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The Widow Brannigan: part 1

Categories Fiction, Male / Female, Romance

Authror: cyanide56

Published: 15 February 2018

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The watching crows sat cackling in the skeletal trees as a cold October wind blew through the graveyard as Mr. Brannigan was put into the ground and laid to rest.

We stood a ways back from the black-veiled Widow as she stepped forward and dropped her small posy of flowers onto the coffin as it was lowered then stooped down to grab a handful of dirt and threw it into the grave.

My Mother crossed herself as she turned and made her way back to the small white church that sat atop a windy hill surrounded on all sides by the remains of those whose journey had come to an end.

 Most of the local rural community had turned out to pay their respects to old man Brannigan who had been well regarded in life as a hard working and hard drinking man of God who did right by you if you did right by him. Brannigan had been pushing fifty when he went. He had been a tall, solemn man of few words and who farmed his piece of land from dawn to dusk to make a living for him and his young wife.

I looked over to where Mrs. Brannigan stood surrounded by those offering their condolences and our local Pastor who was giving her words of comfort in her time of distress. The woman was dressed all in black from top to toe and only the shadows of her face could be seen through her veil.

Mrs. Brannigan had always been in my life. Her family lived about a mile outside of town and my earliest memories of her were of a teenage girl with long flowing sawdust hair when they came to stock up with supplies at McGinty's General Store in their beat up truck. There she'd be with her folks, the Caulders, and she'd jump down running around helping out as they loaded up.

She looked as pretty as a  picture and must have been about eighteen I figured which to a then five-year-old like me made her seem as old as the hills. But even back in those days, I always knew there was something about her.

From memory, it was a couple of years later when word went around that she had gotten engaged to someone from way up North. A man called Silus Brannigan who was twenty years her senior. As with most things in a small town like this, rumor and gossip were the order of the day and various tall tales were told about the where and why this had all come about. Their eventual marriage a month later was a private family affair and for the rest of us life pretty much went on as usual as the days turned into months that became years.

Her name was Mary Beth. Mary Beth Caulder.

***

Most of the mourners had moved on as Uncle Joe and I stood there waiting for the Widow Brannigan to finish talking with some of the townsfolk that knew her. 

Uncle Joe was a gruff man with a buffalo temperament and a build to match. He had moved in a few years back to try and put down some roots. The old man had long since gone to God knows where to leave Mom having to look after our farm and raise me on her own. I had been just twelve when he disappeared one Saturday in June and as the years had passed came to learn that he was a weak-willed man who hated responsibility and loved his drink. The extra pair of hands had been a Godsend and Uncle Joe settled into the routine of farm and rural life.

He gave me a nudge and I looked up to see the woman in black and a female companion approaching us as we stood there in our Sunday best holding our hats respectfully in front of us.

She took my Uncle's hand first and thanked him for coming and then she turned as she looked at me through her veil. It had been an age since I last saw her and only had vague memories of what she looked like.

"You must be Thomas," she said, taking my hand in hers. Her grip was firm and strong, "My, you've grown," she smiled, "How old are you now?"

" Nearly eighteen, Ma'am," I said as I stood there as red as a pickle in a vinegar jar, "I'm uh, sorry for your loss, Mrs. Brannigan."

She simply nodded and let go of my hand, "Thank you. My late husband always used to say that when God knocked on your door it was time to reap what you had sown in this life and hoped it was enough to get you into the next. For the rest of us, the sun will still come up tomorrow and life will go on. Thank you for your condolences." 

We both watched as she turned to walk back to the Church where the Undertaker sat on the headboard of the wooden wagon waiting to take her back home.

"Tough one, that one," said my Uncle as he pulled on his black hat and began to walk towards our truck, "Never saw much of her when he was alive and will probably see less of her now that he's dead."

 I stood there staring at her with the stiff breeze ruffling my thick black hair. What my Uncle said was true enough. Life was pretty isolated out here in the back of beyond. Neighbours pretty much kept themselves to themselves only meeting up if there was an emergency, a social dance, or if they were in town on business.

Schooling and the age difference was also a thing. Thirteen or fourteen years is a big old river to cross all things considered. She would have been leaving school just as I was starting I figured. At seventeen, I had finally finished with school and could now concentrate on the farm full time.

I took a deep breath and put my hat on as I gazed around at the rows of crosses and weather-worn stones silently asking those in life to remember them in death. For some reason, I turned and walked back to the open grave as one of the journeymen began to fill in the dirt. Six feet down was a plain, simple oak coffin and I stared at the flowers scattered on top of it.

The wind whistled through the trees as I turned my head to watch the wagon carrying the Widow leaving the graveyard and head out onto the never ending road that disappeared into the far distance. My eyes fixed on the small figure sat huddled against the cold and somehow knew our paths would cross again.

High up in the branches of the bare trees, the murder of crows watched in silence as the wheels of fate slowly began to turn.

***

It was three months later when the first Winter storms in nearly seven years hit the region and left a thick quilt of deep snow as far as the eye could see whichever way you looked. Thankfully, we had already stocked up for the season and the barn was full of everything we would need to get us through to Spring.

It had gone mid-morning and the sun was bright as it hung in the slate grey skies with the freezing air cold enough to take the breath away. Mom was in the kitchen making a rabbit and potato stew with my Uncle in the shed chopping logs for the fire as I cleared away the snow in front of the house. Suddenly there was a dull  "Honk Honk" in the distance and I looked up to see a battered old Ford slithering its way up the long driveway towards our house.

The car pulled up as its hood gently steamed in the cold. It was Ned Beckett, one of the major store owners in town and he got out of his motor looking like an Eskimo. I leaned on my shovel as he stood in front of me jumping up and down on the spot to warm himself up.

"Hey, Tom," he shouted above the grumbling sound of the car engine, "Last night was a doozy, wasn't it!" He reached into his overcoat pocket and pulled out his pipe and stuck it into his mouth as he tried to light it with a match.

"Yes Sir," I nodded, "Pretty bad. What are you doing out this far?" I asked him.

He took a long draw from his pipe that had his ears flapping as he blew out a cloud of smoke that hung in the air for a moment before slowly fading away in the light breeze. "Civic duty, son," he said firmly, "Civic duty. Checking out the local folk roundabouts. Making sure they're holding up in this weather. He pulled out a map and laid it on the bonnet of his car, "Done as far North as Pottersville, as far east as Petersburgh and now I'm heading as far west as Burkdale."

I stood beside him and looked at the map. "Burkendale?" I muttered, "Isn't that the Brannigan place?"

Ned, a fifty-three year old ex-railroad engineer, reached up and scratched his head through his thick wooly brown hat. "Reckon it is. What's it been?" he wondered, rubbing his grey whiskers, "Three months now? Wonder how the Lady is getting on. Can't have been easy keeping that place going what with losing her husband and this snow and all. Maybe she hired some help though can't says I've heard anything in town. I guess she got a decent sum when her old man croaked. Sensible to see how she's doing all things considered. I've got a bunch of supplies in the back just in case. Cans of beans, oats, and stuff."

"Howdy, Ned," said Mom as she suddenly came up behind us.

Ned waved his pipe at her. "Mornin' Mrs. Cassidy," he replied as he folded up his map, "Now that just ain't fair. Shame on you for making an old fella's belly grumble before he starts his day's work." he winked as he sniffed the crisp air and the smells coming from the kitchen.

Mom smiled. "Rabbit Stew. You're more than welcome to sit with us."

He grimaced. "Temptation is a sin!" he laughed as he opened his car door, "Another time. Heading West to check out all the farms as far as Burkdale."

She frowned. "Mary Beth Brannigan's place?"

Ned nodded.

"I'll come with you," I said as I ran back into the house. Anything to get out of clearing the yard of snow.

"Well," said the older man, "I ain't one to be refusing a bit of company. So long as it's all right with your Momma here."

I came back out pulling on my thick overcoat and hat as my Mother stepped behind me and made sure I was wrapped up warm and tight. "Okay, Mom?" I asked her as she pulled me around and tugged my hood up.

"You have my boy back before sundown, Ned," she ordered as the man slipped behind the wheel and unlocked the passenger side door, "As for you, don't do anything stupid, mind your manners and I'll keep your dinner simmering in the pot for when you get back."

She reached up and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

Jumping into the passenger seat, I yanked the car door shut and settled in for the ride as my Mother waved us off with light flurries of snow beginning to fall again.

***

A solitary raven sat atop the mailbox warily watching us as we turned into the entrance to the Brannigan farm and headed up the snow covered road towards the white house that sat quietly on a small rise with a single wisp of smoke coming out of the chimney.

Brannigan had farmed a mixture of wheat and livestock and was thought to be a man of some means when he and his new wife had taken over the place as tenants. Not much was known about him. The odd rumor that he had come down from the North East and was looking to start a new life away from the pressures of city living. It had been through these initial visits that he had met the Caulder family and his eventual wife, Mary Beth.

Ned pulled up before the house and we both got out. There was no one around and the only signs of life were a bunch of chickens peeking out of a hen house next to the barn. Stepping onto the porch, I banged on the white door a couple of times and stood back but there was no answer. Maybe she had gone into Burkdale for a food run in case the weather settled in for a stretch. There would be no traveling anywhere if another foot of snow fell in the next day or so. You could practically smell it on the wind as the temperatures began to drop again.

I glanced at Ned who went over to the window and peered in. It was beginning to look like a wasted trip which for some reason disappointed me more than it should have.

"Can I be helping you fine gentlemen?" said a voice suddenly behind us.

We both turned to see a woman walking up from the defilade that was on the far side of the homestead holding a shotgun with the break action open over her right arm. In her left, she was carrying a pair of ducks and what looked like a decently sized goose.

Removing his hat, Ned stepped down and nodded as the woman came to a stop and looked the pair of us up and down.

"Mrs. Brannigan?" he asked as he quickly replaced his hat due to the biting cold, "I'm Ned Beckett and this," he said as he turned to me, "Is Tom Cassidy. We've been doing a neighborly check of all the outlier farms in the district after the storms last night. Making sure that folks are okay and all that. Especially those that are living on their own."

Trying not to stare, I took the woman and her appearance in. She was dressed in a dark grey padded overcoat with a thick black scarf tied tight around her neck, a long black skirt which reached to her ankles and she had on a pair of what looked like brown leather laced ankle boots. On her head, she had a dark tanned cattleman's hat pulled down tight with her long dusty blonde hair tied at the nape of her neck with the tail hanging down her back.

But it wasn't her clothes that drew the attention.

She was a remarkably striking looking woman with a sharply defined facial bone structure that was enhanced by a pair of clear blue eyes, dark eyebrows, a firm nose and a wide set mouth with the hint of a cleft on her chin.

I was so surprised at her appearance that I hadn't removed my hat until Ned gave me a nudge and made a face at me as I whipped it off and gave her an apologetic smile. 

This made her smile back at me in return and I felt the world sort of fall timelessly away as I stared at her with my heart somewhere down inside my boots before lurching back to thump loudly between my ears. It was a simple smile but it lit up her face in the most stunning way imaginable. Like she had suddenly walked into the circle of God's light.

Even old Ned looked flustered as he coughed and clapped his cold gloved hands together.

Mrs. Brannigan nodded slowly. "That's mighty thoughtful of you," she smiled as she walked up the steps and stood on her porch next to us, "But things are fine here. Already cleared the yard mostly and spent a couple of hours with Duke catching the fowl as they head North." 

Duke was obviously her hound who was running around chasing squawking chickens and rolling around in the snow looking as happy as a pig in dirt.

Ned rubbed his whiskers. "Well, Ma'am," he said nodding towards his car, "There's beans, oats, salt, and some sugar in the back if you be needing them."

I kept quiet as I listened to the conversation as they began to talk about the conditions and other things such as how she was on for dried peat and logs for her fire. The Lady knew her business and was considerate and firm in her demeanor and answers as the older man showed her his map and pointed out the roads which were pretty much impassable and the workarounds if she needed to head into town for whatever reason in her truck which was parked over towards her barn.

Her attention was on Ned as I came over to stand behind them as they both looked at the map which was on the bonnet of the car. I glanced at her and let my eyes slowly roam over her person as she stood there with her back to me.

She was about five-eight and the top of her head was about level with my nose. From what I could tell, she had the build and figure of someone who knew what hard work was. Farming was no life for the faint of heart or for those lacking determination or effort. It was then I noticed her hands as she pointed something out to Ned on the map.

Those were hands of someone who was used to the dirt and understood the lay of the land as it shaped you both mentally and physically. As Uncle Joe had said at Brannigan's funeral, she was tough. As tough as they came.

My eyes stopped on the swell of her hips and the curve of her backside hidden under her thick skirts and I felt something stir within me. She really was one fine looking woman and it was a complete mystery to me as to why she was living here in the outback alone.

Or maybe she wasn't alone. Maybe someone was already paying her a visit. Was three going on four months time enough to mourn? Any woman that looked like she did and was now available would surely have every single and not so single man Jack and rabbit knocking on her door in their Sunday best asking for her favor. That thought didn't sit well with me at all and I frowned.

If only I was older.

Not that I'd have the gumption to enquire for her if I was. Thirty one was such a long way away in the grand scheme of things. The man she welcomed in her bed was going to be one lucky son of a bitch that was for sure.

Not that I was an expert in matters of the fairer sex.

Rural living sure did restrict whatever opportunities were available which weren't many all told. Even school had been pretty barren. There had been a couple of secret kissing and cuddling sweethearts that had been strictly off limits because if the worst thing that could possibly happen did actually happen then me and my skinny ass would be running for the hills full of buckshot.

Better to be safe than sorry I figured. I sighed before I realized the conversation had stopped and the Widow Brannigan was looking at me with an amused expression on her face as I stared at her imagined backside.

Uh. I jerked my head up and put my hat back on as I stuck my hands in my coat pockets trying not to turn purple.I glanced at her to see her still staring at me as I raised my eyebrows wanting the ground to open up and swallow me whole.

"Give my regards to your Mother," she smiled, "Mister. Cassidy."

I gave her another quick glance and nodded. "Yes, Ma'am. Will do."

She seemed much amused at my awkward shyness and as she went to open the screen door, she suddenly put a hand on my arm and flashed me a look of understanding that made me shiver from head to toe as I felt her calming touch.

Ned, oblivious to my little drama, put his map away and waved at Mrs. Brannigan. "Glad to see you've got everything in order, Ma'am," he shouted as he got back into his car as I did the same, "If there's another whiteout make sure you stay indoors and keep warm now. Once it passes, I'll arrange for myself and others to check up on folks again. So if you hear a horn honking you'll know who it is. You take care now!"

The woman gave us a wave as we turned and headed back up to the main snow-covered road. As we headed East, I turned and looked out of the passenger side window at the figure standing there all alone in front of her house.

***

The dawn awoke from the overnight blizzard as the misty blue sun rose over a pristine landscape that sparkled with black ice, frost and another good foot of snow.

Uncle Joe was already out checking the various outhouses making sure that everything was still in one place and that what livestock we had was safe, secure and fed. Mom was making breakfast as I wandered into the kitchen pulling on a shirt and fastening my belt as I stood there yawning as she stirred the big pan of oats on the stove.

"Take a seat," she smiled as she grabbed a bowl and used a ladle to spoon the thick porridge into it, "Here you go, son," she said as she put the steaming bowl down in front of me as I sat at the table.

Once she had put the lid back on the pot, she came over and sat opposite me holding a  mug of steaming coffee.

"Bad night," she said as she looked at me munching away, "Another one."

"Mmmmm," I nodded as I sucked my spoon clean, "Could hear the wind lying in bed. At least it looks like its blown itself out. Yesterday, Ned said the radio says it'll be clear now until the end of the week at least.  Don't think there'll be a thaw for awhile though."

Mom took another slurp of her coffee. "Got them errands, remember," she said as she turned her head to look out of the window as Uncle Joe pitchforked some hay for the cattle that had been kept in the barn overnight.

We sat in silence as she watched me finish up before she put her mug down on the table and rested her chin on her hands.

"So," she said matter of factly, "What did you think of the Widow Brannigan?"

I gave a slight twitch at the mention of the woman's name as I felt myself getting hot under the collar at the thought of her. I gave a shrug. "She was fine," I admitted, "Nice Lady."

Mom smiled as I avoided her gaze.

"Certainly is a looker."

She was definitely that.

"I guess," I mumbled as I grabbed the pitcher and poured myself a mug of milk trying hard to not look that interested in whatever it was she wanted to talk about. We hadn't really spoken about what happened yesterday when I got back. Most of the late evening was spent getting ready for the storm.

"How's she bearing up?" asked Mom.

I glanced up at her. "Alright. Seems to be coping and everything," I sat back in my chair frowning, "Uncle Joe says she's as tough as a pair of old boots. Keeps mostly to herself I reckon. Why you askin'?"

Mom waved a hand. "Oh, no particular reason is all," she replied, "Some of the ladies in town were talkin' about her and wonderin' how she was doing with no man around the place anymore. Her being relatively young and all as she rarely comes into town from the sound of it. Keeping herself to herself seems to be her thing."

"That ain't a crime," I said.

"No it ain't," Mom smiled knowingly at me as she got up and went to stoke the fire, "Folks is curious about her that's all. See, Son," she said, "Some women need to mark out their territory just in case. It's just in their nature because that's the way they are. That Lady has looks to burn. When God put her together he used the best parts and took his time."

I didn't say anything but just shrugged. What Mom had said was true though. God had done a real damned fine job with the Widow Brannigan.

***

Mid-morning found me in the truck heading into town.

The roads were as bad as I thought they'd be as I wrestled with the wheel bouncing up and down like a jalopy as the wheels struggled for traction in the deeply rutted snow. Thankfully, the nearer I got to the junction and the main road into town it looked like the plows had been out which made the going easier as there was already a bunch of cars and trucks left stranded by the roadside.

Bedrock Falls had a population of a couple of hundred folks and serviced not only those that lived and worked there but the wider farming community in the district. Its single main street was made up of various suppliers, tradesmen, stores, and conveniences of one sort or the other.

It was the social hub of the area and where people congregated and mixed together in their daily lives. McGinty's General Store had been the first establishment to open back in the early 20's and as more people moved into the interior, the town had developed around it and became a waypoint for the shipping and selling of cattle and grain when the railroad finally came through.

Most people knew most everyone else and a strong community had emerged as the social foundations were laid with the first church being built on the hill to the West. As time passed, more civic structures were put in place with the formation of a town council who laid out certain statutory rules and laws with a Sheriff's Department being set up to enforce those laws.

Winters in these parts were usually biting cold and severe with folks hunkering down and going into hibernation until Spring came around. As I crested the rise and drove over the railroad crossing, I was surprised to see a decent amount of people and traffic moving around in town. No doubt they were taking advantage of the break in the weather to replenish their supplies just in case. Better to be safe than sorry and all that.

I pulled into a spare parking space and turned the engine off as I jumped out of the truck into about six inches of packed snow. As I made my way along the sidewalk to Tanners Hardware Store, I didn't notice another truck pulling in a few spots up from where I had parked.

***

Archibald Tanner was as wide as he was tall.

He was a stout, hearty man with a bald pate and a set of whiskers that could best be described as exotic. Archie, as he liked to be known, rubbed his hands in his apron as he licked the tip of his pencil and jotted down my order.

"Alrighty," he said as looked at me over his half-moon spectacles which hung around his neck on a silver chain, "Five inch or seven?" he asked as he bounced back and forth behind his counter pulling his wooden ladder after him.

Uh. What had Uncle Joe said again? I scratched my head as I stood there holding my hat in my hands. That's right. The South ridge might need reinforcing he had told my Mother over breakfast this morning and we were running short of long nails and leather binding to do the job.

"Make it seven," I nodded, "Give me five packs of seven and some fence clips."

Archie scooted up his ladder like a rat up a pipe, pulled open a long wooden drawer and counted out what I wanted. Already on the counter were a dozen lengths of rolled tanned leather strips to bind fence posts and gates together.

"Here we go," he said as he put everything into a big cloth sack, "That it?"

"Yup," I nodded, showing him my Mothers note.

He totted up the total and handed me the slip of paper with the amount due on it as I took out my wallet to pay him. With our business done, I tapped the brim of my hat and bid him a good day as I left his store and headed towards McGinty's where I had more things to pick up for Mom who had ordered some things a couple of weeks ago and were due to come in as freight on the railroad.

As I made my way along the sidewalk, there was a group of men standing outside of Harveys Barbers just shooting the breeze and laughing amongst themselves. Two of them I recognized from town meetings as tenant farmers with the other two being townsfolk about the same age as myself.

They all turned as I approached and tapped the brim of my hat. "Gents," I nodded.

"Cassidy," replied the oldest. A tall, thin wiry guy called Mitch Jones who worked the soil due South of here to support himself, his wife Agnes and their four kids.

The other farmer was a thick-set man with a weather-beaten face named Jackson Turner who had a cattle ranch East of where we lived and who, from rumor, was courting one of the Simpson twins whose parents owned the funeral parlor at the far end of the main street. He was in his early thirties and every time I saw him he was always chomping on a stogie.

Billy-Bob Hogg and Rufus Ford were two old classmates who I had grown up with over the years and we had spent many a time just hanging around town watching the world go by.

"Where you heading, Tom?" asked Rufus as he stood there in a black coat two sizes too big for him with his curly ginger hair sticking out either side from under his flat cap, "Thought you folks over there would be snowed under by now."

I shook my head and stuck both hands in my pockets. "We're doing okay. Could have been a lot worse if the wind hadn't blown it over. Some places are up to their balls and tits with the stuff but once you get onto the main roads things are passable. What are you lot up to?"

Mr. Jones nodded towards where his truck was parked. "Same as you, Son," he said, "Stocking up on the stuff we might need and some stuff we probably don't but you can never be sure out here. How's your Momma and Joe doing?"

"Doing alright," I nodded, "Always got that big pot of stew on the go."

He laughed. "Yep, that sounds like your Mother alright. Tell her I'm asking after her and that Agnes will be over once the thaw sets in. God only knows when that will be."

The talk turned small as we stood there discussing this and that about whatever news or rumors were doing the rounds. The conversation was slow and easy like the way life was in these parts and it was Billy-Bob who saw her first.

"Holey Moley!" he muttered nudging his friend as he stared over our shoulders at the woman walking towards us with a bag over her arm and purpose in her stride.

We all turned to see what had left him standing there wide-eyed, open-mouthed and fiddling around trying to fasten the top button on his shirt. There was that sudden murmur of surprised appreciation as we all stood there looking like the dumbest bunch you ever did see.

"Geez," said Mr. Turner who grabbed the hat from his head as she approached our little group, "Will you just look at that." he breathed as the Lady looked up to see us all staring at her.

The Widow Brannigan stopped and regarded each of us in turn with a smile. She was dressed pretty much like she had been yesterday but the cut of her clothes was much more striking with her now in a matching dark blue coat and pleated skirt. Over her shoulders, she was wearing a thick shawl and on her head was what looked like a hat made of raccoon fur with its tail intact and curving down over her shoulder. Not a single one us could stop staring at her if we wanted to.

We parted like the red sea and the rest of us removed our hats as she walked between us with a "Mornin' gentlemen," by way of greetings as we all responded with respectful "Ma'am." and stood there coughing and shuffling our feet.

As she was about to walk by me she stopped briefly and glanced up at my red face with a smile of recognition.

"Mister Cassidy," she said, "Nice to see you again."

Then she continued on her way as we all stood there blowing out our cheeks. Slowly the rest of them turned to look at me with frowns on their faces and a "What the hell?" question in their eyes.

Me?

I stood there with a stupid grin on my face and stuck my tongue into my cheek. Swear to God, if I had one of Jackson Turners cigars to hand I'd have taken a long draw on it and checked out my nails like I was the Queen of England.

***

McGintys General Store had been there on the main street for as long as I could remember and probably even longer with the ownership of it passing down from generation to generation over the years.

The current proprietor was Marybelle McGinty who was a cheerful auburn haired Lady with an ebullient manner and voluptuous frame to match. Always one with a nod and a wink, she was a breezy ray of sunshine on a cloudy day and everyone far and wide knew of her and the McGinty's General Store.

"Well," said the fifty year old owner as she nudged her assistant, a fraught looking middle aged woman called Estelle Walker who was as thin as a rake with a head of frizzy grey hair and the oddest pair of brown bug eyes you ever did see, "If it isn't the most handsome young man in town!" she winked as she went over to the counter where she handled the mail.

The other woman tittered and giggled nervously at me as I followed Mrs. McGinty over to where a large stack of parcels was kept. Delivery was usually really early in the morning and everyone knew when the loco was due because you could hear the whistle a mile off as it crossed over the junction and came into the station at the North end of town.

As she went searching, I stood there looking around the store to see if I had forgotten anything that we might need that wasn't on the note. Food wise we were pretty much good to go and the only thing we might be short of was salt which we used to spread around the yard if the ice got bad. 

Above the door at the other end of the store, the bell rang as someone came in. The place was getting busy with Estelle running around serving customers and I stepped back from the counter as I glanced up at the mirror above the till which was there so that whoever was serving could see who was coming and going at the other entrance.

When I saw who had come in I felt my chest constrict suddenly with my heart bouncing around inside it like a jumping bean.

Everything else was forgotten. Every single person in the store became nothing more than a phantom as I froze and watched Mary-Beth Brannigan idly browsing around the shelves and racks of this, that and the other. I moved away from the gap that separated each part of the shop so that she couldn't see me but I could continue to watch her in the mirror.

The woman was like an emotional magnet. I had this overwhelming urge just to be around her. To be able to just stare at her without her knowing I was. Merely looking at her made me feel warm inside.

"Here we go," said Mrs. McGinty suddenly, "Three for Cassidy including mail. May as well take those now seeing as George isn't going to be making delivery's anytime soon in this weather!" 

She lifted the latch and went back behind the counter and put each package on the scale to weigh it for the postal charge. Mom was always ordering stuff and we had built up enough credit to cover the cost of the freight.

As I was stood there in front of the counter as she flipped each brown package this way and that checking the information on the labels, I suddenly felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as a shiver went up and down my spine. I glanced up to see Mrs. Brannigan standing behind me to my right. It was then I saw she was looking up at the mirror as well and I blinked as our eyes met and held for what felt like an age before I flushed with embarrassment and looked away.

"Sexy lingerie, frilly bloomers, pink panties, and French knickers to go," said Mrs. McGinty with a straight face as I turned back to her in shock wondering if I'd heard her right as she picked up the largest parcel and read out the contents label to the whole store.

"Uh," I mumbled trying to clear my head, "They're what?"

Was she serious?

I twisted around trying to read what she was seeing. What in the name of sweet pickle was my Mother ordering from out of state?

Then the older woman burst out laughing and reached over the counter to ruffle my thick hair as she squeezed her sides in amusement.

"Oh my," she gasped, "The look on your face!"

The Lady behind me was laughing too and I glanced over my shoulder feeling like a ten-year-old being teased by a pair of old Aunts. Mrs. Brannigan came to the counter and leaned over to read the label.

"French knickers to go, huh?" she smiled as she winked at the store owner who was still chuckling away to herself, "Least you've got good taste in underwear."

What? I stuck out my chin. "They're not for me!" I replied lamely.

"I should hope not, Mister Cassidy," she replied, "You'd be the talk of the town if they were."

Mrs. McGinty put the package back down on the counter and picked up another bobbin of string to tie them all together for me to carry back to the truck. The woman standing next to me raised her eyebrows in amusement as I bent down to read the label for myself.

CONTENTS: TWO DOUBLE/ONE SINGLE BLANKET. BED LINEN BLUE THREE

Funny.

***

"Mister Cassidy!"

I looked up from the back of my truck as I was loading up some lumber I'd just purchased from the local sawmill for new fence posts. I came back around to where Mrs. Brannigan was standing on the sidewalk holding her own supplies.

I tapped the brim of my hat and smiled at her "Ma'am."

The thing I had noticed the most was something which I would never even consider at all. That actually looking at her was a difficult thing to do even though it was the one thing I wanted to do more than anything. Another thing was that once you were looking at her it was even harder to look away. 

To me, everything about her was perfect. Even though we'd only met briefly over the years, I had always felt she was someone with a good heart and a positive outlook on life. That she was also most definitely the most attractive woman I'd ever seen made just being near her such a pleasure.

She raised her hand to shield her eyes from the glare of the sun squinting as she smiled at me. "Just wanted to thank you for yesterday," she said, "When you came over with Ned to make sure everything was alright," She paused and stared more intently at me, "That I was alright."

There was little I could do other than stare back and openly admire the beauty of her face and the natural intensity of her gaze. Not sure how to describe what I was feeling but my world was rapidly beginning to revolve around this woman in a way that took my breath away as she began to dominate my every waking moment.

"That's fine," I finally managed to say, "That was absolutely my pleasure, Ma'am."

She just smiled and nodded a little as if she was surprised at something she felt or had occurred to her. "Well, that's good. Good," she replied as she began to turn away before stopping to look back at me, "Hope you enjoy that French underwear, Mister Cassidy," she said with a grin as I watched her walking back up the snow covered sidewalk to where her truck was parked.

I stared at her as she got into her vehicle, reversed out and headed off down the road back home. It was then I noticed a number of folks were standing there doing the same as her truck disappeared into the distance. 

As for that French underwear.

The only way I'd enjoy those imaginary things more was if she was standing in front of me wearing them...

***

End of The Widow Brannigan part 1.

Continues in part 2 soon.

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