Summary: It’s just like the title says.
Rating: T (3,515 words)
Marrying Off Laura
Knees wide apart, Peggy Dayton sat on the edge of the stoop, the point of her elbows impressed in her knees and her chin in the cup of her hands. She was waiting as patiently as she was able for her mother to come down the stairs. Laura seemed to have been an awful long time up in that bedroom, primping and preening in front of the glass. Peggy supposed that all this trouble would eventually be worth it, but it would be nice to be sure. She had been planning and plotting an awful long time for this evening, and now, just when everything seemed to be going right, here she was having doubts.
It had taken a lot of manoeuvring on young Peggy’s part to get Adam Cartwright right where she wanted him. She had started work on the project the very same day that he and his oversized brother had come by in the wagon, purely by chance. They had asked after her father quite politely, and Peggy had told them she was waiting for him to come home. Of course, Peggy had known for a long time that that her father was dead. She hadn’t liked to let on – grown-ups, and especially Laura – were funny about things like that.
Exactly when she had decided that Adam was a suitable candidate to be her new father, she wasn’t quite sure. It had come to her sort of gradually. He was a nice enough man, Peggy supposed. He bought her candy down at the store and let her ride round the yard on the back of his horse, and, sometimes, he took her for picnics up by the lake. He had beautiful eyes and a very nice smile, and he didn’t shout – not often and not at Peggy anyway. He was undeniably rich, and certainly he was handsome; all the other girls attested to that. Peggy’s mother, Laura, had a weakness for dark, good-looking men, which had made Peggy’s task somewhat easier. The problem with Adam, and the thing that was worrying Peggy now, was that he was altogether much too clever for his own good. Unlike most of the adults that Peggy knew, he had a tendency to think about things and work them out in his head. It was a trait that could be dangerous. Still, there was no way out of it now. She was committed. Peggy had far too much time and effort invested in Adam Cartwright to let him get away at this point.
Peggy sighed and sucked on the end of a long strand of hair. She was bored with the waiting. Now that she had laid all her careful plans, she wanted to set them in motion. Besides, she couldn’t even go play in the barn or climb up a tree. Her Mama had made sure she was all dressed up in her best, blue dress and had ribbons, of all things, tied in her hair!
Finally she heard her mother’s tread on the stair. Laura was coming down. She was humming some sort of mindless tune – which had to be a good sign, Peggy supposed. Peggy got up off the stoop and went back into the house. Sure enough, as expected, Laura was in front of a mirror again, the one in the hallway, patting her pale curls into place. The best part of the afternoon had already been devoted to applying powder and paint, transforming her small sharp features into something that approached porcelain pretty delicacy, although nothing could be done to alleviate the somewhat vapid expression. She had dressed with care, putting on her very best dress: an elaborate creation of frothy pink satin and cream coloured lace with a daring, low neckline that almost, but not quite, revealed the points of her collar bones and with full, gathered sleeves. Laura smiled at herself vacuously, this way and that, pleased with the end results of her labours. Peggy gritted her teeth.
Peggy pulled hard at Laura’s skirts “Mama, are we gonna eat soon? I’m getting’ awful hungry.” Peggy made sure that her tone was the expected, little girl whine.
Laura smiled down at her daughter, seeing her own pale prettiness mirrored there in the little girl’s face. “We’ll have supper just as soon as Adam gets here, sweetheart.”
“Well, I sure hope he ain’t long,” Peggy pouted. “I ain’t had nothin’ but four apples, two candy bars an’ half a tin o’ cookies since lunch.”
Laura reached down and patted Peggy’s round cheek. Peggy had to brace herself to keep from flinching away. The child had the same fine, fair hair as Laura herself and the same narrow features, but she had her father’s serious, dark-brown eyes and some of her father’s perception. Sometimes it was hard to know what the little girl was thinking. Now, Peggy surprised her again.
“Mama, are you gonna marry Adam? Is he gonna be my new Pa?” It was something that Peggy was bursting to know. She had to know just how far her plans had come to maturity and how much further she still had to go.
Laura laughed lightly. Then, thinking more carefully about what her daughter had said, “How would you feel about that dear, if I were to marry Adam? Don’t you like Adam?”
Little Peggy gave it some consideration. It was what she had aimed at all along; several Months work had gone into the preparation, but now might be a good time to get things straight. “I like Adam just fine, ‘specially when he buys me candy an’ lets me ride on his horse. I don’t like it so much when he comes in an’ hugs me stinkin’ o’ smelly ol’ cows and then swings me ‘round ‘til he makes me sick.”
Peggy did have a point, and she knew that Laura wasn’t too fond of the smell of cows either. It didn’t mix too well with the scent of lavender and rose-scented soap. But Adam did work on a ranch, and that involved close contact with livestock. It was one more thing that would have to be taken into the equation.
“I’m sure we can get him to take a bath,” Laura said with certain conviction.
Peggy put small hands on small hips. “Well, I sure hope so!” She wasn’t at all sure that a daily application of good soap and water was all that would be required. The smell of cow lingered…
The sound of a horse coming into the yard interrupted their conversation. It broke off Laura’s chain of thought and distracted her attention. That wasn’t hard. She checked herself in the mirror just one more time, then glanced around the room. The house was in apple-pie order, all neat and clean with the drapes well brushed and the furniture polished. The table was laid with napkins neatly folded at every place, just the way she knew Adam liked them, and supper was ready to serve. Smiling happily, her eyes a-sparkle, Laura went out to meet her guest. Peggy, still full of doubts, followed after.
Adam Cartwright swung down from his horse. He was a big, powerful man: tall and broad shouldered with a massive chest and narrow hips and very long legs. Adam still wore his work clothes: black shirt and pants and that old, yellow barn coat that had seen better days and that he always insisted on wearing. It was a sure sign that he had ridden straight off the range and hadn’t stopped by the big house to wash more than his face. Peggy ran past Laura and held out her arms to him – because that was what little girls were supposed to do.
Adam scooped her up, his big hands under her armpits, and swung her ‘round ‘til she squealed and her pigtails flew, and she threatened to up-chuck the latest intake of milk and cookies all over him. Sure enough, as Peggy had supposed, he stank strongly of cows and horses and rank, male sweat and something else besides, less easily defined. Peggy wrinkled her nose. It had something to do with the outhouse.
“So, what have you been doing today, little lady?” Adam inquired. He had a pleasant voice that Peggy liked, especially when he raised it in song. Peggy considered asking him the same thing, but rather more pointedly. Then she decided against it. Best not to seem too worldly-wise at this late juncture of proceedings with everything still hanging in the balance the way it was.
“I’ve been playing with my dollies out in the barn,” she said in the little-girl whine. She wasn’t about to tell him what the games had entailed, and Adam didn’t ask her.
“Well, that’s real nice. Adam held her close for a moment, his chin against her cheek. He hadn’t shaved recently either. The sharp little bristles prickled her skin.
Adam set her down on the ground and turned his attention to Laura. He looked her over, head to toe, and his tawny-gold eyes glowed with appreciation. “My, don’t you look something!” he said in a deep throaty growl.
Laura Dayton blushed: a deep, rosy glow that started way down low, somewhere underneath the neckline of the cream, satin dress and climbed steadily until all her face was aglow. “Why Adam! How sweet of you to say so.” Laura came forward and offered her cheek up for kissing. Adam duly obliged. As he was considerably taller than she was, he had to stoop down to do it.
For some reason Peggy didn’t altogether understand, kissing Laura started to get him all excited. One kiss seemed to lead directly into another. Adam circled Laura with his arms and drew her in firmly against him. He kissed her again, this time hard on the lips. Laura didn’t mind too much. That pervading odour of cattle and horses and man-sweat didn’t seem to bother her – or perhaps she didn’t notice. Peggy was uncertain which. She stood watching, chewing the long strand of hair, and her misgivings grew.
Finally, pink faced and breathless, Laura struggled free. She patted her hair. “Adam, it sure is nice to see you.”
“And you sure know how to make a man welcome,” Adam said with what Peggy thought was a leer.
Adam walked Peggy around the yard a time or two, up on the back of his horse, and then they all went inside for supper. Adam shed his gun and his gunbelt and that noisome yellow coat. Laura bustled about in the kitchen putting the finishing touches to supper and getting the food on the table. The talk went back and forth between them quite some distance above Peggy’s head. That, she supposed, was only to be expected. The conversation was very much on the same ‘what have you been doing today’ level, in the tone of voice that grown-ups used when they wanted to talk about something else but couldn’t because Peggy was there. Adam asked first.
“I folded the napkins,” Laura told him brightly. “And then I brushed Peggy’s hair. Don’t you think it looks pretty with all the blue ribbons?”
“Sure do.” Adam agreed with a grin and wink at Peggy. Condescending bastard, Peggy though. How would he feel if he had to wear the damned ribbons?
“I’ve been digging and moving the shed. Since one of the hands got trampled last week, and the other two were shot in that saloon brawl the week before, that just leaves Hoss and Joe and me to get the digging done, and the outhouse really did need moving.” Peggy supposed that explained the latent aroma.
Laura came in with more plates. “Why doesn’t your Pa just hire more men. With that great big ranch and all that money, I don’t see why you have to work so hard, honey.”
Peggy perked up her ears. That surely was the most original thought that Laura had had in a month, and she was interested in the answer.
Adam munched on a celery stick. “It’s hard to hire hands these days. We’ve got something of a reputation, and no one wants to work for us. The men have a tendency to disappear over the hill just about every week. Besides, Pa has this weird idea that it’s good for us to do all the hard work and learn the business from the bottom side up.”
To Peggy’s dismay, Laura lapsed back into near idiocy. “Well, that’s kind of cute.”
Peggy thought it was stupid – especially when it involved moving your own outhouse. Still, she supposed old man Cartwright was unlikely to be getting his own hands dirty when he had three strapping, grown up sons to do all the work for him, so perhaps he wasn’t so daft after all. She chewed at her lip as doubt assailed her again. Perhaps she had picked the wrong Cartwright…
Supper was cold chicken salad. Whenever they had guests, and often when they didn’t, Laura served cold chicken salad. There wasn’t a whole lot that even Laura could do to ruin salad greens. To follow was cherry pie, which was rather more adventurous and, as usual, an absolute disaster. It was burnt at the edges and not quite done on the bottom. Adam ate his way manfully through his portion – or, perhaps, it was just a display of pigheaded Cartwright stubbornness – with lots of clotted cream. Peggy pushed hers around a bit and left it lie on the plate.
Afterwards, the two grown-ups did the dishes; at least that was the general idea. Peggy stood at the kitchen door and watched the goings on with some bemusement. Laura washed, but Adam spent more time with his arms around Laura’s waist from behind, nibbling her neck, than ever he did drying. When they came back from the kitchen, Laura had gone all pink again, and Adam was breathing hard. Looking at Laura, Peggy couldn’t see what there was to get excited about.
Laura smiled at her daughter: a sugary, beguiling smile that didn’t fool young Peggy one bit.” I guess it’s time for bed, sweetheart.” Laura said.
“No it ain’t.” Peggy pouted. Her exceedingly accurate internal clock confirmed that there was a good ninety minutes yet before the appointed hour. Laura just wanted to get rid of her early, and Peggy knew why. Laura wanted to be alone with Adam, and Peggy wasn’t about to oblige her. “I want to play checkers with Adam!”
Laura, as was her wont, didn’t know what to do when confronted with rebellion. She dithered and only just refrained from wringing her hands. Adam came up behind her. “Don’t worry. I’ll play checkers with Peggy.” He smiled at Peggy, but the smile only just reached his eyes. “But only one game, mind.” He was disturbingly firm about that.
And he meant it. One game only was all that Peggy got, and she thought that Adam cheated in order to let her win. More than a little disgruntled, Peggy sat on the edge of her bed in the fading light from the window and tugged the hated blue ribbons out of her hair. Without any doubt, Adam Cartwright wasn’t going to be nearly so easy to manipulate as Laura. Once they were all living together in the same house, he might soon see through Peggy’s ways; he was certainly sharp enough. Adam Cartwright was about as sharp as a needle.
From downstairs, she could hear the grown-ups voices as they moved out of the kitchen and into the parlour at the front of the house. Laura’s giggle and high-pitched whine were clearly audible and so were Adam’s deeper tones, rising and falling, but Peggy couldn’t make out the words. Then it went quiet. Very quiet. That wouldn’t do. Peggy needed to know what they were up to. She needed to keep an eye on her careful machinations.
Dressed in her night dress, she went to the head of the stairs. From there, she had a bird’s eye view of the whole of the parlour. They had built up the fire so that it roared up the chimney, and hadn’t yet bothered to light the lamps. Adam had sat down in the comfortable armchair, and he’d tumbled Laura into his lap. Laura looked rather bemused, but Adam was happy. He had his hands on Laura’s narrow waist and a big smile stuck on his face.
“Mama,” Peggy said loudly from the top of the stairs. “I can’t sleep. I want Adam to read me a story.”
Adam leapt out of his chair as if he’d been shot, or caught red-handed with the cookie jar stuck to his hand. Laura had to scramble to keep from being dumped on the floor. Laura patted her hair into place. “Peggy, dear, you don’t really need a story.”
“Oh yes, I do!” Peggy stamped her small foot. She had long ago learned how to handle Laura; a fine display of temper would quickly bring her mother to heel. Sure enough, Laura’s face paled.
Adam put both hands on Laura’s elbows. “You make some fresh coffee. I’ll read Peggy her story.”
Adam sat on the side of Peggy’s bed and read ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. The story was one of Peggy’s favourites, and she knew it by heart. She knew very well when he left pieces out, especially the gory bits, in order to get done quickly. Adam was sly as well as clever, but not sly enough to put one over on Peggy. He responded rather crossly with a glint of irritation in his eye when Peggy tackled him about it.
Later, as she lay on her back and watched the night-shadows gather on the ceiling, Peggy listened to Laura’s squeals and the muffled laughter coming from downstairs. She began to seriously wonder if she had met her match. Perhaps it was time to reconsider her options. As she had begun to suspect, Adam Cartwright wouldn’t do at all, but that didn’t mean that Peggy had run out of choices. She had her heart set on having her mother marry a Cartwright; they were rich and influential, and that sort of background could give a girl the start she needed in life.
Ben Cartwright was the patriarch of the family. He was master of the big house, and he had control of most of the money. He was also dogmatic and authoritarian, and, on occasion, he shouted a lot. He was also had a distressing tendency to refer to every little girl he met as ‘darling’. Peggy knew it would soon drive her mad!
Then there was Hoss, the big buffoon. Hoss had a soft side, and he could be stupid at times. He could be easily handled with a tear and a little-girl smile. The main problem with Hoss was his size. Laura wasn’t that substantial, and if she and Hoss were to wed – well, Peggy might just find herself an orphan the day after the wedding!
As for Little Joe – Joe was a lady’s man. Any lady’s man. He had a girlfriend in every bar in town and a propensity for getting home in the early hours of the morning. Peggy had a feeling that she might end up with a whole crowd of brothers and sisters, and that wasn’t on her agenda at all.
Of course, there was always that other Cartwright, that curious cousin that had ridden in out of nowhere and been welcomed into the hearth and home. No one seemed absolutely certain where he had come from or what he was supposed to be doing, but he might just be the answer to Peggy’s prayers. He wasn’t nearly as handsome as Adam and not as intelligent, either. That fact that he had shown interest in Laura without being prompted was adequate proof of that. He wasn’t as rich as Ben or as powerful, but he wasn’t as old either. He wasn’t as heavy as Hoss, but unlike Joe, he did tend to come home at night. He smelled of pomade and bath oil without the faintest hint of the outhouse – and he never dirtied his hands.
Indeed, Peggy decided, Will Cartwright had considerable father potential – a much better bet, on the whole, than Adam, who would likely prove far too independent when all was said and done. That decision made, Peggy decided that she’d better put a stop to whatever was going on in the dark downstairs.
Peggy padded barefoot to the top of the staircase. “Mama, I want a drink of water!”
By the time Peggy was safely tucked up in bed and drifting off towards sleep, there was a sweet little smile of satisfaction on her cupid-bow lips. She had mentioned to Laura how handsome Will was: how well groomed his hair and how smart his pencil-thin fringe of dark moustache. And she knew very well that by the time Laura had finished fussing and had gone back down stairs, Adam would be fast asleep in the armchair, snoring.
Potters Bar 2001.