Original copyright 1997, revised copyright © 2011 by JS Stephens. All rights reserved
Disclaimer: I guess you could call this an uber fiction story. The actual characters are mine, even if they do somewhat resemble two certain ladies of the small screen.
If depictions of violence, sex, or religion offend you, kindly leave and don't look back.
George Wilkins and his servant, Peter, looked at the unconscious young man in Major Wilkins' tent. "Close the flap," Major Wilkins finally said softly, "and bring a field kit. You've cared for enough men on the battlefield that Dr. Scroggins shouldn't take too much notice. And hurry, we're dealing with a lot of blood lost."
"Yes, Major," Peter replied, limping out of the tent. Wilkins watched his servant, who was still learning to walk on his wooden leg, wind his way through the camp to the medical supply tent. He could only pray that the wound looked worse that it actually was on the young private's shoulder.
Moments later, Peter came back with a field kit. He tied the flap shut, lit several lamps, and helped move the young man from the cot to the major's table. Good thing it was a long table, designed to hold multiple maps, for the dark haired young man was at least six feet tall, nearly as tall as the 6' 2" blond major. Wilkins deftly started unbuttoning the young man's jacket and uniform blouse. He pulled it back and stared. His green eyes met Peter's muddy brown eyes in shock. "Well, I declare," Peter finally said, sliding fingers through his light brown hair, "it's not what we expected."
Ruby Bills was excited and nervous about moving to Texas. It was the first time in her twenty-five years that she had been outside the state of Georgia, where she was born and raised. She had been an only child, her father dying in the War Between the States, and her mother dying shortly after. She had enough education to teach school for four years to keep body and soul together, moving from a small coastal town to Atlanta to take a better paying position. She was of middle height for a woman, slim in build, with golden blonde hair and light green eyes. She started attending a Methodist Episcopal South church in Atlanta, intrigued by the preaching of Dr. Lycurgus Bills.
After the school term ended, Dr. Bills' wife and only child both came down with smallpox, and Ruby volunteered to help nurse them. She had survived smallpox as a child, and knew from observation that those who had, did not get it again. Within a year of their unfortunate deaths, the slender dark-haired minister asked for her hand in marriage, and she accepted.
Shortly after their marriage, the minister was offered a chance to preach at a small, but growing community in Texas. He consulted his wife before accepting, who excitedly said, "Curg, I think it is the chance we've been waiting for to make our own home. You've wanted to find a place where we could eventually buy a few acres for a farm, and I'd read a lot about Texas. It sounds interesting."
"True, my love," Curg replied, eyes glowing with excitement. Although he'd been brought up in a quiet, intellectual family known for producing ministers and teachers, he was happiest scratching around in their garden. "I believe the area we would be settling in has good rich black prairie land. So you would be willing to pull up stakes and leave?"
Ruby stood up from her chair, coming behind him and wrapping her arms around his shoulders. "Wither thou goest, my love, I will go also."
He smiled. "Then I will answer the bishop and accept the call."
"Look, Ruby, the train station is coming up." Lycurgus said several weeks later. They had travelled by stage and train from Georgia to Texas, and were now approaching the station of their new home. He smiled fondly at his wife as he spoke. Ruby who watched avidly out of the window, looking at the dusty station and the small crowd that had gathered to greet the train.
They finished gathering their belongings and Curg helped Ruby off the train. They were met by a formidable group of matrons, who of whom detached herself to come forward and inquire, "Are you the Reverend and Mrs. Lycurgus Bills?"
"Yes, we are," Curg answered the sturdy dark haired woman.
"I am Mrs. John Cane, head of the Women's Auxiliary, and these ladies are with me to welcome you to Peter's Colony, Texas." Mrs. Cane looked at the couple, sizing up their weary demeanors, and her expression softened. "Since your letter said you would come in on this train, the Auxiliary voted to meet you and provide you with refreshments before we escort you to the new parsonage. Won't you both step into the station with us?" drawled Mrs. Cane as she tucked her hand through Ruby's arm. "Reverend, if you'll just mention to the one of the porters that Mrs. Cane has already spoken with Joseph, and made the arrangements to take your luggage directly to your new home. Please, come in and refresh yourselves."
The Bills exchanged amused glances as Ruby allowed herself to be escorted inside, where it was mercifully darker than the white hot Texas sun. The ladies pressed the cookies and lemonade on the couple, who enjoyed the brief respite before Joseph came in to announce their luggage had been gathered.
"Ladies, thank you for taking care of us," Rev. Bills said as they left the building. "We will see you all on Sunday morning. Darling, our ride is waiting." He tipped his hat to the ladies, then offered his wife his arm.
The brand new parsonage was several hundred yards behind the church quite nice. The Bills wandered through their new home after the porter unloaded their luggage, promising to come back with the rest of their goods when they arrived. "Curg, it is wonderful, I never imaged such a nice place for a minister," Ruby said, marveling at the house. "Enough room for a parlor, a study for you, and even a nursery, and real indoor plumbing. I can't get over the huge bathtub and the running water. Much better than that cramped house in Georgia. Where did the congregation get the money for such a nice house?"
Curg smiled at his wife as they sat down on a couch in the parlor. "According to the letter I received from the Administrative Board, Mrs. John Cane donated the money. Her father, a riverboat gambler, had died recently and left her a small fortune. Being a good Christian woman, she donated it all to the church to build the parsonage and the sanctuary for the new church building." He smiled happily, drinking in the beauty of his wife's face.
He started to say something else, but her stomach choose that moment to growl rather demandingly. Ruby blushed, but Curg laughed happily as he remarked, "Mrs. Bills, you can eat more than most men I know and never gain a pound!" He kissed her on the cheek, then said, "Shall we find something to feed that beast?"
"Yes, for the cookies and lemonade didn't fill me up," Ruby answered, "I think I saw some supplies in the kitchen, so let me see about laying out a quick dinner." She kissed her husband, then went exploring in the kitchen while he happily watched her.
Over the next year, Ruby and Curg fell into a routine. Ruby kept house and worked with some of the other ladies from church in organizing Sunday School classes while Curg preached, visited the sick, and organized committees to run the church.
Curg was quite surprised that his second wife was quite receptive to his attentions. His first wife, bless her soul, had given him two beautiful sons, but had made it clear she was doing her duty in submitting to his attentions. Ruby, on the other hand, participated quite happily, so it was no wonder that in due time she gave birth to a boy, Leslie James Bills.
The fly in the ointment, however, was the birth. Elizabeth Cane came when Ruby went into labor, but quickly had the minister send for Dr. Jonas Cutsinger, one of the two doctors in town. Curg came back with the doctor, who examined the suffering Ruby and announced, "It will be difficult, Rev. Bills. Breech birth. Mrs. Cane, would you please boil some water and all the sheets and towels you can? Rev. Bills, have you ever helped with any births, livestock or women?"
"Yes, when I was a boy, we raised horses," Curg answered nervously.
"Then you'll understand. Mrs. Bills is a slender woman, and this baby looks pretty large, at least eight pounds. Can't tell the sex yet, but it is coming out the wrong way. I may have to operate, or I may be able to turn the baby around the correct way. Will you be able to help, or should I send you out to do your prayers?" The short doctor looked up at the minister, his face a professional mask of calm.
Curg ran a hand through his dark hair, then answered honestly, "I will do anything you wish, and pray for our child."
Dr. Cutsinger nodded his sandy blond head curtly. "I also need lots of light. Gather up as many lamps as you can. It will be a long night. And help Mrs. Cane with the water, I'll need lots of hot water, and some basins. Do you have an alcohol, any whiskey?"
"No sir, we do not drink."
The doctor sighed. "I wish you were a drinking man, but that's neither here nor there. I need it to help keep my instruments clean, but I'll have to make do with whatever you use for washing." As he finished speaking, Elizabeth Cane walked back in the room with the first kettle of water. "Mrs. Cane, help Rev. Bills find cleaning supplies. You know what I need, you've assisted me before."
"Yes, Dr. Cutsinger. Rev. Bills, help me find what the doctor needs."
The birth was difficult, and Ruby nearly died twice after Leslie James Bills was born. He was a large baby, eight pounds, 21 inches, dark haired, and green eyes. His birth tore Ruby up, necessitating emergency surgery to keep Ruby from bleeding to death. She developed an infection, and had to have more surgery, this time removing her womb. Dr. Cutsinger explained to Rev. Bills that he had saved his wife's life, but they would never have any more children.
"No more children?" Lycurgus repeated. "But Leslie is healthy, right?"
Dr. Cutsinger allowed a rare smile to cross his pale face. "Yes, he is quite healthy, and should be quite a handsome boy. Your wife is a fighter, I've never seen a woman so close to death come bounce back so fast. Have you hired a woman to keep house while Mrs. Bills recovers? I recommend another month of bed rest at the least."
"Mrs. Cane has already organized that, she has several women from the ladies' auxiliary coming over to cook and clean until Ruby is able to leave her bed." Curg smiled, watching his son sleeping in his arms. "I've been taking care of Leslie at night, I'm becoming an expert in changing diapers. Just don't tell the other men in town."
"I promise," the doctor said. "I'll come back next week to check on Mrs. Bills and Leslie, but I am hoping we are past the worst."
"Thank God," the minister said with great feeling. "You are a blessing to our community, Dr. Cutsinger." He showed the doctor out, then took Leslie back to the bedroom, sitting down in the rocking chair, watching his wife sleep. Yes, he wished they could have a houseful of children, but if one was all God would give them, that would have to be enough. He kissed his son's forehead, then started slowly rocking, dreaming about their future as a family.
Ruby regained her health rapidly, chafing under her sickroom restrictions until Dr. Cutsinger finally said she could resume her normal routine. She was grateful to the women of the church for keeping house while she was down, but it was wonderful to have the house to themselves. Leslie was growing like a weed, and was a very happy baby. The best day was when she was finally able to leave the house and walk to the Canes' general store.
"Good morning, Mrs. Bills," John Cane called out as they entered the store. "How may I help you?"
"I need some supplies, Mr. Cane. I have a list somewhere," Ruby replied as she made her way back to the counter. As she approached the counter, Elizabeth Cane came around and kissed her cheek, then reached for Leslie as Ruby started looking through her handbag for her list. "Thank you, Elizabeth," Ruby murmured, handing over the baby.
Elizabeth bounced Leslie in her arms as he gurgled happily. The older woman's face creased in a smile, saying, "He is getting so big now. I swear he's doubled in size since he was born. I can't believe he is three months old now!"
John Cane smiled at the young mother as he reached for the list she found, and started gathering up the supplies listed. He listened to his wife cooing at the baby, shaking his head. Babies. After a few minutes, he had the supplies packed in a box, then said, "I'll put it on your bill, and Rev. Bills can come settle later this week." He watched his wife with the baby, then came around the counter to inspect the baby a little closer. "You're quite a handsome lad," he cooed, holding out his large finger for Leslie to grasp.
Elizabeth laughed at her husband, saying, "Mr. Cane, you have three young ones at home to croon over."
"Yes, but none of them have such green eyes, Mrs. Cane. Do you reckon he'll have dark hair like the reverend? It sure looks dark now." John reached out, gently stroking Leslie's dark hair with a tender hand.
"I don't know, Mr. Cane. My husband's family has dark hair and coloring, but my family has always produced blondes and redheads." Ruby smiled, gazing lovingly at her son. "He's just a wonderful baby, sleeping through the night now, never a moment's trouble. His father is a grand help, having had two children already, God rest their souls." She started to say something else, but was distracted by the screen door squeaking as it opened.
Ruby turned to see who had come in and involuntarily gasped in amazement. The woman who had come into the store was very tall, taller than Curg. She had piercing sky blue eyes, long black hair, tanned skin, beautiful high cheekbones and was dressed in men's clothes. She tipped her hat back and stripped off her leather work gloves as she glanced around the store. "Howdy Mr. Cane, Mrs. Cane. I've come to pick up a few supplies."
The woman sauntered up to the counter, pulling a list from her vest pocket and handing it to John Cane, who took it without a word, then turned, noticing Ruby and Leslie. "Pretty baby."
"Thank you," Ruby squeaked out, catching herself staring at the woman. She blushed as the woman looked her up and down, unable to come up with coherent speech. Who was this woman? The woman just smiled, a lightning flash of teeth in a dark face, then turned to watch John Cane gathering the items on her list.
John gathered the requested supplies in a box without a word, sliding it across the counter. "Comes to two dollars and a quarter," he said gruffly as he rang up the sale. The woman pulled the money out of her pants pocket, handing it over to the storekeeper, who quickly shoved the money cash registrar drawer.
"Thanks. See y'all next time!" the mystery woman exclaimed as she hoisted the heavy box to her broad shoulder and left the store. The store was silent for several moments after she exited the store.
Elizabeth turned to meet Ruby's puzzled stare, quickly explaining, "That woman is Laura Wilkins. Her husband George and their son were killed by a band of Indians about six years ago. You might do well to stay far away from her." Her face tightened in anger as she spoke.
"Why stay away from her?" Ruby asked, puzzled by her friend's disapproval.
Elizabeth snorted. "She's forgotten how to be a woman. She took over the ranch, insists on dressing like a man, refused any Christian help. She won't darken the door of a church, and has refused several marriage offers from good men around these parts."
John protested mildly, "But dear, she sells the best horses in these parts. And someone had to take over their ranch."
Elizabeth snorted. "Husband, let's not disagree in public. Did you hear that old man Hennessee proposed to her this spring and she laughed at him? She isn't natural, I tell you!"
John countered, "Dear, Hiram Hennessee proposed to her because he lost his land to her in a poker game. I guess he thought she'd marry him and he would get it back. Besides, I don't blame her for refusing him, I heard that he beat his first wife." Elizabeth glared at her husband until he amended, "Well, that was the rumor."
Ruby hid a smile as she reached for her son, thinking she should be getting back home soon. "Really? If he was just trying to get his land back, I can see why she would refuse his proposal." Leslie picked that moment to start complaining about his empty tummy. "Mr. Cane, I hate to ask, but do you think your son Doug would mind bring my supplies to my house? I'm afraid that Leslie is quite a handful."
"Yes'm, I'm sure he'll be glad to. We'll see you Sunday in services." The storekeeper glanced at his wife, glad that she was distracted from their differing opinions about Laura Wilkins.
Ruby settled Leslie in her arms, jiggling him as she walked home, thinking about the mystery woman. Ruby had never seen any woman so tall, or one that would wear men's clothing so boldly. For a moment, she let herself start to construct a story around the few facts she had heard about Laura Wilkins, then laughed at herself. "Still writing stories in your head, eh girl?" she thought. Leslie started earnestly squirming and crying, making his hunger known. "Baby, it's just a few more blocks!" she told him, kissing his face, walking faster.
Another month passed by, with Leslie growing like a weed. Ruby Bills had seen Laura Wilkins around town a few more times, usually either at the general store or the grocer's. Each time, Laura would wave broadly at Ruby, provoking scandalous comments among the other townsfolk. Did their beloved minister's wife know that awful woman? Or was Laura just being her usual brazen self?
Didn't Mrs. Bills know that just last year, Laura killed a fine, upstanding citizen in cold blood? Charles Tyler could have never tried to besmirch her like she claimed in court! However, the jury was too dependent on her livestock and too afraid of her to convict her. Well, she couldn't allow herself to think about that, she was too busy helping Elizabeth and the other ladies plan the Fourth of July party.
In fact, the party was just a few days away now, but they had run into a snag. Some of the men (even the church going faithful!) wanted to have liquor at the picnic grounds. The ladies, especially from the churches, did not want liquor served. This was to be a family event, they explained to their husbands. Finally, the Reverend Lycurgus Bills talked to all sides and convinced the men that it would not be a good thing to serve hard liquor at a family gathering. Most of the men backed down, for they genuinely liked Rev. Bills. Some of the young men in town, mostly porters and engineers for the railroad, were pretty mad about missing their liquor and decided to get even.
The day of the Fourth dawned bright and clear with just enough breeze to make it pleasant in the morning. It would be a scorcher by afternoon, near 100 degrees, but everyone was excited about the parade, the speakers, the food and the fireworks that night. As Ruby dressed Leslie, she asked her husband, "Curg, do you think that those railroad men will cause any problem? They seemed very upset with you weighing in against serving liquor."
Curg smiled at his lovely wife, kissing her before replying. "Oh, they're still pretty mad, but they should also realize that there is a temperance movement growing in the country. Maybe I'll move them with the Holy Spirit tonight more than other spirits could move them."
Ruby groaned at his pun as she finished dressing Leslie. "Curg," she chuckled, "if your congregation knew the bad puns you made, they might not listen to your sermons as well."
He laughed. "Or they might listen closer so they would not miss my puns."
Ruby just shook her head, then looked at the hampers of food and bag with Leslie's diapers and spare clothes. "I do believe we are ready to go, Rev. Bills." He smiled and helped her gather the hampers and bags. They walked down to the picnic yard near the court house and separated as Ruby went to unload their supplies as Curg went to talk to the other ministers and speakers. Food unloaded, Ruby took Leslie to a group of shade trees, where other young mothers had set up an impromptu nursery. Several of the older women from the church had been recruited to look after babies so their mothers could enjoy a few hours with their husbands and friends.
Ruby had reluctantly handed over her son to one of the ladies and was walking back toward the tables of food when she literally ran into Laura Wilkins. "Excuse me, Mrs. Bills," the woman drawled, "we seem to have collided."
The minister's wife shook herself, saying, "No harm done. Now, if you will excuse me-"
Laura laughed softly, low in her throat. "Maybe, maybe not. Nice spread here today, too bad there isn't any liquor to wash it down with."
Ruby, who had started to walk off, stopped in her tracks and turned back to the tall woman. "Do you drink liquor, Mrs. Wilkins?" she gasped in astonishment.
Laura asked innocently, "Would I do that? My goodness!" She grinned at the younger woman, then commented, "You know, you could call me Laura. It is my name, you know."
Ruby was torn, mesmerized by the woman's lively blue eyes and deep, musical voice. She would die if Elizabeth Cane or Curg caught her talking to Laura, yet there was something fascinating about her. She gathered her wits and responded sweetly, "But we haven't been properly introduced."
Laura lifted her hat, running her hand through her hair. "I'd get John Cane to introduce us, but he's too afraid of what his dear wife would say. Yes, I know that Elizabeth is your friend, she was mine until I lost my husband and child. Dear Elizabeth found it shocking that I chose living over mourning." Laura shrugged expressively as Ruby listened quietly. "I do hope she is a better friend to you than she was to me. But I digress, my dear Ruby. The picnic will start soon, and I should escort you back to the food. I'm sure Rev. Bills will be joining you soon."
"Yes, I suppose so," Ruby said slowly. She was torn between learning more about this fascinating woman and not antagonizing her dear friend Mrs. Cane, who turned to watch them walking together.
Laura waved gaily at Elizabeth, then turned back to Ruby. "Mrs. Bills, I'd better bid you farewell before I completely ruin your reputation. Just remember this: I am not Pandora." She made an exaggerated bow, then grinned again as she lit a small cigar and sauntered off.
As Ruby stared after Laura as Elizabeth huffed up to her. "Dear, what was that woman saying to you. Who is Pandora?"
Ruby answered abstractedly, "Pandora was the girl in Greek mythology who opened the box that let all the evil into the world. She managed to close it up, leaving only hope in the box. Didn't you learn any mythology as a child?"
"No, Ruby, I only learned practical subjects. Where did you learn about such pagan stories?" Elizabeth asked sharply.
"My Uncle Charles. He was a professor and taught Greek and Roman classics and theology. I wonder where she learned them?"
Elizabeth sighed in exasperation. "Ruby, the only reading you should be doing is your Bible and uplifting stories." Before she could say anything else, the first group of hungry people arrived, waiting to be served.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully until time for the fireworks. A group of the young railroad employees who had complained earlier of the lack of liquor showed up, rolling several barrels with them. The sheriff met them at the edge of the lawn, asking them to turn around and go home. They refused; they were already drunk and planned to get drunker, they told him.
Ruby watched the crowd, growing uneasy at the ugly attitude they demonstrated. She turned to her husband and asked quietly, "Curg, should I get Leslie and go home? This looks it could turn ugly in a hurry."
Curg nodded in agreement. "Yes, dear, you should. I'm going to see if I talk to them, and help calm things down. I'll be home soon." He hesitated, then quickly kissed her cheek and walked off. Ruby watched him walk off, a feeling of foreboding overtaking her as she heard the jeers and catcalls of the angry young men milling around a short stack of barrels they had rolled out.
"A public display of affection between husband and wife! How positively scandalous!" a voice said behind Ruby. She turned to see Laura lounging in the shadows, watching her. Before she could retort, Laura held up her hand to silence her, suddenly watching intently. She turned back to Ruby and said quietly, "Get your baby and come back here. I'll make sure you get home safely." Ruby just nodded, then ran off to retrieve Leslie.
As Ruby came back with Leslie, she heard voices screaming and turned to see what was happening. Her husband and several other men were trying to talk to the young men as the evening fireworks started going off. She saw an errant streak of flame heading for the group and the barrels, horrified as the liquor barrels whooshed in a ball of flame, encompassing many of the men nearby. "Lycurgus!" she screamed, starting to run towards him.
She was caught by a strong pair of arms and turned away from the deadly scene. For several moments, she was only dimly aware that she was being held by a pair of strong arms, keeping her turned away from the deadly scene. Ruby nearly fainted, but managed to hold on, finally swimming back. She became aware of rough cloth against her face, hearing the soothing rumble of a woman's voice in her ear, saying something that she didn't quite make out, smelling the scents of tobacco, horses and leather. She stood there numbly until she stopped shaking so hard, then finally pulled away, looking up into Laura's concerned face. "Will you be okay?" Laura asked quietly.
"No, but I have to be," Ruby answered. She turned back to the fire, watching as the fire brigade swung into action, dashing water on the flames, slapping wet sacks over the flames, trying to keep the dry grass around from igniting. She watched for a few minutes, then saw her friend Elizabeth standing too close to the ring of fire, trying to run away, but trapped by the gang of railroad workers. When she saw Elizabeth Cane's dress catch fire, and heard the horrible screams of pain, she felt herself slipping, her world blacking out.
Ruby Bills drifted between sleep and wakefulness for some days. Questions were posed about the funeral, the estate, if they had any money in the bank. Through everything, Laura Wilkins sat next to her, making sure that no one took advantage of Ruby. Her husband's funeral was awful for Ruby. Lycurgus' body was burnt beyond recognition, necessitating a closed casket funeral.
In her state of shock, all Ruby remembered from the funeral was Laura sitting beside her, glaring at anyone who dared whisper about her comportment or lack thereof. Ruby did not cry at the funeral of either her husband or her best friend, Elizabeth. One thing that did penetrate her fog was that she would have to find a new place to live. The church was sending another minister soon and she could not continue to live in the parsonage. Laura Wilkins took over, helping her pack, then moving the Bills to her own home, much to the shock and disapproval of the good folks of the town.
Ruby and Leslie moved into a spare bedroom at the surprisingly elegant house on Laura's land. The house had four bedrooms, a large kitchen, two bathrooms, a library, and a dining room. Laura commented wryly that her husband had expected to fill it with many children.
Laura gave Ruby a large, airy room, with a bed, chest of drawers, and water stand. It was also furnished with a large rocking chair and a warm floor rug. "I hope you and Leslie will be comfortable here," Laura said as she set one of Ruby's trunks down. "I don't have any domestic help other than Peter. Peter became my husband's servant during the war, after Peter got his leg shot off. Couldn't be a soldier any longer, but didn't have a home to go back to. When we settled in Texas, we brought Peter with us to cook since I was a lousy cook."
"Oh," Ruby said quietly. She looked up at her friend and asked, "What can I do to help then?"
Laura patted her arm, smiling. "Just relax and raise your baby. I'm sure you'll find something to keep you busy. If you need anything, let me know. I'll arrange for one of my boys to bring the rest of your trunks in so you can unpack. See you at supper." With that, she disappeared.
Ruby looked around the room, then cautiously sat on the bed, surveying her new room. She jiggled Leslie in her arms, cooing at him until he went to sleep. She laid him on the bed, then started investigating the room. "I guess this will do," she said to herself, "especially since no one else offered us a place. Damn you, Curg, for getting killed!" She wiped her eyes, then straightened up as a man knocked lightly on the doorframe. "Yes, please, set those trunks over there," she said to the cowboy.
The second night that she was there marked the first nightmare for Ruby. She was sleeping soundly until she saw the events played out again, hearing the agonized screams, smelling the burnt flesh, watching the fire brigade trying to keep the fire from spreading. Ruby had no idea that she screamed out loud until Laura came rushing into the room sat on the bed, cradling Ruby like a baby, rocking her, asking hoarsely, "Nightmares?"
Ruby shivered as if cold, gradually waking up enough to come out of the nightmare. She had to swallow several times before she could speak, finally whispering, "I saw it again, Laura. I watched Curg and Elizabeth dying, burned in the fire as if a sacrifice to the gods." She finally pulled back, looking into Laura's concerned blue eyes. "It was awful, the smell, the screams, the feeling of helplessness. Laura, why did God take away my husband?"
Laura reached up her free hand to stroke the red gold hair, tentatively, remembering her own nightmares after her family had been slaughtered. She brought herself back to the present, answering softly, "I don't know, Ruby. I stopped believing in God when my husband and child were killed by Indians."
"You stopped believing in God? Why?" asked Ruby, settling herself back against her pillows.
Laura scowled, deep in memory. "The minister claimed that God would provide everything. God didn't provide anything but human vultures who tried to swoop down and take away my land and livelihood," she growled. "I stopped going to church and stopped caring what anyone thought of me." She kept stroking Ruby's hair, mesmerized by its exquisite silky texture, then concluded, "So, now the 'good people' of the town think I am some horrible creature because I dare take care of myself without the help of a man. The fact that I dare to run my ranch without a husband and dare to dress appropriately for the work I do is more than their little minds can bare."
She chuckled at the thought, then abruptly changed the subject. "So, what can you do besides be the perfect minister's wife?"
Ruby thought for a moment before answering, "I taught school before I met Lycurgus, but most places won't let a married woman teach, and probably not a widow either. To tell you the truth, I have no idea what to do, I have no home, my parents are dead, and I have a baby to bring up. I don't know what I would be allowed to do to make money."
Laura snorted in disgust. "Women can do anything they damn well please, pardon my language. However, you and Leslie can stay here as long as you need to. I'll find something for you to do to if you feel you need to earn your keep." She thought a moment, then suddenly switched subjects again. "You did catch the reference to Pandora. I am pleased."
Ruby smiled. "Yes, I did. My Uncle Charles taught at a seminary and came to visit us in Georgia every summer. I learned some Greek and Latin, as well as Greek mythology. Sometimes I wish women could teach in colleges, but even if I could, we don't have any colleges nearby."
Laura smiled, leaning back on one arm. "Ruby, feel free to browse my husband's library. George traveled all over Europe before we met and managed to amass quite a large collection. We were lucky that it wasn't burned down during Sherman's rampage through the South, and had enough money to ship it to Texas. Sometimes I miss him tremendously..." Laura's voice trailed off.
A silence descended for several minutes, then Laura yawned and stretched her long arms over her dark head. "I'd better get back to bed, morning comes pretty early around here. Will you be okay now?"
"Yes, I think so. I'll try not to have any nightmares from here on out." Ruby sighed, laying a hand on Laura's tan forearm, rubbing it lightly. "Thank you, Laura."
"You're welcome, Ruby. Good night." Laura tentatively touched Ruby's cheek, then got up and left the room. Ruby watched her leave, then pulled up the covers and drifted back to sleep.
The next morning, Ruby finished unpacking her few clothes and Leslie's clothes, storing them in the chest of drawers. She changed his diapers and was in the middle of feeding him when she heard a knock on the door. "Who is it?" she asked.
"Laura. May I come in?" came Laura's musical voice.
Ruby pulled Leslie's blanket higher, calling out, "Yes, please come in."
Laura sauntered into the room, glancing around, nodding approvingly. "Looks like you unpacked. I meant what I said last night, you can stay here as long as you wish." She looked at Ruby, a picture of serenity and maternity, calmly feeding her son. The blanket started slipping and fell to the floor before Ruby could grab it.
"I'll get it for you," Laura said as she strode across the room, sweeping the blanket off the floor and giving it back to the young mother. She caught a brief glimpse of Ruby's breast and pink nipple before Leslie took it back in his mouth. This sight caused an unexpected jolt of excitement in her gut, which she promptly ignored. "I've already had breakfast and need go check on some of the cattle today. Peter left some breakfast for you on the stove along with a pot of coffee, so go in whenever you are ready."
Ruby smiled, green eyes meeting Laura's shyly. "Leslie and I appreciate your kindness. I do have a favor to ask; if anyone goes to town soon, may I give them money to buy a new cradle? I'm not sure what happened to his during the move."
Laura crossed one long leg over the other, finding herself smiling back. "Sure, I'm going tomorrow. But why don't you just use little George's cradle? I still have it in storage, and it's still in good condition."
Relief crossed Ruby's face. "That would work, do you mind terribly?"
"Not at all, Ruby. Well, I'm off to work." Laura paused by the door for a moment, wishing she could stay longer. As much as she enjoyed Peter's company, she was sometimes hungry to talk to another woman. "Remember, make yourself at home." She couldn't avoid it any longer, she had to go to work.
Soon after Laura left, Leslie finished his breakfast and Ruby dressed him for the day. She picked him and and went to the kitchen, where she was greeted by Peter. "Mornin' ma'am. Miz Laura said that y'all would be along any time now. Let me get you some breakfast here." Peter swung, pivoting on his good leg, deftly assembling her breakfast on a plate, then limped over to set it on the table. "Want me to hold your baby while you eat?"
Ruby nodded, handing over the baby. Peter settled him in his arms, making silly noises and faces as Ruby got down the business of eating her breakfast. When she had finished most of her meal, she commented, "Not many men are comfortable with babies, but I do appreciate you holding him while I ate. Should I take him back now?"
Peter shook his head as he gently bounced Leslie on his good knee. "Miz Bills, I was the oldest of four brothers and sisters. Mama died with the youngest, so I stepped in to take care of them until my paw could get his sister to help come take care of them. I learned mighty quick to diaper and feed, since my next oldest sister was only three at the time."
"Oh, I see," Laura said. She finished her eggs, then asked, "Peter, how did you meet Laura and George? I know she has mentioned that George was in the war, but I'm still not quite sure how everyone got to Texas."
Peter chuckled as he recounted, "I joined the Confederate Army when I was seventeen. By then, my paw had remarried, so my brothers and sisters didn't need me. I managed to get my leg shot off the first month. By then, I'd met up with Major Wilkins, who decided he needed another cook, and I really had no reason to return home. So when he and the Miz Laura moved to Texas, they brought me along." He cooed at Leslie, then turned back to Ruby. "He's quite a good baby, I haven't hardly heard him cry since Miz Laura brought y'all to the house."
Ruby finished her coffee, then asked seriously, "Peter, what happened to Laura's husband and child?"
He settled in his chair more comfortably, then replied, "Well, when we first settled here ten years ago, they had just married. Little George was born here just after the house was finished. About six years ago, a renegade tribe of Indians came through, trying to rustle the cattle and horses. Mr. George came flyin' out of the house, it was night you see, and was shootin' at them and hollerin' for them to git away. They shot him full of arrows, then came in the house and carted away most of the food.
Peter took a deep breath before continuing, the memories still fresh in his dark eyes. "The Indians killed the little boy in his room, then found Miz Laura, beating her and raping her. She managed to fight some of them off and I wasn't much help, for they busted my wood leg. I nursed her back to health and she swore that a band of Indians wouldn't keep her down, that if she could survive that, she could survive anything." Leslie started whimpering and Peter started jiggling him until he settled back down.
When Leslie was settled, Peter picked up his tale. "Miz Laura has had a tough row to hoe. It didn't help that the townsfolk never helped, and whispered that she'd become just like a man, because she started wearing men's clothes, figuring they were more practical for running horses. The more successful she became, the more the town gossiped about her, so she gave up and took to smoking, drinking, and card playing."
Ruby looked at Peter in astonishment. "Was there anything she could do to change their opinions?"
Peter shook his grizzled head sadly. "No, it got even worse. She was so busy the first few years just keeping the ranch going that she didn't even look for company. A few years later, a man name of Charles Taylor tried courting her. She must have liked him a little, for she started going to dinner with him in town, even wearing dresses. Well, that came to a halt one night when he tried to press his attentions too far. She just went wild and shot him with his own gun, but from what I heard, he deserved it. After that, no man tried to tame her." He jiggled Leslie again, then asked, "You want him back? He's getting a bit heavy for me."
Ruby took her baby back. "Thank you, Peter. No wonder Laura's so bitter. But why did she help me?"
Peter rubbed his square chin thoughtfully, saying, "I reckon that you were the only woman in town who never flat out ignored her or turned away from her. Plus, you lost your husband in a tragic way, she can feel for you." He started to say more, but just concluded, "I'd better start workin' on lunch. The boys will be mighty hungry come noontime. Why don't you run along and visit the library? I'll call you when it's time to eat."
July finally gave way to August, the heat unabated. Ruby fell into a routine of taking care of Leslie, reading in the library and helping Peter with meals, which he protested at first, then relented. Laura started sitting in the library with Ruby after Ruby put Leslie to bed, drinking coffee and talking about literature. Ruby noticed that as they discussed various books that Laura's eyes would start to sparkle and she would lose the cynical face that she showed the rest of the world.
One night they sat discussing the myth of Demeter and Persephone; how Demeter mourned for her daughter when the lord of the underworld had her, and how they rejoiced when rejoined. Laura held the book in her hand that she had been reading the myth out of, shutting it gently, asking, "Isn't that a beautiful explanation of the seasons? Having lost a child, I can really feel Demeter's sorrow at losing Persephone."
"Yes, but these are just myths. Surely you don't believe-" Ruby offered.
Laura stared at her with eyes suddenly gone cold. "Better than believing that one god made the entire world in six days, then casting out his children just because they ate a fruit that he practically dared them to eat," she spat bitterly.
"Why Laura, that is disrespectful!" Ruby gasped, shocked at the words and the tone.
Laura snorted and got up, going over to the small bar and pouring herself a glass of whiskey. She eyed Ruby speculatively as she tossed back the contents of the glass, then poured and gulped a second. Finally, she put the stopper back in the bottle, coming back to drop heavily in her chair. "Disrespectful, my ass! Ruby, don't you know what the good so called Christian folk are saying about you now? They are saying that you live in sin with me here, taking my money without thought for how it will affect your baby! Yet, I suppose they all coo over Leslie after church services!"
"As a matter of fact, they do!" Ruby blustered, "I've explained that I help around the house-"
Laura interrupted harshly, growling, "Has John Cane made any advance towards you?"
Ruby stared at Laura, wondering where that switch in topics came from. "No, he hasn't. He is still mourning Elizabeth and trying to raise their three boys. He is nice to me, but the Canes were good friends of mine and Curg's. He wouldn't dare-"
Laura snickered, lifting an elegant black eyebrow in disdain. "Are you quite sure? I was getting one of my horses shoed today and he was at the blacksmiths. I overheard him telling the other men how he would love to take you for his wife, that it would cleanse your reputation and get a mother for his brats. He's had trouble with them and considered sending them east to school. He'd get a nanny for Leslie, and have you for himself," she said, the last bit very suggestively.
"Not John, God, no!" Ruby stood up and walked to the window, staring at the moon, trying to make sense of what Laura was telling her. She liked Mr. Cane, but was not ready to share her life with him or any man. Why couldn't people keep their noses out of other people's business? She heard the clink of glass again, then turned around in time to see Laura downing a third glass. "Why are you drinking so much?" she asked, half in horror and half in growing anger.
"Why not?" Laura replied. "Damn their honor anyway! I'll suffer any charges they dare to bring against me, but not against you. No one else ever offered to help you!" She whirled around, staring at Ruby. "Has anyone ever offered to lift a hand? Christian charity, my ass! Damned bootlickers never lifted a hand to help you. I'll-"
Ruby got up and walked over to Laura, putting a hand on Laura's arm. "Laura, you're quite distraught!"
"Well?" she hissed back, "did any of them offer to help?"
Ruby thought back for a moment, slowly realizing that not one person offered to help. Laura had freely opened her house to Ruby and Leslie, even donating clothes and cradle for Leslie, giving without expectation. Yet, Laura claimed not to believe in God, but she was showing more Christian behavior than the congregation. She said softly, "No, you were the only one to offer assistance, for which I am grateful."
Laura stared at the petite woman for a long moment, then said, "I'd better get to bed. Thanks for the conversation."
"But our study-" Ruby interjected.
Laura suddenly bellowed, "God damn the myths, my dear, I'm not in the mood tonight. I'm drunk and plan to get drunker; you really shouldn't see me in this condition. Goodnight." Laura slung her long body into her armchair, staring moodily out the window, pointedly ignoring the other woman.
Ruby stared at Laura for a moment, then turned on her heel and stormed out of the room, slamming the door after her. She met Peter in the hall and asked, "Does Laura often do this? Get drunk and angry?"
He shook his head sadly, then answered, "Just once a year, the night her family was killed. If I were you, I'd stay away from her. Miz Laura will be quiet in the morning, probably go away to the cemetery for a spell, then act as if nothing happened. Good night, Miz Bills." He stumped off. Ruby stared back at the library door for a long moment, then finally went to her bedroom to check on Leslie. He was sleeping peacefully, so she quietly changed into her nightclothes and drifted into a fitful sleep.
Several hours later, Ruby woke up to an earth-shattering howl. She sat up in bed, trying to figure out where it came from. Coyotes maybe? Leslie woke up crying as another howl sounded. Ruby went to his cradle, picking him up and carrying him to the rocking chair, rocking him until he fell back asleep. After she laid him back in his cradle, she heard muffled talking; curious, she pulled on a wrap and stepped into the hallway to investigate.
As Ruby stepped out of room, she saw Laura slumped against the wall outside of her bedroom. Ruby hesitated for a moment, not quite sure what to do when Laura looked up and saw her standing there. Laura attempted to stand up, mumbling, "Leave me alone with my ghosts, Ruby." So, this is where the howls came from, Ruby thought.
"Let me help you to your bed, Laura," Ruby murmured, trying not to wake up Leslie. Despite her protest, Laura did not resist as Ruby held out her hand to help her up. Once Laura was on her feet, Ruby helped her get to her bedroom and on her bed. "Now, what were you doing in the floor?"
Laura didn't answer right away, concentrating on stripping her clothes off, looking for her nightgown. Ruby felt her face flushing as she beheld the other woman's body, more beautiful than she ever imagined any woman's body to be, with definite lines marking the tanned skin that saw the sun with the creamy skin that stayed covered up. Ruby gasped involuntarily, contrasting Laura's beautiful, strong body with the emaciated body of the first Mrs. Bills. Laura looked up and caught her looking and smiled shyly, then quickly donned a mask of boredom. She finally found her nightgown and yanked it over her head, concealing her lovely body.
The two women stared at each other for a long moment, aware of what had just passed between them. Finally, Laura spoke unsteadily. "Ruby, I apologize for waking you up. Did I disturb Leslie?"
"He's asleep now." Ruby found herself still staring at the dark woman, the image of her naked body still burned in her brain.
Laura seemed to have sobered in the last minute and was able to light the wall lamp with steady hands. She sat on the bed, then motioned to the rocking chair, saying, "Please have a seat." Ruby sat carefully, on the edge of the chair at first, then finally surrendering to the comfort of the chair.
Laura looked at her, sorrow flitting across her features. "Ruby, tonight is the anniversary of the attack that took my family. I usually get drunk, have nightmares, then spend the next day sobering up. I apologize for my behavior, it is uncalled for. I had promised myself that I would not get drunk tonight, that I had more respect for you than that, but the things that I heard in town made me angry."
Ruby looked at her, not fully comprehending what Laura was hinting at, asking, "What things, Laura?"
Laura took a deep breath, lifted her head, looking directly into Ruby's green eyes, answering quietly, "They say that since I dress like a man, I must have a man's appetites."
"What?" Ruby repeated.
"In other words, my dear naive friend," Laura said, voice light, but eyes weary, "they think that I lust after your body, just like any man would."
Ruby stared at her, mouth open but no words coming out. But Laura was so nice to her! But hadn't she just a few minutes ago stared at Laura's body? Ruby slowly lowered her head, ashamed of her own thoughts, wondering if this meant that her marriage had been a sham.
Lost in her own musings, she barely heard the bedsprings squeak as Laura stood back up and crossed the room and knelt in front of her, hands gripping the arms of the rocker. "Ruby, I swear that I would never mistreat you, never do anything like that..." Laura's voice trailed off, not sure what to say to make it better. Ruby looked at her, seeing the pleading in Laura's eyes, not sure what she was pleading for. Ruby touched Laura's cheek gently, then laid her head on top of Laura's.
They sat like this for several minutes, then Laura finally stood up. "I'm sorry, Ruby, but you need to go back to your room. I need to get up early in the morning. Good night." She turned away, standing pointedly by the lamp, waiting to blow it out. Ruby slowly got up, dazed, wishing she could know what to say, to heal her friend's heart. She somehow made it back safe in her bedroom, where she started weeping bitterly, hoping she had not lost her burgeoning friendship with Laura, hoping for...what?
Peter noticed that the two women timed their routines to avoid each other during the next week. Laura was angry most of the time and Ruby was distracted. He wondered what happened but dared not ask, but he suspected it had to do Laura's behavior that night she got so drunk. He finally decided, against his better judgment, to ask Laura what had happened, since all Ruby would say was, "Ask your boss."
Peter waited until evening when Laura was sitting on the front porch, sipping a whisky. He had noticed that she was drinking every night since that night, although she seemed to stay depressingly sober. He limped out to the front porch and dropped heavily in a rocker, looking at the sunset and waiting for Laura to speak. Finally, she took notice of him and asked, "Like a glass of whiskey, Peter?"
"No thanks, Miz Laura." He turned his chair so he could see her better, not sure how to bring up the problem. Be a man, he told himself, and just say it. "I've notice that you and Ruby are avoiding each other." There, it was out in the open.
Laura knocked back the rest of her glass, then laid it on the table with exaggerated care. She turned smoky blue eyes on him, saying, "So?"
Peter had seen that look in her eyes once before, the time she had whipped a man for mistreating one of her horses. He cleared his throat, gathering his courage, and pressed on. "Miz Laura, you and Miz Ruby were getting along like a house a-fire, then you avoid each other like the plague."
"Why do you care?" asked Laura, voice laced with an undercurrent of simmering anger.
Peter sighed, this was not going well. He might as well toss in his only ace into the fray. "Miz Laura, I promised Major Wilkins that I would always look after you should anything happen to him. I reckon I've upheld my end of the deal the best I can, but it's damned difficult to look after you when you're determined to drive everyone away, especially her."
Laura considered his words as she turned and watched the sun drop below the horizon. She finally said, "She saw me drunk, Peter. Didn't you warn her? I heard you warn her not to bother me, Peter. So tell me, why didn't you stop her?"
Defensively, he retorted, "Well, yes, I did warn her, but damn it, woman, you didn't have to go and start drinking like that! I miss them too, I fought beside Mr. George, cooked his food, nursed both of you with wounds, and followed you to Texas. Since that night the Indians killed your family, raped and beat you, and left you for dead, you've managed to push away nearly anyone who had a kind word for you, except me. I made a solemn promise to take care of you, but by God, you were the one who took them in. So you damn well better take care of them instead of pushing her away!"
He half expected that she would lash out at him, but instead, she merely looked at him as if he were some sort of interesting bug or something. "Oh? Are you quite finished?" she purred.
He shoved himself up, fixing her with a hard glare. "I am, but you ain't. Go talk to her. The silence in this house is killing her, it's bad for the boy, and it's cutting me to pieces."
Laura stood up abruptly. "All right, if it is so damned important to you, Peter, I'll go talk to the lady. Go on home, I'll see you in the morning." Peter stood up, tipped his hat to her and limped down the stairs, heading toward his cabin. He turned, glaring at her until she got up and went inside the house.
Laura found Ruby in the library, reading. She plopped down in a chair on the other side of the table, waiting for Ruby to look up. When Ruby determinedly kept reading, she finally walked around to the other side, dragging her chair with her so she could sit beside her. "Ruby," she asked, "would you please look at me?"
Ruby looked up and carefully laid her book down. "What do you want?" she asked in a frosty tone.
Laura flinched at the tone of voice, but plowed on. "Peter is furious because we haven't been talking."
"There is nothing to talk about. Perhaps I should take John Cane up on his offer," Ruby commented, regarding Laura coolly.
Laura's attempt at reconciliation dried up abruptly as she snapped, "Has he actually spoken to you about marriage?"
"Yes, yesterday at the store." Ruby started to reach for her book again, but Laura stayed her hand. "What did you say to him?"
Ruby answered crisply, "I said not right now, it has not been long enough for a decent mourning period. After all, we would not wish to stir up any gossip, so perhaps next year."
Laura felt like Ruby had landed a blow on her. Was she actually thinking about marrying the man? Laura opened her mouth to protest, then realized that she had no grounds to protest. Why did it matter so much what Ruby did, or who she married? True, she had enjoyed Ruby's company, enjoyed the intellectual discussions, enjoyed having a baby in the house again. Unable to come up with any reply, she turned on her heel and slunk out of the room.
A few days later, Laura decided to go to town for a few supplies. After she dressed, went to the kitchen for breakfast. She was surprised to see Ruby there, with Peter playing with Leslie. Tentatively, she cleared her throat and said "Good morning." The other two replied "Good morning" and Peter handed Leslie back to Ruby as he got up to fix Laura's breakfast plate.
Leslie gurgled happily and suddenly lunged for Laura. Ruby silently handed him over, watching as Laura started playing with him, kissing his fingers, talking nonsense, smiling as he gurgled happily at her. Peter laid her plate down and she shifted him to one arm, eating with the other. Ruby offered to take him back, but Laura refused. "He's fine, Ruby, I figure I can eat one-handed."
After breakfast, Laura finally handed Leslie back, saying casually, "I'm going to town today to pick up a few things. Anyone need anything?" Peter reached for her list and looked it over, then shook his head no.
Ruby reached for the list and looked it over, then said, "Yes, I'd like some material for clothes for me and for Leslie. He's growing so fast he's nearly coming out of what he has."
Laura looked at her for a moment, then asked, "Would you like to pick it out yourself? I'd be glad to have your company."
Ruby considered a moment, then smiled slowly. "It would be easier if I picked it out rather than trying to describe what I need. Give me a few minutes to get me and Leslie ready, and I'll meet you at the barn."
"See you in a bit, then. Don't take too long," Laura said, voice gruff but eyes hopeful. She left to get the team hitched to the wagon, then waited patiently for Ruby and Leslie. When they reached the wagon, she first laid Leslie on the seat, then helped Ruby up, hoisting herself up last.
They had gone nearly a mile when Ruby broke the silence, saying, "Would you like to discuss Little Women tonight?
Laura relaxed, thinking that maybe things would be fine. "Why wait until tonight? Personally, I like the Laurie."
"Gee, I thought you'd be Jo, she reminds me of you." Ruby shot back.
"Now what makes you say that?" Laura asked innocently, a smile creeping up her face.
So, for the next few miles, they went back and forth, discussing the various characters in the book. When they came to Professor Bhaer, Laura said wistfully, "He reminds me of George. George was quite a bit older than me, nearly fifteen years. He had never married, too busy traveling for leisure and business."
She took a breath, then revealed the true story of how they met, not the one she usually told. "He met me during the war. I had lost my entire family to the war and sickness, so I cut my hair and enlisted in the army. I was a damned good horsewoman and a better shot, so I was taken in quickly. I think George suspected that I wasn't a man, but kept that to himself, and as for me, I adored him. He was an excellent fighter, and yet had a quiet side to him, one that drew me in."
Laura looked pensively down the road, lost in memories. "I was wounded, and George had me brought to his tent, only letting Peter take care of me. It was only a small shot in my shoulder, and I healed rapidly. Fortunately, the war ended soon after."
She continued, "George had the chance to come to Texas, so we decided to get married and take our chances together. I became pregnant immediately, which was probably good." She colored, revealing, "We loved each other and our baby George, but it was more like we were brother and sister, if you know what I mean." She paused, embarrassed by her reflections, changing swiftly back to the original topic. "I'm probably telling you more than you want to know. So, who would be Marmee?"
Leslie chose that moment to demand more breakfast. Ruby glanced around, saw no one else on the road, and unbuttoned her dress to allow him to feed. She looked up sheepishly, saying, "I forgot the blanket I usually use. Do you mind?"
"No, not at all. Little guy needs his nourishment." Laura then determinedly looked at the road until she heard Leslie burping contentedly. "We should arrive at the edge of town in another twenty minutes. What do you want to do first?"
Ruby considered as she finished buttoning her dress, then answered shyly, "I don't care what we do first, but could we look some flowers for the front of the house? I know it's a luxury, but with a little color, it would be a more inviting place to spend evenings."
Laura grinned broadly. "Tell you what, Ruby, I'll buy whatever you need or want. Say, there is a new restaurant in town, down by the railroad station. Do you want to go there for an early supper after our errands?"
Ruby considered for a few seconds, then responded, "Sounds good to me. What kind of food do they serve, Laura? Will we be able to take Leslie in there?"
"Oh, the usual sort of fare, brisket and some vegetables, but I will tell you that they have the best pies in the county." She looked at Ruby slyly. "Just don't tell Peter I said that."
Ruby looked puzzled. "Why do you say that?"
"Well," Laura said, relaxing, "Peter thinks he bakes the best pies ever, and I'll confess his are really good. But he does mostly fruit pies, and they have the most decadent chocolate chess pie in the world. Oh, God, I'm nearly drooling just thinking about their pies. And they are trying to get more families to come eat, so Leslie will be welcome. What do you say?"
Ruby smiled. "It sounds intriguing, Laura. I accept your kind offer."
Laura just grinned.
The day had been uneventful, except for John Cane mooning around Ruby as she shopped the general store. To Laura's surprise, though, Ruby managed to wiggle out of any personal chatter. They had eaten at the restaurant, just before most of the crowd got there, and Ruby let Laura order wine and even drank it. She admitted that it was rare that she drank wine, since she had been brought up a strict Methodist. Laura was amused at the look on Ruby's face when she took her first sip, like she wanted to spit it out but didn't dare. But, once Ruby started eating, she tried the wine again and liked it better. She liked it so well that she drank several glasses.
Leslie had behaved well, watching the other diners with solemn eyes, content to play with the bits of food the women shared with him. Ruby laughed delightedly when he tried several bites of green peas, looking undecided as to whether or not he liked them. "He'll be eating solid food soon enough, then he'll eat us out of house and home," Laura promised bemusedly.
The ride home was uneventful. Laura had bought another bottle of wine before they left, intending to put it in the library for visitors. Ruby had put Leslie to bed, then insisted that Laura open the bottle and serve it while they sat in the library, discussing books. Laura cautioned her that she should slow down on the wine or she would have a horrible headache the next day, but Ruby would not hear of it. "So," she slurred happily, "Whatcha think about The Scarlet Letter? Should whazzername really should have worn that badge? Letter? Whatever? I mean, she followed her heart and the stupid minister should have said no to begin with. Can't people overcome their desires?"
Laura laughed as she poured herself a glass of wine, sipping slowly. "My dear friend, most folks can barely keep their pants up or dresses down when it comes to matters of the heart. Didn't you enjoy creating little Leslie?"
Ruby drained her glass, then held it out for more. Laura shook her head no, filling the glass with water instead. Ruby shrugged, then drank the water thirstily. "Yup, I enjoyed it, more than Curg thought was decent. Sometimes I just wanted to play with him, make it last. But it was over too quick. Just when I was really starting to feel something, he'd roll off and go to sleep. I bet you'd never do that to me, just roll off and start snoring."
Laura choked on her drink, setting her glass down carefully. When she could finally talk, she gasped, "Care to rephrase that?"
"That did sound funny, didn't it? I mean, um, I gotta pee." Ruby lurched out of the library to the bathroom. Laura listened, but did not hear her getting sick, so she started to relax. Ruby came back, holding her underwear in her hand. "Couldn't get it back on," she giggled.
Laura spring up from her chair, half embarrassed, half amused at her friend. "That's it, no more wine for you. Here, drink some more water, then I'm putting you to bed. No, don't protest, otherwise, you'll feel like hell in the morning, Ruby." Ruby sank to the ground, laughing helplessly as Laura spoke.
Laura looked at the giggling mass, then leaned over and scooped her up, carrying her off to her room. She gritted her teeth as she stripped Ruby's clothes off, then yanked her nightgown over her head. She ignored the pleasant fire in her belly when she touched Ruby's skin while helping her, working quickly as if with a sick child. "Now, go to sleep," she ordered.
"Nighty night!" Ruby's voice trailed behind her as Laura went to her own room. Damn, that woman got under her skin! The house seemed stuffier than usual, so she opened her bedroom windows before turning down her own covers.
Laura heard a scream several hours later. She bolted upright, determined it was Ruby, and ran into her room, where Ruby was staring out the window, screaming at something. She pushed the other woman aside, then looked out the window for herself. Laura started laughing when she saw the cause of the trouble--a raccoon who had been staring in the window from the tree next to the house. "Ruby, it's just a raccoon! No need to worry."
Ruby stared at the beast again, then said in a small voice, "But he looked so big!"
Laura chuckled, walking back to Ruby's side. "Perspective. He was just far enough away that his shadow on the window was pretty big." Ruby hung her head, muttering how she was such a fool. Laura took pity on her and gathered the smaller woman in her arms, hugging her comfortingly. Ruby resisted for a moment, then relaxed, leaning her head against Laura's shoulder, listening to Laura's heartbeat and rumbling laughter.
Somehow, the world was a better place in Laura's arms. She had missed talking to Laura, missed her dry wit and insightful commentary on the books they had read, missed listening to her talking to the cowboys about the running of the ranch. If she missed Laura so much in one week, what would a lifetime be like away from her? She shivered at the thought, causing Laura to pull back slightly and look at her face, asking tenderly, "Why are you shivering, Ruby? God know it isn't cold in here. Are you sick?" She felt Ruby's forehead, then said, "No fever."
"Laura, I missed you this past week," Ruby blurted out.
"But I was here," Laura replied, confused.
Exasperated, Ruby clarified, "No, I mean I missed talking to you, seeing how you reacted to the books we discussed, missed seeing you play with Leslie." Without warning, tears sprang into her eyes and her voice choked. "I never want to spent that long away from you, even in the same house. You are a good woman, my best friend. You took us in when I lost my husband, asking for nothing in return." She stopped again, the tears overwhelming her.
Laura pulled Ruby back into her arms, not sure how to react. She settled for stroking the other woman's hair and back, as she would have comforted a child. She finally picked Ruby up and took her back to her own bed, allowing Ruby to cry on her shoulder until she fell asleep. Laura gradually drifted to sleep herself, still holding the smaller woman in her arms.
As promised, Ruby had a terrible headache the next morning. She was sure that Laura would laugh at her, but was grateful that Laura merely asked Peter to make the "Hangover special", which included several glasses of water, biscuits, gravy and coffee. Ruby felt like every sound was magnified, every light was ten times brighter. Laura told her that she didn't have to do anything, just to go lie down after breakfast and sleep some more.
Several hours later, she woke up when Leslie was whimpering for his next meal. She crawled out of bed and first went to the bathroom, then came back and started feeding him. She finally got him fed, bathed and diapered when Laura knocked on the door, sticking her head around the corner. "Hey, how are you doing?"
Ruby looked up from watching Leslie sleeping in his cradle. "Better, thanks to you and Peter. I just got Leslie to sleep, so let's go to another room."
Laura's face relaxed. "Sure. How about my room? It's on the other side, so it won't be as bright and you can still hear Leslie if he wakes up. By the way, I sent Peter with the rest of the boys to round up some cattle. You can be stuck with me for the entire day."
Ruby grinned as they walked into Laura's room. It was darker, and cooler too, thanks to several trees shading that side of the house. "Wow, a whole 'nother day with you?" She sat down in a chair while Laura sat in the chair beside her. She was contented now, but was still fuzzy on the details about the night before. She finally asked timidly, "Did I really wake up, screaming about a raccoon last night?"
Laura smiled, answering, "Yes, you did. You must have still been drunk and woke up, then saw how big his shadow was on the window. I got you calmed down though."
Ruby was able to relax and laugh at herself for screaming about the raccoon. She stopped laughing as another memory surfaced, asking timidly, "Did you really sleep with me, or was that my imagination?"
Laura answered, "Yes. I was hugging you, you were crying and it seemed to stop when I held you close. Then you started crying again as you told me how much you missed me last week when we didn't talk."
Ruby looked horrified and embarrassed. "Well, yes, I do seem to remember babbling on. I guess the wine was talking or something."
Laura exaggerated a pout. "You mean you were lying? You didn't miss me? I'm terribly hurt."
"Well-" Ruby spluttered.
"And I thought that you loved me." Laura interrupted playfully.
"I do! I mean as a friend, I do. You are a dear friend to me, Laura." Ruby said in a rush.
Laura smiled knowingly. "Sure, that's what all my friends say. If I had any besides Peter, that is. I used to think that John Cane was a friend, but-" Laura broke off, unsure of where she was leading, bantering tone dropped. Something about this woman affect her tremendously, make her wish she could hold her every night. She had never felt this way about anyone, including her husband.
Agitated, she got up and crossed the room to look out her window, idly watching the clouds gathering. "It might storm today," she announced.
Ruby crossed the room, turning Laura to face her. "Don't change the subject, Laura. What about John?"
Laura put her hands on Ruby's shoulders, answering softly, "John wants a wife. I hate to admit it, but I don't want to lose you. You and Leslie have been here for three months and I'm used to seeing you every day and night. I suppose that in due time you will probably marry John or someone else and become a respected member of the community again."
She sighed, dropping her hands and shoving them in her pockets. "The longer you stay here with me, the more people will talk and wonder what is really going on, how I can take care of you and Leslie."
Laura started pacing nervously as she admitted, "I've never had a close friend before, Ruby. By the time I was fifteen, I was already six feet tall and could break the toughest stallion without help. Girls teased me, and boys were in awe of me. The war started soon after I turned sixteen, and within six years I'd lost my family, enlisted, been wounded, married, moved to Texas, and had George Junior." She paused, the past haunting her eyes. "We were married for so little time, when George and our baby were taken away from me. Even though we shared a passion for books, we never were really never more than friends." She stopped pacing, standing in front of Ruby, eyes haunted with remembered grief.
Ruby impulsively hugged Laura, then pulled back and looked up into Laura's face. "I won't desert you, dear friend. I do love you so much, more than I thought possible." She impulsively kissed Laura on the cheek, then on the lips. What she didn't expect was Laura's passionate response, or the answering desire suddenly roaring through her body. Without intending to, Ruby moaned against Laura's lips, deepening the kiss until they were both nearly faint headed.
Laura didn't think, she reacted. She swept Ruby into her arms and deposited her on the bed, covering Ruby's face with feathery soft kisses, then slowly unbuttoning Ruby's dress and exploring her neck with kisses. She could feel heat building up inside her, long forgotten responses and urges making themselves known. She could feel Ruby's hands slipping inside her vest, rubbing her back, urging her on. Suddenly, she stopped and gasped, "What the hell are we doing?"
Ruby growled, "Loving each other, so shut up and kiss me." Before Laura could protest, Ruby pulled her back into another heart stopping kiss.
They woke up several hours later when Leslie started crying. Ruby left for a moment, then brought him back into the room, feeding him contently. Laura watched, desire lighting her face as she watched his small mouth feeding on the nipple that she had feasted on just hours ago. She sat up against the headboard, pulling Ruby and Leslie into her arms, watching the mother and child. She heard the rain starting to fall, but it didn't register until the wind started sweeping it into the room. Leslie had finished feeding, so she got up and shut the window, then laid back on the bed, while Ruby took Leslie back to her room. Ruby came back to the room and leapt into bed, giggling as she burrowed under the sheet with Laura.
Laura felt herself responding and gave up any pretense of not noticing. She growled playfully, flipping Ruby down on her back, holding her arms down as she slowly explored Ruby's wonderful body. Laura had never felt more free, more loved, more alive than she did right now, exploring how to pleasure her beloved friend. After they loved each other, Laura untangled herself and laid beside Ruby, holding her close to her heart.
Laura and Ruby spent the entire day in bed, sleeping, waking, making love, feeding the baby and starting all over again. They finally got up late in the afternoon, after the rain moved on and went to take their baths. They moved out to the porch, holding hands and watching the sun dip down, sated with pleasure.
Peter came back to the house the next morning, hoping that Laura and Ruby had made amends. He'd seen the wagon back in the barn, but since Laura never came looking for him, he hoped that they had simply spent a quiet evening by themselves. He let himself into the kitchen, starting the coffee pot while rummaging through the pantry for breakfast fixings. Finding what he wanted, he deftly started making biscuits, then started scrambling eggs and frying ham while waiting for the biscuits and the coffee to get ready.
A short time later, he rang the dinner bell on the wall of the dining room, waiting for the women and the baby to appear. Peter frowned a bit, Laura was usually already in the kitchen when he arrived, and Ruby and Leslie were usually there fairly soon. Had something happened?
He fidgeted, then finally decided to investigate after putting the food on the table and taking the pot off the burner. Peter stumped down the hallway and noticed that Laura's door was open. He poked his head around, but didn't see her or the baby, although it was obvious that the bed and the cradle had been slept in. Somewhat alarmed, he went to Ruby's door, seeing it closed, knocked softly. "Miz Laura?"
A moment later, Laura's tousled head appeared around the door. "What? Is it morning already?" she asked, yawning mightily.
"Yes, and I can't find Miz Ruby or the baby anywhere..." his voice trailed off as the door opened wider, revealing Ruby and the baby sitting in the old rocker in Laura's room. She waved, and he tentatively waved back, then turned to Laura, who was slipping a robe on. "I see you've found them," he said weakly, mind blanking out.
"I have," Laura smirked. She stood there for a moment, then asked gently, "Did you have something to say, Peter?"
He kept staring, realizing that a) Laura was in her nightclothes and b) Ruby was in her nightclothes and c) it was already after 8:30 and d) they were both usually up by the crack of dawn. Peter shook his head and finally said, "I just came to say breakfast is ready and getting cold. Y'all come soon as you get dressed." He turned and stumped back rapidly to the kitchen.
Ten minutes later, both women and the baby came in to eat their breakfast. Peter was at a loss for words as he watched Laura guiding Ruby down the hallway with a hand to the small of her back, and as they both kept trading silly grins. A strange idea skittered through his head, which he tried to dismiss, that some of the gossip about Laura was true. But about the minister's widow? He watched silently as the women ate, chatting pleasantly, taking turns feeding the baby.
Laura found Peter later in the day in the vegetable garden, directing a young boy in the fine art of weeding. She watched for several minutes before calling out, "Peter, I need a word with you." He turned, shaded his eyes, nodded, then gave the boy a few last instructions before stumping heavily over to Laura. "Let's go to your cabin," she suggested. He simply nodded, making her wonder if he'd lost his power of speech.
"Want any tea?" Peter asked when they entered his small, tidy cabin.
"Please," Laura answered, pulling off her hat and work gloves. She sat down in one of the chairs, placing the gloves in her hat on the floor beside her and listened as Peter stumped around his kitchen, making tea and loading a plate with goodies. Several minutes later, he came out with a loaded tray, which he placed carefully on the small table between their chairs. He served, and after a few sips, she asked, "What is bothering you, Peter?"
He ate a sugar cookie and drank some tea before setting his cup down, eyes still downcast. He sighed, then lifted his head, eyes seeking hers. "I know I told you that you and Miz Ruby needed to make your amends, but something has changed beyond making amends," he finally said. "I'm not sure what, but you're acting toward her like the gossip says, manly like. What happened?"
Laura looked at her friend steadily and asked calmly, "Do you really want to know?"
"Yes, ma'am, I do." He gripped the arms of the chair unconsciously, bracing for what she might say.
She smiled. "Now Peter, think back for a minute. How did George and I treat each other?"
Puzzled, he answered, "You loved each other."
"Like a husband and wife, or more like a brother and sister?" she prodded gently.
Peter started to reply, but stopped. It was true, that after George, Jr. was born, they seemed content to sleep in separate rooms. He'd wondered why, but figured it was none of his business. "Well," he started hesitantly, "it's none of my business, but the separate rooms, I never figured that out. Old couples, sometimes, when one snores a lot, or after a couple has had a whole passel of children, but after one? I never quite figured it out."
Laura leaned forward, blue eyes intense. "We did love each other, but lost any desire to sleep with each other. I never stopped to analyze it, but I think we both were relieved to not have to pretend to enjoy the more physical side of our marriage." She leaned back, running a strong tanned hand through coal black hair, uncharacteristically uneasy. She seemed to suddenly make a decision. "Peter, I rescued Ruby and Leslie in that fire because it was the right thing to do, but also because I already liked her. She was the only woman in this county who willing stopped to talk to me, and didn't pay attention to any gossip. Having her here this months, I've become more and more attached to her, become used to having a close friend to share my life with."
"Share your life with? Miz Laura," Peter spluttered to a stop, then gasped as the truth hit him. "You're sharing your heart with her, and your life. You love her. She loves you. That's why y'all fought, because you were trying to deny it, and when I found you..." His voice trailed off as a deep flush stained his cheeks.
Laura was suddenly on her knees, hands gripping the arms of his chair, face pleading. "Please understand, Peter, she is the world to me. We can't stop loving each other. I swear by all that is sacred, I will take care of her and that boy until my dying breath. No one will understand, but that will be fine with me, but I need your support, your blessing. Will you bless our love?"
Peter stared into the face of his dearest friend, seeing her eyes misting with love. He didn't know what might be right or wrong in society's eyes, but seeing Laura kneeling there, love and light bathing her face, he knew he could not deny her. Besides, he'd seen how good Ruby was for her, enjoyed the sounds of a baby in the house, seen them gradually falling in love. Laura looked more alive and happier than he had seen her in years. "You have my blessing," he said.
She sprang up, impulsively pulling Peter up and wrapping him up in a bear hug, kissing his wrinkled cheek. "Thank you so much," she said. She pulled back, a huge grin flooding her face. "I have to go tell Ruby now." She kissed his cheek again, the grabbed her and gloves and tore out of the cabin.
John Cane looked up as the bell on the door jingled cheerfully. "Good morning, Laura, Mrs. Bills, Leslie," he said as the trio came in his store.
"Good morning, John," Laura drawled, tipping her hat back, "we have a short list for you." She walked back to the counter, handing it over to the shopkeeper as Ruby and Leslie slowly walked around the store, looking at the merchandise. "I'm glad to see winter over and done with."
"Yes," he agreed, watching Ruby and Leslie curiously. Leslie tried to grab a piece of candy, and Ruby gently swatted his hand, telling him no. "The lad is growing by leaps and bounds," he observed.
"He is at that," Laura agreed. John turned to start pulling supplies off the back counters, then turned back to ask Laura something. He was surprised to see her now holding Leslie, bouncing him lightly as Ruby kept shopping. "Looks like you and the boy are getting along."
Leslie beamed and pointed to Laura. "My pa!" he proudly exclaimed.
"Your pa?" John questioned.
Ruby came over, beaming with obvious pride. "He's talking in nearly complete sentences, Mr. Cane. He calls Laura Pa and calls me Ma. Isn't that cute?" She laid a hand on Laura's strong back, leaning over to kiss her son. "We're very proud of him. Of course, we have to keep a close eye on him here, he's walking quite well."
"Oh," was all John could think to say. He quickly gathered up the rest of the items on the list, and started ringing up the sale. "So, Mrs. Bills, I was wondering if you wanted to go to the town dance with me this weekend. Would you be free?"
She shook her head no, dimpling. "No, Mr. Cane, I promised that dance to Laura."
He was dumbfounded, just staring as Laura counted out her money, gently closing his fist around the money. "See you at the dance, John," she said. "Come one, sweetheart, let's go get the rest of our errands run."
John stared long after they left the store, then finally shook himself back to his senses. It looked like what the gossips said was true, and that he'd lost all chances of marrying Ruby Bills. Before he could work up his temper, a woman entered his store, asking, "Are you John Cane?"
"I am," he allowed cautiously.
"Good," she beamed, "I'm Gloria Newman, the new schoolteacher. I was told that you had a room to rent."
He gathered his manners, quickly sizing her up. She looked about thirty, lovely figure, beautiful blonde hair, and stunning grey eyes. John slowly smiled, coming around the counter and reaching for her elbow. "Yes, I do, Miss Newman, let me take you to the house. It's actually a small cabin out back that we originally built for my late wife's mother..." Life was definitely looking better.
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