Truly, Texas, March 1891
Ruby latched the chicken-yard gate behind her and waited for the hens’ cackling to settle. If anyone tried to sneak up on her, the birds would squawk an alarm. Certain she was alone, she pulled a scrap of paper from her pocket and read it again. Molly, her best friend, had sent the note by way of a passing cowhand five days ago. Since then Ruby had read the two words—It’s here—so many times the edges of the paper had feathered and Molly’s red wax seal had fallen off. It was the reply to clandestine correspondence Ruby had sent months before. It could change her life.
Ruby had been to town with her father just the week before, so her turn would not roll around again for three long weeks. Trusting one of her siblings, especially that sly Beryl, to pick itup without tattling to their folks, was unthinkable.
When Ruby asked to take her sister’s place in the wagon, the little snot had flat refused. Bartering continued for days with the deal consummated only this morning while doing breakfast dishes together.
Beryl whined a hard bargain. “I want the brooch Granny gave you for Christmas—”
Ruby couldn’t believe that she, a grown woman of eighteen, was reduced to negotiating with a nine-year-old. She rolled her eyes but gave a reluctant nod.
“—and a month’s worth of dinner dishes.”
“Fine.”Ruby blew out a breath hot with exasperation. From the triumphant expression on Beryl’s face, Ruby had been played for a sucker. Under her breath she muttered her father’s term for his daughters when they didn’t live up to his expectations, “Hellion child.”
Now, beside her father in the buckboard, half-listening to his mumblings about what he needed in town, Ruby envisioned the changes it could make in her life.
“Sixteen penny nails, two-by-fours, poultry wire. You got your mother’s shopping list, girl?”
“Yes, sir.” Ruby’s heavy gloves didn’t prevent her fingers from worrying the bottom button on her winter coat until it dangled by a thread. One more twirl snapped the fiber, spiraling the bit of bone to the floorboard. She grabbed for it, but it tumbled into the rutted road, buried forever beneath red West Texas dust. To keep from losing another, she sat on her hands. The closer they got to town, the more her heart felt like a kernel of popcorn ready to explode.
Groceries—Ranch Supplies—Dry Goods—Clothing.From its perch above Statler’s Mercantile, the hand-painted sign knocked a wind-blown greeting against the eaves. Pa pulled the buckboard adjacent to the storefront. Before he could set the brake, Ruby kicked off the buffalo robe protecting her from the cold blue norther that had blown in. Without waiting to be helped down, she jumped from the seat, her skirt flaring so high frigid air lassoed her knees. She ignored his “Are you ever going to behave like a proper young—” and dashed into the store.
Inside, her gaze darted into every corner of the store, making sure Molly was alone. “Where is it?”
“Don’t I even get a hello?” From her station behind the dark oak counter, the middle Statler girl grinned and waggled her feather duster in greeting.
“Hello, Molly,” Ruby sassed, wondering how her friend could be so calm on such a momentous occasion. “Happy now? Where is it?”
Molly put aside the duster and carefully wiped her hands before pulling several items from a cubbyhole.
Ruby jiggled on her feet at her friend’s deliberate pace.
Most items Molly returned to their place, but one—a fat ivory envelope—she waved high in the air, tormenting her friend.
With one hand Ruby pushed off the counter, stretching for the letter with the other. As her fingers closed on the paper, Molly jerked it away.
“You wretch.” Movement out the front window caught Ruby’s eye. She tugged Molly’s arm down. “Here comes my pa.”
The smile snapped off Molly’s face as quickly as a mousetrap closing. She thrust the envelope toward Ruby who stashed it in her coat pocket and extracted her mother’s shopping list.
The store door creaked open to admit her father. “Any mail, Ruby?”
“No, sir.” She tucked her hand back into her pocket, pressing the letter against her thigh.
Mr. Statler, his arms filled with boxes, stepped out of the stock room. “Howdy, Hermann. Anything I can help you with?”
“Put whatever the girl needs on my account, Jack. I’ll pick her up when I’m done at the lumber yard.”
Ruby ran a finger down her mother’s checklist but was too excited to focus. The spidery handwriting became a tangled, illegible web as ten pounds of flourmoseyed into five pounds of cornmealand backstrap molassespoured onto one card of small white buttons.
Unable to calm herself enough to fill the order, while Ruby waited for her pa to leave, she studied her friend. Despite performing her usual duties of stocking shelves and cleaning the store, Molly’s white cuffs remained pristine and not a strand of hair escaped the flaxen braids crowning her head. With a sigh, Ruby removed her bonnet, tried in vain to pat her hair into place then brushed off her clothing. Windblown and gritty, Ruby looked like she’d rolled into town on a tumbleweed.
After an interminable conversation about the upcoming town hall meeting and the quarter-inch of rain the town had gotten the week before—things that weren’t nearly as important as Ruby’s letter—Ruby’s pa drove off and Mr. Statler returned to the back room.
Molly whirled around the counter to join Ruby. “Open it.”
After a final survey ensured they were truly alone, Ruby pulled the envelope from her pocket, slid a finger beneath its seal, and removed the letter. Her hands trembled too much for her to decipher the words, she thrust the page at her friend. “I can’t bear the suspense. Read it to me, please.”
Perched on a stool, Molly unfolded the page with excessive care. As she read, she shook her head periodically.
Ruby paced the width of the store, her skirts swirling at each turn, preparing for disappointment.
At last Molly looked up, her face pinched in disappointment.
Ruby slumped. “I knew I wouldn’t get in.”
The letter flapping in her hand, Molly jumped off her stool, hopped up and down then hugged her friend. “But you did. You got in.”
“You fiend!”Ruby snatched the page and read aloud. “Dear Miss Schmidt, Congratulations…” Astonished, she sank to her knees on the pine floor. “I got in. I really did.”
“Your parents are going to pitch a hissy fit.”
“Oh, Lordy, not just my folks. What’s Bismarck going to say?”
* * * *
Ruby slopped the hogs and gathered the eggs. The barn thermometer read forty-four degrees, almost balmy after that cold snap. The wan sun on her cheeks made her long for freedom from coats, shawls, and gloves. The scent of the earth awakening hovered in the air. A green stubble of new growth peeked through the thatch of last year’s grasses. Soon wine cups and primroses would carpet the plains. On horseback she could better appreciate the changes in the landscape and—she bounced with excitement—a gallop would be a good excuse to visit Bismarck and tell him her news.
Coupling her second-best shirtwaist with a split riding skirt, Ruby dressed for a call on her betrothed, then swiped a brush through her curls, lamenting their wildness. Damnation. No matter how many hairpins she used, those corkscrews escaped. A glance in the small mirror above her bureau told her she was presentable enough. After all, she didn’t want him to think this a premeditated occasion. With a deep exhale, she tucked the letter in her coat pocket, gave it a pat, and headed to the barn. Ladybug, her quarter horse mare, danced in the corral eager to lope toward Stonecrop Ranch.
She had to talk to Bismarck. Her news affected his life as well. She already knew how he felt. She could only think of one way to change his mind, one way to convince him to let her go, one way to prove her love.
* * * *
From atop her horse, Ruby memorized the image of Bismarck shoeing a horse, its hoof trapped between his thighs. His voice calm, his hands soothing, he led the animal to believe its desires and his were identical. The whole county envied his way with livestock.
Ruby sighed, wondering how he would feel knowing their desires were no longer the same. “Bismarck!”
Over the rhythmic clang of his hammer, he didn’t hear her.
She pitched her voice higher, louder. “Biz!”
When he lifted his head, sunlight spilled beneath the brim of his hat, illuminating his welcoming smile. He spread his legs to release the horse’s hoof, dropped the rounding hammer, and slowly stretched his tall frame.
Ruby slid out of her saddle, her boots stirring up dust as her feet hit the ground. She ran toward him, towing her mare by the reins with one hand while extracting the letter from her pocket with the other. The crisp page crackled as she shook it under his nose.
“Settle down before you spook my horse.” He grabbed her wrist in play.
The letter flew from her hand and fluttered across the corral like a chicken after a grasshopper. “Lordy. Look what you’ve done. Catch it before it blows away.”
The errant paper zigzagged across the barnyard, Bismarck giving chase. As he stretched to capture it, the wind whisked it away. He muttered a cuss word under his breath and redoubled his speed.
A dust devil swirled before him, spiraling the letter out of his reach. “Damn.”
Ruby, fearing her mail lost forever, joined the pursuit. She could simply tell Bismarck her news, but that letter was proof someone thought she had potential.
In a sudden reversal, the twisting wind lost power and deposited the paper ten feet from Bismarck. With a lunge, he captured the page and returned it to her with a courtly flourish. “My lady.”
Giving eager little hops, she shoved the post back toward him. “Read it. I got in. I got in.”
He opened the letter and read aloud. “Dear Miss Schmidt, congratulations on your acceptance to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. We recognize the commitment entailed in learning and developing as an artist by association with a worthy institution….” He scrubbed his hand across his unshaven chin. “Why’d I build this house if you’re going to leave?”
“We talked about this before I applied.”
“You already went to college for a year in North Texas. Weren’t that enough?”
“Texas Normal College was for my teaching certificate. My folks made me do it, so it doesn’t count. You said this would be all right.”
“I never said I’d be happy about it.” Bismarck crumpled the letter and crushed it back into her hand. “We had this same talk six months ago. Nothing’s changed. I thought we were getting hitched this fall. Instead you want to take off again.”
The accusation in his voice struck her like a rattlesnake. With a huff, she turned her back on him. “It’s just for a year. We have the rest of our lives to be together.” She smoothed the wrinkles in her precious paper. “You didn’t think I’d get in.”
Behind her, Bismarck clasped her shoulders, clenching then relaxing his fingers, as if he couldn’t decide whether to hold her tight or let her go. “I knew you’d get in.” He brushed her nape, four delicate kisses beneath the rasping of his stubble. One hand loosened her hair from its knot on her neck, his thick calluses snagging the fine strands. “But I hoped you wouldn’t.”
“Please, Biz.” She half-turned toward him. “Haven’t you ever needed to try something new?”
“I’ve never wanted to be anywhere but right here, doing what I’m doing.” He released her and turned in a slow circle looking at the plains. “It’s beautiful out there. Never the same one minute to the next.” He spread his right arm wide, indicating Pole Cat Draw and the distant escarpment. “If you think you can tie this down in a picture, you’re as bad as those damned fellers using barbed wire to tame this land.”
She tugged his hand around her waist, pulling him close. Together they gazed at the only landscape either had ever known. “I love Texas, too. But I have to know if I’m cut out to be an artist. I’ll be back.”
“Will you?” His gaze pierced her.
She pointed to the house he had built for her. “That’s our home. I love you. I’ll come back. I promise.” Eager to prove her affection, she kissed him in a way she never had before.
His arms corralled her.
The intensity of his return kiss made her sway.
Bismarck plucked the reins from her fingers and looped the leather straps over the fence rail behind her. His hands fumbled with the buttons of her coat then slipped beneath, encircling her waist, pulling her close. He kissed her hard. By the time they paused for breath, he was shaking. “Whew. Another smooch like that, no telling what I’d do.”
In reckless reply, she drew his hand to her bosom.
He inhaled sharply as he cupped her breast for the first time.
She encouraged him, pressing his hand more firmly against her chest then moving his fingers to her buttons. The tiny discs on her shirtwaist confounded his hands, so with deliberate movements, she unfastened the mother-of-pearl buttons for him, pausing between each making sure he still watched.
His gaze never strayed from her fingers fluttering along her buttons. Suspended mere inches from her chest, his hand awaited the opening of her blouse.
Heat, ready to break into a boil, simmered beneath Ruby’s clothing. She closed her eyes as the last button popped free from its buttonhole.
Bismarck slipped one hand inside her clothes and wriggled between the multiple layers of her undergarments, chilly rough fingers on warm smooth skin. With the other hand, he drew her against the length of his body.
“Oh.” She opened her eyes, surprised the universe had not altered its course with his touch. The house was so very far away. If they walked all the way there, she might change her mind. With her arms wrapped around his neck, her body entwined about his, she nodded toward the barn.
Bismarck grinned and carried her to the stable, giving her a hand up the ladder to the hayloft where he unfurled a horse blanket for them to lie on.
The rough wooden walls broke the wind, but fingers of cold seeped through. Brr-r-r. It was colder inside than out. Between shivers, Ruby thought longingly of Bismarck’s bed. But he had been outdoors since dawn and would have banked the fire, so the house would be little warmer than the barn.
She struggled with her clothing. Now that she had decided to love him, she needed to remove the split skirt but worried how much more to take off. If she removed everything, she’d freeze. At length, she slid off only her culottes and shirtwaist. Uncertain if her fingers shook from cold or nerves, she folded her clothes and placed them to use as a pillow. Clad in her undergarments, she felt naked and covered her chest with her arms. She attempted an elegant descent to the blanket, but without the assistance of her hands, she landed with a thud, sending dust whirling through the air.
“You all right?” Bismarck’s lips twitched at her graceless landing, but he didn’t laugh.
She gave a sheepish shrug.
“We can stop—”
Ruby shook her head.
“Then let me look at you.”
She leaned back on her elbows letting him see her while she studied him. Though she was well-covered by her chemise, corset, corset cover, and flannel pantalets, his gaze stripped her completely.
Bismarck stood above her, unbuttoned his trousers and shucked them halfway to his boots. When he unfastened his red union suit and withdrew his—Ruby dared not even think the word—she realized that every man she had ever drawn had been misconceived. The flat plackets she had placed on pants did not acknowledge what lay beneath. A ranch girl, Ruby had seen the male parts of bulls and stallions. Never had she dreamed men would be so similar yet so different. Having changed her little brother’s diapers, she knew the anatomy—in theory. Reality was so much more.
Somehow, she summoned the courage to reach for him. “I want to sketch you. Naked. I need to draw you—draw this.” With one finger, she traced his length.
He sucked in a breath. “Later, honey.”
His skin was so soft there, more soft than his lips, yet so hard.
He trembled at her touch.
She stroked him again, smiling at her power.
Pulling another horse blanket and her coat over them, Bismarck stretched out beside her.
Soon his mouth and hands had her so enthralled she no longer thought of art. The fabric separating them became tinder catching fire.
Ruby loosened the two middle buttons of his long-handled underwear then ran her hands beneath, tracing the map of his chest and abdomen as far south and north and east and west as she could reach, discovering the crinkly texture of his hair, the undulations of his muscles, the peaks of his nipples, and the indentation of his bellybutton.
His rough fingers invaded the slit in the fabric of her split-crotch undergarments.
Bismarck moved half atop of her. Harsh and irregular, his breath left billows of steam in the air between them.
His weight pressed her into the hay, squeezing the breath from her. “If we don’t quit now, Ruby Louise, I won’t be able to stop.”
The tingle between her legs begged for his touch. She couldn’t stop him now if she wanted to. His face, so familiar, held a tautness she’d never seen. Her trembling fingers unfastened the remaining buttons of his undergarment and pulled him closer.
Spreading the gap in her pantalets wider, he lay over her, nudging himself inside.
Pain lanced through her as he penetrated. She clenched her teeth to suppress a whimper of discomfort, but her body recoiled and remained tense.
He stopped. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
Above her, he held himself still, remaining immobile so long she became aware of the world beyond them. Grass stems prickled her skin through the horse blanket. Bits of straw and motes of dust danced on beams of afternoon sunlight. Whistles of wind wheezed through cracks in the barn walls.
At last he said, “You ready?”
“Yes.” She closed her eyes.
Slowly, slowly, he filled her. “Sweet Jesus.”
At the sound, she opened her eyes.
He seemed almost in agony, his eyes shuttered, his face intent. His whisper floated, a cloud of steam suspended in the air between them.
With a moan, Ruby closed her eyes again, shutting out everything but the new sensation of Bismarck between her thighs. The smells of the barn receded, over-ridden by the scent of man and desire. She wanted more. Her need grew so fierce, she lifted her hips to meet his.
Encouraged, Bismarck moved faster, deeper. After a dozen strokes, he collapsed on her with a cry.
As he withdrew, Ruby wondered if that was all there was. Horses took longer to accomplish the act.
Afterwards, they snuggled together, arms and legs tightly entwined. He stroked her thigh. Goosebumps re-erupted as soon as his warmth passed.
“If you’re carrying my child, I won’t let you go.”
Ruby’s eyes widened. “You did this on purpose—to keep me here.”
“Little one, I tried real hard to be good.” He laughed as he chucked her under the chin. “You were dead set on some loving.”
“I got tired of being all proper when we’re together.” She scooted closer, kissed him then laid her head on his chest. “At the quilting bee, I overheard Ma and the other ladies talking. It only hurts the first time. Then the more you do it, the better it gets.”
“I reckon so. Practice does make perfect, I hear.”
His laugh rumbled low where her ear lay against his body.
She sat up, turning to look at him. Stray daylight sliced through a crack in the barn wall, highlighting his twinkling eyes and burnishing his brown hair with a golden glow. The reflection of his union suit outlined his jaw with red.
He nuzzled her breast and came up making a face. “I hate flannel. All that fuzz sticks to my tongue.”
Herhand followed the lines of his body to where his maleness peeked from his long johns. She stroked him, delighting in his immediate response. This time the deed took much longer, accompanied by a wondrous feeling rising to heaven before falling into an abyss. “Lordy. I never thought it’d be like this.”
Bismarck raised himself on an elbow and studied her. “Me, neither. I swear you make more sweet sounds than a little song bird.” He left her for a moment. When he returned, he cleaned her gently, his bandana icy cold from the water from the horse trough, before wiping himself.
She shivered. “You sorry we didn’t wait?”
“I’ll never regret loving you, Ruby Louise.” Her parents used her full name as evidence of their disapproval. When Bismarck called her that, the words were a caress.
“Do you think we sinned?”
He winked. “We jumped the gun a bit. Once we’re married, I’m sure God will look the other way.”
She slipped from the blanket and reached for her clothing. When her attire was in order, she pulled the pins from her hair and combed it with her fingers. Her hair was always such a riot her ma wouldn’t suspect anything—as long as Ruby removed every sprig of hay.
Bismarck grabbed her hand, pulling her back. “Don’t go, Ruby. Don’t go.”
“I have to.” With a twist of her hands, she piled her curls on her head, restraining them with hairpins. “It’s almost dinner time. Ma will be worried I’ve been gone so long.”
“You know what I mean.” His tone carried the plaintive timbre of a coyote’s distant wail.
Nearly undone, she kissed him hard and long. Moments later, her voice dreamy, she said, “I love you. I’ll come back. I promise. And when I do, I’ll be a famous artist.”