Smoke River Bride(10)

By: Lynna Banning



Teddy shrugged off his father’s hand and trailed behind them, dragging his feet until they reached the wagon. Thad lifted Leah onto the bench. Teddy clambered up, but scooted his small body as far away from her as he could get without toppling off.

Thad cracked the whip over the mare’s head, then had to wonder at his action. He’d never used the whip before, but he’d explode if he didn’t do something to dispel the tension gripping his belly.

“Why’d you do that, Pa?” Teddy accused.

“Dunno, son.” He glanced at the boy. “Just felt like it.”

“Is it ’cuz you got married?”

“Well, kinda. I guess I’m feeling a little nervous.”

“How come?”

Thad chuckled. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”

“No, I won’t,” Teddy yelled. “I won’t ever, ever understand.”

Leah said nothing. To Thad’s dismay she uttered not one single word the six miles out to the ranch, just studied every tree, every grassy meadow and cultivated field, even the shallow spot in Swine Creek where they forded. Was she homesick for China?

Or maybe she was wondering what she’d gotten herself into? Given the frosty reception of the townspeople at the church, maybe she regretted marrying him.

Thad was surprised in a way that he did not regret it. He knew it was the right thing. He had given her his name and his protection, and by God, he would give her a home and all the comforts he could afford in this lean year, starting with the boy’s trousers and shirts and work boots he’d purchased yesterday at the mercantile. She sure couldn’t do housework in that silky red outfit.

Ah, hell, maybe it would work out just fine. He was respected in Smoke River, known as a steady and resourceful man, and she seemed to be good-natured. And—he felt his face grow hot—she sure was pretty.

What could go wrong?

He drew rein at the front porch and watched Leah study the small house he’d built, the barn, and the barely sprouted three-acre field of winter wheat he’d gambled his savings to plant. He’d put his whole life into this farm; he hoped to goodness she liked what she saw.

The minute she walked into the cabin and gazed at what was to be her home, his heart shriveled.

Leah stared at the plank floor, sticky with something that had spilled but never been mopped up. A tower of pots and skillets and egg-encrusted plates teetered in the dry sink. The bare log walls were chinked with brown mud and a grimy, uncurtained window over the sink looked out on the withered remains of what had apparently been a kitchen garden. Another bare window beside the front door suddenly resembled a yawning face, laughing at her.

Were all the houses in Oregon like this, so carelessly kept? Or was it only this house?

The room smelled of dust, wood smoke, stale coffee and rotting food, the latter odor drifting from a slop jar that she fervently hoped was intended for a pig. She closed her eyes and tried not to breathe in.

“Guess it could use some cleaning up,” Thad said with a catch in his voice. “Hattie always said…” He left the thought unfinished.

“I am sure she was right,” Leah said evenly. She could not imagine how difficult living here must have been for Thad’s wife. She could also not imagine how she herself could manage to live in this filth and clutter.

Thad lifted her valise. “I’ll just put this in the bedroom.”

Bedroom! Heaven help her, she had avoided thinking about what marriage would mean at night. “Is…is there—How many bedrooms are there?”

“Just the one,” Thad muttered.

“Where does Teddy sleep?”

“In the loft up there, over the front room. Says it’s warmer at night. I planned to sleep up there, too.”

Thad lifted his head. “Oh, I almost forgot. Yesterday I bought you some work clothes. Should make do until you can get to the dressmaker’s in town.”

“The dressmaker’s?”

“Sure. Don’t you want some dresses like the other women wear?”

No, she did not. Having a Western dressmaker poke at her and criticize her comfortable silk trousers and tunics made her stomach heave. But she was starting a new life in America, and she knew she must fit in.

“Could I not make my clothes myself? Did Hatt—” At the stricken look on his face, Leah couldn’t bring herself to speak her name. “Did your wife own a sewing machine?”

Thad ducked his head and started toward the closed door of what she assumed was the bedroom. “Yeah, she did have a sewing machine,” he said over his shoulder. “Brought her mother’s fancy Singer with her from Virginia. But she never learned to sew on it.”

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