Mansford Ranch

by Dina L. Sleiman

Based on Mansfield Park

As an aspiring novelist, Franny Sue Price prides herself in being a student of human nature. When dashing Hank Crawfield returns from his studies back East, he sets his Stetson on wooing her. Although he melts her with his charm and sophistication, Franny fears something is amiss. She and her longtime friend, cowboy Eddie Mansford, devise a series of challenges to test Hank’s true character. As Hank’s crooked nature comes to light, Franny realizes that the hero she’s looking for may have been under her upturned nose all along.

Chapter 1

Austin, Texas 1897

“So, did ya kill anyone today?”

A muddy boot thumped down beside Franny Sue Price where she sat outdoors upon a pristine patchwork quilt, but she kept her eyes glued to the paper in front of her. “Not yet, but I’m working on it.”

“Who’s the lucky fella?”

Franny lowered her parasol and frowned at Eddie Mansford as her eyes adjusted to the bright afternoon sun. No point in admonishing him on his unrefined speech. Ten years of harping hadn’t corrected it. Despite his wealth and connections, he seemed determined to remain a cowpoke of the lowest rank.

“I haven’t quite pinned that down.” She tapped her pencil against her journal.  “Perhaps it shall be a woman who dies this time.”

“Which story are you working on? The puritanical pirates or the pirating puritans?” His warm hazel eyes gleamed with laughter, but he held his lips steady.

“Funny.” She never said the man was stupid. “I outgrew pirates long ago. I want to delve deeper into human nature and the depravity of mankind with my new tales.”

“A Gothic it is. I sure do love that there Edgar Allen Poe.”

“Gothic romance, I would say. But I find myself in need of the perfect villain.”

“Villain, huh. How about some big city fella?”

Franny pressed her pencil to her lip as she pondered that. “Perhaps you have a point. We do not look to our great cities for our best morality,” she said, quoting a favorite author.[1]

Fortunately, the nearby city of Austin, which was yet new and small, did not qualify for such a description.

“Well, I’ll be hogtied if you don’t have a quote for dern near every occasion.” Eddie took off his hat and slapped it against his chaps, sending forth a swirl of dust.

 “Goodness, Eddie.” Franny coughed and waved the dirt away from her white day dress with its yellow silken sash. She should have known better than to wear such a frock about the ranch, but it was her favorite. “Lord knows you shall never play the hero in a romance novel.”

“Sorry about that. I still need to wash up for supper.”

“You had best, or Uncle Manny is sure to tan your hide. Company’s coming. Did you hear? Hank Crawfield has returned at long last.” A smile twitched at her lips. Between her attendance at finishing school and Hank’s going back East, they’d barely seen one another in years, but the few glimpses she had caught were quite satisfactory.

“Now there’s a villain for your story. Something about that one just ain’t right. Fancy east coast university or not.”

Franny paused to contemplate. “Interesting. On the surface his manners are charming, his wit flawless, but you might be onto something. He has a bit of the blackguard about him. Remember the way he’d pull the wings off fireflies just for the fun of it when we were children?” Franny shivered. Something had indeed not been right about the gleam in his eye as he committed the act.

“Mmm. And shoot the barn cats with his slingshot.”

“Don’t remind me.” She had feared the awful boy would hunt down her beloved Nibbles.

“He always was in some heap of trouble when we was young.”

Franny resisted the temptation to correct Eddie’s grammar. “Well, we barely know him anymore. And we managed to find plenty of trouble ourselves during childhood. He’s changed, no doubt. Who could fail to with such a fine education?”

“Book learnin’ will only get you so far.” Eddie rubbed his jaw. And quite a nice chiseled sort of jaw it would be, if only he bothered to shave once in a while.

Old Rusty hobbled by on his peg leg, a bucket of water sloshing at his side. He shot Eddie the oddest look. “Evenin’, folks.”

“Good evening to you, Mr. Forbes. Can I offer some assistance?” Franny asked.

“Thank ye kindly, ma’am, but I’ll be just fine.” He shook his head at Eddie before heading to the bunkhouse.

“Now there’s a mysterious character. I wonder what that was about.” She redirected her attention to the dusty young man beside her. “And how would you know about ‘book learning’ anyway?” Eddie had barely finished the eighth grade before he traded in his slate for a lasso, whereas she herself had attended the Jeannette C. Austen Academy for Young Ladies, the finest finishing school west of the Mississippi. She now volunteered there as a creative writing teacher one afternoon a week and remained after school to help lead a new drama troupe.

Once upon a time, Eddie had been her Ivanhoe and Sir Walter Scott all tied up in one. Too bad he was so determined to waste his life on the trail.

“You of all people should realize that ain’t fair, Franny Sue. Didn’t I just yesterday give you an earful about that Darcy fella?”

Okay, so he was well read. Mostly at her insistence. She repressed a chuckle. Never had she expected him to complete the entire Jane Austen novel, but she had hoped he might learn a thing or two about proper manners before returning it. “Now, Mr. Darcy. There’s a hero for you. Perhaps you should take a lesson, Edward Reginald Mansford.”

He winced at the use of his proper name. “I maintain he was right stuck on hisself. Reminded me too much of Hank by half, that one did.”

“So which is it then? Is Hank a hero or a villain?”

Eddie offered a sly grin and pushed rumpled hair in a sandy shade of blond from his forehead. “I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.” He turned and walked off toward the bunkhouse, slapping his hat against his leg once more.

Franny Sue bit on her pencil, an alarming habit she could not bring herself to break for the sake of her creative process. Then she proceeded to begin a new and unexpected entry in her journal.

And so we shall see, dear reader, soon enough indeed, the true character of one Henry Crawfield of Austin, Texas. For it is such in the nature of mankind, that though he attempt to hide his true proclivities, in due time they shall trickle forth in telling detail, if one but patiently attunes oneself to observe such minute inconsistencies.

flourish

Eddie entered the bunkhouse and chuckled to himself. He never tired of teasing that young lady. The smell of ham and beans tickled his nose. He wished he could just have dinner with the cowhands tonight instead of donning that suffocating evening coat in an attempt to please his father and the ridiculous Crawfields.

Rusty eyed him warily from the stove where he stirred a boiling pot of beans. “What was that there dern fool accent you was usin’ with Miss Price?”

The irony of the comment clearly escaped Rusty.

“What’s it matter to you?” Eddie snatched the spoon from Rusty’s hand and sampled the soup. “Needs salt.” He gave the crusty old man a friendly shove before returning the spoon. Rusty had been cooking up beans ever since he lost his leg as a young man in the War Between the States. But he didn’t like to be coddled.

“You might just stand a chance with that young lady iffin you didn’t act like such a dunderhead around her.”

“Stand a chance? Who said I wanted a chance? That squirt is like a sister to me.” Eddie’s stepmother and father had taken in Franny Sue, a distant step-cousin, over a decade ago when her family landed on hard times. The eight-year-old girl had looked so lost and alone. Eddie never could resist melting at the sight of those big, doe eyes. From that first night when he had heard her crying herself to sleep and snuck into her room to tell her stories, she had become the younger sibling he always dreamed of.

Rusty raised a bushy gray eyebrow his direction. “You expectin’ me to believe that nonsense?”

Eddie pictured her as he had seen her moments ago—all gleaming golden-brown curls with those perfect bow-shaped lips smiling up at him from beneath the lace of her parasol. His heart did a funny flip in his chest. “Fine, she’s turned into the fairest maiden in all of Texas. Is that what you want me to say? But we’re not suited. She’s made that abundantly clear. So why not enjoy a bit of fun?” He chuckled again, sitting at the table. “It annoys her to no end when I talk like a cowboy.”

“Hmm. And you’re not at all interested in winning her for yourself?”

“She’s right. We don’t belong together. She wants a fancy city life with a man wearing a three-piece suit and a pocket watch. Of course she’s caught my eye. She’s caught every man’s eye within a hundred miles. I care about her, yes. I care about her enough that I want her to be happy, and she would never be happy married to a cowboy like me.” He needed a solid, practical wife. Not one given to fripperies and whimsy.

“You’re right about one thing. Any man within a hundred miles would be thrilled to rope that pretty little heifer.”

Though Rusty clearly meant his statement as a compliment, Eddie grinned as he imagined the horror on Franny Sue’s face if she’d overheard it. But he turned the subject to more pertinent matters. “The girl won’t pick a husband without my father’s approval. I know she’s grateful to him and all. She should be, but I can hardly stand the way she worships the man.”

 “So who is suitable for Miss Fancy-pants Price? That Hank Crawfield?” Rusty slammed his spoon down on the table.

Eddie rubbed a hand over his brow. “Don’t even joke about it.” Hank had always turned his blood cold in his veins. The devilish spark in his eye still haunted Eddie. No one changed that much during a few years at a university.

“Well, if not you, it may as well be him.” Rusty flashed a gap-toothed smile.

“That Hank’s no good. I swear I’d move to town and take a job at the bank myself before letting Franny run off with the likes of him.” Eddie crossed his legs and tugged at his boot.

Rusty hobbled toward him, pulling a dishrag from his pocket and smacking Eddie’s shoulder with it. “To the house with you, boy. Your father will have my skin as well as yours if he catches you gettin’ ready for his fancy dinner party out here with a bucket of lye soap.”

“Fine.” Eddie stuffed his moist, aching foot back into the boot.

Rusty shook the rag at him. “And don’t think I didn’t notice when you started making yourself at home in the bunkhouse. Precisely three months ago, that’s when. When that there young lady you’re supposedly not interested in came home from her hoity toity finishing school. What are you running from, boy?”

“Rusty, you’re too observant for your own good.” It was true. When she returned, the house became too stifling. Every time she walked into the room with her milky skin and tinkling giggle, his heart would race. His throat dried up. And since his father considered her a daughter, they were all too often left unchaperoned.

No, better to make teasing banter outdoors and remove himself far from the temptation of one Miss Franny Sue Price. Despite her supposed acuity concerning human nature, she had no idea the feelings he struggled with and seemed innocent to them herself. He intended to maintain the illusion of brotherly annoyance. He was more than happy to hang around the bunkhouse and could hardly wait to take the cattle to the farther pastures that would keep him away for days at a time. Give him the musk and leather scent of his faithful mustang over Franny’s honeysuckle enticement any day. Besides, as Rusty so pointedly observed, she’d be married off and out of the house soon enough.

Best to change the subject.

He thumped his foot to the ground, driving it deeper into the boot. “Maybe you should be the one writing Gothic novels, Rusty. I’ll send Miss Price your way the next time she gets stuck with her character motivations.”

Rusty plopped into the chair across from him, beady eyes staring from a wrinkled and grizzled face straight at Eddie. “I betcha she don’t even know you went to that newfangled university in Austin while she was right nearby in town.”

“A few useless classes in literature and philosophy do not a university education make. And that was supposed to be our little secret.” Eddie shoved his Stetson on his head, and as easily slipped back into his cowboy accent. “Just keep it to yer own doggone self.”

He shot Rusty a warning glare before heading toward the house to dress for dinner.

flourish

Franny Sue smoothed down a loose curl, admiring herself in the long mirror of her armoire. In the distance, hooves clicked against the drive. She dashed to her dressing table, snatching up her journal and pencil, and dove for her window seat overlooking the expansive front lawn. A lady should never run, but there would be plenty of time for such civility later. She didn’t want to miss recording this moment for posterity.

Tucking her feet beneath the bustle of her buttercup silk gown, she settled herself upon the cushions. The childish position proved yet another appalling habit she dare not forsake for the appeasement of the creative muse. Tonight she would be all manners and refinement, she promised herself. Nothing would prevent her from pleasing dear Uncle Manny with the portrait of the perfect lady, for which he had invested a small fortune.

As the man exited the house and appeared on the drive before her, love swelled in her chest. How could she ever repay Uncle Manny for gift after gift he had bestowed upon her? Her own father had abandoned his family for the lure of the trail. When his life ended senselessly, hers might have all but ended as well, if not for the generosity of the precious white-haired gentleman awaiting the carriage.

Despite Thomas Mansford’s stoic nature, Franny perceived in the set of his square, manly features the importance of this evening. He had hinted on more than one occasion that it would please him if she settled down with Hank Crawfield, the son of his best friend and business associate.

She tapped on the window and waved down at Uncle Manny. His face softened as he gazed toward her, waving in return. She wasn’t about to let some vague memory of a wayward child prevent her from granting her uncle his heart’s desire. She determined to give Hank Crawfield every opportunity to prove himself worthy of her affection.

Although she had immersed herself in romance for much of her childhood, she had since put such juvenile nonsense far behind. At Austen Abbey, as the girls called their school, she learned the importance of duty and honor, respect for one’s elders, finding one’s proper role in society. Just as she now fit the role of training future young ladies, even as she waited for her uncle to choose a suitable husband for her.

Franny had learned to value a man of manners and education. A man who might provide security and stability. Never an irresponsible cowpoke to be lost in the next pointless gunfight. And Eddie had the audacity to recommend Hank as her next villain. Preposterous!

As the carriage rolled closer, she noted the exquisite detailing. The crafted leather. The carved woodwork. The Crawfield emblem emblazoned on the side like an English coat of arms. When it pulled to a stop, Franny sat poised and ready to write.

The moment had arrived. Hank was finally back to stay.

The door swung open, dear reader, and at first all one could distinguish was the form of a Stetson outlined against the backdrop of a golden Texas sun. Then the man himself alit from the carriage. A shadowed silhouette of male perfection bedecked in a tailored evening suit sauntered toward one Thomas Mansford with the utmost confidence and grace, causing my heart, I must confess, to flutter in my corseted chest. He reached and clasped Mr. Mansford’s hand with the precise balance of affection and decorum befitting the reunion. Soon enough, we shall discern, my friends, if such etiquette resides only upon the surface of his demeanor or if it springs from some deeper wellspring of true refinement.


[1] Mansfield Park, Jane Austen 1814

  1. I loved this book…so much that I went looking for the other 3 Books of the Mulligan Sisters !…

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