“Tie yer horse and come in,” he invited. “I was just gettin’ myself some grub.”
It seemed too late for dinner and too early for supper in Donnigan’s thinking, but he only smiled. Wallis was not known to keep another man’s time schedule.
He tied Black and followed the man into his shack, beating the road dust from his chaps with his Stetson as he walked.
The one room of the small cabin was in its usual disarray.
“Pull up a chair,” invited Wallis.
Donnigan picked up a broken bridle and tossed it on the floor in the corner as he took the chair Wallis indicated.
“I’ve had my dinner,” Donnigan informed him as he moved toward the stove. “Just a cup of coffee.”
Wallis lifted a coffee cup from the bit of cupboard and swished a dirty piece of dish towel around its interior. Then he reached for the heavy enamel pot and poured a cup of the black, steamy liquid. Without comment Donnigan accepted the cup and took a sip. It was strong as tar and as hot as shoeing tongs. He put it down on the table and licked his lips to cool them.
“So what brings you out?” said Wallis around a bite of bread and gravy. “You’re usually too busy fer neighboring in broad daylight.”
Donnigan smiled. “In between chores,” he said without rancor. “Hay’s not quite ready yet. Thought I might just get a little visit in.”
Donnigan dared another guarded sip of coffee, looking at Wallis over the cup’s rim. His eyes had taken on a certain knowing glint.
“Went to town the other day,” Wallis said slowly, as though wanting to check his tongue but unable to keep his news to himself. “Got myself a paper.”
Donnigan didn’t see anything too extraordinary about that.
“Had me a talk with Lucas, too.”
Donnigan knew Lucas well. He was the man who ran the local livery, stagecoach, and hotel. He had done right well for himself, folks said. In fact, he might be one who would become rich in the new West.
Donnigan sipped the coffee and nodded, waiting for Wallis to go on with his story about Lucas—or the paper—whatever it was that was making Wallis’s eyes take on the shine.
But Wallis jumped right into the matter, his expression bright.
“Did ya know thet a man can order hisself a wife?” asked Wallis.
Donnigan suddenly swallowed more coffee than he had intended. He sucked in air quickly to try to cool his scalded throat.
“Can what?” he exclaimed in disbelief.
“Can order a bride,” declared Wallis.
Donnigan replaced the cup to the table slowly, frowning as he tried to comprehend the statement. “Go on!” he said at length. “You’re funnin’.”
“Ain’t neither,” declared Wallis, sounding just a bit put out. “Saw it with my own eyes. Right there in black and white.”
Donnigan knew that Wallis could read nothing more than his name. He bought papers for show. A slow smile began to touch his lips. If Wallis wasn’t joking, someone else was having fun at his expense.
“Who showed you?” he asked cautiously. He didn’t want to offend Wallis, but he was sure now that someone had played a mean trick on the man.
“Lucas. Lucas hisself. He’s sending fer one. Got her all signed up. They’re bringing in a whole shipment of ’em. Be here by fall.”
Donnigan could not believe his ears. The whole idea was preposterous. No. No, it was worse than that. It was degrading. Inhuman. What man would ever order a wife the same way he would buy an animal for his herd? A kettle for his kitchen? It was totally unacceptable. Unthinkable. Totally.
“I’m gettin’ my money rounded up now. Almost got enough fer the ticket. You’ve been sayin’ thet you’d like a few hogs—well, I got a couple I’ll sell. Two young sows ready to farrow.”
He stopped for a breath and Donnigan stared at him, still in disbelief.
“Well? Ya interested or not? If ya ain’t, I’ll load ’em up and take ’em into town. Someone’ll want ’em.”
This joke has gone too far, Donnigan was thinking. The man is serious about this and—
“Well?” prompted Wallis again, and Donnigan pulled his attention back to the query.
“Sure. Sure,” he responded slowly. “I’m interested. I’ll take ’em—the hogs, that is.”
“Good,” said Wallis, and Donnigan saw the light in the man’s eyes again. Wallis rubbed his palms together as though he could not wait.
Donnigan felt sick. What could he say? At least until he had talked with the errant Lucas. But even the thought of Lucas made him shift uneasily. Lucas was not a man for joking around. If it had been Sam Cook or Pete Rawlings who had sold Wallis the bizarre story, Donnigan might have expected such nonsense. But Lucas!
Suddenly Donnigan knew he had to get to the bottom of the tale. He had to save Wallis from total embarrassment. He rose from his chair.
“I’d best be going,” he said.
Wallis looked up from his gravied bread.
“What’s yer hurry? Ya just got here.”
“I—I need to ride on into town,” Donnigan said lamely. Then quickly added, “When ya needin’ the money?”
“By Friday,” responded Wallis. “I want a wife from thet next shipment. They don’t bring in another ’til spring, and I don’t want to go through another long winter talkin’ to myself.”
Donnigan felt the loneliness of the man pierce his own soul. He understood about talking to oneself. He hadn’t realized Wallis had felt that way, too.
“By Friday,” he repeated, his mouth suddenly dry. “I’ll have it for you by then.”
He turned to go, noticing as he did that his coffee cup still held some of the black substance. Would Wallis be offended? Donnigan lifted the cup and drained it with one gulp. It was no longer scalding hot but was still just as bitter. He nodded at Wallis and reached for his Stetson.
He was about to duck his way out the creaking door when Wallis stopped him in his tracks. “Ya gonna sign up for one?” Wallis quizzed, the excitement in his voice again.
Donnigan did not even answer the question. He felt sick inside.
Kathleen could not have been more shocked. She was aware that Madam had a social life outside the home. Madam kept company with a Mrs. Mercer, who introduced her to woman friends, and supposedly gentlemen as well, but Kathleen had never stopped to think of the possibility of another marriage. She stood now with her mouth open at the announcement from Bridget.
“Well, don’t stand there letting in all the damp and cold,” Madam scolded, entering the small room from the living area.
Kathleen moved forward and closed the door. Her eyes studied the face of the woman and she saw a flush in her cheeks. She longed to ask if Bridget had spoken the truth, but her tongue didn’t seem to work.
“Why do you stand at the door when there is so much to be done? The supper isn’t even—”
“I just told her about your coming marriage,” interrupted Bridget.
The older woman stopped and flushed deeper, her eyes beginning to glow by the lamplight. Her hand fluttered nervously to tuck a stray wisp of hair under her day bonnet. But she gave no other response.
“I—I—” Kathleen did not know what to say. What was she expected to say? “I had no idea,” she finally managed lamely.
“You are never here to inform,” snipped the woman. “Mr. Withers does his calling by day, and you are always gone.”
Kathleen was well aware of how her days were spent.
“He’s a jolly fine old boy,” cut in Edmund, Kathleen’s eight-year-old half brother, as he held out the candy stick that the gentleman had obviously brought him.
“Watch your tongue,” countered Madam. “You will show more respect.”
The boy quickly sidestepped the hand that would have cuffed his ear. His eyes danced merrily as he laughed at his mother’s failed, weak effort toward correction, and he left the room, still licking his candy treat.
“He is pleasant,” Bridget assured her older half sister. “He has even promised that I may go away to the Academy.”
The thought of Bridget leaving brought an unexpected stab to Kathleen’s heart.
“Charles is to go off to school, too,” went on Bridget.
“Oh, dear!” exclaimed Kathleen. It seemed that there had been a whole host of changes in her life in a few brief hours.
“And we will even be moving,” broke in Charles, who had just entered the room. “To the countryside. I can hardly wait. I do hope I can have my own pony.”
“Moving?” Kathleen cast a quick glance in the direction of her stepmother.
The woman just nodded as she began smoothing the lapel of Charles’s jacket. She was always fussing over Charles. Kathleen had long observed that he was his mother’s pet.
“Moving where?” Kathleen dared to ask.
“Now you needn’t bother your head none about it,” said the woman, as though all the changes would not affect Kathleen in the least. “Right now we are in need of our supper. We will have plenty of time to discuss the future after we have eaten. Put it on to cook, and while you are waiting you can start the scrubbing. I’ll need my blue dress for tomorrow. It needs freshening. Mind you watch that the color does not run into the white collar.”
With those words she turned and left the room, shooing her offspring ahead of her.
Bridget looked back over her shoulder. “I put the meat in the back cupboard,” she called. Kathleen was relieved that the supper items had been purchased.
At the same time, she felt the anger within her burning her cheeks. Why was she always treated like a—like a common domestic? Quickly Kathleen pushed the anger aside. She should be thankful that she had a family, a home—just as Madam was always reminding her. Daily she saw girls her age who lived totally on the streets. Their lot was not a good one.