Fire on the Plains (Western Fire)

BOOK: Fire on the Plains (Western Fire)
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FIRE ON THE PLAINS

 

KATE WINGO

Fire on the Plains
© 2013 Kate Wingo

All Rights Reserved
 

C
HAPTER ONE

 

 

Missouri Ozarks

May, 1865

 

 

In dire need of a husband, this time Lydia McCabe
did not intend to marry for love.

Because a stable future was of
the utmost importance to her, her second marriage must be for security. Additionally, her daughter Dixie had been without a father for the past eight years, a situation that she dearly wished to rectify.

Due to the fact
that these were turbulent times, a healthy, hard-working man was something of a rarity, the number of eligible bachelors tragically reduced by four years of civil war. To find one who could boast having all of his limbs still intact was a singular prize, indeed.

And while Lydia had
only made Benjamin Strong’s acquaintance two weeks ago, he gave every indication of being amply suitable. A mature man of nearly two score, he seemed possessed of the steadfast dependability that his New England forbears were famous for. The fact that he was a war veteran also spoke well of him. She could even overlook that he’d worn Union blue instead of Confederate gray.

Having made up her mind in regards to the matter, all that remained was to ask
Benjamin Strong to marry her. With his departure for the neighboring state of Kansas soon imminent, there was no time to waste.

“Sir, might I have a word with you?”

Bent over a wash basin, the prospective groom straightened at the waist. To Lydia’s chagrin, she’d caught him in the middle of his morning ablutions.

Reaching for a towel,
Ben slowly turned to face her, the early morning sun glinting off his wavy head of silver-tinged hair. Although he was a guest of the family, his sister Mercy having married Lydia’s brother-in-law Spencer McCabe a fortnight ago, he’d been reduced to sleeping in the barn, the house filled to capacity. An overcrowded household was yet another reason for Lydia to marry and move on with her life.

Given his stupefied expression,
Ben was clearly surprised to find her standing across from him. Uncertain how one went about proposing matrimony, Lydia primly clasped her hands in front of her black taffeta gown. As she wordlessly stared at the would-be groom, she was taken aback to realize that he stood a full head taller than she. She also noted that while his dark hair was liberally shot through with silver, the hair covering his chest was black as night. Noticing the direction of her gaze, Ben quickly buttoned his shirt.

“Er, what can I do you for, Mrs. McCabe?”

Deciding to seize the moment, Lydia said, “If you must know, Mister Strong, I find myself in need of a husband.”

“Well, I’m not surprised, seeing as how you’re a widow
having to raise a young child.” With an air of casual indifference, he pulled his suspenders up and over his shoulders. “But what does that have to do with me?”


Allow me get right to the point, Mister Strong: I would like to marry you.”

Eyes a deep shade of gun-metal gray
opened wide, a measure of shock registering on Ben’s sternly-set features. “Come again?”

Tamping down her annoyance at his reaction, Lydia said,
“Having deliberated on the matter at great length, I am proposing that we wed one another. And the sooner, the better,” she added, a lengthy courtship holding little appeal for her.

“You know, where I come from, it’s usually the man who does the asking.”
Ben paused a moment, before quietly adding, “And just so we’re straight on the matter, I wasn’t planning on asking.”

Lydia’s chin lifted several notches. Clearly, he hadn’t fully considered the benefit of a marital arrangement. If he had, he would not be so quick to reject what was a sound
and reasonable proposal.

“Given that we are both beyond the age of romantic inclination, I don’t
—”

“Just how old are you,
Mrs. McCabe, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Lydia stared at Ben
in mute astonishment. In truth, she
did
mind. Such impertinence was highly offensive. However, given that this was an unusual circumstance, she supposed that he had a right to know.

“I am thirty years of age,” she
informed him. Belatedly, it dawned on Lydia that she was no longer young.

Ben slowly looked her up and down, his frank appraisal causing
Lydia’s legs to nervously quiver beneath her skirts.

“Thirty
-years-old, huh?” One gray eye speculatively narrowed as his gaze settled on her face. “I would have guessed you to be younger.”

Although
it wasn’t the most flowery of compliments, Lydia took the off-hand remark as progress of a sort. That is until a wary scowl suddenly worked its way onto the prospective groom’s face.

Gesturing
to her mourning gown, Ben said, “How long has your husband been dead?”

“James has been dead for eight years.”

“Eight years, and you’re still dressed in black?”

Clenching her hands together,
Lydia debated how much to divulge. Even after the passage of eight years, it was a tragic tale best left unspoken, her first husband having been brutally murdered by Kansas jayhawkers. Indeed, not a day passed that she didn’t mourn James McCabe’s death. Nor did a new day dawn that she didn’t grieve the loss of what had been a perfect, unblemished love. A private matter of the heart, she was disinclined to share her feelings with anyone. Particularly not with Benjamin Strong.

“My husband was killed alongside his father and younger brother,”
Lydia said after a lengthy pause, her voice devoid of emotion. “I wear black to honor their memory.”

“You know, Mrs. McCabe, try as I
might –” Ben pursed his lips as he slowly shook his head – “I just can’t come up with a single reason why you’d want to marry me.”

“Such modesty ill
-suits you, Mister Strong.”

“Not if I’m being hoodwinked into something
that I’ll later regret.”

“I shall overlook
your last remark,” Lydia snapped, her patience wearing thin.

“That’s mighty generous of you, Mrs. McCabe.”

On the verge of chastising Ben for his impertinent reply, Lydia, instead, smoothed a hand over the tightly coiled chignon on the nape of her neck.

Why
is the man so resistant to the idea of matrimony?
Did he not comprehend that he stood to gain immeasurably from the union?

R
efusing to call retreat, Lydia squared her shoulders and said, “It’s my understanding that you’ll soon be returning to your Kansas farmstead. Given that your house was set ablaze by Kansas jayhawkers while you were away in the army, you will be burdened with more work than one pair of hands can handle. Whether you know it or not, you, sir, need a wife.”

Thunderstruck, Ben Strong silently eyed the
woman standing across from him. True, he had sore need of a woman. But a wife?
Hell fire, she must be loco.
Why else would the Widow McCabe want to marry him?

Since
his arrival at the McCabe farmstead two weeks ago, Lydia McCabe had parceled her remarks to Ben with the bloodless, genteel smile that he’d come to think of as her calling card. Because he’d served in Virginia, he was accustomed to getting a chilly reception from southern ladies, Lydia McCabe wearing her high-brow Tennessee roots like a second skin. And though his family had settled in Kansas ten years ago, Ben was still a son of New England, having proudly served in the 1st Massachusetts Infantry.

Of course, many would
claim that the North-South divide was water under the bridge given that Lydia’s brother-in-law Spencer McCabe, a former rebel bushwhacker, had recently married his half-sister Mercy Hibbert, a staunch Union abolitionist. And if that didn’t make for one helluva marriage, Ben didn’t know what did.

Guess that
makes me and Lydia McCabe in-laws of a sort.

Although if anyone had asked,
he would’ve steadfastly maintained that being in-lawed to a pack of dyed-in-the-wool Southerners was damned unsettling. He’d just spent four years battling these people to the death; and was still grappling with the fact that his sister Mercy had gone and married a sesech rebel.

In a quandary,
Ben ran a hand over his swooping, cavalry-style mustache, self-consciously aware of the fact that Lydia McCabe was intently watching his every move.

Damned if
she isn’t making me feel like a prize bull at the county fair
. A confounding turn of events given that this was the first time in two weeks that the Widow McCabe had favored him with anything more than a sidelong glance. Now, having finally noticed him, she had the gall to demand that he marry her.

Folding his arms across his chest, Ben
said, “Aren’t you bothered by the fact that I was a captain in the Union army?”

To his surprise,
Lydia gracefully raised one black-clad shoulder in a dismissive shrug. “Not in the least. Besides, the war is over and we should put those sad years behind us.” Mirroring his pose, she folded her arms across her chest, patiently waiting for him to lob the next salvo.

Not one to flinch from
combat, Ben gamely targeted the lady with a sharpshooter’s intense gaze. Despite being swathed in funerary black, Lydia McCabe was easy on the eyes. With hair the color of polished copper, lustrous white skin, and wide-set green eyes that put him in mind of the river moss that he’d seen growing on the banks of the Shenandoah River, her coloring was downright extravagant. While she might not fit some folks’ standard of beauty, the lady certainly had what it took to keep a man interested.

But like most men, Ben knew
that you didn’t have to put down stakes to enjoy the view.


Maybe you ought to run a classified ad in the newspaper,” Ben said conversationally as he leaned his shoulder against a barn post. “I hear tell that many a lonely man has resorted to such means to secure a wife. No reason why it wouldn’t work for a lonely woman.”

A moment’s fury registered on the Widow McCabe’s face before she quickly stowed her anger behind a mask of ladylike composure. “I briefly considered the idea, but rejected it in favor of asking you to marry me.”
As she spoke, Lydia perused his negligently casual pose with a disdainful gaze. “Clearly, it was a grievous error in judgment to think that
you
would make anyone a suitable husband.”

The hell you say!

Ben jerked himself upright. Although it took some effort, he bit back an ungentlemanly retort, surprised that he cared one way or the other.

Looking every inch the blue-blooded lady, Lydia clasped her hands in front of her waist, her corseted figure as erect as a well
turned-out soldier on dress parade. “I am sorry to have taken up so much of your time. Good day to you, sir.”

With that said,
Lydia turned on her heel, her black skirts swinging like a metronome as she made her way to the open barn door.

Ben cursed under his breath. Then, not
exactly sure why he did so, he stormed after her, closing the distance between them with just a few long-legged strides.


Hold up.”

Ignoring his overture,
Lydia continued to make her way to the door.

Annoyed by
her ladylike scorn, Ben grabbed hold of Lydia’s elbow, preventing her from taking another step. Somewhat clumsily, he spun her around to face him.


Unhand me, sir!”

“Not until we’re done talking.”

A look of surprise flashed in Lydia’s moss-green eyes. “Surely, you’re not agreeing to marry me?”

Ben released her elbow.
“I’m agreeing to think about it,” he said in a guarded tone of voice.

“Very well, then.
Please inform me as soon as you reach a decision.”

Lydia McCabe gave the man standing
opposite her a cursory nod before turning toward the door.

While it was true that she’d asked Benjamin Strong to be
come her husband, Lydia had no discernible feelings for him. Silly romantic notions had nothing to do with her proposal. Mister Strong was a clean, healthy, able-bodied man – that was the extent of her interest in him. If he agreed to marry her, so be it. If not, she would solicit her next candidate. Under no circumstance would she needlessly fret over the matter.

 

 

Holy hell
!

How did he get strong
-armed into considering the half-baked idea of marrying the Widow McCabe? It made Ben wonder if
he
wasn’t the one who was loco.

Seated at the kitchen table,
Ben stared moodily into his coffee cup. He’d been a guest at the McCabe farm for nigh on two weeks. He’d only stayed
that
long because his sister Mercy had gotten married, her new husband had asked him to help clear the lower field, and he hadn’t seen his mother since the war broke out in ‘61.

BOOK: Fire on the Plains (Western Fire)
5.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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