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       Ryan's Hand, p.16

           Leila Meacham
 
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  “You have shown me consideration?” Cara queried, her brows raised faintly, but in the pockets of the robe her hands clenched.

  Jeth’s lips twisted in a cold, distorted smile. “I believe you will think so, Miss Martin, when you hear how you’re to pay for your room and board the remainder of your stay here.” He drew on the cigar, watching her, reading her immediate thought. He laughed without mirth. “Relax, Miss Martin, you are safe from me. I’ve never been one for whores, not even Ryan’s. No, I have better uses for that capable little body of yours. Tomorrow morning at seven, you will report to the tack room. The stable manager is Homer Pritchard. He will give you the equipment you will need to clean the stalls of the quarter horse stables daily. There will be other tasks involved, of course. Homer will explain. You’re to work there until noon, and then you may have your lunch. Where, is up to you. At one o’clock, you will present yourself to Pepe Martinez, who is in charge of La Tierra’s vegetable fields and orchard. He has an office of sorts about a mile from the stables. Homer will drive you out there tomorrow to show you where it is, but after that you’ll have to get out there the best way you can. You will follow Pepe’s orders concerning your chores. This will be your daily routine until something more…suitable turns up that I feel requires your time.” The rancher studied her long and hard. “Miss Martin, you did hear what I just said?”

  “Very clearly.”

  “Excellent. Of course”—he tapped a red coil of ash into the fireplace—“you can always exercise your option to leave, although I’m hoping you won’t. I rather look forward to making your stay with us as memorable as possible.”

  “I’m sure you will, Mr. Langston, and be assured I’ve no intention of leaving. Is there anything else?”

  “Yes. In regard to the piano. You have my permission to play it. It’s an instrument that should be played. However”—his look was grazing—“as much as I am sure I would enjoy your artistry, I don’t want you at that piano while I am in this house. My mother was a lady. I don’t think I could stomach hearing her piano played by a woman who so obviously is not.” He took a long draw on the cigar while Cara remained silent.

  After exhaling a spiraling stream of smoke, Jeth went on. “And one other thing, Miss Martin. You have committed a piece of my land to a flower garden. Make sure it produces. I do not tolerate waste on La Tierra, certainly not the waste of water or time on dabbling efforts at an unproductive diversion. Is all of that very clear?”

  “As crystal,” Cara replied. “Will that be all? As you say, it’s been a tiresome day.”

  Her composure proved her undoing. “No, by God, that will not be all!” Jeth threw the cigar into the yawning fireplace and reached Cara before she could take two steps toward escape, at the same time dexterously yanking at the belt that cinched her robe. “Now,” he said grimly as the belt fell away, “I think I’ll satisfy my curiosity and see what I’ll be turning down when our business is finished—”

  To her horror, Jeth wrenched the robe back from her shoulders, pinioning it in such a way that made her arms helpless to ward off his next intent. She tried to scream, but only a strangled whimper made it past the terror in her throat. Ruthlessly, his face a mask of scorn, Jeth commenced his slow, degrading inspection, unhurriedly traveling to explore, inch by inch, the lovely privacies of her body. Cold and numb, knowing better than to struggle, Cara closed her eyes in an agony of shame to wait for the long, painful seconds to crawl by.

  At last she felt the robe jerked back over her shoulders. Jeth’s voice, incisive, final, ordered, “Fix your robe, Miss Martin, and get out of here. But before you go, here’s another collector’s item for your vanity. You are every inch as desirable as I knew you would be. For that reason, I can forgive my brother for being besotted enough with you to divide our land. But you, Miss Martin, I will never forgive. You are going to find that regrettable while you’re on La Tierra.”

  After she had gone to bed, Cara lay a long time in the darkness waiting to hear the rancher go past her door. Long after midnight, she heard the firm tread of his boots on the tiled corridor, and her breath held in fear. She thought he paused at her door, and she strained to see if the door handle was turning. He had not. Her imagination and her sense of hearing were both playing tricks on her.

  The next morning Cara went to the huge stable complex that housed the quarter horses used by the ranch hands between roundups. Jeth’s big stallion and Lady were stalled in the smaller stable closer to the big house, and Cara was relieved that she would not have to see Jeth each day when he came to saddle Dancer, his bay. With a quick glance around as she entered the stable yard, Cara estimated there must be nearly one hundred stalls built around the well-kept compound. She wondered if she was to be responsible for cleaning them all.

  Homer Pritchard was an unsmiling, tobacco-chewing string-bean of a man who let her know immediately that he disapproved of the presence of women in his domain. “But the boss’s orders is the boss’s orders,” he grumbled, handing Cara a pitchfork and indicating that she follow him. He led her to a stall in which a quarter horse eyed her curiously. “Scared of horses?” Homer asked belligerently. Cara shook her head. “Well, that’s a plus anyway. Ever clean a stall?” When Cara replied yes, Homer spit tobacco juice emphatically into one of the many brass receptacles for that purpose attached to the bridling posts. Cara shuddered inwardly. Surely her job would not entail cleaning those. “That’s another plus,” Homer said, his voice holding doubt. “These thirty stalls are yours. This is your wheelbarrow. The dumpsters are behind the stable. We try to be through with the stall cleaning by noon. That’s when the truck comes by to unload the dumpsters and take the manure out to the fields. You’ll probably need a few days to get the hang of it around here, miss, but after that, the boss wants you to pull your own weight.”

  Cara’s lip curled. “You may tell Mr. Langston that he need have no fear of that!” she assured Homer curtly.

  At noon Cara rode out to the vegetable fields in the cab of the dumpster truck with an untalkative driver who kept his eyes on the road. She had not had time to eat the sack lunch Fiona had thoughtfully prepared for her that morning, and now she discovered she had left it at the stable. Well, she thought with a sigh, I’m too tired to chew anyway and the day’s only half over.

  Pepe Martinez was a man of short stature, as plump and friendly as Homer was thin and hostile. The Mexican overseer of La Tierra’s vegetable acreage looked her over sympathetically and gave an eloquent shrug when she introduced herself. “I am sorry, señorita, but I have my orders.” He handed her a long instrument with two sharp prongs at one end. “For weeds,” he explained, apologetically gesturing toward the countless rows of young beans among which she recognized blades of Johnson grass waving in the sun. His meaning was at once clear, and Cara swallowed.

  “All of them?”

  “Si, señorita.”

  As the days passed, it became apparent to Cara that in her new duties she was not to know the camaraderie that she had enjoyed on the roundup. Jeth Langston’s orders concerning her were clearly expressed in the way both ranch hands and fieldworkers shunned and ignored her, leaving her to struggle with her chores on her own. Ranch vehicles, driven by men who had laughed with her on the roundup, passed her on the long trudges to and from her labors without stopping to offer a ride. She was not invited to join the coffee klatch of ranch hands who met each morning in the stable office, nor at lunch to eat her sandwich with the other workers gathered around the picnic tables beneath the yellow-trimmed gray canopy near Pepe Martinez’s office trailer.

  Cara learned that Bill, whom she missed, had been sent as foreman to run a subsidiary ranch in another county. Happy for the young cowboy, she could not help but wonder if the sudden promotion had not been designed to sever their friendly ties. Cara was confident that Bill would have remained friendly toward her in spite of his loyalty to Jeth. She rarely saw Leon, busy in the Feedtrough these days with the extra duties of butchering cal
ves and preparing the daily bounty of fresh vegetables for La Tierra’s freezers. Jim Foster alone remained accessible, but his commiserative manner made Cara uncomfortable. It suggested they shared a mutual alliance against Jeth Langston, an attitude that forced her to avoid the foreman whenever possible.

  June passed into July and there were days when Cara did not hear the sound of her own voice. August came, and La Tierra baked under the hottest, driest sun that she had ever known. She worked steadily and hard, determined not to give Homer or Pepe reason to criticize her to their employer. She grew accustomed to her solitude and the loneliness of her days. The sun deepened her tan and lightened her hair to purest platinum. In her garden, the flowers broke through the caliche-stressed soil and bloomed, and in delight she cupped their colorful heads in her work-roughened hands, thrilling at their beauty and abundance. Great bouquets began to appear on gleaming tabletops in the house and before the headstones of the Langston graves.

  Cara discovered that Jeth had not forgotten her garden. One evening when she went to tend it, she found a man-sized pair of bootprints embedded in the moist sand where someone had stood to survey her handiwork. Jeth! she thought, and her heart had held in her throat.

  Since the evening in the study, Cara had been able to avoid a face-to-face meeting with the owner of La Tierra. She knew his routine by now and was able to circumvent his comings and goings in the big house. At her request, Lady had been moved to one of the thirty stalls she had been assigned to maintain. When Cara’s day was over, just as Jeth was finishing his end-of-the-day swim to change for dinner, she was saddling Lady for a ride in the long summer twilight. Afterward, while she was on the dusty trek to the house, Jeth, she knew, would have finished dinner and gone to his study for the evening. It was then, after a visit to her garden, that she would climb the stairs to her room and eat in solitude the dinner that Fiona had left her.

  On the rare occasions when Jeth was away from the ranch, Cara spent her evenings before the Steinway, expressing her pain in selections written for the kind of deep despair she felt. Sometimes Fiona, who had come to have a grudging affection and sympathy for her, would come to lean in the doorway of the living room to hear her, her ever-busy hands motionless around the dish she meant to dry while she listened. One evening when Jeth was gone Cara sat down before the keyboard. Her fingers drifted into the haunting bars of “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” from Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. The piece suited her mood somehow. That afternoon she had ridden Lady into the foothills and had come across Devil’s Own again. In majestic splendor, the black horse had gazed down at them from the crest of a mountain, and Cara’s flesh had prickled with a sudden portentous chill as she returned the stallion’s stare. The message in the dark, equine eyes seemed quite plain: You wear the brand of La Tierra Conquistada. You will never be the same again. You will never be free.

  So now she released into the music the sudden grief that had made her turn Lady sharply and knee the horse into a fast gallop back to the ranch. It was only as she was stroking off the last chords that Cara became aware of a familiar scent in the room—the aroma of Jeth Langston’s cigar. Startled, she wheeled around on the piano bench to find the room empty. Afraid that her imagination was assuming dangerous proportions, Cara rose and walked slowly over to the large formal chair near the study door. Several coils of cigar ash smoldered in the ashtray. Jeth was home. He had been listening to her play the Second Piano Concerto.

  In late August the knees of her jeans gave out. Cara trimmed the legs off above the knee, and while she was at it, decided to cut off the long sleeves of all her shirts. They had been fine when the weather was cool, but now they were confining and hot. She hemmed the edges as best she could, but her skill with sewing was limited, as the shirt hems testified.

  “Fiona,” she asked shortly thereafter, “will you cut my hair for me?”

  Fiona’s impassive face gave way to one of its rare moments of expression. “Cut your hair, señorita?” The housekeeper was dumbfounded. “But your hair is beautiful. It is like white gold!”

  “It is unbearably hot, and I can’t keep it out of my way. I can’t wash it as often as I would like because it takes too long to dry.”

  “Very well, señorita,” Fiona agreed reluctantly, “but it is a pity.”

  And so one hot Saturday afternoon after her chores in the stables were completed (like La Tierra’s other employees, she was free until Monday morning), Cara sat in the kitchen on a stool, a towel draped around her, and submitted herself to Fiona’s scissors. Snip! snip! went the scissors. Down, down fell the hair.

  “What the hell are you doing!” demanded a voice from the doorway, and the razor-sharp, pointed scissors arrested dangerously close to Cara’s eyes as Fiona stammered, “I—I am cutting Señorita Martin’s hair, Patrón. She asked me to.”

  “Stop it!” he ordered, but it was too late. A heap of hair lay on the floor, soft as silk, as shining as the most precious of metals.

  Cara sat in total silence, staring straight ahead, as Jeth came to stand in front of her, his expression one of horrified surprise. “My God…” He let out a deep breath, and Cara wondered what in the world she must look like. Like a waif, she decided, feeling the blunt ends of her hair. Fiona had simply begun at one ear and cut around to the other. The towel did not cover the cutoff jeans, the flannel shirt with its amateurishly hemmed sleeves. “Your hair, your hair—” Jeth spoke almost in anguish.

  It will grow again, she thought. It will darken by wintertime. A Texas sun will never again bleach it platinum. The thought made her heart close like a shamrock at dusk. Defiantly, her voice cold, Cara spoke for the first time. “My hair interfered with my work. It was hot and annoying.”

  “Yes,” Jeth conceded. “I suppose so.” With a swift movement he reached for one of her hands and inspected it critically. Cara flushed and snatched it away in embarrassment, hiding it under the towel. Her hands were rough and red, the nails broken and unkempt. She had once taken such care of her hands. “Don’t you wear gloves anymore?” the rancher demanded. “What happened to the rubber gloves I bought you?”

  “They were used up long ago. I don’t need them now.”

  The look he gave her made Cara want to curl up and die. It held a mixture of pity and disgust. She was sure that Sonya Jeffers’s hands were as soft as kitten fur and that she would never have worn cutoff jeans and a tattered shirt.

  Jeth left the kitchen, and the housekeeper and Cara stared at each other.

  Chapter Eleven

  There’s a party this Saturday that I’d like to take you to,” Jim Foster told Cara. He had followed her into a stall where she was filling a trough with hay. “Will you go with me?”

  It was the end of September and in the mornings a crisp touch of fall was in the air. “Why—why, I don’t know, Jim…” She was startled that things like parties still existed.

  “Why not?” he demanded impatiently. “Are you forbidden to do anything but work?”

  Good question, Cara thought, and looked up at him with a stirring of compassion. She had to admit that he had made every effort to be kind to her. He had even defied Jeth’s orders by openly befriending her, a surprise move that had made her ashamed of her earlier suspicions. She wondered if Jeth was aware of their limited association. There was no reason for him to be jealous of Jim now. Impulsively, she said, “I’d love to come. What should I wear?”

  She should wear, Jim told her without hesitation, a dress! She chose a dusky blue one with a scooped neckline and short sleeves and a full skirt that swirled just below her knees. To complement the dress she selected a pair of high-heeled suede sandals in the same shade of blue.

  Cara spent all of Saturday afternoon readying herself for her date. She gave herself a beauty treatment from head to foot, rolling the short bob of platinum hair for the first time since Fiona had cut it and pedicuring her feet. The appearance of her hands, she was relieved to see, had greatly improved since the box of work gloves h
ad mysteriously appeared in her room the day after her last conversation with Jeth. As the time neared to meet Jim at their prearranged spot outside the house, Cara found herself getting more excited about the evening ahead. She hummed to herself as she put the finishing touches to her makeup and slipped on her shoes. It had been so long since she’d dressed up, fussed with her hair—had fun! When she had finished dressing and stepped back from the mirror for her first full view of herself, Cara had to blink twice, she was so shocked at the woman staring back at her. Could that platinum-haired, golden-skinned, violet-eyed stranger possibly be her!

  A knock came at the door, breaking into her bemusement. She drew away from the mirror, still enrapt, and opened the door, expecting to find Fiona on the threshold. Instead Jeth Langston stood there, taller and even more commanding than she remembered, dressed for dinner in a shirt and slacks of gray twill whose color was reflected in the hard clarity of his eyes. Cara stood stock-still. A faint fear that he had come to prevent her from going made her heartbeat quicken.

  Jeth spoke first. “Jim Foster just called from the bunkhouse. Something has come up, and he won’t be able to take you to the dance tonight. I told him I’d tell you. He sends his apologies.”

  Cara did not reply immediately. Disappointment cut sharply, and when at last she spoke, her voice was strained. “Is Jim still on the phone?”

  “No.”

  “I see. Thank you.” She moved back to shut the door, glad of the excuse to avert her face.

  “Miss Martin…” Jeth put out a broad hand to prevent the door from closing.

  Cara forced herself to meet his eyes with dignity, knowing she would find them alight with mockery, or worse—softened with pity. He was not the least deceived by her cool manner. The man knew exactly how she must be feeling. After all, she had been stood up, and now here she was, all dressed up with nowhere to go. But to her surprise, the gray eyes were sweeping over her in undisguised admiration.

 
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