Serenity screamed, loud and clear.
“Mercy me, what’s wrong?” Her sister yelled from the chicken coop across the farmyard. “A snake? A spider?”
“No. It’s just…” Serenity moved her foot gingerly from the soft, steaming pile. “I misstepped. It’s got all over my good shoe. And my petticoat hem.”
With a loud moo, Marguerite slapped the pail with her tail. Milk slopped down the front of Serenity’s skirt, and she wailed again. “Oh, I planned to wear this to school in the morning. I must make a good impression on my students the first day.”
Nerves slipped up and down her spine like a meadow snake. Or what she thought that would feel like. What had she gotten herself into…thinking she could teach anybody anything?
As she stepped outside the old soddy, she held tight to the bucket and tried to settle her stress. When she was child, the family had lived inside, but now, the structure kept their animals safe from bad weather and wolves. And rain.
Rain? Her heart sank.
“I smell it,” she moaned.
“No wonder,” announced Amity who came over with her egg basket and gave a quick examination. “Marguerite is a good-size gal. She eats a great deal and well, you know.”
Serenity glared. “Not that. I smell rain.”
“Rain? The sunset is glorious. Not a storm cloud anywhere.”
Clucking her tongue, Serenity glanced toward the sun as it fell into the horizon flat as a griddle. She sniffed again. Soon’s she saved enough money, she’d be off to the Green Mountains of Vermont to visit Aunt Geraldine.
“No, it’s rain. I’m sure of it,” she said firmly. “And that’s all I need tomorrow. Twenty-two youngsters cooped up after a long summer.”
She shivered with downright fear as they walked to the stalwart wood farmhouse. “Those Sharpton boys would scare the stuffing out of the Christmas goose. Amos is only eleven but he’s taller than I am.”
“You’ll be a grand schoolmarm,” Amity insisted. “But I can assist you if you like.”
Serenity scoffed gently, for her sister wasn’t much older than some of the bigger boys. “Thanks, but I’d best earn that gold eagle all by myself. No sense in getting Papa displeased with you as well.”
Indeed, Papa acted like her decision to take over the schoolroom for a few weeks was a scourge instead of a blessing at a needy time. The harvest had been meager. Truth to tell, he wasn’t at all pleased about her travel plans, either.
She sighed. As they reached the back door, Papa and Timothy Larsen stepped out of it. So distracted by her spoiled clothes, Serenity hadn’t noticed their neighbor’s fine black gelding ground-tethered near Mama’s garden. He dipped his head and touched the brim of his black Stetson at her.
Upon sight of him, her heart rose to her throat before it tumbled to her toes. But she hardened it right up. Truth to tell, Timothy was a good man, young, handsome and prosperous, but last thing she needed was a widow-man with two small girls to raise.
“He’s cold, Parson. That’s all we need to know. You’re a pretty li’l thing, China Doll. I’d sure like you under my blankets keepin’ me warm through this next winter.”
“Pick, li’l lady.” A tall, thin man pressed forward from the right. “I’ve got chores to home.”
“See here, I won’t stand for this.” The parson stumbled and nearly fell, knocking into Cassie.
“You’re leavin’, Parson. We get it done now, today, or she’ll be livin’ with one of us for months till you come back. Griff’s young’un’ll be born and she’ll be broodin’ with a new one by then.”
“She will if she don’t marry an old codger like you.”
An outburst of laughter send Cassie stumbling backward. Her stomach heaved at the sickening things they were saying.
Cassie recognized that awful voice. Mort Sawyer had arrived.
A huge black horse pranced right up through the middle of the mob. Mort seemed unconcerned if he trampled anyone under iron shod hooves and the men seemed to know it. They snarled and grumbled in protest, but they fell back far enough to allow the man through, like wolves giving way before the leader of the pack.
“Parson, let’s get it over and done.”
A howl of protest exploded from the other men
She heard the parson say, “I’ll not marry a woman to someone against her will, Sawyer. I won’t conduct such a travesty. This isn’t something you can dictate. You let her go right this. . .”
Mort grabbed the parson by the front of his black suit. “You’ll marry us, Parson or I’ll take her home and after she’s given me a son or two, she’ll agree nice enough.”
Mort shoved the parson back and he fell to the ground. A man who would do that to a preacher would do unspeakable things to his wife.
Darkness spun in front of her. A quiet voice behind her cut through the noise.
“I’ll marry Mrs. Griffin, if she’ll have me.”
Cassie’s head cleared and, as she twisted around to locate the owner of that kind voice, her eyes focused on Red Dawson. The man she’d hated more than any other on this earth ten minutes ago.
With a voice as out of place as a breeze in the midst of a tornado, Red asked, ““Whattaya say, Cassie, will you marry me?”
Cassie still hated Red Dawson, although less than she had a few minutes ago. Or more correctly, she now hated other people more.
Unless Griff’s grave opened this minute and let her jump in, Cassie didn’t see as she had much choice. A minute passed as the chaos went on around her and the trampled grave stayed closed and, as if someone else spoke out of her lips, she said, “Yes. . .”
She almost said ‘Red’ before it occurred to her that Red must be a nickname. She didn’t know the name of the man who proposed to her. It was humiliating to ask him.
Somehow it seemed less humiliating to just say, “Yes, I’ll marry you.”