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for the price of seven good cows

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She showed up there in her Sunday best, clothes as immaculate as could be expected after the journey. And it had been. A journey, that is.

 

A ship, rude hosts, awful smells, wagons, the loss of her meager savings.

 

The loss of her dignity, perhaps?

 

That remained to be seen, she supposed. But standing on the dusty porch of a handsome ranch out in the plains of budding California, shoes chafing delightfully at her bleeding ankles, she could at least say that she had made it .

 

She had escaped.

 

She had followed the tiny scrap of a telegram in response to a rather forward advertisement she’d placed in the Matrimonial News and two other papers like it was a lifeline. That lifeline pulled taught right from her caged little heart to whatever rough, mysterious stranger had snapped the bars. And while she’d had nearly two months to think on it - to agonize on the possibility of falling wearily into the arms of her mystery man at the end of the day only to look up and realize she’s been lured by a slug - Waverly Earp was also no coward.

 

And if Waverly Earp had to kiss a slug to escape the dark hole of her father’s household, then so be it .

 

Waverly plastered a determined smile on her face and reached up to place two polite knocks on the front door of the ranch house. And then, just to be on the safe side, she took a step back, dusted her dress from the cloying earthy salt of the air out there, and struck what she hope was a pose that screamed please marry me .

 

Whatever that looked like.

 

The door jerked open and Waverly offered a confused smile.

 

Well, it wasn’t a slug. What it was was an intimidatingly tall woman, mens ranch vest open and boots unlaced like she was moments from falling out of her clothes when Waverly came calling. Her hat was in her hand and a pistol was held tensely at her thigh like she was expecting a much worse kind of houseguest. Her hair was pushed back like it might’ve once held pomade long before a day fighting against the chaffing slap of whipping winds. Waverly had never seen a woman look like... that .

 

Waverly tried to take a surreptitious look behind the woman. Tried to figure out how she had spent two months and every penny she had only to end up at the wrong ranch. She was no slouch with a map. “Hello, I’m Waverly Earp. Does Mr. Haught live here?”

 

The woman’s face went flat for a moment, then she sighed. “I suppose I’m Mr. Haught.”

 

Waverly gave the woman another once-over. “You look more like a Miss Haught.”

 

“Well I’m her too,” the woman shrugged. “I’m the only Haught.”

 

Dropping the desperately hopeful wife look, Waverly placed a hand on her hip stubbornly - most unlike a lady , she’d been told enough times to safely assume she was beyond hope - and gave the woman a much more careful perusal. “You own this ranch?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Waverly blinked at her. “You’re N. Haught?”

 

“Nicole, yes.”

 

Waverly felt an amused smile pull slowly at the corner of her lips. Her hip cocked a little less ladylike and she grinned. “And...you responded to my advertisement for a husband, did you, N. Haught ?”

 

Nicole’s wrist went limp and the chamber of her revolver clacked as it slung limply in her hand against her thigh. Delightfully, the woman’s face turned a remarkable shade of red, almost making her hair look dull in comparison. Waverly’s grin grew while Nicole’s eyes took a long turn around everything in their known universe that wasn’t the woman on her porch. She stuttered a bit, hand coming up to rub at the choppy length of her hair, cut haphazardly around her jaw like she’d done it herself. Judging by the scarcity of her neighbors, Waverly supposed she probably had. Finally, she found words.

 

“I - no. I was answering - I didn’t - that’s-”

 

Well, she had found some words.

 

“Is there another N. Haught here I should know about?” Waverly teased, fluttering her eyelashes just a bit because it was rather fun.

 

Nicole somehow found a way to blush harder. “That’s - I didn’t answer an ad - I didn’t order a wife ,” she spluttered.

 

“Is this your telegram?” Waverly asked, offering out the travel-worn slip she’d received the day she’d earned her freedom, along with a handsome cut of money.

 

Nicole snatched the crudely written letter and held it close to her face while she squinted against the grit from the pastures still rubbed into her eyes. “Well of course it is, but I was responding to an advertisement for healthy young cows!”

 

“No,” Waverly drawled, producing another piece of damning evidence seamlessly from her dress as though she knew she’d have to defend her right to marry a stranger who’d asked her to make the damned journey. “You responded to this ad,” Waverly said smugly, waving it a bit under her nose.

 

Nicole snatched the paper, read very slowly, then looked up with a look of horror. “The ads were...right next to each other,” she said faintly. “I can’t see too well,” she continued, almost in a stupor.

 

There was something undeniably attractive about besting a woman built like that . Waverly allowed Nicole the space to come to terms with the changes she’d unwittingly brought upon her household.

 

Because changes there would be.

 

Because as Waverly Earp took in the fine details on her cowhide vest, the gentle way she held Waverly’s letter between polite, clean hands, the fresh smell of her and the beauty of the land she lorded over, the open skies and planes  -

 

Yes , she thought.

 

Yes, that would do quite nicely.

 

“My bags are just there at the gate up the road. Near the charming little sign. Would you be a dear and get them?” Waverly asked sweetly, reaching up to wipe a smudge of dust from Nicole’s cheek. “They’re quite heavy,” she said conspiratorially, leaning even closer while Nicole’s eyes widened and she tripped backwards into the door. Waverly followed, running a hand down one side of her open vest to admire the leather. “But you look very capable .”

 

Having secured her future, despite a rather large wrench in the plans, Waverly patted Nicole’s chest and let herself into the ranch house to make herself at home.



+++



Nicole appeared sometime later, lumbering along with an irresponsible amount of luggage while Waverly was spread out comfortably on a wide bed with soft pelts and woven cotton sheets,. And Waverly knew first hand how heavy her luggage was - it contained, primarily, hundreds of books. Again: not very ladylike.

 

But Nicole was in no position to judge Waverly Earp for a few well-worn, unladylike habits. Her and her steel-toed boots, worn mens trousers, and muscle .

 

Yes, Waverly thought again, and not for the last time. That would do quite nicely.

 

Nicole took one look at Waverly spread-eagled on her bed and tripped bodily over a large trunk she was shuffling indoors with her feet. Waverly laughed quietly to herself while Nicole struggled to right herself. “I’m sorry,” she said quickly, smoothing her wayward hair back and tucking it helplessly under her handsome hat. “There wasn’t nothin’ fragile in there was there? I’m awful sorry.”

 

“That’s alright,” Waverly said, sighing out comfortably while she sank deeper into the bedding. “It’s mostly books. Thank you for your help. You’re very strong.”

 

“I’m-” Nicole made some strangled noise then turned her back to the scene in front of her, like Waverly was entirely too inappropriate for her to deal with. Waverly supposed that was what happened when you spent your whole life in the company of livestock. “You...read books?” She asked the bedroom wall.

 

Waverly hummed happily. “I do. As often as I can.” She turned on her side and propped her head on one hand to study the strong shape of her benefactor’s back. “Do you?”

 

“I’m not much good at it. But I try and trade for one when strangers come through. And I make my way through it in my own time,” she explained, almost embarrassed. Her hands flitted nervously between resting in her pockets, patting at the seam of her vest, and twisting in the middle.

 

“We all get to the same place in the end, though, don’t we?” Waverly encouraged, rolling over to swing her feet back over the side and smooth out the skirt of her dress. “Your bed is very comfortable.”

 

“You can have it!” Nicole blurted, hands snapping down to her sides. Her neck ticked like she wanted to look back at Waverly, but couldn’t bring herself to find out what was happening behind her. “I’ve got a - uh, a chair. I’ll sleep there.”

 

“You won’t sleep here with me?” Waverly wondered. “I’m to be your wife, you know.”

 

“I - that’s -”

 

“You’re not so good at words, are you dear?”

 

“Waverly,” she scolded, sending a thrill of excitement up Waverly’s spine. “You don’t have to be anyone’s wife. I’m sorry for the misunderstanding and you’re welcome as a guest in my home, but you’re also welcome to go back wherever you came from.”

 

“Well, thank you.”

 

“For what?!”

 

“For welcoming me to stay.”

 

Nicole threw her hands up in the air while Waverly brushed past her to begin making dinner, with the hopeful assumption that her stoic cowboy had more than canned beans and an outdoor fire pit. She was still a lady, after all.

 

While she pillaged the hand-made cabinets, Nicole followed around behind her, flapping her long, useless arms and searching for more intelligent words. Waverly found some canned vegetables and dried spices. Nicole found nothing.

 

“You have more cigarettes than food,” Waverly mused as she opened a drawer. “That’s not healthy, you know. You need a woman’s touch.”

 

“I am a woman, thank you very much.”

 

“Then start touching things.”

 

Nicole breathed hard through her nose while Waverly made her a lovely home-cooked meal. Her mother had always said she was going to get herself into trouble, right before she ran off, became pregnant by the town’s most prominent Minister and then ran off with an outlaw who’d killed two big-town sheriffs. Waverly had big shoes to fill.

 

“I touch plenty ‘a things,” Nicole pouted to herself while Waverly sat her firmly at her own table with a gentle push down on her shoulders. When Nicole began to make a wild gesture with her hand, Waverly placed a full coffee cup in it, nice and strong the way her father had always taken it. Nicole gave it a glare, but took a sip anyways.

 

Waverly smiled. “Then I have a lot to look forward to.”

 

Nicole spat the rich brew right across the table.

 

What a waste.



+++

 

Waverly sat in front of the fire reading distractedly through a Dickens serialization she’d bought off a hopeful miner upon reaching the shore. Distracted, because Nicole was sitting in her kitchen chair, nursing another cup of coffee and staring baldly at her. Distracted, because she’d already read the thing thirty times over, could practically recite it from memory. Distracted, because Nicole looked like she was making decisions in that cowboy brain of hers. Distracted, because she was cute when she was brooding.

 

“Do you go into town much?” Waverly asked, licking her thumb to flip her page.

 

Nicole grunted. “No. Not much.”

 

“Why not? I thought it was rather charming.”

 

Nicole took a long moment, holding the coffee mug to her chin while the steam curled under her nose. She stared thoughtfully into the flickering flames of the fireplace, furrowed brow casting a darker shadow over eyes against the dim glow it cast. When she answered, it was like she’d rubbed the grit from her throat and let the persona she wore like a heavy duster coat fall around her feet. “I’m better off alone. I ain’t like those neat little pieces on the chess board. The folks in town would never understand me - accept me. So why go on the board at all.”

 

“Have you ever even played chess?” Waverly hummed doubtfully.

 

Nicole started from her brooding, brow smoothing so the shadows lifted from over her eyes. They looked almost black in the low light. Black like good coffee. “What?” She asked quietly.

 

“Have you ever played? If you haven’t, then what do you know of it, really?” Waverly shrugged, flipping another page. “Don’t disparage things you know nothing of. And don’t claim to know a stranger’s heart or what they would or wouldn’t accept.”

 

Nicole’s features pinched for a minute, head in the beginning gesture of a disparaging shake. But she paused, relaxed, then nodded along in vague consternation. She took another thoughtful sip of coffee, still nodding in a lost sort of way.

 

Like a wild bear who’s woken up in a zoo , Waverly thought with a small smile to herself.



+++



Nicole fell asleep in her lambskin chair, chin tipped onto her dusty shirt and empty coffee mug precariously loose in her slackened fingers. She fell asleep and Waverly stood, brushed her skirts, and fetched a blanket from the bed to drape over her lap. The coffee cup was rescued and returned to the table too before Waverly smothered the oil lamp and retreated to Nicole’s bed. When she settled down into the sheets in nothing but her underthings and the foreign smell of bedding that wasn’t hers, she felt a huge grin split her face in the dark. What a strange trick she’d pulled on her own fate.



+++



Nicole stared twice as hard the next morning, hair stuck up adorably at the back of her head and shirt undone rather scandalously. Waverly had put another cup of coffee in her hands and sat across from her while they dined on old biscuits.

 

“What’s wrong?” Waverly asked brightly, cradling her own coffee under her nose.

 

Nicole blinked a bit and looked down at her hand, surprised to find the clay mug there. Surprised, but not too proud to resist bringing it up for a long, luxurious sip. She sighed out mournful afterward, like she was truly dismayed by how good it was. “I kind of thought I’d imagined you yesterday,” Nicole admitted. Her voice was airy in the morning, rough but breathy in a surprisingly feminine way.

 

“Have you imagined someone like me before?” Waverly grinned.

 

Nicole’s cheeks flared up, predictably. Waverly knew she was deriving too much enjoyment from it, but it was just so easy . “I’ve...not really. I mean, not you specifically. Er, not anyone specifically. Not that I’ve - it’s not like I’m…” She stared off into middle distance, smoldering slowly in her own mortification.

 

“Am I prettier than you imagined?”

 

Nicole’s eyes snapped to hers. “N-no. I-”

 

“Uglier?” Waverly nodded sympathetically.

 

“No! You're the prettiest girl I ever seen! Not that I’ve seen many girls.”

 

Waverly preened, smoothing out her hair and giggling. “The prettiest ? You know what to say to a girl.”

 

“Doesn’t feel like it,” Nicole muttered into her coffee.

 

Waverly shook her head fondly. This terribly bashful cowboy was growing on her rapidly. And to think she’d left home hoping for a bigger cage. She hadn’t imagined being free . She beamed at Nicole across the table, Nicole just shaking her head slowly while she made her way to the bottom of her cup. When she’d finished, she stood, smoothing her hat back over her mussed hair and beginning to do up the buttons on her high rancher vest. When she moved toward the door, Waverly pushed her own cup away and followed along.

 

“Where are you going?”

 

Nicole slung her pistol around her waist and threw the front door open to a bashful morning, still pink in its infancy but with a warm nip to the air that hinted at the perfect kind of day. She breathed deep and let it out with a confident huff. “Gotta feed the animals. Do the chores. Make the world go ‘round.” She spared one halting look back at Waverly, then shrugged. “You can...do whatever it is you do.” Shrugging to herself, she clomped out the door in her boots.

 

Waverly barely spared a moment before she was pulling her own shoes on and skipping out to join her with a warm shawl around her shoulders.



+++



“They’re darlings,” Waverly gushed.

 

“They’re goats.”

 

“I’m in love.”

 

Nicole frowned, but left her to be in love with the goats. And while the little bleating, hopping darlings were quite cute, Waverly’s favorite part was watching Nicole gently navigate the bustling pen, excusing herself politely when she got in their way, treading carefully in her steel-toed boots. When a kid stumbled over her shoe in energetic haste, Nicole reached down and carefully righted it. Then she squatted down and began passing the feed out of her little pail while the goats tripped around her.

 

Waverly sighed like a lovesick fool. The west was charmingly rugged and romantic. The fresh air, all those goats. The west had very pretty hair too.

 

“Come on,” Nicole said quietly, standing and brushing the dust from her pants while she emptied the dregs of her pail into a tangle of overeager goat. “Let’s milk the cows and check on the chickens.”

 

“You have chickens? ” Waverly gushed, stars in her eyes.



+++

 

 

“Teach me,” Waverly said firmly, peering intensely over the high wall of the cow pen.

 

Nicole looked up from the gentle rhythm of milking a cow she’d introduced proudly as Kate. “Teach you...what?”

 

“All of it,” Waverly burned with her determination. “Teach me all of it.”



+++



“They won’t bite me will they?” Waverly asked, looking up at Nicole who was calmly rummaging around under a grumpy hen on a higher shelf of nests.

 

Nicole looked down at her and pulled her hand back with a perfect brown egg. “Bite you?”

 

“Yeah, you’re just reaching under them. And - can they bite?”

 

“Oh, yeah,” Nicole nodded. “Real bad. Chickens have a nasty bite. They’ll take your finger clean off.” When Waverly snatched her fingers close to her chest and shot Nicole an alarmed look, Nicole regarded her seriously a moment. Then she winked and reached under another chicken that clucked a little irritably. But made no moves to clip her fingers off.

 

Waverly huffed. “You’re making fun of me.”

 

“Give me your hand,” Nicole beckoned.

 

Slowly, Waverly relinquished her hand, which was accepted in a calloused, warm hand, dry from the dust of the plains. Nicole led her forward, pressing her close to a sleeping hen with her free hand on the small of her back. It was all very thrilling. But even until the moment when Waverly jerked backward with another perfect brown egg in her hand, straight into the cradle of Nicole’s chest with her prize, she was still partially certain she was going to lose a finger.

 

“Very brave,” Nicole chuckled, resonating into Waverly’s own chest from where she shrunk against her.

 

Waverly relaxed into the shadow behind her and inspected the egg. “They don’t really bite, do they?”

 

“Not if you’re gentle,” Nicole murmured, running her hand almost absently along the underside of Waverly’s arm before she stepped back and returned to her seamless routine, like water slipping down the path of least resistance.

 

Waverly clutched the egg to her chest, smiling.



+++




Nicole dozed in front of the fire, boots by the front door and vest undone again. Her hands were folded over her belly, which Waverly had made sure was full of a better dinner than she suspected Nicole had had in a long while. Just one of the few perks of being trained for a life of matrimonial servitude: Waverly made exceptional dinners. The afterglow of a good meal looked good on her. Waverly quite liked it like that. She quite liked the look of her all around, really.

 

“Did you get enough to eat?” Waverly asked, only partially fishing for the compliments Nicole dropped behind her like breadcrumbs. And for someone starved of affection their whole life, she was mostly powerless not to follow.

 

Nicole hummed happily and patted at her stomach. “More’n that,” she assured. “I ain’t ever ate that good.”

 

“I’m glad you liked it,” Waverly said smugly. “I’m very good.”

 

“You’re very confident,” Nicole smiled as her eyes slipped closed in contentment. “But yes. You’re real good.”

 

Waverly nodded in agreement and tried to return to her book. But - despite the best efforts of her governesses and her mother, for however brief a time, and her disappointed father, and the ladies of their community - Waverly’s mind wandered. It wandered to what her life might look like on the plains teaming with strange bird calls, long rolling leagues of clouds and the gentle turn of free earth under a freer sky. It wandered to the gentle snuffle of grazing cows, home-cooked meals in a little ranch that smelled like fresh oak. Then it wandered to the strange woman dozing in her armchair and humming the disjointed chorus of a barely remembered miners’ song under her breath. The anchor at the end of a line that’d pulled her from the rainy little nothing town she’d been leashed to across an ocean, a gold rush, a dozen tumbleweed towns, and a quaint little farm. Pulled her right to that door. Right to that woman.

 

All from an ad in a silly newspaper.

 

Waverly smiled wryly to herself. Life was funny that way. The queer cowboy at the end of the line was more blessing than curse, though. If there was one thing Waverly Earp would never lament the loss of it was men .

 

Nicole Haught was the best possible anchor. Even if she wouldn’t acknowledge it.

 

“We should go to bed,” Waverly announced, snapping her book shut.

 

Nicole shook herself a little, peering out from under a droopy eyelid. “We?”

 

“Yes, we . In the bed. Together.”

 

And then Nicole was wide awake. “No, no. You’re my guest. I won’t - it wouldn’t be proper .”

 

“Well, we’re both women,” Waverly pointed out. “No risk of impropriety there.”

 

Nicole let out a long breath, wide-eyed and rosy around the cheeks. “I’m - Waverly. I’m not like other women. I’m not - like you . I just...you wouldn’t understand.”

 

“Oh, I wouldn’t understand, hm? And what do you know of me , Nicole Haught? What do you know of what I’m like ? You think because I cook like a wife and wear dresses and read books and can’t milk a cow you know anything about Waverly Earp?” She snapped. “Well I’ll have you know, I broke a man’s hand once for getting frisky, I’ve shot more guns than you, and I kissed Maryann Breyer behind the bandstand in primary school, so you can take your sanctimonious chivalry and put it right up your pretty-”

 

“Waverly!” Nicole held her hands up. “Sorry! I'm sorry.” While Waverly caught her breath, Nicole ran one stressed hand through her hair over and over, pushing it back along the crown of her head while she blinked. “Sorry. I just - I feel it isn’t honest of me to not be forward in our...arrangement. Whatever that may be.”

 

“Because of impropriety,” Waverly pointed out, skeptical.

 

“Yes. Because you’re very beautiful and I’m very...different.”

 

“And you plan on doing improper things to me.”

 

Nicole reeled back. “What? No!”

 

“Then whatever is the problem?” Waverly sighed, tiring quickly of the conversation. It was growing late and Waverly had touched about a dozen goats. It had been a very long day.

 

“Waverly, I’ve lived alone a very long time,” she began, picking her words carefully in that low, soft drawl that strung her words together like thick molasses. “I don’t know how to sleep next to a person. I don’t know how to say the right words to a pretty girl. You are welcomed in my home for however long this is where you want to be, but you can’t unlearn this life from me overnight.” When she paused to gather more words, Waverly waited patiently in the quiet and crackle from the fire. “Please take the bed. My honor ain't make exceptions just because you got a smart tongue and nice hair.”

 

That, at least, got a laugh out of Waverly. “Alright, cowboy,” she sighed. “I wouldn’t wish to impune your honor .” She stood and made her way to the kitchen to clear the table, stopping to sweep up Nicole’s tumbled-over boots and right them closer to the door. Nicole watched her move around like she’d lived there her whole life. When she’d gathered her book and placed a folded blanket on Nicole’s lap, she bid her goodnight with a soft squeeze of her shoulder.

 

“Goodnight, Nicole.”

 

“G’night, Waverly.”

 

Before she retired to the little bedroom built off the east side of the ranch like an afterthought, Waverly turned to give her one last barb. “We’d better not be having this argument when we’re married.”

 

Nicole’s protests barely reached her through her own laughter and the quickly shut door.



+++