. What more do you want to know? No, wait. Don’t ask that, because I don’t know anymore.”

  “Well, there isn’t much there to let us know how he’ll react to you running the ranch,” Violet observed. “He could be a real redneck, for all you know.”

  “I’ll be married to him, one way or the other,” Iris shot back. “It’s a little bit late to question him about his attitude toward women.”

  “Didn’t you ask him anything about it in your letter?” Violet asked.

  “Of course not!” Iris exclaimed. “I didn’t want to frighten him off marrying me. Anyway, if he objects to me working the ranch, I’ll just have to stop. The only reason I began punching cattle in the first place is because we had no cowboys to do the job. Once we marry these men, there will be no reason for me to do it anymore.”

  “But didn’t you tell me before,” Violet pointed out. “That they’ll need you on the cattle drive at the end of the season?”

  “They’ll need someone,” Iris corrected her. “If they don’t want to take me, they might decide to hire some other men instead. By that time, we’ll be able to afford them, because when the cattle drive ends, we’ll have the money from the sales to pay them. Once we have a decent cattle drive, the ranch will be making a profit again, and we won’t have to worry about the odd expense here and there.”

  “I sure hope you’re right about all this,” Violet exclaimed. “All our futures are riding on your opinion of what’s best for the ranch.”