The bunkhouse was warm despite the wind whistling in the cracks. Tulsa had assigned himself the task of keeping wood in the stove. Manny sat in front of it peeling potatoes. The jackasses had a card game going. Tyree was waterproofing his new boots. Mark came in and slid into the seat across the table from him. “Marcie said she wants to talk to you.”
“Well, it’s only been a week. She still pissy, you think?”
“I think so. She didn’t look cross or nothing. She’s over in the stable brushing down her horse.”
“Okay. I’ll get over there in a bit.” As much as he wanted to see her, he was a little afraid of what she might say. He didn’t have much confidence it was going to be to his liking.
“Lonny’s talking to her, so I guess there’s no hurry,” Mark pulled out his knife and started working on the details of a carving of an antelope.
Tyree frowned across at Mark. “You’re just trying to get me riled.”
“I wouldn’t do something like that. I just…”
“Oh, shut the hell up.” Tyree growled as he slid his foot into his boot.
He heard them talking before he entered the stable.
“I don’t know why you want to do a man’s work, Marcie. You are such a pretty little thing. You don’t belong out here wading in muck in man’s clothes. Why not let a man do the dirty work?”
He heard her say something, but she had walked out back, and he couldn’t hear her response.
“God, Marcie, that is a disgusting habit for a lady.”
Tyree imagined she was probably smoking. He stepped inside the stable, so he was able to hear them. She was laughing. “I don’t need your approval, Lonny.”
“I never said you did. But why would you want to defile that pretty mouth? Ladies should smell and taste…” Lonny started and laughter drifted into the stable.
“I never claimed to be such a lady. If you don’t like a lady to do what she pleases, you should probably go find one that suits your tastes.”
“You suit my tastes just fine. I just don’t take pleasure in kissing a woman who smokes and uses foul language, or dresses like a cowpoke.”
“I don’t recall asking you to kiss me,” Marcie was saying. “I hope I didn’t give you that impression.”
“You said you liked me.”
“I like you fine. I ain’t interested in kissing you.”
“I suppose you prefer that saddle tramp half-breed…”
“Lonny. It is none of your business who I prefer. I would suggest you go find better company if you don’t like mine,” she responded in a warning tone.
Lonny might have been working himself up to say something more, but Tyree cleared his throat and Lonny turned to look hard at him. He shut his mouth and brushed past Tyree, bumping his shoulder as he went.
Marcie stood there in the snow, her jeans tucked inside her boots, a short jacket buttoned up to her throat, a scarf around her neck and her hair shoved up under a wide brimmed flat-topped hat, a cigarette in her long thin fingers. Her green eyes were shaded by the hat brim. Her freckles stood out against rosy cheeks and dimples dug into her cheeks.
Tyree smiled at her. “You are the cutest boy I ever laid eyes on.”
“I’m a lady, saddle tramp. Don’t make me smack you with a quirt.”
“You are a lady. I don’t care what you wear or where you wear it. I noticed that right off, the first time I saw you.”
“You don’t miss anything, do you?”
“I missed you. I thought about you at least every other minute while you were gone.”
“You do know how to sweet talk,” she giggled.
“It wasn’t meant as sweet talk. I never sweet talk, except your older brother. That’s just so I don’t get my teeth knocked out.”
“I hated hearing all the stuff that happened while I was gone.”
She came back in out of the cold and sat down in a stall full of hay, scooting back into it and pulling the coat tighter. Tyree sat down on a barrel of nails nearby. “I guess you aren’t mad at me anymore?”
“Mad at you?”
“Marcie. If we can’t say what we think, I don’t want to be your friend or anything else. I need someone I can trust, it’s hard enough wondering who… is on my side. I don’t have that many people I can talk to.”
“I could say that same thing, Tyree.” She lost the little smile that had been edging into her lips. “You can trust me.”
“I want you to be able to trust me.”
“You don’t, but I believe you want to.” He picked up a piece of straw and peeled a layer off, and stuck it between his teeth.
“I trust you,” she said again. “I trust that if I ask you a question, you will tell me the truth. I am not sure I want to know everything.”
He narrowed his eyes at her and took a big breath, letting it out slowly. His feelings for her surged. Fear flooded him as well.
“Yeah. Please don’t ask if you don’t want to know. I won’t lie to you.”
“So how you feel about your wife smoking and cussing while she makes you a pan of biscuits?”
“I don’t care if she never makes a biscuit,” he beamed, “long as she can make pancakes.”
She laughed at that and threw a handful of hay at him.
“Oh, that sounds like serious talk.” She raised her eyebrows and then smiled.
“Marcie. I think it’s now or never. We been talking, but we always slide around the edges.” His heart thumped harder as he took a deep breath. “I need to tell you some things.”
“I told you I’d ask when I need to know. As long as you promise never to lie _”
“I’ve been thinking on it. And I don’t think that’s going to be enough. You’ll never ask me some stuff and I think you should know before we go any farther.”
“Tyree. I am not sure I want to know.”
“I don’t want to tell you but if I don’t… I’ll always be worried someone else will and if you’re going to hate me I’d just as soon get it over with.”
“Hate you? I could never hate you.”
“You could. Believe me.”
“Okay, so tell me already.”
“Things I’ve done. They were bad.”
“Like rustling, and horse stealing? I heard those.”
“I already know you killed someone. Self-defense.”
“You aren’t making this any easier. You can’t excuse me just ’cause you like me.”
“I’m not. You can’t do much worse than …”
Murder? Exactly the same thing Donny had hung for?
Mark came in and bumped Tyree’s shoulder. “Marcie, I got the stove heated up, you coming to make cookies or what?”
“Cookies? I like cookies, can I lick the spoon?” Tyree smiled. Almost relieved Mark had interrupted them.
“You’ll have to fight Mark for it, I imagine.” Marcie said as Mark pulled her to her feet.
Stepping inside the house, Tyree stopped just inside the living room. Malone sat in an overstuffed chair with a book and a drink. He looked up as the three of them came in. They wiped down their boots as they stopped in the doorway. Tyree took off his hat as he looked at Malone, hanging on the hook by the door. Malone nodded and smiled. Tyree followed Mark and Marcie to the kitchen, which was nearly as big as the living room.
“What kind of cookies we making?” He asked eagerly.
Why do I feel like a liar? I was willing to tell her. I will tell her soon enough.
“Remember, I get the spoon.”
“Alley dogs get bones, not spoons.” Mark snorted.
Quite a bit of noise ensued as Marcie and Mark pulled out cooking utensils and ingredients for cookies. Tyree helped himself to coffee and grabbed a big wooden spoon from the table.
“I’ll hang on to this. Don’t make me challenge you to a duel,” he poked Mark in the side with the spoon.
“Fine, I get the cookies, you guys get the bowls and spoons,” Marcie laughed.
The kitchen bubbled with more laughter than Tyree could remember. Cookie dough and flour were on every surface. Malone came in, his brow wrinkled then he broke into a laugh.
“I thought you were burning the house down, there is so much smoke.” He stared around the kitchen. “Oh, my god. Mother will have a fit when she sees her kitchen.”
“We’ll clean it up before she gets home,” Marcie assured him as she grinned.
“You two are real purty,” Malone chuckled. Mark picked up a ball of raw cookie dough and threw it at him. Malone dodged it, returning to the living room. Tyree snickered as he looked over at Mark. “You are kinda purty. That apron looks right nice on you.”
“You think so? Want to dance with me, cowboy?” Mark wiggled his hips, and they all burst out laughing.
Tyree stood back, looking at Mark and Marcie, feeling his heart swell in his chest. He wanted this so much, and yet there was something prodding at him. He found it difficult to trust. Could he trust it?
“Tyree.” Marcie touched his arm, and he flinched.
“Where did you go? I was talking to you.”
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“I just wanted to know if you were okay.” She reached up and wiped at his cheek. “You’re crying.”
“No. Just something in my eye. All that smoke,” he wiped his sleeve across his face and smiled at her.
Missus Malone found them mopping when she came into the kitchen. She surveyed the plate of cookies, she turned to Tyree while the children bounced over to the table and grabbed a cookie each. “I have something for you. I finally got around to cleaning out the clothes I saved back for two years. I sorted them all out and found several things that are sure to fit you. Mark, would you go bring those clothes down?”
Tyree was standing beside Marcie and poked her in the back with his finger. “What’s she doing?” He whispered.
Marcie shrugged, “Who knows. She’s been cleaning. Donovan’s room, my room, Joel’s room, Marks room. She does this every year and takes most of it to the orphanage in town.”
“God, do we have to do that now?” Mark whined.
“Yes, we do,” his mother stated. “I have other things to do with that room and I want those clothes out of there. If you remember, I asked you to give them to Mr. Allison days ago.”
“Come on, Tyree,” Mark groaned.
Tyree followed him up the winding staircase and down the hall to the bedroom he had slept in for a week after he’d gotten out of jail.
“All these I reckon.” There were piles of clothes laid out on the bed. In the chair was a stack of folded up shirts and pants.
Mark heaped an armful of shirts onto him and took another armful of pants.
“All these for one person?” Tyree exclaimed, “I don’t think I owned this many clothes in my entire life.”
“What happens when you got more money than sense,” Mark snorted. “She doesn’t throw anything away, ever.”
They carried the clothes back down the stairs to the couch. Marcie walked over to her big brother and took his glass out of his hand. Malone feigned aggravation as he tried to take it back from her, and she sat down on his lap and held the glass, so he couldn’t reach it.
“Mother, call off this little hussy. She’s stealing my brandy.”
Marcie took a drink and handed his glass back. Malone looked comfortable sitting there with a book and a drink. He looked gentle. There was kindness in him Tyree had never noticed before.
Missus Malone rolled her eyes at her children. Old as they were, she treated them all like little kids. “Here, see how that fits. I think it’s a perfect color for you.”
Tyree took the shirt, half-smiling at her. He didn’t care what color it was, long as it wasn’t bright red. He held it up to his chest. “It’s a little big.”
“It’s just fine,”Missus Malone told him, “In fact, that would look nice for you to wear to the dance in town.”
“What dance in town?”
“The mid-winter dance, bonfire, dancing, singing. The church ladies put it on every year,” Mark explained.
“This one is a heavier material.” Missus Malone brought a thick cotton shirt and held it up to his shoulders, measuring it against him.
“I don’t need but one. I like this one,” he told her.
Marcie came over and picked up a light blue shirt and held it up to him. His heart thumped, and he felt himself blush as her hand slid down his chest. He looked nervously to Malone, wondering if the man could read his thoughts.
The living room was comfortable and warm, not just the fire, but with the people chattering over each other. Tyree sat on the edge of the hearth in front of the fire. He marveled at finding himself here, not as just another ranch hand, but like a friend, almost as though he belonged there. He wished he were as comfortable with them as they appeared to be with him. Christmas had included everyone. Being part of this was… special.
“What are you reading, Joel?” Marcie sat on the floor, surrounded by pillows. Malone looked over the top of the thick book in his lap.
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
“Read it aloud,” Marcie demanded.
Malone cleared his throat, “From the beginning, then?”
“Yes, of course. I know you already read it a hundred times. Do start over, for Tyree.”
Malone cleared his throat.
“It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
’By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’ st thou me?’”
“What does all that mean exactly?” Tyree whispered to Marcie. Malone stopped reading, taking the time to explain the poem. Tyree listened raptly. The three Malones explained the lines as Joel read them. It sounded like they did this often. They didn’t just read it, but discussed it and how it might apply to their own lives.
“You’re a three-year-old child,” Mark quipped to him, and he realized just how ignorant he was. The story fascinated him as they told him the hidden meaning of the words. Malone passed the book to Marcie, who continued to read.
“An orphan’s curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! More horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.”
Tyree raised an eyebrow as she read this part, and he asked her to read it again. His chest tightened at the words. They felt so –
“Read it once more, Marcie,” he pleaded. His breath was shallow as he took the words in. He wasn’t sure what the words meant to the poet or to the poem itself, but he felt them. They described something in him, and he hung on every word.
They traded smiles, and Tyree let the warmth sink into him.
The crackling of the fire and the company were relaxing. Marcie handed off the book to Mark. Tyree looked up to Malone as he rolled himself a smoke. Malone offered him a gentle smile. Malone stood up and poured himself a snifter glass a third full of brandy.
“Joel,” Mark was smiling at his brother, “just a sip?”
Joel considered the request and retrieved three more glasses from the cabinet. He poured them each a third.
“Brandy?” Tyree asked as he took in the aroma. He’d rarely had brandy. He sipped a bit and nodded.
“Yes. It’s made from fruit. It’s a distilled wine. Nothing like whiskey,” Malone explained.
“I’ve had wine before, but this is better. I still prefer whiskey, though,” Tyree said.
“Each has its points,” Malone nodded.
“You think that holds true for people?” Tyree asked.
Malone gave him a long look and nodded. “I imagine so.” Malone swirled his drink. “What do you think?”
“I dunno, Boss. I am still trying to work on my table manners,” Tyree laughed.