Telt had warned Wren to stay away from the front window, told her he didn’t want to risk anyone seeing her. He didn’t understand that from the hallway she couldn’t see anything going on next door. She’d given Eula a list of all that needed to be done before the mercantile would be ready to open. It didn’t feel right to let others do what she could do best. “I am going over there—I have to see what’s going on.”
He looked so damned relaxed, sitting there at his desk. If he told her to sit down, stay out of sight, one more time she’d strangle him.
With her eyes straining to see out the window from the end of the hall, Wren saw Pammy Deeds rush by with a broom and some sheets. Telt got up from his desk and stood in front of her, blocking her view with his big shoulders. “I know this is hard, Wren, but give it another day?”
Placing her hands firmly on his chest, she gave him a shove. “No! I’ve been cooped up in this place for five days,” and managed to get as far as his desk. “I’m going out that door.” Telt sprinted over to the door to block her.
His hands on her shoulders holding her back, he corrected her, “It’s four-and-half days. How many times do I have to tell you?”
Feigning surrender, she hung her head. “I know, I know.” She closed her eyes and changed her tactic. Looking up at him through her lashes, she put her hands on his chest, sliding them up to his neck, then to his jaw. Her fingers began to fool with his ear lobes; she knew he couldn’t resist that. Appling her wheedling voice, she reasoned, “I’m only going next door to visit my property. I have to, Telt. My store has to open tomorrow. I have no more time to waste.”
Removing her hands from his ears and clasping them tightly within his grasp, he heaved a weighty sigh, closed his eyes then opened them again, his gaze steady, his jaw set. “Okay, I didn’t say anything ‘cause I didn’t want to get your hopes up, but I think Judge Crookshank might be on his way here. He could get here today…for certain, tomorrow.”
One bounce, the news put springs on her feet. “Yes! I knew he would come! I knew it,” she shouted, and began to jump all around his office, clapping her hands, giggling, then stopped dead and grabbed him by his shirtfront, breathless. “How do you know? Did you get a reply from him?”
He looked to the ceiling, pressed his lips together, then brought his gaze down to meet hers. “To be honest, no.”
That didn’t sound at all hopeful, and Wren went limp with despair.
Telt gave her a little shake. “But, I got a reply from his clerk. The poor man sent wire after wire for me: one to Hood River, one to The Dalles, to Boardman, then Umatilla Station. The last one he sent went to Pendleton. Each telegram arrived too late to catch the judge. But the clerk assured me the judge, and a Mr. Clarkston, whoever he is, are on their way here.”
Once again filled with renewed hope, she squealed, “Here? They’re both coming here? Yes. Oh, yes. Howard T. Buttrum, you better look to your laurels. Your day is coming.”
* * * *
Wren began to dance around the room like a prizefighter, her fists jabbing the air. She stopped in front of him, breathless, to ask, “Telt! Do you know what this means?”
He considered taking a stab at it, but didn’t figure she’d hear anything he had to say. Out of breath from watching her, he flopped down at his desk and folded his hands behind his head to enjoy the show. She picked up the dance where she’d left off, her cheeks pink, eyes bright with anticipation, curls bouncing—God he loved the woman.
As she circled the room, she went over the judge’s illusive itinerary. “The last telegram went to Pendleton and arrived too late, right?” he nodded, but she didn’t wait for his response before leaping to her next question. “When was that?”
“Monday,” he answered.
Whirling around, she practically leapt over his desk. “Yesterday? Telt, they could be here today!”
“I think I said that,” he reminded her, with a laugh.
She bounced around the desk and jumped onto his lap. Instantly growing quiet in his arms, she curled up, her arms going around his neck. “Yes, you did say that,” she murmured before she kissed him firmly on the lips.
Coming up for air, he warned her, “You better get back in your cell before somebody sees us.”
Her brown eyes dancing with mischievous sparks, she suggested, “Why don’t you come join me,” her fingers combing his hair, her lips close to his ear. Her bottom stroked his rock hard erection as she slid slowly off his lap and came to her feet. With her hands on his upper thigh, very close but not touching his balls, she leaned down and tugged the waistband of his trousers, a sly look in her brown eyes.
“Oh, no you don’t, you hussy,” he grumbled, and with a good deal of regret, he took her by the shoulders to get her away from him. “I’ve got sheriffin’ to do.” Feeling guilty, he glanced out his big window. Across the street, he saw Shorty sweeping the steps of the telegraph office, his dog Peanut putting up a fight with the broom. Percy had gone back to his job running the telegraph and delivering the mail. He refused to send or deliver telegrams for Howard, though. And Eula picked up the family mail. Howard had fired the man, but the home office hadn’t sent a replacement and advised Howard to keep Percy on until a replacement could be found. An impasse had been met.
Their hot spell had finally broken. Laura Creek had gotten a frost overnight, and today the temperature sat at a comfortable sixty-eight degrees. With all the hustle and bustle going on, the whole town seemed in good spirits, with the exception of Howard Buttrum, that is.
Telt saw Shorty wave at someone. “You better get back in your cage, woman. Grandma Tatom is coming with your lunch.”
Wren stuck her tongue out at him before turning and skipping down the hall to her cell. She’d just closed the cell door when Grandma Tatom stepped inside his office.
“I brought enough for two,” Grandma said with a wink. “No sense your prisoner getting better vittles than you. I reckon you been taking your share anyways. We all been handin’ out pretty good helpings.
“Tell Miss O’Bannon we’re dressing the front window. We got them pots and pans displayed just like she said. And we draped a bolt of real pretty calico over a wooden crate. We put up the signs she wanted, and got most everything marked and priced. Tomorrow’s gonna be a big day. Yes, sir, a big day around here.”
One thing about Grandma Tatom, a body didn’t need to say much to keep the conversation going; she managed very well all by herself. All Telt had to do was stand there and smile and nod.
“I got almost ten dollars I’m gonna spend right off. I’ve been needing some needles and thread for some time now. We all been talking about what we’re gonna get. We been having a good time.”
Wren yelled from the back of the jail, “Thank you, Mrs. Tatom. Thank you all. God bless you.”
Grandma Tatom winked at him, grinned, and shook her head. His conscience pinching a bit, he suspected the old woman knew what was going on between him and Wren, probably everybody did. They weren’t fooling anyone.
* * * *
Wren received progress reports from Shorty all afternoon. She almost had Telt convinced he could sneak her over there after dark and let her have a look around when Shorty stuck his curly red-head in the opened office door, on the fly to announce, “There’s a buggy coming. Looks like Judge Crookshank, but he’s got two other fellas with him.”
“You hear that, Wren?” Telt called out to her, making his way to the door.
He heard her come down the hall and out into his office. When he turned back, he couldn’t read what she was thinking. Before, animated and bouncing off the walls, he’d understood that. But now, with her hair pulled up on the sides away from her face, wearing her russet skirt and cream-colored, ruffled blouse, the one he liked…the one she’d been wearing the first day she arrived in Laura Creek, she looked composed, pulled together. Too calm, like the calm before a storm; she’d gathered her power and now waited for the right moment to burst open and raise holy hell.
“Shorty, go get Mr. Buttrum,” Telt ordered without take his gaze from Wren’s determined aspect. “I think we’ll want him here. Don’t you, Wren?”
“Oh, yes. Most assuredly we’ll need Mr. Buttrum,” she said, her voice quiet and controlled. Telt half expected to see a lightning bolt shoot from her eyes.
* * * *
Lottie, on her way to inform Miss O’Bannon they were almost through for the day, felt proud of all they’d accomplished today. They’d done something for the town…and Miss O’Bannon today.
She looked forward to getting home and getting out of her old red and white gingham skirt and red blouse. She wanted to wash her hair. She hadn’t bothered to put it up today; instead she had tied it behind her ears with a navy blue bandana. She felt grimy and disheveled, her face flushed with exertion.
When she set eyes on the third man sitting behind the judge, her heart leapt into her throat. Cast in alt, uncertain what to do, run home and tidy herself, or run and throw herself at the man, instinct won out and she chose the latter.
* * * *
Wesley Potter felt rather unkempt himself, as one would who had spent seven days crossing this God-forsaken country by train from Chicago all the way to Boise, Idaho, then from Boise by stage for six dusty days to Baker City, Oregon. From there he had been fortunate to find a freight wagon to haul him for two more days to La Grande, Oregon. Yesterday, he started walking west and hailed a ride on a freight wagon headed for Pendleton.
Born and raised in Chicago, he’d never crossed the Mississippi, let alone wide-open plains, awe-inspiring mountains, and open wastelands.
His once-upon-a-time white shirt, now brown with dust, as were his brown dress trousers and his brown bowler hat, made him itchy all over. The sun had scorched him, and the dust had stiffened his sandy hair, as well as his waxed, handlebar mustache. His wire-rimmed spectacles sat crooked on his nose, bent, streaked with dust and perspiration. He’d told Miss Bledsoe he would swim the ocean to reach her. Swimming the ocean might have been the easier route.
Judge Crookshank—with whom Wesley had only recently become acquainted—hollered over his shoulder to him above the rumble of the carriage wheels, “We were well met, back there at the head of the trail. You might still be wandering about.”
Leaning forward, Wesley agreed. “Yes, indeed, I am very much obliged to you. Oh, there she is, dear Miss Bledsoe.” About to call out to her, trying to stand in the still-moving buggy, his salutation became a cry of alarm when the carriage swayed precariously and he fell ungracefully back into his seat.
“Ah, yes,” said the judge, giving Wesley’s plight little regard as Lottie rushed towards them, her hands waving and calling Wesley’s name. “It appears you were expected.”
* * * *
Telt made his way out to meet the judge but came to a sudden standstill. Lottie Bledsoe wrapped herself around a rather short, stout, bespectacled young man. Telt started to move and almost tripped over his own feet when the couple kissed, full on the lips, right there in the middle of the street.
He got close enough to hear Lottie, out of breath and giggling, gush the name, “Wesley.” Standing on her tip-toes, she’d wrapped her arms around the fellow. Telt didn’t think that Lottie, almost the same height as the fella, didn’t need to stand on her toes. Laughing and crying, she dashed the tears running down her rosy cheeks with her knuckles. The man came to his senses first and pushed her a little away. Lottie then became aware of Telt standing nearby, observing. She held out her hand to him to draw him in. “Wesley, meet our sheriff, Telt Longtree.”
Telt held out his hand to the young man. Wesley’s hands were soft. Telt held back the urge to wipe his hand on his trousers to remove the creepy feeling. “Good to meet you,” he managed to say.
“This is my Wesley,” Lottie gushed, “I mean, this is Wesley Potter, my…my fiancé,” she said, her face turning a glowing pink.
And well she should blush, Telt thought to himself. The woman had never looked so animated. “Fiancé? Well, hell.” He muttered, “Since when?”
In what he thought a remarkably reasonable tone under the circumstances, he said, “Congratulations,” and again, offered to shake the man’s soft-as-a-child’s hand. This would take some time to get used to, Lottie Bledsoe with a fiancé.
He stood there feeling like a fish out of water, gaping as Lottie politely excused herself and her fiancé, taking the young man by the arm, leading him away. He snapped his mouth shut when it registered on him that Lottie was taking the fella straight to her cottage behind the bank. The implications left him blinking in utter astonishment.
“Sheriff Longtree,” the judge called, taking his attention away from Lottie Bledsoe’s retreating backside, “this gentleman is Miss O’Bannon’s lawyer, Louis Clarkston,” the judge said as Telt helped Mr. Clarkston from the buggy.
“Glad to meet you, Mr. Clarkston,” he managed to say, remembering to hold out his hand to shake. Turning back to the judge, Telt said, “I’m very glad you’re here, Judge Crookshank. Miss O’Bannon is in jail.”
“Jail?” the judge asked as Telt helped him down from the carriage.
“Yes, sir,” he answered. “She’s been in my custody since last Friday. There’s a wanted poster out for her arrest for stealing six mules and two freight wagons.”
“Preposterous!” declared the judge.
“Yes, sir,” he agreed.
“Who put up the poster?” asked Mr. Clarkston. Telt stood aside to usher the gentlemen into his office.
Wren had heard that question. She answered before Telt found his voice, “My uncle, Stanley O’Bannon.”
“Miss O’Bannon.” said Mr. Clarkston, taking her hand to shake. Turning, he asked Telt, “May I see the poster?”
Telt had the poster right on top of his desk, and happily handed it over once the judge got comfortable in his desk chair.
“I don’t understand, Miss O’Bannon. You have receipts and invoices to disprove these allegations,” reasoned Mr. Clarkston.
“I do have all manner of proof, Mr. Clarkston, in my satchel. I’ve been traveling a great deal, no permanent address. I used my satchel as my portable office, if you will.”
“Someone stole the satchel,” Telt interrupted, sensing Wren’s bitterness; her sarcasm might get in the way of expediency.
For his trouble, she glared at him. He nodded and offered her a smirky smile. A bossy little thing, used to taking charge, Wren still had a lot to learn about how he worked. This was his office, and he could handle this.
“Stolen, you say!” declared the judge. “Now this is interesting. In a small, remote little village, something quite important is suspected of being stolen. Surely the culprit should be easy to spot.”
“Oh, yeah, well, as to that,” Telt grumbled, his hands going deep into his pockets, rocking back on his heels, “we’re pretty sure who did the stealing, and why. We just don’t have any proof.”
“I can’t find him, Sheriff,” shouted Shorty as he burst into the office with no regard for those gathered.
“You look over at the bank?” Telt asked.
“Yeah,” Shorty said, nodding his red head, his gaze taking in the presence of strangers. “I asked if they’d seen him, and his teller said he hadn’t seen Uncle Howard since lunch time. So I went over to his house. I knocked on the front door and the back door, but no one answered. Then I ran over to the mercantile, ‘cause I seen Aunt Eula there. She hadn’t set eyes on him since breakfast. I went down to the stable, and he wasn’t there. He’s gone!”
“Who? Who are we looking for?” asked the judge.
“Allow me, Sheriff?” Wren requested. Telt crossed the room and leaned his large frame up against the wall close to the stove to give her the floor. “Your good friend Mr. Buttrum, Judge Crookshank, is not pleased at having a female owner of the mercantile. At every turn he has done his best to sabotage my opening the store.
“I have a black book with dates and a list of materials used and hours of time spent on making the property I purchased fit to be occupied. In stealing my satchel, I believe he thought to put a period to all progress. His wife Eula foiled his plans. The store is ready to open tomorrow with or without me. Mrs. Buttrum organized the citizens, and they’ve been working very hard.”
Telt noticed when her outward façade of self-control cracked a bit, her voice faltered and her chin began to quiver. He also saw tears threatening to swamp her pretty, brown eyes, and had to stop himself from going to her and putting his arms around her. “I would be sunk if it hadn’t been for the lovely people of this town,” she managed to get out before the tears spilled over and ran down her cheeks.
The judge cleared his throat, “I’ll want details, of course. First, we’d better find the satchel and Buttrum.”
Shorty approached the desk. Percy had followed his son to the sheriff’s office, and Telt gave the man a nod. Percy stood close to the door. Telt heard him take in a sharp breath when Shorty piped in to say, “I think I might know where that satchel is.”
“Ulysses Homer Terrel!” Percy growled, stepping forward into the room and yanking his son around to face him. “You know where that satchel is? How long have you known about this?”
Eyes wide, Shorty wailed in his defense, “I didn’t know I know’d until just now. I just remembered somethin’, Pa.”
“Young man,” barked the judge, “tell us right this minute what you think you know, and we’ll decide if it’s relevant.”
“Yes, sir,” Shorty said. Turning about, Shorty put his back to his father. Percy kept his hands on his son’s shoulders. Telt thought those hands were to remind the boy to tell the truth. “Last week right after Miss O’Bannon and the sheriff got back from Pendleton, the sheriff hauled Miss O’Bannon off to jail. I stood out there lookin’ in the window,” Shorty said, pointing to the office window. “Uncle Howard looked in too.
“I knew he’d found the wanted poster while the sheriff and Miss O’Bannon was gone; I saw him in here sittin’ at your desk, Sheriff, goin’ through your papers on your desk. When you put Miss O’Bannon in jail I got mad at Uncle Howard ‘cause he got her in trouble. I thought Miss O’Bannon would be all right, ‘cause I heard her say she had papers to show she owned the mules and the wagons. I know Uncle Howard heard her too, ‘cause that’s when he gave me a real dirty look and took off for the stable. I high-tailed it to the mercantile to find Pa and tell him the sheriff had gone and put Miss O’Bannon in jail.
“Pa didn’t say much, he just told me to go close up the storeroom. It was gettin’ dark, but I seen my uncle come around the corner of the sheriff’s office kind of sneaky like. He hurried by me. I was closin’ the door, so he didn’t see me. He was lookin’ kind’a fat, you know, his coat stickin’ out, and his face all sweaty.”
Judge muttered his impatience. Telt knew better. Shorty could tell a story. He was very thorough and good at his job, a true reporter. “Come, come, boy, what did you see?” the judge ordered.
“I saw him put somethin’ down on the step at the back door of the bank, then unlock the door. He picked up the dark thing and went inside. It might’a been a bag.”
“You did fine, son,” said Percy, laying his hands down over the boy’s shoulders to his chest and pulling him back against his torso.
Wren had pulled herself together, also impatient with Shorty’s rendition of events. “As soon as Mr. Buttrum gave the sheriff that wanted poster, the sheriff impounded my wagons and mules and they were taken to the stable. Telt, the sheriff, had stowed my satchel in the dash compartment before we left Pendleton. As he went about his duty to incarcerate me, I think we can assume Mr. Buttrum went to the stable to look for my satchel and my records.” Pleased with herself that she’d been the one to fill in the blanks before he could even open his mouth, Wren offered Telt a self-satisfied little smile.
“Supposition, circumstantial,” muttered the judge. “But it does sound like something Rum-butt would do.”
“Rum-butt?” mouthed Mr. Clarkston.
“Did I say Rum-butt?” the judge asked. He looked to the sheriff, then to Miss O’Bannon; they nodded. “We went to Harvard together…everybody called him Rum-butt. I won’t tell you the moniker they slapped on me; it is too cruel to utter,” he assured them with a disgusted shudder.
The afternoon light had started to fade into deep shadows by the time Eula closed the door of the mercantile. The ladies were gathered outside, all of them tired to the bone but reluctant to leave. It had been a good day, a satisfying day. Eula, pleased with the results, adjusted her bonnet and straightened her skirt. She knew she’d asked this before, but she would ask it again, “You’re all sure you put your time down? Miss O’Bannon made that clear. She needs a record of the work we’ve done.”
Grandma Tatom and her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Brandtmeyer, and her daughters, Mrs. Meirs and Mrs. Claussen, and the other ladies, nodded their heads. “Well, I think we’ve done a marvelous job, considering the circumstances. I’m sure Miss O’Bannon will be pleased. I do wish Lottie had returned. I don’t understand where she could have gone to.
“Isn’t it wonderful that the judge is here for our little opening?” All the ladies agreed with her, and were still talking about it when Eula bid them good evening and set off for the sheriff’s office. She wanted to offer the comforts of her home to the judge for the duration of his visit, as she always did. She admired the judge very much. He was an old acquaintance from her Portland days. Once upon a time she’d considered the judge husband material. Then the judge introduced her to Howard and all bets were off.
She recalled how she’d fallen for Howard T. Buttrum the moment she set eyes on him, so powerful looking, with an attitude to match. She just knew he was a man of substance. His being a friend of the judge also carried weight with her parents. Howard T. Buttrum flattered her, made much over her pies, and praised her looks and professional manner. He’d given her a royal courting, with flowers, dinners, concerts, candy…the works. In less than a month, she became his bride and found herself on the way to the backend of nowhere…Laura Creek.
As it turned out, that essence of power she’d found so irresistible was, unfortunately, Howard’s need to control all aspects of his life, including everyone around him. For the most part, Eula worked around this foible, or just plain ignored it, or countered it with her own threats. These last couple of weeks, for some reason, Howard, beyond overbearing, had become a one-man crusade, determined to oppress Miss Wren O’Bannon.
Eula realized at the outset Miss O’Bannon would never allow herself to be controlled by any man. She was a woman of parts. To Eula’s mind, Wren O’Bannon was redoubtable, and not even Howard T. Buttrum could stop her from her objective. With that in mind, Eula did understand why Howard was behaving like an ogre. He wouldn’t understand anyone with more ambition than he had, especially a woman.
Matters at home had boiled to a head this morning. Howard had no sooner opened his eyes and set his feet on the floor than he started to shout at her, forbidding her to lift one finger to help Miss O’Bannon open her mercantile. He couldn’t stop the other ladies, but he sure-as-hell could do something about his own wife.
This morning she’d had enough, and let him have the full force of her outrage for presuming he could forbid her from doing anything, especially helping to get Laura Creek’s mercantile ready to open. Raising her voice, she had put her foot down, and about time.
“I want that store. I need that store, and by God, I will have…MY…store! I will do whatever it takes, Howard!” she had screamed in his red face. “I will not allow your threats to stand in my way. Do you hear me? You can go to blazes!” she’d told him as she stomped down the stairs to fix his breakfast.
Over their morning oatmeal, the conversation picked up where it’d left off. The upshot of the conversation, his threats made her tired, most especially his threats where Miss O’Bannon was concerned.
“If you do not desist in this boorish behavior, right now, today, Howard, I will pack my bags and move in with Lottie. I will not stay here and be your doormat. I won’t.” With that, she’d left the house. She’d not set eyes on her husband since.
Her thoughts scattered, Eula spent the better part of the day thinking of little else but the conversation with her husband, and what to do, if anything, about it. She’d vacillated from one moment to the next, feeling that perhaps she’d been too harsh, then turning right around and believing, without a doubt, she’d been absolutely right. He’d deserved every word.
She purposely avoided going home at lunchtime. She knew it to be a waste of her time to argue with him. She’d said all she had to say on the matter, and he could take it or leave it. She tried to tell herself she didn’t care if her husband had lunch or not, but it worried her. She liked to cook for Howard. He loved her cooking. He loved her. She knew it in her heart. Howard T. Buttrum was a romantic man.
Almost suppertime now, he would be hungry if he hadn’t had any lunch. Perhaps he’d gone home, she thought on her way to the sheriff’s office. or perhaps to the sheriff’s office with the judge. She picked up her pace and headed in that direction, in hopes of finding her husband, and finding he’d come to his senses.
“Ah, now here’s another beautiful woman. This town is full of them,” the judge declared, coming to his feet as she entered the sheriff’s office.
Eula nodded to her brother Percy and her nephew, who were just inside the opened door. She smiled to Wren and the gentleman beside her—with whom Eula was not familiar. Then she glanced toward the sheriff, standing next to the little potbellied stove, nodded and gave him a smile. Then she made straight for the judge and his open arms. She needed this today. She needed to be consoled and reassured. Ever since Miss O’Bannon had hit town and Howard had become a one-man crusade, Eula felt as if her world had begun to swerve out of orbit.
She stood on her tiptoes and kissed the judge’s bewhiskered cheek. “It is so good to see you, Francis. Unexpected,” she said with a valiant smile, even though she felt herself on the verge of tears. “You’re early for your regular visit, aren’t you?” she asked, pulling back and looking up into his merry, grey eyes.
“I am,” he said, “and a good thing it is, too. Seems all is at sixes and sevens around here,” patting her on the shoulder. “I’d like you to meet Louis Clarkston, Miss O’Bannon’s lawyer. He traveled with me.”
Staying at the judge’s side, Eula stretched out her hand to Mr. Clarkston, impressed with his distinguished appearance. Sizing the man up, Eula decided Mr. Clarkston had presence. She found him attractive in a rather severe and aristocratic way.
She said to the judge, her eyes including Mr. Clarkston, “I hope you know we expect both of you to make your home with us during your stay. We have plenty of room, as you know, Francis.”
The judge assured Mr. Clarkston by saying, “Cooks like an angel, softest beds in the whole damn state. Makes a man sorry to leave, this little woman does,” declared the judge with his arm around her shoulder.
Embarrassed, Eula attempted a smile and said, “I thought I might find Howard here. I haven’t seen him since this morning.”
“I was just about to ask you if you knew where we could find the rascal,” the judge said.
“Eula,” Wren said, stepping forward, coming closer to the edge of the desk, “do you think Mr. Buttrum could have taken my satchel? Has he said anything to you about it?”
Eula felt her empty stomach do a flip-flop. That damned satchel. Howard, what have you done?
“No,” she said, suddenly becoming weak in the knees. “I’m sorry I don’t know if he has the satchel or if he doesn’t.” Right now, though, she needed to be frank—the judge was her friend as well as Howard’s. Taking a deep breath, and making up her mind, she told them, “Howard is guilty of something. He’s been shouting at me and everyone around him for over a week now. The last few days have been the worst. I’ve never seen him so out of control. I told him this morning I’d had enough. Probably why I haven’t seen him all day…he’s avoiding me, and everyone else.”
“We have reason to believe Miss O’Bannon’s satchel may be in the bank,” Telt said, coming to stand behind Wren. Eula noticed he put his hand to her waist. So it’s like that, she thought to herself. They were a couple now. The sheriff went on to say, “We’d like to have a look. Did Howard say anything about going out of town?”
“Oh, no,” she answered with a certain shake of her head. “I’m sure he would’ve said something to me if he’d planned a trip. I thought he might’ve gone home.”
“Shorty, here,” the sheriff said, pulling the boy out from behind his father, “went over to your house not long ago and no one answered the door, front or back. He asked at the bank if they’d seen him, and his clerk said he hadn’t seen Howard since noon. Shorty checked the stables, too, and Punk hadn’t seen him either”
She felt sick. It was her fault…all her fault Howard was in trouble, somewhere out there in trouble…in very, very deep trouble. “If he isn’t home, and not in his office…oh, Howard,” she cried. The judge pulled her close to his side and began to pat her on the back.
“Come on, son, call your dog. We need to get home,” Eula heard Percy say as he took Shorty by the shoulders to lead him out of the sheriff’s office. “Let me know if I can help…if we need to get up a search party. I’m going to take Shorty home and get him some supper.”
All of them heard it; it was hard not to. It sounded like a wounded coyote or someone singing or trying to sing. Singing but off-key, a big voice, one that carried. Howard?
“You-hoo-U-Eulaaa-U-U-Eulaaa, you-hoo-Eulaaa,” went the revised tune to the old fight song of ‘Boola, Boola’. “So sorry, U-U-Eula, darling Eulaaa,” Howard sang at the top of his lungs.
Telt’s office emptied into the street. The street began to fill with the citizens of Laura Creek as Howard T. Buttrum, Eula’s sweet Howard, staggered down the street. The judge propped her up, his arm around her waist. She stood in shock, her hand to her mouth, tears flowing freely down her face.
Mac, Queenie, and Peanut, right behind them, took exception to the offensive racket and bounded down the street to confront the source.
Eula watched her husband stumble. He cursed the nasty beasts. He didn’t look like himself. He looked like the worst kind of bum. His shirttails were hanging out, his fancy vest gaped unbuttoned, and his suit coat had slipped to the side, falling off his shoulders. His white shirtfront and the front of his trousers were all muddy, as were his hands and face.
Holding a bottle of brandy in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other, high above his head, Howard danced for the barking dogs. Batting the dogs aside, Howard stopped spinning and found his direction, heading towards her.
“I’m so blue-la-blue-la—blue-la, pretty Eula-U-U-Eulaaa. I—been a fool-la-fool-la-fool-la-U-U-Eulaaaa.” Coming up to her, teetering forward and back, his breath strong enough to evaporate solid rock, he sang the last verse of his song in heartfelt, round tones, “I love you true-laaa, true-laaa-true-la-U-U-Eulaaa-sweet U-Eulaaaaa!”
While the whole town watched in horror, Howard put the bottle of brandy to his lips and took a long, deep draw. With a grin, and a bow to his audience, he turned his head and took a long, deep draw from the whiskey bottle he held in his other hand.
“Do something,” Eula heard Wren plead. “He’s going to kill himself if he keeps drinking at this pace.”
Forced into action, Telt stepped forward, but Eula put out her arm and stopped him. “Howard,” she said, trying for calm, praying for reason.
“Howard, we’ve been wondering where you were,” she said, hoping for a sober response.
“Eulaaa, Eulaaa, darling Eulaaa,” he sang as he stumbled backward. She caught him by his lapels and brought him up to less of an angle. Telt moved behind him, and a good thing, too. Howard practically threw himself at her, almost knocking her to the ground.
While struggling to maintain his balance, Telt removed the whiskey bottle from Howard’s hand and passed it off to the judge, who, Eula noticed, looked on with a scowl of disapproval on his face. Getting the bottle out of Howard’s hand was as easy as taking candy from a baby. Howard began to cry. The fumes made all of them dizzy. Telt managed to get one of Howard’s arms around his shoulder.
While Howard bemoaned the loss of his whiskey, Percy put his shoulder under Howard’s other arm. While Howard’s arm hung limp around Percy’s shoulder, the brandy bottle dangling from his grasp beneath Percy’s nose, Wren plucked the bottle of poison from Howard’s chubby fingers and handed it off to Mr. Clarkston. Mr. Clarkston took the bottle and held it as if it were a snake, two fingers under the lip.
“Don’t leave me, Eulaaaa! I’ve been bad. I’m a bad-bad-man. Somebody should lock me up!” he shouted.
“Going to jail!” he announced to one and all as Telt and Percy began to lead him into the office.
“Got to pay!” he shouted and reared back. His eyes found the judge’s face. Eula could tell he was having trouble focusing. “Crooked-Fanny!” Howard shouted and began to giggle.
“Franny, Franny Cockshrunk!” Howard chortled, putting Eula to the blush. “Francis…you old goat, come for my wife, didn’t yah?”
Howard lurched away from his supporters and lunged for the judge. “You can’t have her. She’s mine…loves me…I’m her big-ol’-jackass-of-a-husband.” Howard bellowed, and then went flat on his face in the dust a few feet from the sheriff’s office door, much to Eula’s horror.
Telt stood there for a second, trying to decide what to do. He couldn’t leave the man lying in the dust on the street, although he found the idea tempting. He looked up and realized Percy, everyone, stood waiting for him to do something. At last, bending his knees and putting his back into it, he picked up the heavy end and Percy took the legs. Between them they wrestled Howard into his office and back to the jail cell. Before they plopped Howard’s inert body onto the bed, Wren skipped around to grab Mrs. Claussen’s pretty quilt off the cot.
“Some coffee might help. If we could get it down him,” Percy said, out of breath. Eula had squeezed in behind them. She went about setting the rocking chair closer to the cot.
“Punk makes good coffee,” Telt grumbled, his hands on his hips, standing back to give Eula room.
“You think he’d make a pot for Howard?” asked Percy.
Telt had to think about that. He cocked his head. “I don’t know. He might. Then again, he might lace it with strychnine,” he muttered. Eula afforded them both a dirty look, then went back to soothing her husband’s brow.
“Shorty and I’ll go see if Punk’ll fix us up a pot. We’ll stay and kind of supervise,” Percy volunteered.
“Right,” Telt said with a nod.
Telt asked Eula, “What do you need here, water, towel, maybe a pan or bucket? ‘Cause I think he’s gonna be sicker than a dog.” Without meeting his eyes, Eula simply nodded.
Wren, he noticed, had turned to go back to the front office. He and Percy backed out of the cell, leaving Eula to watch over her husband.
As Telt and Percy rounded the corner and started down the hall, they overheard Mr. Clarkston talking to the judge. “I was under the impression Laura Creek was a dry town,” he remarked.
“Liquor is not to be sold to the public in Laura Creek. No law against a man imbibing his own stores,” explained the judge, his cheeks puffing out, causing his whiskers to wag. “I’ve seen Buttrum’s cellar, harrumph…very well stocked, it is,” testified the judge, giving the ends of his mustache a twirl with his fingers.
“Then you think he got into this condition from his own cellar?” Mr. Clarkston seemed to realize he’d put forth a stupid question, but once out he couldn’t very well take it back.
Percy emerged from the hallway into the office and, seeing Shorty sitting on the floor petting the sheriff’s dog, motioned to the boy. “Let’s go son.” They left together with a simple wave goodbye to the judge and Mr. Clarkston.
Telt came to a standstill at the end of the hall to study Wren; still holding the quilt, she’d taken up a position at the window. Her face, now in shadow, the fading light of the day casting golden highlights to her curls and setting her curvaceous body in silhouette, he could almost read her mind. She wanted her satchel back. Howard knew where it was, but he lay back there too drunk to be of any use.
* * * *
As her eyes looked out to the mountains to the west, Wren thought how serene it all appeared. A slight breeze blowing down the street stirred up little dust devils that twirled their way past her, headed toward the stable. Mac came to sit at her feet, leaning his body into her leg. She reached down and scratched his ear, hardly conscious of it. Queenie came up on her other side and pawed her skirt. She smiled down at the lovely golden retriever and gave her velvety ears equal time.
She knew Telt was watching her, could feel his eyes on her. When she turned around, her gaze locked with his and, for a moment, there was no one else in the room. His eyes spoke to her, urging her to hold on, just for a little longer. Everything would be all right…today. It would all get straightened out…today.
She tried to give him her patient face and a forced smile, but it wasn’t easy. She had to do something, make herself useful or go mad just standing around waiting for Howard Buttrum to sober.
She folded Mrs. Claussen’s quilt and laid it on Telt’s desk. “I’m going to go get some water and a bucket for Mr. Buttrum,” she announced to the room, dragging her eyes away from Telt’s concerned aspect.
“Yes, I would bet the liquor came from his own cellar. Buttrum’s not against liquor, he’s against saloons and drunkenness. Ironic isn’t it?” the judge said to Mr. Clarkston, his eyes following Wren out the door.
Telt went to the window, trying to figure out where Wren had gone, but he couldn’t see her.
“It’s for certain Howard didn’t purchase that brandy or whiskey here in Laura Creek,” the judge said to Mr. Clarkston, becoming impatient with the man. “Miss O’Bannon is aware Laura Creek is a dry town. It was a selling point for her. Hers is the only mercantile within a day’s ride, and she isn’t even open for business yet.”
Mr. Clarkston paced the room, then stopped next to Telt and looked out the window. He stood there looking thoughtful before saying, “If we could get the keys to the bank from Mr. Buttrum, we might be able to get this matter of Miss O’Bannon’s guilt settled before sundown. Her jail cell has just become a bit overcrowded. Judge, do you think you could give us the authority to go do a search?”
“Yes, yes, good idea, Clarkston.”
The judge addressed Telt, “Sheriff, what say you? I suppose by now all of the clerks have gone home. We’ll need the keys to the bank, possibly the combination to the safe.”
* * * *
Wren walked back into the office in time to hear the end of this conversation and thought at last…a step forward. Her spirits perked up considerably.
Telt gave her an encouraging nod before he headed back to the jail cell. He knew she followed close on his heels.
Telt asked Eula, “Can you check to see if he’s got the keys to the bank on him, Mrs. Buttrum? We’re gonna go over and make a search of his office. Is there a chance you know the combination to the safe? If you don’t, would his clerk or the manager know the combination?”
Wren tried to get around him. Telt hadn’t noticed, but she had a pan of water and a towel over her arm, and a small, galvanized bucket dangling from her fingers. He realized she must have gone out back to the well behind her store. He stepped aside to allow her into the cell.
Eula dipped the towel in the water and pressed the cloth to his head. Howard came to in a bleary-eyed sort of way, “Can’t stop the tide. Tide’s turned on me…,” he said, his words slurred together, and a line of drool escaped from the corner of his mouth.
Wren had just set the bucket on the floor at Eula’s feet when Howard warned, “Gonna puke now!” Eula tried to lift his big head. Wren held the bucket under his chin and most of the eruption made it into the container. The fumes were incredible; the women coughed, and Telt almost gagged.
Howard groaned. “Better,” he claimed and fell back on the down pillow Grandma Tatom had loaned to Wren’s jail cell. Telt saw Wren cringe; at least she’d saved the quilt.
Wren took the bucket and set it aside. Eula fished out the keys to her husband’s bank from his vest pocket and handed them over to Telt without even looking at him. Wren took the towel, dipped it into the cool water, and wrung it out before handing it to Eula, who immediately started to wash her husband’s face and neck.
“Ask him about the safe before he passes out again,” Telt urged. Wren gave him a look he couldn’t quite read. If she disapproved, he meant to ignore her and anyone else who might object to bothering Howard T. Buttrum or his wife during their time of trouble and sickness. After all, the man had brought it on himself.
Damn it all! Telt meant for Buttrum to give over that combination one way or another. He hoped they could do it the easy way. They were too close to getting this mess cleared up. If he had to turn Howard upside down and shake the combination out of him, then he would do it, and to hell with what anyone, even Wren, thought.
Eula blinked back her tears, “I’ll try to get him to tell me,” she sniffed. “Howard,” she whispered. Then putting more steam behind it, she shouted in her husband’s ear, “Howard!” and gave him a shake for good measure. “Howard!”
That’s more like it! Telt was impressed.
“Don’t.” Howard pleaded, “Rocking the boat,” he groaned and belched.
“Howard,” Eula persisted, “what is the combination to the safe at the bank, Howard?”
“Best day of my life,” Howard said, on the verge of tears, his face shattering into a study in drunken misery.
Eula, to her credit, ignored his suffering, no mean feat, and once again tried to rouse him, “The safe, Howard, at the bank. What is the com-bin-na-tion?”
Howard winced and turned his head away. “Luckiest day of my life,” he blubbered. “Married you. Smarter then. Ssso dumb now. Lost you. Lost everything. Drunk, too. Awful, feel awful,” he managed to admit before he passed out.
“Howard!” Eula cried and gave him a good shake. Howard made not even a groan of protest. “I don’t know…,” Eula said, and wept, swiping away the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand. “Maybe he’s trying to tell us the combination is the date of our anniversary? We were married September twelfth, eighteen seventy-five, so that would be 9-12-18-75, and I think he always turned the dial to zero first. You could try it, I guess,” she said, her eyes big and red-rimmed, looking up to Telt.
There didn’t seem to be any more they could do, so Telt guided Wren, his hand on the small of her back, out of the cell and down the narrow hall, leaving Eula behind to tend to her husband.
Wren glanced over her shoulder as they rounded the corner. Telt could almost feel sorry for the man. Howard T. Buttrum would be hung over for days after a binge like today. “I’m going with you,” Wren announced, her chin up and jaw set, braced for an argument.
“Yeah, I didn’t think I could get you to stay behind. I wasn’t going to try,” he said with a lopsided grin. The look of disappointment that crossed her face, just a brief second before she relaxed her jaw, made him chuckle. The woman did love a good battle of wills.
* * * *
Judge Crookshank and Mr. Clarkston were not about to be left behind either. Telt used the keys to open the bank and Howard’s office door. The safe, a large six-foot by six-foot square, steel-plated iron box, sat in the far corner of Howard’s office. It was a beautiful thing, painted forest green with gold lettering. The correct combination, and a turn of the big, brass captain’s wheel, would open the thick iron door.
Before approaching the safe, they searched the room thoroughly. It was a small room, but opulently appointed with a large, ornately carved, oak desk and an oak swivel chair to match. A large oak bookcase stood opposite the wall from the safe. Leather-bound tomes, silver-plated trophies and framed certificates sat upon the highly polished shelves. The brief search brought them up empty handed.
“Do we all agree we must try the combination to the safe?” asked Mr. Clarkston, primarily speaking to the judge. Wren and Telt could hardly stand this ridiculous moment of hesitation. Telt stood ready to blow the damn thing up, certain Wren would light the fuse if necessary. But he’d wait and try the combination first. He couldn’t speak for Wren, as she looked to be about to jump out of her skin with impatience.
“I believe we must,” the judge concurred.
Telt heard Wren give a huge sigh and almost grinned at her, but he controlled himself. He got down into a squat before the safe and gave the big brass dial a spin. He turned it to 0 then 9, 12, 18, 75 and nothing, not even a click.
“Try 0, 9, 12, 18, 7 then 5,” Wren whispered to him, leaning over his shoulder. He didn’t know why she’d whispered; it wasn’t like they were doing anything illegal, although it did seem sneaky, somehow.
Telt spun the dial and turned to zero, 9, 12, 18, 7, 5, everyone held their breaths, nothing, again.
* * * *
“May I try?” Wren asked, her hands fidgeting with the material of her skirt and her eyes going to the judge. Telt stood and moved out of her way. The judge gave her the nod to go ahead.
She put her ear close to the safe door, bending down, her hair falling around her face and shoulders. She spun the dial, left to zero, around to 9, right to 12, left to 18, right to 7, left to 5 and click. Telt turned the big brass wheel and the vault opened with a creaking shudder.
Stacked inside, on steel shelves, they found documents, currency, bags of coins and some closed metal boxes, but no satchel. They all stood there looking into the safe with unbelieving eyes.
Wren swung around, marched over and kicked Buttrum’s desk. “Blast the man! What could he have done with it? Could he have taken it home and stuck it somewhere without Eula noticing?”
“Not much gets past Eula,” Telt muttered as he closed the safe and gave the wheel a spin, then turned the dial around a couple of times. “I guess he could’ve destroyed it,” he mumbled.
“All I have left of my mother and my grandmother, the jewelry and pictures, everything was in that bag.” Her chest ached; she wanted to cry so badly, but if she allowed herself that luxury she’d go mad. “Surely, he wouldn’t have destroyed it. I can’t believe this.” On a sob of despair, she left the room. She knew if she stayed and looked into Telt’s eyes she would break down. She didn’t want to do that.
Going out of Buttrum’s office, she looked around and found herself about five feet away from the rear of one teller cage. On her other side, there were two desks. To her right, a short hall led to the back door of the bank. Inserted into the hallway, she saw a door and assumed it to be a closet. She went down to take a closer look and tried the knob, finding the door locked. “Telt!” she called out, her heart suddenly pounding. She knew before they opened the door her satchel was here, in this closet, up on the top shelf, tucked in the back corner—it called to her.
* * * *
The sun had set. Telt sat at his desk with a cup of Punk’s legendary coffee in his hand. He closed his eyes and savored the taste.
Wren’s satchel sat on his desk before him. Her papers proved she’d stolen nothing. The judge would send out a wire to his clerk in the morning ordering him to rescind all wanted posters for Wren in each county.
She’d taken an inventory of the contents of her satchel and signed a paper stating nothing was missing, nothing tampered with. Seated at his desk, Telt could hear Wren and Eula speaking back in the jail cell, but couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Then he heard Howard retching. The man had the dry-heaves. Telt squeezed his eyes shut; he hated those. The judge and Mr. Clarkston had gone to the Buttrum house. Eula had said she would be along shortly.
“I’ll be back in an hour,” Eula said as she and Wren emerged from the back. “You’re welcome to stay at our house, Wren, until you can move into your quarters above the mercantile.”
Telt saw Wren hesitate to explain. Eula intercepted the look that passed between them. “Perhaps it isn’t necessary,” she said and tried to hide her knowing smile. “There has been some speculation. Who am I to judge, my husband being a thief and a liar.”
“Eula,” Wren whispered, “your husband is not a thief, not really. He just got lost for a time. He’s suffering for his crime. I am not pressing any charges against him.”
“Thank you,” Eula said to Wren and gave her a hug.
“Telt, you better not be playing with this girl’s affections,” Eula warned him. “The ladies of this town will make your life a misery, if you are.”
Telt held up his hands, “Already asked the lady for her hand and heart. She has consented to be my bride. I’ll make an honest woman of her as soon as the judge can draw up a license, and Percy can say the vows.”
Eula laughed and hugged Wren some more, then Telt. “I‘m so very happy for you both,” she said, wiping the tears from her cheeks. “I’m also happy this day is turning out so well. There for a while I thought it all a terrible nightmare. It just seemed to go on forever.”
Lottie and Wesley walked into the office just then, both rather pink-cheeked and looking starry-eyed. “Aunt Eula, we were at the house when Judge Crookshank and Mr. Clarkston came to tell us what has happened to Uncle Howard. And, Miss O’Bannon, you have your satchel again. You don’t have to stay in that terrible little jail cell.”
Eula giggled and muttered, “I don’t believe Miss O’Bannon has suffered too greatly for her time spent in her jail cell, thanks to the sheriff.”
Lottie shrugged this off and eagerly introduced her aunt to Wesley, then informed everyone that she and Wesley wanted to be married right away, before the judge left Laura Creek.
* * * *
By the sad expression in Eula’s eyes, Wren could see that Lottie’s intentions would not be easy for Eula to accept. After the day she’d endured, it must come as the final blow. But the woman took it with good grace as she ushered Lottie and Wesley out of the sheriff’s office. Over her shoulder, Eula vowed to return, prepared to stay the night by her husband’s side.
“Who is Wesley Potter?” Wren wanted to know, going to the opened door, her eyes following the trio as they crossed the street and then disappeared around the corner of the telegraph office.
“I have not a clue,” Telt declared. “This Potter fella arrived with the judge. I gather the judge gave him a ride into town. Lottie introduced him to me as her fiancé. She stood out there…in the street…and kissed the man, without shame or hesitation. She used to chide me for trying to hold her hand. I nearly dropped my teeth, I can tell yah.”
“Poor Telt,” Wren cooed as she came and sat on his lap, her arms going around his neck, “callously set aside…replaced. It must be a terrible blow to your tender ego.”
“Well, damn, it does seem pretty sudden, don’t you think? One week she’s jealous as a cat, and the next week she’s all over some stranger, some other fella’…and gonna get married!”
Wren snickered and kissed his cheek, then nibbled his earlobe, “And what about you?” she challenged between bites. “One week you’re sort of courting the girl, then the next day you’re taking my virtue, you dog.”
Telt pulled her around to plant a very thorough kiss on her lips. The hand on her thigh inched up under her skirt, slowly, achingly sliding up and around, seeking her pleasure button. With lips pressed together, they shared a giggle when they heard Howard moan, then burp and start to snore loud enough to wake the dead.
Telt and Wren were up with the pale, cool dawn, ready for the big day. Last night, as a surprise for Wren, Telt hauled her traveling trunk up to the cabin, so this morning she felt particularly well put together in one of her favorite dresses. The dress was of soft, rich, olive green Jersey wool. It fit snuggly at the waist, with gathers under the bodice, cream lace around the heart-shaped neck, and a lace edging on the bell-sleeves. She wore her hair pulled back into a French-braid, tied with a cream-colored, satin ribbon and her mother’s pearl earrings and necklace.
She hadn’t felt this feminine in a long while. She looked into her mirror and hardly recognized herself. The face she saw looked younger somehow, with optimism shining in her eyes, and a bloom on her cheeks that gave her a softer appearance. She had to giggle. Telt was taking responsibility by claiming that her shining eyes and blooming cheeks were due to the good loving she was getting.
The smell of wood-smoke hung low to the ground this morning as they walked down the hill to the mercantile. A sweeping, golden arch crested on the horizon, and a low mist clung to the meadow. The birds were starting to stir, chirping and fussing. It was a paradise.
Wren’s steps were lighter this morning; she felt as if she were floating, toes barely touching the ground. There was something in the air. Gravity wasn’t quite as strong here in Laura Creek, at least, not this morning. Queenie and Mac raced off to chase a squirrel around the corner of the mercantile as they entered her store.
She rubbed her hands together. The place smelled familiar; it was like coming home. She took a deep breath, catching a whiff of spice, leather, wood and tobacco, all mingled together into a beautiful perfume.
There were bolts of cloth on the shelves behind the counter, along with notions: pins, needles, scissors, thread and skeins of yarn in all hues of the rainbow. Down the center of the room were bins full of flour, sugar, beans, rice, crackers, barrels of pickles, and salted fish. Tins of peaches, pears, cherries, plums, jars of molasses…were all around the store.
Every shelf was stocked, full to bursting with all manner of goods. Jars of candy, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, jerky and smoked meat sat upon the counter.
In the glass case, below the counter, the ladies had displayed the pocket knives, hunting knives, skinning knives, pipes, pistols, hair-combs and hat-pins. They’d arranged everything just as she would have done.
She put her hand over her mouth and wanted to cry. It was all so wonderful. She stood there in the middle of the store and simply turned around and around, taking it all in. Telt stood at her side, silent, but she could feel his warmth, feel the pressure of his hand on her waist. She leaned into his chest, grateful for his solid, steady presence.
With her arms wrapped around his waist, she said up to his face, “I want Grandmother Tatom to have her mattress. And the others, Mr. Brandtmeyer, Percy and Shorty, Mr. Meirs and Mr. Claussen, everyone, must have what they requested, right away. They made all of this possible. They’ve worked so hard. Look at it, Telt, it’s beautiful.”
She felt his lips pressing to the top of her head, then he said, “Punk brought your wagons up last night. They’re around back. Everything we picked up at your warehouse is still in the wagons, just like it was when we left Pendleton. You can let folks know today. I’m sure everyone will come in. Folks have been looking forward to this day for a good long while. This place is going to be jumping with customers, and I’d say it’ll be an all-day celebration.”
Queenie and Mac came loping in the front door. Mac barked, and she saw that Punk and Percy were outside with a big wooden plaque.
“We’ve got a little surprise for you,” Telt said and turned her around by her shoulders, the better to look out her front door. Percy and Punk held up their handiwork. Written in big, bold, black script, burnt into the wood, were the words: O’BANNON MERCANTILE, Laura Creek, Oregon.
The men were properly pleased with her response when she squealed with delight, hiked up her skirts and rushed outside to direct the placement of the sign below the peak of the roof just above the door.
Telt scaled the ladder to help adjust the sign, as it wanted to list to the right. “down on the left corner just a tad more,” she told him. Satisfied, her sign now level, she let him pound it into place with what seemed to her an inordinate number of nails.
During this exercise, she turned to find, to her surprise and delight, her first customers, Judge Crookshank and Mr. Clarkston.
“Good morning,” she said, and meant it. This was truly the best of mornings, the best morning she’d ever had.
Telt made his way down the ladder in time to be next to her when the judge told her, “We need to talk with you, my dear. We really should have spoken to you yesterday, but it just didn’t seem to be the right time.”
“Certainly,” she said, not the least bit concerned, for what could go wrong on such a glorious morning. “Come inside and look at all that’s been done. Everyone has worked so hard. The store is a bit small, not exactly as I had imagined when I made the purchase, but I think for the size of the population, it will do nicely.”
Punk put his head in the door, “I thought I’d bring over a pot of coffee.”
“Yes,” Wren turned and gave him a big smile, “that would be lovely. Thank you, Mr. Baker. Thank you for the sign, too, and for keeping my mules and the wagons. Thank you for so many things,” she said. Then walked up to the man and stood on her tiptoes to plant a kiss on his round, brown cheek. “You’re a very good friend, Mr. Baker,” she said quietly, intending her remark for his ears only.
It pleased her to see the big burly smithy blush. He touched his cheek, then walked away toward the stable. Wren didn’t bother to hide her giggle, she wanted to skip, she felt so good. She breathed deeply of the morning air. The day was beautiful. Nothing could go wrong today. It was perfect.
She saw Percy still outside, picking up his hammer and stowing away the nails in an old coffee can, and called out to him, “You come back with Shorty and pick out some clothes for yourselves, and some shoes; they’re right there in the back corner.”
“Will do,” Percy said with a wave before he started to walk away.
“Wait, wait just a minute,” she called out, and she did, she skipped up to him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Wouldn’t want you to feel left out,” she said, and giggled, because Percy could blush like no other human on earth. He blushed from the roots of his red hair to his toes.
Standing just inside the doorway, and seeing the judge, Mr. Clarkston and Telt gathered before her counter she swept her arm out and asked, “So, what do you think, Judge? Isn’t it just the most beautiful little store you’ve ever seen? Everyone has done so much. I had everyone keep track of their time and the materials used in my black book. It has become a habit over the years. There were no shelves or storeroom, and the roof wasn’t finished when first I arrived. I was determined to open right on time, no matter what the obstacles Mr. Buttrum threw at me. Then I ended up in jail, and I have to say, I didn’t see how this store could ever open. I certainly couldn’t have done it without the good people of Laura Creek.”
“Everything looks splendid, my dear, just splendid. If you will make an accounting from your black book, I think we can make a case against Mr. Buttrum,” said Mr. Clarkston, “at least make him repay cost of time and labor.”
“You haven’t asked why Mr. Clarkston and I made this trip to Laura Creek several weeks in advance of my original planned visitation,” said the judge with a wily gleam in his all-knowing eyes.
She felt silly, but a flutter of unease had began to stir right there in the pit of her stomach. Wren chalked it up to excitement. Nothing could spoil this day, nothing.
She smiled and came farther into the store, “No, I guess I just assumed you wanted to see how I was coming along. And I have to say your timing is nothing short of miraculous.”
She leaned against Telt, of a sudden feeling the need of his solid body beside her. He put his arm around her shoulder. The sound of his voice, strong and deep, sent a vibration through her, right down to her toes.
“Wren and I are going to need a marriage license,” he said. She knew he was grinning; she blushed. She couldn’t stop the giggle of guilt. After all, they’d been living together, for all intents and purposes, for nearly a week.
“Ah, a rash of wedlock fever seems to have struck Laura Creek,” the judge declared, his laugh big as he took Telt by the hand and began pumping his arm. “I’m very pleased, very pleased,” he said.
To Wren he said, “I’m certain your late father would approve, Wren, which brings us to our purpose here in Laura Creek.”
“I don’t understand,” she said, a glimmer of a dark cloud looming on the horizon taking shape in her mind.
“A little over two weeks ago a Mrs. Tabatha Schilling paid me a visit,” Mr. Clarkston began.
“Tabby?” Wren interrupted.
“Yes. I understand she kept house for you the past fifteen years.”
“That’s right. When last I saw Tabby, she was about to leave for Gladstone to live with her niece to help with a new baby. Is she all right? I mean…she’s not in trouble, is she? I didn’t tell her what I was going to do. I meant to write a long letter to her once everything here was all settled down.”
She was babbling. She knew it. Telt gave her shoulder a reassuring little shake. “I think if you’ll give the man a chance you might get your answers,” he told her, his voice gentle but amused all the same.
“Oh, yes, of course, excuse me. I’m sorry, Mr. Clarkston, please go on.”
After a nod from the judge, Mr. Clarkston cleared his throat and proceeded; “Well, as I was saying, Mrs. Schilling came to me only a few days after you left town. Quite agitated, she apologized profusely. It seems your father made arrangements with his attorney to transfer his half of the O’Bannon Brothers Enterprises partnership to you, his only heir, well over two years ago. He instructed his attorney not to disclose the fact of the transfer of partnership until after his death.
“Mrs. Schilling remembered witnessing the document along with the Reverend John Patterson. She said she saw it duly notarized by your father’s personal accountant and old friend, Mr. Daniel Jackson.”
Wren started to interrupt, but Telt pinched her arm, and she clamped her lips together.
“Your father had his accountant take care of recording and finalizing the document, and unfortunately the document didn’t get delivered to the house until the day after your father’s funeral and the reading of the will, due to Mr. Jackson being indisposed with the influenza at the time of your father’s demise.
“It is a very good thing your uncle never got hold of this paper I have here in my coat pocket,” Mr. Clarkston said, removing a thick blue envelope from the inside of his suit coat. “I think we can all make a pretty good guess as to what he would have done with it. Mrs. Schilling said she’d completely forgotten all about the document.”
They all shared a look that spoke volumes. “I’m sure Uncle Stanley would have burned it if he’d known.”
Continuing, Mr. Clarkston said, “As you may or may not know, your uncle dismissed Mrs. Schilling two days after the funeral. Her dismissal came not as a surprise to the woman, as she’d already decided to leave anyway. Your uncle’s tone, however, upset her. He became very churlish and rude, from what I understand. She had only to pack a valise, but in her rush she neglected to latch it closed.
“She said your uncle yelled and cursed, not at her, but at you, from what I gather. The long and the short of the story is, she dropped the contents of her valise right in front of the entryway door and knocked the silver charger off the entryway table. She quickly stuffed her belongings into her bag, replaced the charger plate to its place on the console table, and made a rather hasty exit from the house.”
Wren had started to shake, she remembered very well how her uncle could rant and rave and browbeat a person. She felt sorry for poor Tabby, how upset she must’ve been. Wren leaned back against Telt, grateful to find him there to hold her up.
“It took a day to get to her niece’s and a day or two to unpack,” Mr. Clarkston explained, for some reason sounding apologetic. Wren was having trouble hearing; a roaring sound rushed through her head. She squinted, trying to concentrate.
“By then you had disappeared, as far as Mrs. Schilling knew. The will had been read, and she didn’t know where to turn when she discovered she had a very important document, addressed to you from Mr. Jackson, stuffed in with her own belongings.
“Her brother advised her to come and see me. Once she told me the identity of her employer, I knew I must locate you, Miss O’Bannon. I contacted Judge Crookshank, as Mrs. Shilling informed me that he most likely knew of your exact destination.
“Somehow, in all of this, your uncle learned that his brother, your father, had transferred his half of the partnership to you. Judge Crookshank and I suspect it was through the still ailing accountant. I think we can presume that’s when Stanley O’Bannon, your uncle, came up with the plan to send out a wanted poster on you.
“When we arrived yesterday we knew your uncle intended to cause trouble. We came up here to warn you, and of course to give you news of the changes to your circumstances.”
Wren felt herself losing her battle to stay conscious, she had never fainted, never in her whole life. She put her hand to her forehead, “I have to sit down,” she said. Telt pulled up an empty packing crate, upending it for her to sit on.
“You see, my dear,” said the judge, bending down and taking her hand, “this changes everything. Actually, it brings up a rather tangled legal knot. Your father’s will states he leaves his brother all of his worldly goods. It says nothing, specifically, what those worldly goods are. Naturally, your uncle assumed it meant he owned all of the assets contained within the partnership, as anyone would, reading the will.
“With the transfer of the partnership having taken place well before your father’s death, there is very little for your uncle to inherit. Your father had legally turned everything, the mercantile, the warehouses, even your home, over to you within the partnership stipulations and agreements.
“Years ago, your uncle Stanley purposefully inserted a stipulation into the partnership agreement enabling him to divide his half of the partnership with his sons whenever he chose, without approval or permission from your father. Little did he realize, your father was free to do likewise.”
Mr. Clarkston held out the blue envelope to her. Wren took it from him with trembling fingers. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she read quickly through the legalese, then opened the personal note included in the packet.
In her father’s scrawling hand she read, My dear Wren, you have represented O’Bannon Brothers Enterprises as a full partner since your twenty-third birthday. I hope you will forgive me for not telling you.
By keeping this from you, I did what I thought best to save you from Stanley’s machinations. If you are reading this, then I am gone to my maker. You do what you want with the partnership; all I ask is, do not cave in to Stanley and hand it over to him. Let him buy you out, or sell it to someone who will make it thrive, as you have.
I have watched you immerse yourself in the business, and I have felt tremendous pride on the one hand and deep sorrow on the other. If, God willing, you find love and the opportunity to have a home and children of your own, take it. You are a warm, desirable young woman. Believe that with all your heart. Remember me with fondness, your loving father, Gregory W. O’Bannon.
With tears rolling down her cheeks, it began to sink in. Her home still belonged to her. The stores were hers, the warehouses, the properties, all hers. Her father had outwitted, out-smarted, out-maneuvered her conniving shyster of an uncle. She could almost hear her father’s chuckle.
Then she realized she was in partnership with her uncle, legally…had been for a couple of years. Good heavens! She’d managed everything for years, since she was sixteen years old, but she’d never thought she would ever be made a partner. Her father had never spoken to her about the possibility.
When she looked up, she saw the potential in the judge’s eyes. She turned her head up to look at Telt. She needed him. She felt as if she were standing on the deck of a ship in a very heavy gale. The gray clouds were lifting. She could see land, a beautiful island and a lovely oasis, but she needed Telt to keep her from crashing onto the rocks, and coming to ground on the shoals.
Telt withdrew his hand from her shoulder, and a strange look came over his face. His voice sounded flat when he spoke, “I guess I’ll go over to the jail and see how the Buttrums are doing. See if Eula needs any help. You’ve got a lot to think over. Pretty soon you’re gonna have customers. I’ll get out of your way.”
“Telt! No. I mean, I understand you need to go and see to Eula and Howard, but come back. I want you here with me.”
“I’ll be around,” he said without touching her, without meeting her gaze.
She came slowly to her feet, feeling weak and a bit lost as to how she should go on. He walked out the door and Queenie got up from her place in the corner by the woodstove where she’d been lying at Mac’s side. The retriever hesitated, then, as if she’d been scolded, with head and tail down she followed Telt out into the street.
“Your sheriff is right, my dear,” the judge said from somewhere behind her. Of a sudden the store seemed empty, like a cavern…all the light had gone out of it. Wren folded her arms across her chest and turned around, determined to put a brave smile on her face.
“You need to think this through,” the judge told her. “I would guess your uncle is on his way. I understand Mr. Buttrum sent him a wire notifying him of your imminent incarceration. It won’t take long for Stanley to get here. He’ll be on horseback and able to travel faster. I shouldn’t be surprised to see him arrive today.”
She nodded. “Yes, I certainly do have a lot to think about.” However, Telt’s long face and his cryptic parting words ‘I’ll be around’ derailed any real, productive reasoning.
* * * *
“Well, shit. That’s all I’ve got to say,” Telt growled, unchecked tears streaming down his tanned cheeks as he kicked at the dirt behind his office.
Queenie stood at his side, always a faithful ear when he needed to talk things through. He swiped his arm across his face, using his sleeve to dry his nose and wipe his face. “She can just go to hell, for all I care!”
Queenie cocked her head to one side in an attempt to make sense of his ramblings.
“It’s for damned sure I‘m not going to Oregon City. I’d end up being…Mr. O’Bannon for sure. She’d probably have me sweeping out the store, filling up the barrels, and stocking shelves. I’m no storekeeper. Don’t want to be a storekeeper. I can’t be married to a rich woman. So that pretty much puts a cog in the works, I’d say.”
He pulled himself together, and when he and Queenie came around the corner, they met Eula and Howard leaving his office.
“We’re on our way home,” Eula said, her arm around her husband’s waist, but only propping him up just a little. “Howard is feeling much better.”
“She says I stink,” Howard grumbled. “My head feels like somebody used it for a kick-ball, and my stomach is raw as an uncooked goose egg. Other than that I’m just dandy.”
Telt offered him a sympathetic grin. “You’ll live, I reckon,” he prophesied.
“I suppose I will,” Howard managed to say.
Eula started to leave. Howard had no choice but to go with her. “I need to get home, Howard,” Telt heard her say. “I need to help Lottie. Mrs. Claussen is going to make some of her delicious ice cream, and Lottie wants me to help her make a chocolate cake to go with it.”
“Hush, woman, can’t even think of cake,” Telt heard Howard mutter miserably as he and Eula took off for home.
* * * *
The interior of his jail smelled like the inside of a distillery. Queenie went in, turned right around and went back out again to lie to the side of the doorway. Telt went back to the jail cell, retrieved the puke bucket and took it outside to rinse it out. He also hung the pillow and the mattress from the cot outside on the hitching rail to air out. He swept the place, and after an hour with the door open, it didn’t smell quite so bad. On the plus side of all this housekeeping, he didn’t have time to dwell on Wren. He did notice a line of wagons forming in front of the mercantile.
Soon enough, Eula and Lottie came trotting around the corner, laden down with a couple of baskets full of food. They greeted him with smiles and laughter and urged him to put his broom down and come on down to the mercantile.
That was just about the last place he wanted to go. He wasn’t sure what he would do with himself. He couldn’t very well just sit here and watch everyone go by. He had to do something. He left the door to the office open, and he and Queenie headed for the stable.
The sight of Punk Baker all gussied up in regular black trousers and a white shirt made him wonder what the world was coming to. The Wren O’Bannon effect, sooner or later, infected everybody. She could get folks to do crazy things, things they wouldn’t ever imagine doing. God bless the woman.
“Where’s the funeral?” he asked Punk, coming within earshot of the smithy.
“Ha, ha. Ain’t you the funny man. I’m takin’ the day off. Goin’ over to the mercantile. How come you aren’t in there celebratin’ with your woman?”
“Never cared much for crowds. Thought I might take Roonie out for a little ride. It might be kind of nice to get on a horse and just ride out with no destination in mind.”
Punk eyed him suspiciously, his tongue in his cheek. “Do what you want. Roonie’s out back in the corral.”
* * * *
Wren waylaid Punk by commenting, “I saw Telt go by. Is he coming over soon?”
Punk looked longingly at the table at the back of the store, loaded down with pastries and coffee, before answering, “Ah, no, ma’am. He said he was goin’ ridin’.”
“You’re joking,” she said, her head tilted to one side and a weak smile pasted on her lips.
“Nope, said he was gonna take Roonie out. Said he’d just ride out with no destination in mind.”
She stood there, stupefied. She stammered, “Thank you…Mister….Mister Baker.” She waited for him to nod and move off to the refreshment table, but he stood there looking at her, reading her mind. Feeling like her feet were nailed to the floor, unable to move, she clenched her fists. “I see, well that’s fine. Good day for a ride.”
Finally she thought of something else to say, something to get him to move on and stop staring at her. “Please, help yourself to the coffee and cake, Mister Baker,” forcing a smile to her lips. “You help yourself to the hard candy too. And the tobacco,” she said, feeling of a sudden generous, foolhardy, over-exuberant, and on the verge of losing control, very near hysteria.
Making her way to the backroom, managing to smile and nod as she weaved her way in and out of the crowd, she rushed to find a place where she could be alone. She wanted to scream.
“Going riding…of all the asinine things. Telt Longtree. I’m going to kill you. What the hell has gotten into you?” she hissed, finding a space in a far corner of the storage room where she could take about two steps, turn, take two steps, and turn again. Mac stood out of her way to watch her march back and forth, his blue, opaque eyes alert.
Gathering herself together, she ironed down the folds of her dress with her palms, squared her shoulders. “This is…my day…Mac. Telt Longtree can just go hang himself, for all I care.” she said to the dog. Mac followed faithfully behind her as she marched herself back out to greet her friends and neighbors.
It wasn’t long before Howard Buttrum showed himself at her door. A silence fell heavily on those gathered inside the mercantile as she made her way over to greet him. She sensed Eula hovered somewhere close at hand.
“Mr. Buttrum, I’m very pleased to see you,” she said, taking note that he smelled of bay rum and soap. “Your wife and the other ladies have done a beautiful job with the store. Come in and have a look for yourself. You could probably use a cup of coffee. There’s a cup waiting for you back there,” she said, taking Howard by the arm and guiding him into the midst of the Laura Creek inhabitants gathered in her store.
* * * *
Howard felt like a prize pig at the fair being paraded before the judges. He’d made a damned fool of himself, and he couldn’t even blame it on Miss O’Bannon. He and Eula had talked a good deal in the wee hours between midnight and dawn. He’d come to terms with the fact that a woman…was and would be…the owner of the mercantile.
He also understood that Eula intended to be a large part of the mercantile. She wanted to sell her pies, maybe even open a little restaurant someday.
He had no idea of Eula’s ambitions. It made him proud of her, and ashamed of himself. Somehow he had to face these people, find a way to walk among them and earn back their respect.
“I…I…ah, I’m very sorry for the way I’ve behaved. I’ve been unfair to you, I know, Miss O’Bannon. I’m very sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused. Thank you for not pressing charges against me. I intend to make good on the time, supplies and labor costs. I wish you every success,” he managed to say.
He heard a collective sigh pass around the room. He even managed to look Joe Brandtmeyer, his wife, and all their kids in the eye. The Tatom boys, Mr. and Mrs. Meirs, Mr. and Mrs. Claussen, all had the grace to smile at him.
It was probably pity, he thought. Howard T. Buttrum…Rum-butt. More like Dumb butt. I’m a stupid son-of-a-bitch, and don’t even know when I’ve got a good thing. Well, he promised himself, I won’t take anything for granted again, at least not for a good long while. Eula came to him and looped her arm in his to lead him off for a cup of hot coffee. He knew himself for a lucky man. He needed to remember that.
* * * *
Wren didn’t quite trust that Howard T. Buttrum had reformed. His new persona made her rather uncomfortable. She could see that some of the others present weren’t quite sure of him yet, either. Howard began to make conversation with his neighbors and customers, with Eula’s help. It seemed to Wren everyone began to relax as they became used to the idea Mr. Buttrum would not yell at anyone today.
Grandmother Tatom arrived with her daughter-in-law, Margret, and Margret’s daughter, Elizabeth. There were several new faces. The new faces had brought their children with them, and soon Wren’s little store was bursting at the seams.
Percy and Punk had the barbeque going and chicken halves were grilling out front in the street. Mr. Claussen and Mr. Meirs were taking turns churning the ice cream. Howard had started to help Eula, Lottie, and the other ladies set up tables for the food, and tables and chairs where everyone could sit and eat al-fresco.
If Telt had been there, it would have been a perfect day. Wren heard the judge and Mr. Clarkston speaking to Mr. Brandtmeyer about setting up a horseshoe-pit and getting up a game after they ate. Telt Longtree was missing it all. Drat the man, anyway.
Everyone was eating, enjoying the day. The children were running around playing hide-and-seek and tag. Mac lolled in the shade to the side of the store. He came to his feet as three riders came galloping down the street, dust rising around the horses’ hooves and sifting into the food.
Wren recognized the three men immediately as her uncle Stanley, and her cousins, Quinn and Royce. They looked ridiculous as they charged up to the mercantile and leapt off their horses.
Her uncle, usually dressed in a dark coat and trousers, was all decked out today in a brown leather jacket with long fringe at the sleeves and across the shoulders. Her uncle and her cousins were wearing black hats and cowboy boots, of all things.
It was all she could do not to burst out laughing. Mac didn’t care for the looks of the intruders at all and set up a din of protest.
Her uncle didn’t like dogs and began to shout at Mac to shut the hell up, which, of course, had the opposite effect. In Wren’s eyes, it was better than a circus, that is, if it hadn’t been so dreadful they were ruining a perfectly beautiful day.
She was still laughing when her uncle, his face ruddy and piggy-eyes full of fire, charged through the crowd, grabbed her by her arm and began to drag her down off the mercantile steps. The other two men, her cousins, held the crowd back.
“Let me go! Let me go!” she screamed, kicking her uncle in the shins, her free arm pounding his thick head as he led her toward three very lathered horses. Mac had her uncle by the leg. Stanley staggered…and that’s when Mr. Buttrum shoved his way past her cousins, Royce and Quinn.
* * * *
Telt had ridden to the top of the ridge behind the town, following the creek down to the far edge of the meadow. He could smell the barbeque pit and hear the children playing. He had started to head to the back of the mercantile when he heard ladies screaming and men shouting, and definitely Mac, snarling and barking.
Queenie took off at a run to see what the fracas was about. Telt and Roonie followed her around the corner. They arrived in time to see Howard Buttrum draw back his right arm and slam his fist into the nose of a gentleman in a fringed, brown leather coat.
Telt sat there and watched the man hit the ground. Mac had attached himself to the man’s leg, his teeth shredding the fabric of his trousers. Two young bucks grabbed Howard Buttrum and tried to hold him back, but Howard, instead of swinging his arms back to shake them off, brought his arms forward and managed to crash his captor’s heads together. A rousing cheer went up from all gathered. And right in the middle of it all stood Wren O’Bannon…of course.
“What the hell is going on!” he shouted as he dismounted and tied Roonie off to the hitching post. “Has this town gone plumb loco? Call your damn dog off!” he ordered Wren. “It’s you, you know,” he hollered, his gaze zeroing in on her, taking long strides toward her.
Wren pulled Mac off her uncle; even though Mac clearly disagreed. Queenie had come up beside Mac and they both sat down at Wren’s feet, their eyes looking up at him expectantly, which irritated Telt even more.
“You just bring trouble along with you wherever you go!” he hollered at Wren, shaking his finger in her nose. “Why don’t you just get along, go on back where you belong?”
Telt heard the gasp of the shocked onlookers, but he didn’t care. He had to shake free of her. If he didn’t shake her loose right now she would leave him and rip a hole in his heart, and he couldn’t stand that. He might bleed to death.
“Now, wait just a minute, Sheriff!” Howard said, putting himself in front of Wren, shielding her from his wrath. “None of this is Miss O’Bannon’s doing. These men came riding in here, and that one, lying on the ground there in the fringed coat, grabbed her…tried to abduct her, in fact.”
“That’s my uncle Stanley,” Wren said, pointing over Howard’s shoulder to the prone, somewhat corpulent body wearing the fringed coat, and trousers shredded up to the knees.
“That’s my cousin Quinn,” she said, pointing to the young man lying face down on the ground with black hair and wearing a red and blue-checkered shirt.
“And that’s my cousin Royce,” she said, pointing to the young man with the sandy hair, wearing a brown shirt, who at the moment was attempting to get to his knees and failing.
“Uncle Stanley, it seems, would like to hold me hostage. I believe he would like me to sign over my half of the partnership to him.”
“Howard was wonderful!” Eula piped in, putting herself at her husband’s side. She put her arms around him and laid her pretty head against his chest. “You were magnificent, darling. Truly magnificent. You punched his clock.”
Eula turned her eyes up to her husband’s sweating countenance, her gaze dreamy and full of wonder, and said, “I had no idea you could do that. And that thing you did, butting their heads together, wherever did you learn to do that?”
In the background, they all heard the judge laugh. “Old college trick!” he shouted over the tops of everyone’s head.
“I think I might’ve broken my hand,” Howard grumbled, shaking his hand, now that he had time to think about it. Eula, all over him, oohing and aahing, led him away to have a look at his wound.
“Punk, Percy, you want to get them out of here?” Telt said, indicating the men laid out before him. “Take them to the jail, and put them in the cell. They’ll find it to be quite comfortable, won’t they, Miss O’Bannon?”
* * * *
“More comfortable than the hard ground, I should think,” she said, wondering what kind of burr had crawled into his drawers. Why all the hostility? she wondered, and decided to wade in and find out.
“Why don’t you just get to it, Sheriff? What’s got you so steamed?” she asked, her hands going to her hips, sticking her chin out a mile, narrowing her eyes, prepared to go head to head.
Telt swaggered forward, coming within inches of her and peered down at her, sighting her in with his nose, “I used to be bored to death. Being sheriff in this one-horse town is a joke. But all that changed the day you rolled in. Now, every damn day there’s a show. You’ve got everyone all turned upside-down. Even Howard there, who held out longer than anyone, finally caved in. I guess I’m wondering what we’re going to do for entertainment once you leave town.”
* * * *
A collective gasp went up among those who gathered. Telt knew the folks were shifting over to stand behind Wren, but they didn’t know what she was up to. They didn’t understand what she was planning to do. Neither did he, for sure, but he could guess.
Wren held up her hand and held the people back from taking him down to the ground and beating him to a pulp.
“It sounds like the sheriff might be asking me to leave. Is that right, Sheriff? You want me to leave because I’m a bad influence on these good people…I cause trouble?”
“Oh, you’re a model of good behavior,” he said with a smirk on his face. “You inspire those around you to come to your defense.
“I know better than anyone. There’s something about you; you have invisible strings attached. You’re like a spider. We all got tangled up in your web. Once you cast your web over a town, it can never return to its former, peaceful state again. But, we’ll sure as hell try. We’ll be just fine without you here to keep us all stirred up and off balance. Heck, we might even enjoy being bored again!”
He spoke only for himself now, he knew that, but shit, it didn’t matter. Let her deny it. Let her try to deny she intended to leave, go back to her stores and properties and big house. She could do it right here, right in front of everybody.
* * * *
Wren had taken about all the bull she could stand. She thought she knew what had set him off. But she sure as hell wasn’t going to stand here and let him ride over the top of her.
“For your information, Sheriff,” she snarled, coming up on her toes ever so slightly, her jaw tight and teeth clenched, “I’m not going anywhere. So sorry you find my presence so upsetting. I know it might interfere with your naptime. I’ve found good friends here. Yes, there have been some conflicts. All that’s past us now. This is…My…mercantile!” she proclaimed, waving her arm out and almost connecting with his nose, “I intend to stay on and run it. If you don’t like it, I guess you’ll have to get on your horse and ride. You do enjoy a good ride, I understand.”
* * * *
He let her words sink in, leaned down, getting his face in hers. She didn’t budge or blink. He loved that about Wren O’Bannon and had to suppress a grin.
“I think I’ll adjust,” he said without expression. Everyone around them seemed to get it before she did.
Everyone burst out laughing. Wren looked totally bumfuzzled. Oh, yes, that was good. Telt liked that very, very much.
“I hate being bored,” he added with a straight face, then burst out laughing right in her face. He picked her up and swung her around. Mac and Queenie jumped up and danced around at their feet.
Wren pounded his shoulders. “You scared the hell out of me!” she cried, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Lowering her to eye level, his arms tight around her, he whispered, “You scared me, too.” Then he kissed her.
Soon their friends, laughing and joking, surrounded them. Once the crowd had backed off a little, he asked, “Why aren’t you going to go back to Oregon City to your home and stores, and take up your rightful inheritance?”
Wren laid her head on his shoulder, “Because it’s not mine, it was my father’s. I don’t want it. This is my home. This is where…you…are.”