Danny brought Marylou's head up to his face, bringing her lips to his by raising the crock of his arm. Long, fine strands of honey blonde hair cascaded over his hard, tanned biceps and fanned out into the pulverized oat stalks underneath their bodies. Bodies beautifully formed by honest, hard work and healthy Nordic genes.

Having silenced her accusing objection with his hungry possession of her lips, he moved to kiss away the tears that had formed at the corner of her long-lashed eyes. He ached that he was disappointing her so. She had so little and yet gave so much and filled his world to bursting. He couldn't bear to see her sad.

Danny looked down Marylou's long-limbed, voluptuous body as it stretched out beside him on her worn- and patch-clothed powder blue sack dress in the private little den they had created with their insistent, thrashing bodies deep inside the field of harvest-ready oats. God she was beautiful. The plainness of her dress, made over a second time as it was handed down from their death beds by, first, her mother's sister, and then her mother, couldn't hide the beauty of this young woman who had given herself to him, only for the third time, just now.

She deserved only the best, Danny, thought. Gems. Diamonds. Something that competed with her indomitable luster in this unyielding, dull life on the prairie.

She had cried out in ecstasy as he entered, and filled, and stretched her to capacity and moved deep inside her. He was the best, she cried out to the glaring, cloudless sky - she'd never had any better. It mattered not that she'd never had any man at all before Danny. She had no doubts this was the best she'd ever have, this hard, hot, throbbing sword reaching for her womb. The smooth, rock-solid muscles of glorious youth enveloping her, holding her close, the two melting into one. Nothing in life was as good as her Danny covering her and spreading her legs, and invading and moving inside her to the quick, making her flow and explode. Again, and again, and again. And, most important of all, making her forget the hardscrabble farm; her defeated father, dreams as dead now as her long-suffering mother; and those sisters and brothers back at the house looking to her for all of the answers and for performing the daily miracle of finding something to put on the dinner table. Making her forget if only for these moments of sheer joy and passion.

And Danny could only regret that she was probably right - that a furtive fuck in the fields was as good as it would get for a woman from Carson County. He certainly had nothing to give her but a fuck - although he could only think of the joy she was giving him. He'd fucked the girls before, but nothing had been like this. There was nothing as beautiful and lustrous and as transcending beyond life in Carson County as Marylou.

Marylou, he whispered her name with each virile thrust. Marylou. Who likely would never see anything beyond Carson County. Marylou, moaning for him. Marylou. Who would never own anything firsthand store bought or that hadn't been worn to the grave by women before her. In, hold, swivel hips, listening for the sound of the sigh, retreat, then dig deep again. Marylou. Who would be put in an early grave herself if her pappy found she had been fucking with one of the Owen boys. Marylou. More rapid stroking, pelvises grinding together. Marylou. Who was giving herself to him without reservation. Ahhhhh. Marylou!

Well, he wouldn't let that happen. He wouldn't let Sam Yelton lay a hand on his daughter. And he wouldn't let Marylou go through life as her mother and her mother's mother had. She would have something of value from life before life aged her before her time, wore her out, put her in her grave, and sent this tired, power-blue sack dress to the next casualty of this cruel prairie existence.

An arch of her back, clawing at the oats with her fists, a deep intake and hold of breath, a deep-throated cry of electric flow. Joined by his own trembling lurch and, three quick jerks, and youth-driven strong ejaculation. Kissing her on the neck, Danny sighed and rolled off to her side. Knowing his arousal was not yet dissipated; both knowing this was but a respite; both rejoicing in that knowledge.

Danny propped his head up, elbow in oats and heel of hand tucked under his chin. He presented Marylou with his best version of contrition couched within gratefulness and awe, gave her a kiss on her pert little nose, and returned to his attempt at reassurance. 'I'd be back by Christmas, Marylou. I was promised to help Uncle Joe git the threshing done. I weren't asked; Uncle Joe jist said he needed help from somewhere, and there be more Owen boys here then needed and none out there.'

'But it's so far away,' Marylou whispered in a small, hurt voice. 'Oh, yes, yes, do that.' Danny was sucking on a nipple and had taken up a couple of stalks of oats and was running them teasingly along the lines of her body, following her curves and twirling the oat heads in moist crevices.

Her voice had become stronger and taken on a thick slurring of a renewed interest Danny had quickly learned to interpret as invitation and readyness. Marylou wasn't the shy or squeamish lay he had been used to with the prissy town girls. She gave it her all, and one fuck was never enough. He continued the running of the stalks of oats across the glistening skin of her sex-flushed body. He leaned over her and blew on a nipple and marveled that it became more taunt almost instantaneously and that Goosebumps formed in ripples radiantly in all directions along her firm, plump breast.

Marylou moaned deep in the back of her throat, and Danny felt himself coming alive again. Never had he wanted to fuck a woman like he wanted to fuck Marylou. He reached down with his other hand and fanned his palm over the golden patch of curly hair in the V descending from Marylou's belly. His long, hard-callused middle finger rubbed across Marylou's clit, sending her to sighing and her skin to shimmering, as it continued its sex-slickened journey downward and inward.

Marylou arched her back and began to writhe and move her hips against the invading finger. Her arms flung up, around Danny's neck, and pulled his sucking lips back to a nipple.

'Jist promise me you'll be back for Valentine's, Danny. It's the only dance my pap will let me go to with a man.'

'Yes, yes, I promise,' Danny muttered between her breasts in a lust-choked voice.

'Be my man again, now, Danny. Take me away from here. Lift me up. Out of . . . this. Ohhhh!'

Marylou didn't have to say more. Danny was already crouched on his knees, between her thighs, pulling her pelvis up to him, sliding her across the tired power-blue material as she dug her fists, through mashed oat stalks, into the brittle, begrudging dirt of the prairie.

He thrust his strong, young cock forward, easily entering her already-slathered, loosened, and stretched treasure tunnel. He thrust again and again, plowing deeper with each thrust. Each slide was met with a welcoming thrust from Marylou, the two of them quickly establishing an age-old rhythm of natural impulse, joining the primeval plowing, seeding, and harvesting rhythms of the wild and beautiful but cruel and begrudging plains.

With each thrust, Danny promised something better for Marylou, and with each of Danny's thrusts, Marylou stifled a cry of joy for fear of the sound reading the forlorn, weathered farmhouse just beyond the edge of the oat field.

Marylou felt Danny stiffen and she experienced a flash of disappointment and regret. 'Jist hold on. Jist hold on, Danny. Almost,' she cried through clinched teeth.

Danny held, with supreme effort, and in a rush of adrenaline and flowing, the two young lovers came together. One of the few rewards of this life they could hope to attain. Something even the rich couldn't guarantee themselves.

'Are you sure that was all?' Marylou asked in a distant voice. She couldn't look up from the floor of the general store. She couldn't let Hugh see the tears forming. She had told no one but Hugh, and she hoped she hadn't let him know it all. She couldn't let it get around that she and Danny were lovers. She couldn't let any hint she was no longer pure get back to her pap at all.

But she and Danny had to let Hugh know they were at least a little sweet on each other. And it wasn't because Hugh was Danny's best friend. It was because Hugh had to be their go-between. And not only because Marylou couldn't chance having her pap see a letter from Danny. Marylou was no different from any of the other young women on the county farms. She'd never learned to read. That had never seemed to be needed by any of the rural Carson County women - except for the school marms. But they weren't exactly Carson County women. They came from somewhere and after a year or two, when the county had threatened to suck them in and wear them down too, they got back on a wagon and escaped over the county line.

'You sure he didn't say nothin' about the Valentine Dance . . . about being back by then?'

'No, I'm sorry, Marylou.' Hugh said in a low soothing voice. He gently placed his hand on Marylou's arm, helping her to stand against the body blow she'd taken and couldn't quite conceal. She felt the heat of him through the thinness of the power-blue cloth. The feel of him was both frightening and reassuring all at the same time.

'He didn't mention being back by February at all. In fact, he said something about someone he'd met. He . . .' Hugh stopped stone cold. Chills started radiating down Marylou's arm, but it wasn't from any coldness Hugh was transmitting. Hugh's touch was all heat; it was only his voice that was chilling.

'Uhhh. I'm sorry, Marylou. I didn't mean to . . . oh, damn. Umm, sorry. Oh, I'm such a klutz.' He had to hold Marylou up with hands on both of her arms. She was sagging at the knees.

'Yoohoo, Mr. Preston,' a high, trilling voice soared from the front of the store, just barely out of sight from where Hugh and Marylou were standing. 'Has that calico cloth you promised me come in yet?'

'I do believe so, Mrs. Belsam. If you'd step this way . . .' The voice of Hugh's father was drawing closer.

'Here, through that door,' Hugh hissed. 'You don't want them to see - '

Marylou needed no prompting. She didn't exactly move into the storeroom behind the goods floor on her own, but she didn't resist Hugh's urging voice and shuffling guidance.

They entered a dimly lit, low-roofed room, packed with stacked and boxed goods, waiting to replace whatever was selling out front. Hugh bundled Marylou back into a corner, behind stacks of feed bags, some only three or four sacks deep, but enough stacked nearly to the ceiling to conceal them from anyone coming into the storage space from the storefront.

Hugh propped Marylou against a high stack of feedbags and hugged her close to him.

'There, there, I'm so sorry. I didn't know. Danny didn't tell me that there was anything serious - '

Marylou snuffled indignantly through her welling tears, 'No, of course there isn't. It's jist that Danny said he'd take me to the Valentine Dance. Nothin special, but pap won't let me go unless there's someone - '

'There, there, don't cry, Darlin',' Hugh was saying, his voice full of concern and honey.

'If you really want to go to the Valentine Dance in February, I'd be happy to - '


'I mean you're the purtiest woman in the county, Honey. Anyone would be pleased to take you.'

'Well, Danny - ' Marylou simpered.

'Hush, hush. Danny's not here. And it looks like he has someone - '

Marylou let out an almost primeval moan and began to sink to the floor. But Hugh was strong and had her firmly in his arms. He was holding her close. He was strong and heavily muscled, and a handsome devil in a dark, swarthy way. Marylou could feel his heart beating wildly against her breasts, and this served to quicken her heart. And she could feel something else too. Something pressed against her loins. Something she hadn't felt since that day Danny had withdrawn from her for the final fucking in the oat field, months ago. Danny had brought her to life and then had left her. She had known a man and it had been exhilarating, something she now lusted for - now that she had known what it could be like.

Despite her love for Danny - and because she sensed that he was already fading away from her, no longer needing her, seeing her as just a late summer easy lay - Marylou felt herself softening to the circumstance, melding to Hugh's body. And Hugh felt it too.

Hugh had his lips in the hollow of Marylou's neck, and she could feel the movement of his body, the every so subtle undulating of his pelvis against hers. The centering hardness of him. And she felt herself melting into him.

'No, we can't,' she whispered. 'Danny.'

'Danny's not here,' Hugh whispered in a lust-filled hoarse voice. 'Danny's not coming. I can take care of you. The Valentine Dance. More, if you want. Material for a proper dress for the dance. Ever had a proper party dress, Marylou? You are so lovely. You'd look so beautiful in a new dress.'

'He said jist to hold on.' Marylou wasn't talking to anyone in particular. She was whimpering. Her head was thrown back and she was looking at the knots in the wooden crossbeam above her head. And she was sighing.

She was sighing because Hugh had moved his lips down to her heaving breasts and he was teething a nipple through the thinness of the tired, powder-blue cloth.

Marylou tried to focus on Danny. But Danny wasn't here. He'd told her jist to hold on, promising to be here by the Valentine Dance. And he'd already forgotten his promise. And he had forgotten about her. Marylou stiffened in anger.

Hugh felt her go stiff, and, afraid that he was losing advantage, he chose to grow bolder and stronger rather than to retreat. He was past delicacy and seduction.

Marylou lost her footing and found herself looking fully at the ceiling. She was on her back on a short stack of sacking, and the hem of her dress was being forced up her legs. Big, trembling, hard-callused hands running up her legs. She felt her knees being spread wide by strong mainly thighs. She could hear the ripping of the bodice of her dress, and the feel of warm lips directly attacking her now-taunt nipples.

She should have screamed, but she was too busy worrying about her torn dress. Could it be mended? If not, where would she get another one? She found herself idiotically wondering what the calico cloth Mrs. Belsam was buying on the other side of the wall looked like. Would it suit a dress for the Valentine Dance?

Hugh had his lips bruising hers and his tongue inside her mouth, making her gasping for breath rather than screaming in surprise and pain when he thrust his hardened cock strongly and deeply inside her and immediately began to pump her hard.

She thrashed about in anger and pain at the brutal taking, which was allowing her no time to adjust to the invasion and at the indignity of Hugh's assault. But he held her fast with two strong hands at her waist. And at the same time she thrashed about, she writhed in joy and ecstasy at the taking. It had been so long since a strong, young cock had paid tribute to her. She loved being fucked by Danny. And, truth be told, here, skewered on Hugh's plump, virile member, she was loving being fucked by Hugh too.

And as his hot come shot deep inside her, Marylou was every bit as engaged in the fuck as Hugh was.

They held there, both breathing heavily, like rutting animals, wondering what came next. They recovered quickly, Hugh nuzzled his lips at Marylou's neck, searching for and finding the throbbing vein there. Marylou felt a flush go through her body and she turned her face toward Hugh's, signaling acceptance. Hugh flashed her a wondrous smile of surprise melting into rekindled lust, and he kissed her deeply on the lips. Then he pulled away from her and lifted her body easily and turned her, belly on sacking, and resumed fucking her from the rear.

Marylou met his thrusts with counterthrusts of her own, moaning for him. But not moaning for him like she did for Danny. He wasn't gentle like Danny was. His hands searched her body roughly, touching on cruelly. And then, lost in his own world of lust and ecstasy, he crossed the line of cruelty. Marylou felt him withdrawing from her even when he was at his strongest in gripping her body to his and then he was entering her in that other channel. She cried out and groaned and struggled against him, but he was relentless and determined to possess her fully and deeply.

It was no use; she went limp in his arms and surrendered entirely, finding it less painful - and not wholly unarousing - to let him do what he would with her. And when she stopped struggling against him, Hugh used his strong fingers to resume pleasing her in her main channel.

Not long after he'd done with her, they heard his father calling for him from the store front and Hugh left her in a heap on the floor of the storage room to weep silently for what she suddenly understood was a betrayal of Danny and for her uncertain future. She no longer was virginal in any sense of the word.

'I don't know,' Danny said. 'I promised I'd be back in Carson County by February.'

'Well, it's broke but good, son,' Uncle Joe said. 'There can't be no money for you from the harvesting less we get a thresher that works. That means more time and work from both of us, I'm aferd. And then there's the haulin' of it. I'm sure we can git you outta here a bit after New Years. But it ain't lookin' good for Christmas. Not if you want that money I said I'd give you.'

'I guess that's it then,' Danny said with a sigh. 'Ya can't get blood outta turnip. Is it OK if I go up to the house and send off a letter while you git the horses unhitched? I gotta let someone know jist to hold on - that I'll be later than I said, but I'll be there by February.'

This conversation had been long said miles and miles away from Carson County when Marylou had gone down to the general store to receive the letter that Danny wrote and sent to his best friend, Hugh Preston.

Marylou was down by the pond, pulling water up in two buckets to take to the cattle trough in the lean-to up at the edge of the grove. It hadn't snowed for a couple of weeks now, and it had unexpectedly warmed here in early February. The ice on the pond had melted, so pap had said she could take a turn at watering the cattle. He wasn't all that pleased about that dress she was making for the Valentine Dance out of the calico cloth she'd brought home from the general store, claiming she'd been given it out of the goodness of that storekeep, Preston's, heart. Pap didn't like his kin getting charity like that; he didn't mind a free drink or two at the saloon himself, but he didn't like taking any charity like that cloth was. People would talk.

Pap was caught between here and there on her going to the dance at all. He never wanted her to start getting ideas about leaving - at least until Mattie was old enough to take on her chores and watching after the others. But that Hugh Preston could be the salvation of this family.

Pap figured he knew how things stood, and he'd normally have beaten Marylou to within an inch of her life, but the Prestons were about the best fixed bunch in the county. If how things were meant the Prestons would become a family branch, Pap decided he'd just swallow his pride and justified indignation and look the other way and pretend he didn't know anything. Family help was a whole different matter than charity.

Marylou had reached the lean-to when she heard the rustling in the bushes. She instinctively turned, half in fright.

'Danny,' she whispered. She felt the breath go out of her. She gulped for air. She'd known it had to happen eventually, but she also knew she never would be prepared for it to happen.

'Yes, it's me,' Danny said. His voice sounded subdued and a little hurt. 'You've known I was back. I've come to the house nearly every day for the past week. They always say you aren't there. The last time I came, your pap met me at the door with his shotgun.'

'You know - ' Marylou started to say. She put the water bucket down and shrank back into the lean-to. The trough ran most of the way across the open end of the lean-to and three cows were nuzzling into it from the outside. A couple of bales of hay were sitting more or less in the center of the open space inside the lean-to. Marylou retreated until she felt stalks of hay pricking the backs of her calves.

'I got home in time to take you to the Valentine Dance, but I heard that Hugh - '

'I thought you weren't coming home at all, Danny. I thought you'd found someone - '

'Yes, I know what you thought,' Danny answered. It was cold enough that Marylou could see the puffs of smoke escaping his lips and hear the heaving of his breath. She also wasn't unaware of the bunching of Danny's fists. His knuckles were bruised and bloody.

'Danny - '

'I know it all. I beat it out of Hugh. It's not your fault.'

'Danny,' Marylou whimpered. Her eyes were downcast. She couldn't look at him. But it had to be finished, here and now. Nothing could be left unsaid. She was trembling, and it wasn't from the cold. 'Hugh can't have told you everything, Danny. Hugh don't know everything.'

Danny said nothing. He just stood there. Waiting.

Marylou didn't say anything for the longest time, either. It took her a while to say it.

'Hugh don't know. I haven't told him. I'm carrying Hugh's baby.'

Silence. And when Marylou looked up, Danny was gone. Just like that. She had expected fireworks or a beating. The Carson County men were good at beating their wives. This surely was the best of excuses for a beating.

Marylou sighed and picked up the water bucket. Life would go on in Carson County. With luck Hugh would marry her. But she could never count on lifting her head in the county again. And she'd let the best man she'd ever had slip out of her life. But for now, the cattle needed three more buckets of water for the trough. Life in Carson County wasn't going to skip a beat for her convenience.

She started to move out of the lean-to, but there he was again, standing in her path.

He'd come back to beat her. Well, she deserved it.

But what was that? Danny was just standing there, his arm extended, and in his hand, a blue box. A fuzzy dark blue box. Was that velvet? She'd never actually seen velvet before.

Danny pushed the box open, and the last rays of the sun glinted on the gemstone inside.

'What - ?' Further words escaped Marylou.

'This is why I went away, Marylou. But I had to stay twice as long, because Uncle Joe's threshing machine broke and I had to work until I could help make up the loss of that. I told you all of that in a letter. But, of course, Hugh never read what I really said in the letter to you.'

'It's a ring,' Marylou said, dumbly pointing out the obvious. 'A . . . a diamond?'

'Yep, I wasn't going to give it to you until the dance. I had Valentines Day all picked out. But I had it in the wagon and decided I'd best go git it now.' A tone of pride had invaded Danny's voice. 'A real diamond. It's real small. But it's real. I wanted you to have something real, something of value. Something that sparkled for you as bright as you sparkle for me. And I wanted it to say that I wanted you for me.'

'Oh, I'm so sorry. And now I've - ' Marylou was about to break down, the full blow of what she'd done - and lost - hammering away at her. This was far worse than a beating.

'Don't be sorry none,' Danny said. 'I want you, and I'll take you however I can git you, if you'll take me. I figured your family would come along with the deal - although I don't know about takin' your pap; we'll have to jaw about that a while - and I don't think one mouth more or less will matter.'

'I don't know what to say,' Marylou said. And of course she didn't.

'Don't say nothin', Marylou. Jist hold on. Wrap your arms around me and hold on if yr' willin.'

And she did just that. She dropped the bucket and opened her arms to her man and spread her legs for him as he eased her back onto the hay and united with her in a deep thrust of mutual giving and taking.



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