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Mail Order Bride

© Alex de Kok, 2007

This little tale has spent some time as an ebook, but the rights have now reverted to me. I'm more interested in being read by many than sold to a few, so I'm adding it to the stories here.




After I had buried both of my parents, my father after an accident, my mother after a brief but fatal illness, with the same epidemic taking my lover, too, staying in Chicago held little appeal to me. After I had settled the few debts outstanding I tried to appraise my situation. I was working as a blacksmith. Aye, and enjoying it, too, but I was working for someone else and I wanted to be my own man. The newspapers were full of the opportunities available 'out West' in the America of the 1880s, I had the faith and optimism of youth, for I was young, strong - headstrong, some would say - and only twenty-two. The West was waiting for me, so I reckoned that West I would go and seek my fortune. After purchasing my ticket I had fifty-three dollars, my father's old .36 Colt's Navy revolver and a knapsack with a change of clothes.

I'm tall, an even six feet, and well muscled from my blacksmith work. My mother had given me red hair and green eyes; my red hair and temper had given me a broken nose and a talent for handling myself in a scuffle.

I'd made my way West, and I was on what I hoped and prayed would be my last train ride, at least for some time, for I was getting tired of the constant jolting and the pervading smoke from the locomotive. The train was crowded and I'd been lucky to find a seat, but there was more room now as some folk had left the train as the journey progressed. I was tired too of the smell of unwashed bodies, my own among them I must admit, and I wanted to breathe clean air again. And soon, I hoped.

Sitting next to me was a buxom lady of some sixty summers, traveling with her daughter and son-in-law. On the other side of the aisle were a young woman and an unsavory-looking fellow traveler apparently intent on forcing his attentions on her. The young woman was pressing herself back against the window, her face pale, tense, obviously not welcoming the man's advances. She looked only at her hands, clutching a frayed bag, and I suspected it was all she owned, her knuckles showing white from the tightness of her grip. I tried to ignore them, not wishing to interfere in something not my business, but the girl seemed scared, a sentiment that seemed to be shared by nearby travelers, judging by the way they carefully avoided catching his eye. The girl, too, keeping her head lowered and not looking at him. I wondered if they knew something about the man, something I should know, something that might make me hesitate, but I didn't like the way he was forcing his attentions on her and decided that I should do something about this.

I tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned to glare at me. "Excuse me, sir," I said, "but I do not think the lady wishes to be bothered by you." I smiled politely as I said this, remembering my mother's words, 'politeness costs nothing'.

He scowled, which didn't improve his looks any. "And what in blazes has it got to do with you," he said savagely.

"Nothing, sir, but my mother taught me always to be polite to a lady. I fear that you are not." I smiled at the girl, who had looked up at my interruption, but she flushed and ducked her head. I addressed her directly. "Excuse me, miss, but is this gentleman with you?"

She shook her head, not meeting my eyes. I turned to the fellow again. "The lady does not wish to be bothered by you," I said, "please leave her alone."

"And if I don't," he sneered, "what will you do?"

I smiled. "I might have to teach you the error of your ways."

He looked me up and down and laughed, showing an unappetizing set of broken and misshapen teeth. "The train is stopping," he said, "we'll settle this when it stops. Just you and me."

"I see no need for violence, sir," I responded, "but we shall discuss it like gentlemen, when the train stops."

"Please, no!" A whisper. It was the frightened girl, her face white. She glanced sideways at the man beside her, then at me, her brown eyes wide, dark against the pallor of her face. "Not for me."

"I fear 'tis too late, Miss." I smiled again. The man lurched to his feet and I flinched, almost gagging from the reek of his breath, as he pushed his face close, the greasy brim of his hat almost touching may face.

"Far too late," he said. He leered at me. "Do you know who I am?"

"No sir, nor do I care. You have offended the lady and must make amends." I nodded to him. "So who are you, sir?"

"Jed Calloway," he said. "I'll be waiting for you on the platform."

There had been a collective gasp from the nearest of my fellow passengers on hearing the ruffian's name and as he made his way to the end of the car there was a buzz of conversation and the imparting of dire warnings to me, the gist of which was that Calloway was a known killer, with variously twelve, fifteen and nineteen victims, 'not counting redskins' as one of my advisers said.

"I merely intend to advise him of the error of his ways," I said. "There will be no bloodshed."

"That won't stop him," said one young man, bright blue eyes almost lost in the sun-squint lines on his tanned face. "Are you carryin'?"

"Carrying?" I repeated. "Carrying what?"

"A gun; a pistol."

"I have one in my knapsack," I responded, "I won't need it."

The man snorted. "He'll kill you, sure as eggs."

"We'll see," I said. I glanced from the window. Softer country now, for we were well past the mountains, and the plains were days behind us. Rolling hills, trees everywhere, plenty of water, beautiful. The train had been slowing as we talked and now it came to a standstill. To take on water, I guessed, as we'd made several such stops.

"Please excuse me, I'll just go and see Mr. Calloway," I said to the old lady next to me. She gave me a hard look but said nothing, and I thought I saw a touch of pity in her eyes, fearing I might be going to my death.

I walked toward the end of the car, following Calloway. Every eye was upon me, some frightened, some bemused, all avid. I smiled at one or two, especially the ladies, and made my way to the door. The sun was almost at right-angles to the train, which was Calloway's misfortune, because the shadow of his waiting figure, arm raised to club me with his pistol was clear to me as I glanced through the last side window.

I opened the door at the end of the car and took a long, fast step forward. It was that which took Calloway by surprise, for the blow aimed at my head, clearly intended to stun or even maim me, missed, and Calloway lost his balance. I hit him. I felt no compunction, for he had obviously intended to hurt me, in hitting him as hard as I possibly could. I hit him in the belly. I had been working as a blacksmith; I was young; I was strong; I knew I could hit hard.

I did.

My fist almost disappeared in the lard of his belly, his face turned green, and his head came forward as he gasped with the power of my blow. I was annoyed--no, truth; I was mad, damned mad--at his intended assault and, not wishing to waste his motion, I put my knee into his face. I heard his teeth hit together with an almighty crunch and he was unconscious before he hit the ground. Yes, the ground. My knee in his face knocked him clear off the platform and onto the railroad ballast. I stepped down and checked that he was still breathing, took his pistol and threw it away as far as I could, then went back into the car.

An air of silent expectancy greeted me. No one spoke, at least no one I could hear above the roar of my own blood in my ears. I'd only hit him but the one time, but the anger was coursing in me and I took deep breaths to steady myself. Where was Calloway's baggage, I wondered, then spotted a greasy pair of saddlebags that lay next to his seat.

"Are these Mr. Calloway's," I asked the folks around me. Dumbly they nodded.

"He'll be catching a later train," I said, smiling to myself at the buzz of hushed conversation behind me. I threw the saddlebags down on the unconscious Calloway just as the train began to move off again.

I went back to my seat, and the old woman smiled grimly at me. "Nice one, son," she said. "But ye'd better watch your back from now on, for he'll not forget."

"He doesn't know where I'm going," I said. I turned to the young woman on the adjacent seat. Her eyes were wide, but this time with surprise, and I think maybe a touch of embarrassment, but I thought I could see unspoken gratitude there, too. I smiled at her.

"Would you like to change places?" I asked. "I don't think you'll be bothered sitting next to Mrs., er, Mrs?" I turned to the old woman, eyebrows raised in query.

"Jenkins, son, Eliza Jenkins." The old woman looked across at the girl. "Sure, honey, come sit here."

The girl nodded and moved across the aisle, smiling briefly and faintly at me, catching my eye as she passed, a hint of freshness about her, her skirts brushing my legs in the close confines of the railroad car.

"Thank you," she whispered, before settling herself beside Mrs. Jenkins.

"My pleasure, Miss," I said.

I spent the rest of the journey covertly studying the girl. She seemed nervous, keeping her head down, avoiding any eye contact, although she relaxed a little in Eliza Jenkins' company. The old woman chatted to her about everything and nothing, but there was still a taut edge about the girl, which could have nothing to do with Calloway, miles behind us now. The journey dragged on with frequent stops. After the next one, I was sitting next to a young girl, about twelve years old, who had boarded the train with her parents. I let her have the window seat, for which she thanked me with a pretty smile.

It was late afternoon, moving into evening, when we reached our destination.

Halcyon, according to a crudely hand-lettered sign at the side of the track. For the moment a mostly tent village some twenty or twenty-five miles from the end of the line, but it was where a well-traveled trail crossed the route of the railroad, and a prime site for a town to grow. There were a few frame buildings already finished and work had begun on others. The train had made frequent stops as it neared the end-of-track, usually at what appeared to be raw, new, settlements, and most of my fellow passengers disembarked at these stops, so that there were only the young woman, some other women apparently traveling alone, maybe eight or nine of them, the tanned fellow with the blue eyes, the young girl and her parents, and me.

When we wearily clambered from the passenger car, there was a group of men waiting. Homesteaders, from the looks of things, and a tall, thin man in a rusty, black suit, clutching a bible. Things were confusing for a little while, but I finally worked out that the women had come out here to be married; mail-order brides, and these men were their husbands-to-be. The man with the bible was the preacher, there to marry them.

I realized, too, with a sense of keen disappointment, disappointment that took me quite by surprise, that the young woman was one of them. It was only after a lot of shuffling around, questions and answers, names being exchanged, that I realized that there seemed to be no one there to claim her. There was a tight edge of worry about her now, and I wondered who she'd expected to meet, who her husband-to-be was. If he wasn't there to claim her, I reckoned he didn't deserve her, but who was I to judge?

After a hurried word with the party of men and women, who moved away toward a large tent which seemed to be about to serve as a makeshift church, the thin man approached my traveling companion.

"Miss Strang? Miss Elizabeth Strang?" he said, doffing his hat.

I could see the hard edge of worry on her face tighten, and she nodded, white-faced. "Yes," she whispered.

"I'm the Reverend Elijah Cornwell. You were expecting to meet Joseph Helson, I believe?" She nodded. "I'm most terribly sorry that it is myself who must give you the bad news, but Joseph was killed in a rock fall two days ago."

The girl swayed and I thought she was about to faint and I stepped forward to catch her, but she steadied. "Killed?" she whispered.

Cornwell nodded. "I'm afraid so," he said.

"I have no money," she whispered. "What shall I do?"

Cornwell looked uncomfortable, and I stepped forward, on impulse. "Reverend? May I have a private word with Miss Strang, please?" Quite what I intended, I wasn't sure, but something was telling me I should do something, offer her some sort of comfort.

Cornwell looked slightly startled, but I guess he could see no reason to stop me, so he murmured assent and moved out of earshot. There were only the three of us left beside the train, everyone else having moved away. Elizabeth Strang regarded me, tense, nervous. No more nervous than I was myself, I figured. "Miss Strang, please forgive my impertinence, but this Joseph Helson? Had you ever met him?"

She shook her head, brown eyes enormous in her pale face, reminding me vividly of a doe I had once startled, before it sprang away. "No, we exchanged letters. He paid my fare here. There are few women out here and he wanted a family, a home life." Her eyes closed and tears spilled down her cheeks. My breath caught, and I fought my own tears. "So do I, and he seemed so kind, from his letters."

"Forgive my asking, please, but have you any money at all?"

She bit off a laugh, short, harsh. "About five dollars."

"Relatives?"

"None," she whispered. "My mother died last year."

I took a deep breath, wondering for a moment just what I thought I was doing, almost amazed at my intention, but I went on. I guess it's the certainty of youth, that belief a man has to have in himself and what he does. It was an impulse, a pure and simple impulse, yes, but it was one that I felt quite sure about, for some reason, some gut feeling deep down, and I didn't hesitate.

"I have about fifty dollars. I'm a blacksmith by trade, and I'm not afraid of hard work. I'm healthy, I don't have a wife anywhere else that you need to wonder or worry about, so would you consider accepting me as your husband?"

I held my breath as she stared at me, shocked, unspeaking. The preacher moved impatiently and she glanced at him, unseeing, then back at me. "You don't know me," she said.

"True, and you don't know me, but we're both young and I think we can make it work."

She stared at me a while longer, then took a deep breath. "I'm not even sure why I'm doing this," she said, "but yes, I will be your wife." She stopped dead. "I don't even know your name!"

I laughed, feeling a strange relief at her acceptance. "Mackenzie. Alistair James Mackenzie." I bowed to her. "And delighted to make your acquaintance." The preacher came toward us, then, hesitant. I smiled at him. "Reverend, Miss Strang has consented to be my wife."

"She has?" he said, surprised. "You have?" he said, turning to her.

She nodded. "I have, Reverend. Mr. Mackenzie and I became acquainted on the train, when he saved me from the unwelcome attentions of a man, and I know him to be a man of integrity," she said, her voice clear and firm.

The Reverend smiled, his tired face lighting in a smile of great charm. "Excellent. Shall we join the others?"

The next hour or so was a little confusing, but at the end of it Elizabeth was Mrs. Mackenzie, and I had a wife. We had no home, nowhere to go, but I think we both had the infallible optimism of youth, for Elizabeth was only a year or two my junior. We were discussing what to do when one of the other new husbands came across to us, doffing his hat. Sandy hair, open face, friendly, maybe thirty, thirty-five.

"Excuse me, folks, but I think I can mebbe help you a little." He turned to Elizabeth. "I understand from the Reverend that 'tis you who was to be Joe Helson's wife, if'n he hadn't got hisself killed. Is that right?"

"It is, sir."

"Joe and me, we came West together, couple of years back, and we moved out into the valley together. Joe started a homestead at the Forks and I think he'd be pleased to have you take over, rather than some fly-by-night who just happened by. Ain't much there yet, but he'd started buildin' a cabin, and it's a prime spot." He turned to me. "Got a trade, son?"

"Blacksmith."

His eyes lit up. "We need one, out by the Forks. Joe's homestead is right where the trail splits, prime place for a blacksmith. Soil's good, too, an' you still have time to get a crop in. Joe planted, an' I'd hate to see it wasted. Prime land. I'm a mile further on."

He paused, and then laughed. "I should say, me an' Emma's a mile further along the trail. That's Emma, over there," he said, indicating a plump young woman of about twenty-five or so, waiting patiently. He gestured, smiling, and she came over. "Emma, these folks is goin' to be our neighbors. Didn't catch your name, son?"

"Mackenzie. Alistair James Mackenzie. Jim, to you. And this lady is my wife, Elizabeth."

"Tom Harrison, and my wife, Emma."

"You think Joe Helson would want someone to take over?"

"He wouldn't want his work to go to waste." Tom glanced aside to where Emma and Elizabeth were chatting. "I think he'd be pleased for Elizabeth to be there. He was looking forward to her arrivin'." We chatted for a moment or two, inconsequential stuff, until Tom touched my arm. "Have you got transport, son?"

I smiled. "My two feet."

Tom laughed. "Emma and me, we're staying here tonight, sleeping in the wagon." He blushed, and I suppressed a smile. "What about you and Elizabeth?"

"I thought we'd walk until dark, camp overnight, go the rest of the way tomorrow."

"'Bout two miles along the trail, there's a clump of oaks, where the trail crosses a stream. Go west about fifty yards from the ford, and there's a little clearing. Nice spot to overnight. Stay there, and Emma and me, we'll pick you up in the morning, give you a ride. Okay?"

"Sounds great. Thank you, Tom."

"Be a nice quiet place for you and Elizabeth." He nodded. "See you in the morning. Not sure when," he said, laughing and blushing at the same time.

Elizabeth had been standing quietly waiting, and she touched my arm, a light touch, but positive, and I gazed at her for a moment, trying to read her, this stranger who'd become my wife.

"Shall we go, husband?" she said, with a faint smile for me. "I fear there's nothing to keep us here."

I nodded. "Aye, wife, let's go."

Husband. Wife. Two words I surely hadn't reckoned on being anything to do with me when I boarded the train. Not this soon, anyways. Oh, I planned on getting married one day, sure, but I'd been thinking on gettin' myself settled, find a home, before I even dared to think about finding myself a wife. Yet, here I was, married, the same hour I stepped from the train, to a woman I'd never even heard tell of, let alone met, before I started my journey. I smiled to myself. A wry smile, for sure, but for some strange reason I felt confident that we'd make a go of it.

We picked up our bags and set off, but we hadn't gone more than a few hundred yards when I touched Elizabeth's arm and drew her to a halt. "Carrying our bags this way will just tire us. I'd like to try something I read." Curious, she watched as I took my big knife, named for Colonel Bowie, and cut a couple of saplings. A few minutes work with the knife, some pieces of sapling, and using peeled bark for lashing and I was finished. I held it up proudly.

Elizabeth looked at it, looked at me, looked back at it, then at me again. "What is it?" she said.

I laughed. "If it doesn't fall apart, a carrying frame. Look, I'll fasten our bags on it, so, put my arms through these two loops, so, and this piece goes across my forehead and takes weight from my shoulders, so. See?"

She smiled, the first real smile I'd seen on her face. "I see. A carrying frame. You mean to carry both of our bags?"

"I do, and more easily than before. Shall we go on, Elizabeth Mackenzie?"

"Yes, Alistair James Mackenzie, we shall."

"I think just James, or Jim, lass. Alistair James is too formal, too much of a mouthful." I grinned. "Especially from my wife."

She smiled back at me, and it was a true smile. "Very well - Jim - and you must call me Libby."

"Libby it is, Libby! On we go."

We set off again, Libby striding easily beside me. I hadn't really appreciated how tall she was until now, only three or four inches less than me. She was slender, too, and I wondered about the body hidden underneath her clothes. That she was a woman was unmistakable, for there were curves on her that I ain't ever seen on a man, but her clothes were comfortable, loose, intended for walking, not to show her off, and I could only guess. I reckoned I'd find out soon enough, and I was lookin' forward to the discovery.

The sun had disappeared behind the hills when we reached the stream, but there was still enough light to find the spot Tom Harrison had suggested. Charred stones formed a fireplace, and the little clearing was sheltered by trees and scrub. Hearing splashing in the stream had given me an idea and I cut yet another sapling and whittled a point on one end. I'd seen fish jump to take the flies as we'd moved away from the trail and I thought mebbe I could catch me a couple for our supper. I took off my boots and rolled my trouser legs to the knee.

Libby touched my arm to catch my attention. "Have you flint and steel, Jim? We'll need something to cook them if you catch them."

I nodded. "Aye, Libby. In the pocket of my pack. No, the other side. That's it." I waited a moment but Libby seemed skilled with flint and steel so I went across to the stream. I studied it a moment in the fading light. There was an eddy which seemed promising and I stepped into the water. Cold, probably straight off the mountains, and I hoped I wouldn't be there long. I stood motionless in the eddy, waiting. Yes, there was one! Straight down with my makeshift spear, a flick, and supper, or part of it, was flapping in the grass. A few moments more, and another. Grinning to myself, I cleaned and gutted my catch and took our supper back to where Libby had a fire going.

She smiled to see the fish I'd caught. "How shall we cook them?"

"There's clay on the river bank, and wild onion. We'll bake them in clay, on the coals, when the fire dies a little."

And we did. Delicious, the wild onion adding flavor and I had salt in my pack for savor. Finished, Libby did what little cleaning there was. It was dark now and I'd sensed a growing strain in Libby as the evening wore on. I thought I knew what it was, and I reached out to take her hand.

"Libby, wife?" I said, enjoying the feel of her hand in mine; enjoying too the return clasp of her own fingers.

"Yes?" she said, and I sensed hesitancy in her.

"Something troubles you, and I think I know what it is."

"You do?"

"Aye, I do. I think 'tis the marriage bed that troubles you, no?"

"No!" She paused, and then nodded, a wry smile on her face. "Yes. A little. I'm scared. Scared it will hurt."

Just what I reckoned, I thought, not surprised, but I knew that I had to take our relationship slow and easy, while we grew to know each other. I very much never wanted to see the fear on her face from any action of mine that I'd seen on her from Calloway's. I wanted her to accept me, to want my touch. I might be quick to anger, I thought, reflecting ruefully on my red hair, but I knew I had the patience to wait when it mattered.

"Libby, you're my wife," I said, keeping my voice soft, no urgency in it, "and a wife's place is in her husband's bed at nights, but today has been a strange day, for it was not me that you expected to be sharing that bed tonight. We'll wait; wait until we have our home, until you're ready. I will not rush you, I promise."

"You'd do that?" she said, and I could hear the surprise in her tone. Aye, and the relief, too.

"Aye, Libby, for you I'll do that." I laughed. "But I fear we must share the blankets tonight, else we'll be cold."

Libby giggled, surprising me, but pleasing me, too. "I think I can stand that, husband." She stood. "Excuse me a moment. I won't be long."

About to ask her where she was going, I stopped myself, just in time. There are some things a newly married couple are not ready for sharing, and attending to the needs of nature is one of them. I laughed to myself, amused, a little embarrassed. Getting used to being married might take a little longer than I'd expected, I thought.

It wasn't long before Libby came back, flushing as she caught my eye, but I pretended not to notice and we wrapped ourselves in the blankets. Libby had discarded her bonnet and her hair was loose, curling around her shoulders, dark in the moonlight, the muted red in the dark brown lost in the faint light. I fought the urge to bury my fingers in it, to rub my face over it. In the light of the moon that had now risen I realized my wife was beautiful. She hesitated, and then stretched across to kiss me, soft, light, too brief, but her lips were warm on mine.

"Goodnight, Jim, my husband," she said softly. "And thank you, for giving me a direction in life."

"Goodnight, Libby. I think our way coincides. Sleep well."

She turned her back and inched back toward me, and I drew the blankets over us, careful to keep my hands to myself, resisting the urge to caress her. I fell asleep pondering on the way life sometimes takes us by surprise, falling asleep next to a wife I had never for a moment expected to even have, only that morning.

The sun woke me as it lifted behind us. We were cozy in the blankets and I realized I had my arm around Libby, and she'd snuggled close against me in the chill of the night. Startled, I realized I was cupping the soft weight of her breast. Even more startled, I realized her hand was covering mine. Gingerly, I eased my hand away, trying not to wake her, but she stirred, wriggling over to face me, a flush on her face but no protest on her lips.

I smiled, just for the simple pleasure of seeing her next to me. "Good morning, wife."

"Good morning, husband." She stretched across and kissed me, just a light buss, and smiled back at me. "Did you sleep well?"

I laughed in simple pleasure. A wife's kiss is a pleasant thing of a morn. "I must have done, for I remember nothing after we settled last night, until now. You?"

"Aye, the best night's sleep I've had for a long time." She wriggled around, and sat up, reaching for her shoe, to put it on. I touched her arm and she looked at me.

"Shake it out first. Make sure you're not playing host to anything." Smiling, she turned her shoe upside down and shook it, and a beetle fell out. Startled, she looked at me and I smiled. "Elsewhere, that might have been a scorpion."

"I shall remember in the future. Thank you." She shook her other shoe out, nothing this time, put them on and stood. "Excuse me while I wash."

I caught another couple of fish for breakfast and we ate, then made our way back to the ford, waiting for Tom and Emma. I think we were both excited at the thought of seeing our new home, but not yet at ease enough with each other to share the excitement. We chatted, mainly about background and family, learning about each other, and I discovered my new wife's father had been a teacher, and that she not only knew how to read and write, as did I, but also understood algebra and geometry and spoke some French.

"I'm impressed, Libby. You could be a teacher yourself."

She nodded, thoughtful. "I've thought about it, but when mama died, a year after papa, I lost heart. I know I'm not exactly ugly, but the only men that took any interest in me already had wives and children of their own. It was only when I saw the advertisement that Joe Helson and his friends placed in the newspaper, well, I thought, perhaps a new beginning. As a wife, rather than a teacher. I don't even know if there are any children to teach around these parts."

I laughed. "There are ten brand new wives around these parts. Might well be some children in a year or two."

Libby laughed too, but she avoided my eye and there was color in her cheeks. I didn't say anything, just stood to look down the trail again. This time I saw movement and it wasn't long before Tom was drawing his team to a halt at the ford, letting the two horses drink. He locked the brake and stepped down, giving his hand to Emma to help her down. There was a glow about her and a quietly pleased look on Tom's face and I guessed their first night as man and wife had been a good one.

"Good morning, Tom," I said. "I'd offer you coffee, except we haven't got any. It was only when we camped last night that I came to my senses and realized we were heading off without supplies."

Tom grinned. "That's what I reckoned this morning. I wasn't thinkin' straight last night, either." He winked and I figured maybe he thought that Libby and I had gone off to be alone together. I shrugged and he laughed. "I got extra. You owe me three dollars. It's in the wagon. Something else, too. I found an old anvil. Want to look?"

"Yes!"

He led me around to the back of the wagon and dropped the gate. The anvil was old, rusty, but just like the one I'd been used to back east. I looked across at his smiling face. "What do I owe you for that, Tom?"

"That's a trade. I need to get some tree stumps out of the ground, and I figured we could do it together while our ladies get better acquainted." He held his hand out. "Deal?"

I took his hand. "Deal!"

"There's another thing, Jim."

"Yes?"

"Joe left a will. The Reverend had it. He showed it to me this morning, I guess he was wondering about you, but I told him you were straight and he showed me the will. Joe left his place and everything to Elizabeth. Anticipating her being his wife, I suppose. I guess, as her husband, it's yours now."

I shook my head. "No, it's Libby's." I looked across at my wife of less than twenty-four hours and she glanced up. "Come here a moment, please, Libby."

Libby and Emma came over to us. "Yes, Jim?"

"Tom just told me. Joe left his place to you. The Reverend had the will. I don't know why he didn't say anything last night."

"He probably wanted to make sure Libby had a decent husband to protect her, first," said Emma. "There are bad men around, everywhere." Her tone was light, but there was an undertone that suggested she'd come across those bad men.

"Happen so," I said, "but as far as I'm concerned, the place is Libby's."

"Ours," said Libby, firmly, holding up her hand to stop me speaking. "Ours," she repeated, holding my eyes with hers, her voice soft, but there was something in it, some quality, that told me Libby was determined and ready to do her bit in making our impulsive marriage work.

I nodded, accepting. "Ours."

"Let's get on, then," said Tom, "so you can see your new place. Joe had a wagon and team. The wagon's on his place, but I have the team. I'll bring them along tomorrow morning."

"Whoa, Tom. Didn't you say you had some stumps to pull?"

"Yep, that's right. Got an idea?"

"Got any pulleys? Tackle blocks?"

Tom nodded. "Two. And plenty of rope."

"Dig the roots out, far as we can, cut the ones we can't. With those blocks, and two teams, we can get them out. I'll walk along after breakfast tomorrow, and then I can bring the team back with me. Make sense?"

Tom nodded. "Aye, lad, it does. Come on, we'd better be going." He paused, glancing across at the wagon. "There's only room for three on the seat."

"Take Elizabeth. I'll walk, I'm used to it."

"Ride in the wagon bed? It'll be rough, but it saves your feet."

"Thanks, I will. How long before we get there?"

Tom pulled a huge old pocket watch out. "Almost ten now, we should be there easy by noon. It's about a two, two and a half hour trip from town with a team. Half that on a saddle horse." He grinned. "Which I haven't got anyway."

He helped me put our bags into the back, and I climbed in after them after I'd helped Emma and Libby up onto the seat. The women were talking quietly, Tom was busy with the team and I just looked around me.

Rolling country, trees, a lot of trees, so I could see why Tom might have stumps to clear, plenty of water. The soil looked rich and dark, and I could see why farmers would be attracted to the area.

Okay, if that was what it needed, then I'd be a blacksmith-farmer. I could shoe horses, make nails, hinges, door-latches, mend ploughs. Heck, I could make a plough, given the material. If Tom was right, and a blacksmith was needed, one of my first jobs would be to build myself a forge and some bellows. I smiled to myself, pleased. It seemed my being a blacksmith would make me a useful member of the community.

Marrying Libby had been impulse, pure and simple, but I couldn't see any snags. At least, not yet, I couldn't.

It was just after noon when Tom drew the wagon to a halt. He pointed to a rise, maybe seventy yards from the trail. "See there? In among them trees? You can just see the roof. That's the cabin, what there is of it. Joe hadn't time to finish it."

"We'll finish it," said Libby, and I could hear the determination in her tone. Yes, and the pride, too. "My husband's a blacksmith, and neither of us is afraid of hard work." She smiled at Tom and Emma. "And we have good neighbors."

"Let's get your stuff unloaded, and we'll leave you in peace," said Tom.

It didn't take long, but when they drove off with a 'see you tomorrow' wave, we had enough staples for a while. Bacon, jerky, molasses, flour, some dried apples, a bag of potatoes, carrots, cooking fat, oil for lamps, some coffee. The cabin yielded two oil lamps, a couple of big pots, a frying-pan, and enough cutlery for us.

The cabin was a shell. A central walkway, with a room on either side. One room obviously intended as a living room, with a cast-iron cooking range, a table, a couple of chairs. Home-made, but with care and some skill that I could appreciate. The other room was obviously the bedroom. No bed or dresser, not yet, but some pegs on the walls and, on the dirt floor, on a tarpaulin, a mattress covered with a bright patchwork cover. Libby gazed at it in silence for a long, long moment, and then turned to me with a bright, brittle smile.

"We need to get that stove going, if I'm going to make us some bread."

"There looked to be plenty of wood in the lean-to. I'll get it started."

The bed had looked inviting, but I had the feeling we wouldn't be sharing it during the coming night. Libby hadn't said so, not in so many words, but I could tell she was nervous.

We spent the afternoon getting to know our new home. Exploring outside, I could see where Joe had dammed a stream so that he could divert water. I looked across to the cabin. With a flume and some piping, assuming I could lay my hands on some, I could give Libby piped water right to the house. A little further downstream, a hot spring flowed into the main stream. I wondered about that, but there were some old lava flows not far away, as I found out later, and I reasoned that could explain the hot spring. I tested the water with my hand and examined the lay of the land. Hmm, with a little excavation and some strategically placed rocks, I could turn it into a swimming hole. A warm, or almost warm, one, at that.

But there were Tom's stumps to be got out first, and my forge to build.

Libby had been doing her own exploring while I'd been investigating the stream and she took me behind the cabin to show me when I returned.

"See," she said. "Joe had started a vegetable garden. I found his seeds, so I knew it had to be out here somewhere. He had some seed potatoes, too. It needs digging over, then I can start planting."

I laughed, seeing the packed earth where she'd indicated. "It needs more than digging, lass, it needs ploughing. And maybe a pickaxe first, to break the soil. I think I know enough to make a wooden plough. Once I have a forge started I can put an iron edge on the plough blade."

Libby took my arm, laying her head against my shoulder. "I think we'll be happy here."

"If good will and good neighbors make the difference, then we will," I said. I looked down at her face, bright-eyed, flushed. I bent quickly and kissed her brow.

She pulled my head down and gave me a quick, light kiss on the lips, then spun away toward the kitchen. "Get washed. Dinner in ten minutes."

A simple meal. Bacon, fried potatoes, hot biscuits, fresh bread. And coffee. Hot, black coffee. Finished, I pushed my plate away and sat back. "Looks like I married myself a great cook," I said.

Libby smiled. "I would say competent rather than great. I like cooking."

"I like eating," I responded with a grin.

She laughed. "I could tell." She looked around. "We need some armchairs, or a couch. Kitchen chairs are fine, but not for sitting after dinner, before it's time for bed."

"We need a bed, too."

She glanced at me, flushing, looking away, and I reached for her hand. "I told you, Libby, I will not push you into intimacy. You will let me know when you're ready to be a wife to me. I'm a patient man."

"You are, Jim, you are. Soon, I hope. Emma..." She broke off.

"What about Emma?"

"She told me she enjoys Tom's touch. She asked me if I enjoyed yours. I lied to her, Jim. I told her yes, when I don't know yet. It will be soon, husband, soon."

"That's good enough for me, wife. It's night and I have to be at Tom's early, to help him with the stumps, so shall we settle for the night? You take the bedroom, and I'll bed down here, beside the fire. I think I may have the better of it. The fireplace next door still needs finishing."

"Time yet, 'tis but June." She stood, and came over to me. "Goodnight, Jim."

"Goodnight, Libby." I bent to kiss her and she moved easily into my arms, her lips coming up to mine. I think she meant only a light peck of the sort we'd been sharing, but this kiss was longer, and I let my tongue tip trace her mouth. Her lips parted and suddenly the kiss was hot, strong, our mouths moving. Libby stiffened suddenly and broke away, staring at me, breathing quickly.

"I--," she began, then shook her head. "Goodnight, Jim," she said, and she was away, into the other room. I stared after her, shook my head and prepared myself for sleep. I hoped, I sincerely hoped, that our kiss was just the first of many like it, for even with my limited experience, I knew that the kiss of a woman who wants you carries a magic to a man's soul. I sighed. It will come, James Mackenzie, it will come. Give her time.

I had a bedroll made up on the floor, and I blew out the lamp, stripped off my clothes, and settled myself for sleep. I couldn't sleep. I lay for ages, wondering when my wife would be brave enough to share my bed. I thought I knew enough not to force her, because that would only cause resentment, but wondered whether I should insist. I laughed to myself, wry. Hell, it was only our second night, and adjustment to each other would take time.

Whether I fell asleep or not, whether a noise woke me, I wasn't sure, but suddenly I was wide awake, startled. I rolled over, and Libby was there, the glow from the dying stove a gleam in her eyes, her nightdress a ghost-white shape in the night.

"Jim?" she said, her voice barely above a whisper, so that I had to strain to hear her.

"Aye, lass? Is something amiss? Are you unwell? Is everything all right?"

I heard the hiss of her indrawn breath, and when she spoke her voice was tense.

"No, Jim, it's not. It's not right that I should be alone in the bed, and you here. We are man and wife and my husband should be in my bed."

My mind was in turmoil, excited, but cautious, I didn't want to scare her, to hurt her, but my body was responding to her words and I could feel myself hardening. "Are you sure, Libby, lass?"

"Of that, I am, yes. I'm scared, Jim, but if I'm to be your wife I want to be a real wife."

I laughed, softly. "You're already that, lass. The Reverend said so."

"That is not what I meant and you know that full well, James Mackenzie!" she retorted.

I smiled in the darkness. "Aye, I do, lass. Go back and I'll be with you in a moment."

She stared at me for a long moment, a tic working at the corner of her mouth, and then nodded. "Don't be too long, Jim, or I might get too scared." She gave me a nervous smile and went out, silent on bare feet.

"I'll just be a wee moment, lass. I promise," I said to her departing back and she gave me a nervous smile over her shoulder. I was wearing a loose old shirt as a nightshirt and I stripped it off and stood naked, my erection well on its way to its full size. I frowned. Had Libby ever even seen a man erect, ready for love? She needed to see me, to know what to expect, to accept me, before I joined her in our bed, for I would not force her. I lit a candle, using a twig lit from the embers of the stove, wrapped a blanket around me, and followed Libby.

She was in bed, huddled under the blankets and the patchwork comforter. I managed to set the candle down safely and turned to Libby, who was watching me, eyes enormous in her face. Another nervous smile for me.

"Libby?"

"Yes?" A whisper.

"Would you get out of bed for a moment, please?"

"Get out?" I could hear the surprise in her voice.

"Please, lass."

She threw back the covers and got to her feet. Ankle-length nightdress, modest, lace down the front from throat to waist. Her best, I thought.

I smiled, but I was nervous. I had little experience of women, and none where the woman had less than I did myself. I swallowed the huge lump that seemed to have grown in my throat, to match the one that was poking at the blanket around me.

"Libby," I said, "my father brought me to America when I was but two years old, so Scotland is a place I do not remember, myself, but the Mackenzies are a Highland clan." I swallowed again. "There's something my Daddy told me, afore he died, when he told me of the ways of a man with a maid."

"What, Jim?"

I reached my hand out toward her, then dropped it, and took a deep breath. "He told me that there are two things a Highlander always takes naked. One is his whisky." I paused, uncertain.

Libby half-smiled. "And the other is his wife?" She stared at me for a long, long moment, but I could see no rejection in her eyes and I dared to hope. "You want to see your wife unclad, James Mackenzie? Is that it?"

"Aye, Libby, it is." My voice sounded hoarse and raw, even to me.

She gazed at me, her eyes all over my face, then gave a little nod, the half-smile still curving her mouth. She stooped, to take the hem in her hands, then straightened.

Holding my eyes with hers, her cheeks flushed, clear even in the candle-light, slowly, so very, very, slowly, she raised the nightdress up and over her head, discarding it so that it fell in a soundless crash at her feet. I gaped, for there is no other word, none, that suits the moment, at her beauty. Slim neck, her hair curling around her shoulders and over the upper slopes of her breasts. Her beautiful breasts. Not big, a scant handful each, little-finger-tip sized nipples erect on puffy areolas. Slender waist, flaring to a woman's hips, a curly tangle at her fork. Beautiful.

I was entranced, but she reached out a hand towards me and I managed to make my legs work, letting the blanket fall off me as I moved forward to take her in my arms. I saw her eyes drop to my erection, hot, hard, ready, like a stallion, and the flicker in her eyes. There was fear there, a little, but it was fear mixed with a growing desire. I held out my arms and she moved into my embrace, shuddering as she felt me press against her, her head against my chest, her arms tight around me.

I slid a finger under her chin and tipped her head up, ready for my kiss and her eyes closed as our lips met. A long kiss, a hot kiss, a kiss of desire, on both our parts, but I could feel the tremble in her, for her fear still lingered. I broke the kiss, gently, and scooped her up, kneeling to lay her on the mattress that made our bed, laying beside her, pulling the blanket over us. Her hand reached out, hesitant, to rest on my chest, and I lifted her hand to kiss her fingers.

"You are beautiful, wife," I said.

She shook her head. "No, I'm not."

"You are, believe me."

"I think not," she said, "but if I please you, Jim, I am content."

"Aye, lass, you please me," I said, my voice gruff, not wanting to scare her with my desire. I hesitated, then went on. "I would touch you?"

She laughed, soft, low, still nervous. "I'm your wife, James Mackenzie, my husband. It is your right." She paused, looking into my eyes. "And I would welcome your touch, Jim," she whispered.

My hand moved, almost of its own volition, to touch her belly, her skin incredibly soft to my calloused blacksmith's hand, soft, smooth, warm to my touch. I let my hand move up her belly, her ribs, to cup her breast, and she sucked in her breath as she felt my hand, a hiss echoed by me as I felt her nipple thrust against my palm.

"Is that for me, lass?"

"For both of us, Jim." She reached out and pulled my head down into a kiss, a long, hot kiss and I thought she was trying to tell me she wanted me, without words, because she didn't know the words yet. My hand was moving over her, her neck, her throat, her side, her hip, then up again to cup her breast anew. I broke the kiss and bent to suck at her nipple. Her fingers were in my hair, and I lifted my head to kiss her again, my hand moving down, resting for a moment on the soft fleece between her legs. Her legs moved, separating, giving me access, and she sucked her breath in with a hiss as she felt my fingers moving through her wetness.

Concerned, I lifted my head. "I didn't hurt you, did I, lass?"

She laughed softly. "No, 'tis just I've never felt another person touch me there before."

I laughed, too. "Only right and proper, lass. This is only your second night as a wife."

"My first proper night as a wife, Jim." Her gaze on me was solemn.

I nodded, with a smile for her. "Are you ready, lass? You have me truly excited."

She took a deep breath. "As ready as I ever will be, I think."

I moved, to kneel between her spread legs and she smiled up at me, still nervous, but ready. "I'll try not to hurt you," I said.

"I know, Jim, I know. Love me, husband, make me fully and truly your wife."

I bent, my hardness in one hand, weight braced on my extended arm, trying to enter her, but I saw a flicker of mischief on her face and her hand moved down to guide me to the right spot, and I felt myself at her core and moved to enter her. She gasped as I did so, her fingers tight on my shoulders. She was wet, ready for me and I could feel her trembling as I pushed gently into her, and she cried out at the same time as I felt the obstruction of her maidenhead, a new experience for me. I paused. "Libby?"

"Push, Jim," she cried, and I pushed into her, but my hardness wasn't wet enough yet and I pulled back to spread her juices, then pushed forward again, hearing her sharp cry in my ear even as I felt her hymen give way to my thrust, her fingers like claws on my shoulders. I paused. "All well, lass?" I said, anxious for her.

There were unspilled tears on her lashes but she smiled up at me, her fingers relaxing their grip. "Aye, husband, you can truly call me wife now. A moment, please, 'til I get used to the feel of you, then give me your seed, Jim." I was leaning on my elbows so as not to crush her and she smiled up at me again. "Go, husband, love me!"

I began to move, taking it slow, easing into her, pulling back, repeating the motion, trying not to hurt her, trying to make the moment last, to give her pleasure, too, but I was excited and too soon I felt the incredible almost-ache that goes before climax and my hips surged, my hardness driving into the soft, wet heat of her, a wordless cry of pleasure on my lips as my seed filled her.

Slowly our breathing eased, and Libby stretched up to kiss me, lying back against the pillow. She giggled suddenly.

I smiled, looking down at her. "Was my lovemaking so amusing, then?"

She shook her head, stretching up to kiss me again. "No, I was remembering something my Mama told me when I was fifteen. She told me, Libby, you will have to suffer the marriage bed in order to have children. Be brave, it will be over quickly."

I made a face, knowing I had been too quick to give her her own pleasure. "Was this just duty for you, my little Libby?"

She shook her head, smiling up at me. "No, no, not just duty, pleasure, too. Next time, husband, can we go just a little slower, to make it last? So that I can enjoy it more?"

I laughed. "Aye, that we can, I promise. It was well with you?"

"Very well, Jim, very well. So much so that I wonder what I was afraid of, but I suspect a husband as gentle as you may be rare."

"Perhaps, but there's only one wife I'm aiming to please, and as long as she's content, it is good for me."

"I am, Jim, very. Oh! You've slipped out!"

"Aye, once I reach climax, my pride diminishes."

"I must find out how to slow that," she said thoughtfully.

Yes, I thought, you should. Aloud I said, "We should sleep now, my pet."

"Together?"

"Of course, as long as it is your desire."

"From now, until our time together is done, which I pray will not be for many years yet. Goodnight, my husband."

"Goodnight, wife."

We made love again in the half-light of dawn, wordless, clinging together, and again it was good. This time I managed to bring Libby to climax, to last until she too found pleasure in release, her cries in my ears as I came, her core clutching at me as my seed filled her.

"You have loved women before, I think," said Libby, nibbling my ear as we cooled, our breathing slowly easing.

"Only one," I said.

"Who? Tell me!" she demanded, softening the order with a kiss and a smile.

"Her name was Helen. She was a widow, very discreet, but she liked to feel a man between her legs, and she taught me what little I know about pleasing a woman. She insisted on being naked for lovemaking, too. She said she found a nightdress far too restricting."

"She's right. I shall wear one only on cold winter nights, but it must lift up easily to let you in. The rest of the time I shall sleep naked."

"Right and proper, as a Highlander's wife!"

She kissed me. "We must rise, Jim. You will want breakfast before you go to help Tom." She paused. "What happened to Helen?"

I hesitated for a moment, sad, remembering, but I had resolved always to be truthful with Libby. "She died, in the same epidemic that killed my mother."

"I'm sorry."

I nodded. "Me, too, lass. She was a fine woman." I laughed. "She'd approve of you! She had no time for women who didn't welcome their husband's touch."

"I wish I'd known her, there's so much she might have taught me." She chuckled. "At least I told Emma true about welcoming your touch, Jim, except I didn't know it was so when I told her. Will you start the stove, while I start on breakfast?"

"Of course."

We dressed together, and there was no coy shyness in either of us. I loved looking at my wife's nakedness, and she enjoyed looking at me. Aye, and have me look at her, too.

Breakfast finished, I took from my knapsack my father's old Colt's revolver, and showed it to Libby. "Have you ever used one?" I asked her.

She shook her head. "No, never." The Colt was unloaded, and I took from my knapsack powder, ball and percussion caps and showed Libby how to load it. She was a quick study, and I took her out behind the cabin, got her to use both hands, and let her empty the gun at a tree stump twenty feet away. Two shots out of five actually hit it, which I thought was good enough, especially as the others had been close. I got her to reload the pistol, and we put it next to the door, on a shelf.

"I have no reason to think you're in any danger, but I'll feel safer if you have it," I told her.

"What about you?"

"I have my bowie knife, and I'm a fast runner," I said with a smile. "Once we're settled, I'll ask around, see if I can get hold of a shotgun. Useful for game, and you don't need to be a good shot to use it, just point it in the direction of your target." I pulled her to me, kissing her soundly. "I'll be back before dark, lass. Look after yourself."

I kept looking back as I set off towards Tom Harrison's place, and she was looking after me until a bend in the trail took me out of sight. Tom was ready when I reached his place, and Emma greeted me shyly, with her ready smile. When she kissed Tom goodbye as we went to harness the teams I could see she meant it.

"How's Elizabeth?" said Tom as we led the four horses to the meadow where he wanted the tree stumps removed. "I thought she might have come with you?"

"She thought about it, but she found Joe Helson's seeds and she's working out where she wants her vegetable garden. I said I could build her a wooden plough, and we can get it dug over before the week's out."

"If you can make or mend an iron plough, there's many a homesteader around here who will be grateful."

"I reckon I can, Tom, but I reckon too I could put an iron reinforcement on a wooden plough. I guess that would do in the short term."

"Reckon you're right, Jim. Okay, this is it. How we gonna do it?"

It took us nearly all day, but my idea of using the blocks worked, because we could get more than double the pull of a single team. The horses had a pretty easy day of it, but Tom and I were tired. Emma brought us sandwiches and coffee for our midday meal and we were finished well before dark. I waved goodbye to Tom and Emma and led the team back down the trail. Libby had seen me coming and by the time I had turned the horses into the corral, dinner was almost ready.

"How'd it go?" Libby asked, hugging me, raising her lips for a kiss. A long kiss, a kiss of promise, of hunger.

"Done," I said. "Our time's our own. I told Tom we'd go to church with them, Sunday. He says the church is just a tent at the moment, the one we were married in."

There was a wonderful smell in the cabin, and I realized that it was Libby's cooking, and in no time at all she was putting a huge bowl of stew in front of me, taking a daintier portion for herself. I glanced around, wondering for a moment, but I realized she'd moved the furniture a little, making the layout more convenient for herself. Too, there was the pleasant touch of a posy of wild flowers in a tin mug by the window, another on the table, adding color and scent to the room.

How'd your day go?" I asked her.

"Lonely," she said, softening her short retort with a smile.

I nodded. "I'm working 'round here for at least the next few days, so what do we need to do first?"

"Jim," she said, her face thoughtful. "I like to be clean. I went up to the stream, to where that hot spring joins the main stream, to wash some clothes." She paused, thoughtful.

"And?" I prompted.

She smiled. "Sorry. I was looking at the lay of the land. If we built a wall, chink it with clay, maybe fifteen feet long, and dam the stream, we'd have us a heated bath. Almost big enough to swim, too." She grinned. A broad smile, frank, almost lewd. "You'd get to see me naked." She laughed. "Perhaps even in daylight."

I laughed too. "Aye! You can swim?"

She shrugged. "Sort of. I don't sink, anyway."

"I was thinking the same, as it happens, not about sinking, about a pool. The ground's too rough for the wagon, but if we were to make a travois, we could use the horses to move the rocks we need."

After we'd finished dinner, there was still enough light, and I began making the travois. We had two horses, so I made two, and, next morning, after another night of shared delight in each other, after breakfast, while I was unloading one, Libby was loading the other. She was wearing a pair of old overalls we'd found discarded in a corner. She'd washed them, and rolled back the cuffs. With those, and an old shirt, she made a slightly ludicrous figure, but I was careful not to laugh. It took us two days of hard work, but when we'd finished, and I closed the sluice to start our pool filling, we had not only our bathing pool, but I'd built the start of a diversion from Joe Helson's dam that would eventually bring water to the cabin. We stood, my arm around Libby's shoulders, watching as the pool started to fill.

"It will take a little while to clear," I said.

She nodded. "I know. Come, husband, it's time for dinner. We'll heat some water, too, and we can get ourselves clean. It's Sunday tomorrow, church. Are we collecting Tom and Emma, are they stopping by, or are we going separately?"

"They'll stop by. This time, we'll go with them. Next week, we'll let our team do the work. Joe knew his horses, they're fine animals."

Our lovemaking that night was slow and gentle. Libby was well over any fear she'd had and delighted in my touch, quick to tell me what was good, what was less so, eager to experiment, so that she rode me for the first time, rising and falling on my erection, a smile on her face, as I caressed her breasts, and later, on her hands and knees, let me take her from behind, crying her fulfillment to the night as we came together.

Any such shenanigans could never apply to the very model of propriety that rode to church next day in Tom's wagon. Reverend Cornwell preached a simple sermon, and a short one, and the small congregation, maybe thirty people, sang the old, familiar hymns to the sound of a fiddle.

After the service, everyone milled around outside. Libby went off with Emma and a couple of the other new wives, and Tom and I chatted briefly to the Reverend, and a couple of other homesteaders, who lived on the other side of the settlement from us. I became aware of someone hovering and glanced up into the bright blue eyes of the young man who had been on the train. He signaled that he'd like to talk to me, so I excused myself from the others and moved across to him, slightly startled to see the star pinned to his shirt. He caught the direction of my eye, glanced down, and grinned at me.

"I didn't duck fast enough. The folks made me marshal." He held out his hand.

"I'm Matt Carson. I never did get your name?"

"Mackenzie. Alistair James Mackenzie, but call me Jim," I said, shaking his hand.

He nodded. "Jim. I notice you rode in with the girl from the train?"

I nodded. "She's my wife now, name's Elizabeth."

His smile was spontaneous, warm. "That's good to hear! I wish the two of you well, but that kinda brings me to what I wanted to talk to you about. Remember, on the train, Calloway?"

I nodded. "I remember." Not exactly easy to forget, Matt. Remember? You were there.

"I've only been marshal here for two days, but there was some paperwork from the previous marshal. There's a reward for Calloway, two hundred dollars, dead or alive, for robbery, rape, and murder." Carson shrugged. "My jurisdiction ends at town limits, so I won't be going looking for him, at least not outside my territory, but someone told me he came in on yesterday's train. There's no sign of him around town, so unless he shows his face I can't arrest him, but he may well be after you."

"Me? Why?" I said, but I had a good idea.

Carson smiled, but it was a grim smile. "You made him look like a fool in front of a whole train of people. He won't forget that. You won't be hard to find, what with that red hair of yours, so take care, Jim, and keep your eyes open. Remember, he's wanted for rape and murder, as well as armed robbery, so take real, good care. And tell Elizabeth to watch out for him, too. He's the kind to take it out on her if he can't get to you."

"Thanks, Matt, I will." I watched as he moved away, alert, but friendly, greeting people as he went.

Libby came over to me, stretching up to kiss my cheek. "Wasn't that the man from the train?"

"Yes, it was. His name's Matt Carson, he's the new town marshal." I glanced at Libby. "He told me Calloway's in the area."

Her face clouded. "An evil man, Jim. I never really thanked you properly for what you did on the train. He scared me."

"I think marrying me is thanks enough, Libby, love."

Libby smiled, glancing round to make sure no one was in earshot. "I'll thank you again, later, in bed." Her smile was innocent, but there was mischief in her eyes. "Emma says Tom's about ready to head back. Are we ready?"

"I think so. I had a word with a guy called Elson. He can let me have some leather, and I can make the bellows for my forge. He says he'll bring it out Tuesday as he passes our place on his way to collect some hides for tanning."

Libby nodded, but there was a worried look on her face. She touched my arm.

"Be careful, Jim, and keep your eyes open for Calloway."

"I will, I promise. Come on, looks like Tom and Emma are waitin'."

On the way home the four of us chatted. I liked Tom, and he struck me as a good, honest man. I think he'd struck lucky with Emma, and I got the distinct feeling he felt that way, too. I think Emma felt pretty good about it, as well. There had been ten women on the train that I knew of, who had crossed the country to marry a stranger. I don't know whether it had been courage or desperation for some of them. Libby, I knew, wanted a normal husband and home, and thought she would fare better out here. She got close, I suppose, for she had me! Emma was the same according to Libby, blessing her lucky stars in ending up with Tom. They made good neighbors and as we rode we agreed that, on future Sundays we'd take turns to provide the team and wagon, and the other couple would provide dinner that day.

"Which means you're coming to us today," said Libby, pleased.

"You won't have time to prepare anything," Emma protested.

"Not so," said Libby. "There's a big pot of stew I made. I'll just need to take enough out for us for today, and I made an apple pie fresh yesterday. See? Done!"

"We're a bit short of chairs," I said. "Only the two, for the moment."

"For the ladies," said Tom, instantly. "You and me, Jim, we'll make do."

It was a good meal. Four friends, good food, good conversation. I'd chatted with Tom about building a forge and we'd agreed that I should make it of stone. Tom had scorned my protest that I knew nothing of working with stone. "I do," he'd said, and that was that. So as not to take time away from other things, we'd agreed we would work on it only one day each week, starting Tuesday. It was about an hour shy of sunset when we waved goodbye to them, watching until they were out of sight.

"Let's go look at our pool," said Libby, taking my hand.

I laughed, nodding. "Okay, wife, let's go see your pet project." On an impulse I took Pa's old Navy Colt from the shelf and stuck it in my belt. Hand in hand, we strolled towards our pool. There was still plenty enough light in the sky to see that the water was running clear. Libby bent, testing the temperature, then turned to me, eyes sparkling.

"Warm enough, let's use it. Let's use it now!"

"Towels?"

"Pooh, to towels! We'll walk back naked and go straight to bed and make love, and get dry that way!" She giggled, starting to unbutton her dress. I laughed, took the Colt from my belt and laid it on the ground, and started to undress.

The pool was just warm enough, about four feet deep where the stream came in over a shelf of rock, a foot deeper where the water spilled over the sluice at the exit, maybe twenty feet long. Libby was already naked, the late afternoon sun giving her lovely body a rosy glow. She stepped gingerly down into the water, then launched herself gently forward, swimming a couple of strokes, then standing, breast deep, water beading her skin.

"Jim, it's lovely!"

I was naked myself by now and I just looked at her for a moment. "So are you, wife." She smiled at me, her eyes flickered and her look turned to horror just as I heard the footstep behind me.

"Ain't she just," said a familiar voice. Calloway!

I spun around, ready, but he was out of reach, his pistol pointed straight at my head from about six feet away. I doubted he could miss from that range. His eyes flicked briefly to Libby, still standing breast-deep in the water.

"You," said Calloway. "Out of the water, now." She hesitated and he shifted the gun slightly and fired. I heard the bullet go past my ear, I swear I did. When the muzzle pointed at me again I heard Libby scrambling out of the water behind me. "No!" he said. "You don't need your clothes, not for what we're going to be doing once I've killed your man, here."

"You'll never lay a finger on me." Libby's voice was low, clear.

"No?"

"Never. I doubt you have anything inside those filthy trousers that could interest a woman, any woman, not even a fifty-cent whore!"

I could see the anger bubbling up in Calloway and he moved the gun to point it at Libby. That did it, for there was no way a low-life like him was ever going to threaten my wife! I threw myself forward, desperate, knocking his arm up just as he fired, and then we were wrestling, fighting for the gun, scrabbling in the dirt. On the train he'd tried to take me by surprise, but I'd surprised him with my fist in his gut. His broken nose, courtesy of my knee, was still swollen and angry-looking. But this time I hadn't taken him by surprise. He was big, he was mean, and under the lard, he was strong, and I knew I had my hands full.

Too full, as it happens, and out of nowhere his pistol barrel cracked across my head and I sprawled, stunned. He scrambled out of reach, and stood. There was a smile on his ugly face as he drew the hammer back to shoot me, a smile that was still there when the first bullet hit him. It had gone before the next one, and the next, and his nerveless fingers tried desperately to turn the gun on Libby as she emptied the Colt into him. He was dead before he hit the ground and Libby dropped the Colt and flung herself down on her knees beside me.

"Jim! Are you all right? Oh, please, be all right, please! I love you; I don't want to lose you when we just found each other! Please, Jim, speak to me! Oh, God in heaven, speak to me!"

I took a deep breath, wincing. "I think I'm going to have a headache for a while," I said, my fingers gingerly exploring the lump on my head, coming away bloodstained.

Libby flung herself into my arms, sobbing. I stroked her hair. "It's all right, sweetheart, he's dead, he won't hurt us any more. Shush, my love, don't cry. I love you, too."

She raised a tear-stained face to me, trying to smile, and I bent and kissed her. The next thing I knew she was kissing me back, hot, violent almost, her teeth almost mashing my lip, clinging to me, her mouth working on mine, her fingers moving over me, clutching at the erection which had sprouted from nowhere, caressing it, raising me to an aching hardness, urging me over her, into her soaking welcome, her hips thrusting hard back at mine, and in moments we were rutting like animals beside Calloway's corpse, reckless, heedless of the sudden shower that fell, that failed to cool the urgent heat of us, building, building, building, to a shared climax that echoed through the night and must have scared the birds from the trees for miles.

Slowly we cooled, slowly, panting, fighting for breath. Libby raised her head, rain-wet, sweat-wet hair matted to her skull, and gave me an embarrassed smile. "I think I've drawn blood," she said, stroking my shoulder. "I'm sorry, my love."

I shook my head. "No, don't be. I think we both enjoyed that."

She giggled, and I think there was more than a little hysteria in it. "I don't think I could live through another spending like that!"

"Aye, lass, it was a wee bit intense. Never fret, I don't expect you to kill an outlaw every day, so the circumstances shouldn't occur again. Just as well, as I'm no' sure I'd live through more than another one or two, myself."

Her eyes went to Calloway's corpse, and she shuddered. "What are we going to do with that? Bury it? Leave it for the scavengers?"

I shook my head. "No, we're going to wrap it in that piece of old burlap we have and put it in the lean-to overnight, and tomorrow we're taking it into town, to show Matt Carson."

She stared at me, wondering, then, ever practical. "Why?"

"Because there's a two-hundred dollar reward for him, dead or alive, for rape, murder, and robbery. That's why. Apart from saving my life, lass, that's the other reason you should never, ever, regret killing him, because he deserved it."

"That, I will never do," she said, and I recognized the iron in her. "Let's move him now, before we dress, in case we get any blood on us. Then we'll have another dip, only this time with soap, and get ourselves clean, then we'll go to bed and make love, remove the memory. Yes?"

"You need to ask, lass? Yes!"

* * * * *


That was five years ago, now. Outside, in the yard, our son Joseph Helson Mackenzie and his little sister Emma Elizabeth are playing with their new puppy. Tom and Emma, and baby Thomas, are due to stop by for supper. The cabin has four rooms now, and a root cellar. We have a milk cow, and some pigs and chickens, and Libby's kitchen garden is thriving. The forge does well, for several new families moved in to homestead, and they all need a good blacksmith occasionally. And we've dug the foundations for our new, stone built, home. We've worked hard, but life's been good to us. We still have our pool, and when the children are asleep we go and play in the moonlight. And Libby still comes to bed, our new, comfortable bed, every night, naked.

* * * * *

That's the end, folks, for those of you that made it this far! If you enjoyed it, I'd love to hear from you. If you didn't enjoy it, I'd still love to hear from you, as constructive criticism can only help me improve

Alex



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