He found Finley up near the border between his place and Turner’s, fixing fence lines. The man worked with angry jerks that told the world his frustrations.
“Finley.” He called the man’s name. He wasn’t stupid; Hughes had his gun at the ready. He hadn’t forgotten what he’d done to the man.
Hughes didn’t usually make such rash decisions, but last night had been a big one.
Finley looked at him and cursed. “What the hell do you want now? My other daughters? My sister? My left leg? Where are my girls? Are they hurt?”
Hughes considered for a moment, then slid off his horse. Best meet Finley on the same level. “Your girls are just fine. One of them—Emmy, I think—kicked me in the shin this morning. You and I need to talk.”
“About what? I think you got what you wanted.”
“Well, I’ll take you up on the offer for your sister, if you’re serious. She’s something else, that’s for sure.” Men didn’t bargain over women, but Hughes felt the need to say it anyway. Best make the other man aware of how he felt early on. So there wasn’t no more surprises, so to speak.
“Jude? What are you talking about?”
“She showed up at my place early this morning to check on the girls. She’s still there.” In his bed, where he wanted her.
“Why? Did you hurt her?”
“Walk was too much for her, I think. Your Jami and the others are tending to her while she rests. I’ll bring her on home when she’s feeling up to it. Stopped by your place and left my two youngest boys there to help with the chores.”
“We don’t need your help.”
“The way I figure it, we took four sets of hands. My boys are strong enough for two men apiece. They can help out. And guard. Girls told me what happened to your sister. What’s happened since then. I wanted to tell you that my family and I, we’re not like that.”
“So what was last night?” Finley had the look of his sister, especially round the eyes. But he was stronger and confident. He didn’t back down from Hughes’ stare. “My girls?”
“My brother-in-law sold you that land illegally. I was about ready to toss you all out. My son’s a lawyer, he said you have no legal standing. Then we got wind of your daughters and all those young’uns out there. My boys are ready to settle down, Finley. They want children of their own. And women out here are scarce, in case you haven’t noticed. It was Turner’s idea, but the other three went along with it. I think Turner may have already known your girl Jessi. And he wanted her.”
“So he took. I take it you don’t have any daughters.”
“Not yet.” He might someday. If his next bride was willing.
“They become your world, from their first breath. You’ll do anything for them.”
“Same way with sons, Finley. My boys wanted wives. That’s all. Hell, we both know what would have happened if we’d have waited. Chances were good my boys would have come a calling sooner rather than later, anyway.”
“But at least then my girls would have had choices. Your boys just picked them out of the line like cattle at the market. What if they can’t be happy together?”
“My boys know their own minds. And Barratts know how to treat their wives. I made sure my boys knew how I treated their mama.”
“So now what?”
“Now we figure out how to live with what happened. As for that trouble from before. I made a promise to one of your girls this morning, Finley. A promise my sons echoed. That son of a bitch and his offshoots won’t lay a finger on any of those girls again. And if he gets near your sister, I’ll flay the skin from his back myself.”
“Why? What’s it to you? You’ve got what you wanted. Broodmares for your sons. We don’t need anything else from you. Except the legal deed to Finley Creek.”
“Consider it done. On the provision that on your death, it reverts to the grandchildren we’ll share between us. I’ll have Harrison, he’s the lawyer and with your Emmy, draw up the paperwork. As for your sister…I’m going to come calling on her. You might as well know up front.”
“Like hell you will. I want you to stay as far away from the rest of my family as possible.”
“That ain’t going to happen. And your sister is already in my bed. Nothing that says I have to let her out of it, now is there?”
Finley swore. “She’s been through enough hell in the last three years.”
“I’m just messing with you. If she tells me no, she tells me no. But I’ll still try to change her mind.” Hughes thought of the little firebrand in his bed. “Tell me the truth, what are the chances that bastard’s coming for her?”
“Pretty damned high. They’re coming for all six of my older girls, Barratt. Maybe even the seventh, though she’s only fourteen. I know they are. And Wharton won’t stop until he has Jude. And she’s pretty much defenseless.”
“Then I’ll do my part to keep them safe. They’re my family now, too. Bring your family for dinner tonight. I think it might help the girls settle in a bit better. Be less of afraid if they know we had no intentions of keeping them from their family. All of my sons’ places are within easy walking distance of this one. They’ll be able to be in each other’s aprons as much as they want for the rest of their lives. They’ll be happy with my boys. I know they will.”
“I hope you’re right. Because what’s done is done.”
“Yes it is, but we got to keep them safe now. The both of us.” Hughes held out a hand to the other man. He half expected him to shove his fist in Hughes’ jaw for what he’d done. But Finley was a better man than he was.