A Merry Christmas Story, “The Holiday Bus To Joseph” By Dorothy Bell

Holiday Bus to Joseph

With the kids moved out and far away with families of their own, I decided that what I needed was something to kick off the holiday season—something to get me in the mood—Thanksgiving and Black Friday just weren’t enough.

Three years ago, it was a Christmas concert at Eastern Oregon University. It just so happened that year, on the night of the concert, La Grande and northeast Oregon experienced one of the worst blizzards on record. The walk to the concert hall from the parking lot took on the challenges of an expedition to the Arctic—very memorable—very North Pole-like.

The following year, I thought it would be fun to take the Eagle Cap Excursion train along the scenic Minim River. The price was right—a few cans of food for the food bank. There was a hitch however; it was a Santa Clause train for the kids, so I had to borrow a couple of kids from a friend to make my presence seem legit. We had a great time—the winter scenery was spectacular, which included sightings of elk, deer, bald eagles and a coyote, but the ride was over too soon.

That year I learned you get what you pay for.

On the third year, I decided to cater to the altruistic, extravagant shopaholic in me and signed on for a Holiday Bus tour to the touristy, colorful, quaint and remote village of Joseph, Oregon for a full day of s-h-o-p-p-i-n-g!

Joseph, for those of you who don’t know, is way the heck out there in the far northeastern corner of Oregon at the gateway to the Hells Canyon.

It’s beautifully situated, nestled up against the Eagle Cap snow-covered peaks of the Wallowa Mountains—the area is sometimes referred to as Little Switzerland.

I paid for the tour, which promised goodies, snacks on the bus, coupons for food, coupons for savings on merchandise from the merchants in Enterprise, as well as Joseph, and

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drawings for special savings certificates; never suspecting for one second that I had signed on for a marathon.

First stop—Enterprise for the warm-up round of shopping, then on to Joseph for the major round, then on the return trip, back to Enterprise for the grand-finale, with a chili feed and Christmas parade. It sounded great. I was chomping at the bit.

Saturday morning we gathered at the crack of dawn—raw recruits, and what I would soon categorize as experienced campaigners—in front of Albertson’s super market in Island City, which is just a suburb of LaGrande. We all piled into the busses like sheep for the fleecing. As a newbie, I took a seat up front, close to the driver and the exit door. The veteran soldiers-of-shopping headed for the back of the bus, Santa hats in place, twinkle-light necklaces denoting their rank, hooting and whooping like sailors setting off for their long-awaited shore leave.

We traveled along, passing through small villages, stopping for stragglers and innocent rookies who eagerly waved the bus down. We pressed on, all of us yakking, clacking, flapping our gums, confident, our wallets bulging with cash, our credit cards shined up and ready.

Naïve, I’d left home with a clear objective in mind: I wanted to find the one-of-a-kind gift, the unusual, the I just won’t be able to resist something you can’tfind at Wal-Mart.

Perhaps I need to clarify here that La Grande has two primary places to shop and they are Wal-Mart and Bi-Mart.  And during the winter, with a pass on both ends of town, you aren’t inclined to travel the seventy-five miles to the nearest mall.

We arrived in Enterprise for the warm-up round at nine-thirty a.m. The temperature hovered in the mid-twenties with a light breeze, an overcast sky, and a skiff of pristine white, crystalline snow on the ground—perfect—beautiful.

With the snowcapped Wallowa Mountains in the background, our busses pulled up in front of the old, stone-block Enterprise courthouse. Can you imagine how the local merchants

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must’ve felt watching those buses unload? Those merchants were ready, with feet braced, shelves fully stocked—you can bet on it.

Set free, we spread out over the town—about four or maybe five square blocks—each of us with our quest for the perfect gift uppermost in our minds. I perused and assessed each shop and after careful deliberation made one purchase. That one purchase made it easier to make the next and the next. This practice round showed me that I needed to hone my shopping skills, keep my impulses in check. After all, I needed to spread my cash out sparingly, know when to use my credit card. I had a full day of shopping to do and couldn’t afford to lose my head—not this early in the game.

After nearly two hours of nonstop shopping, many of us had retreated to the bus. My feet hurt. I was hungry. Inexperienced, I had dressed expecting the cold to be my enemy, but as the morning passed I realized if I had any hope of surviving, I would need to rid myself of several layers of insulation, namely my faux fur hat, faux fur muffler, my fleece vest, and my gloves. In other words, I was miserable, in pain, and sweating.

Remember, this was only the first round, and, it wasn’t even noon.

Laughing, singing, weaving in and out of the stores, the seasoned campaigners regrouped, the last to file back on the bus.  I couldn’t believe it! Whooping victoriously, they skipped to the back of the bus with their bundles of booty, as fresh and as full of robust good cheer and camaraderie as they had at the outset.

______________

The city limits of Joseph arrived too soon, but allowed me enough time to strip down to just the bare minimum of outer gear. However, there was nothing I could do to revive my feet, wiggling my toes was about all I could do. As the bus pulled into a parking lot, I girded my

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resolve, determined to see the day through to a successful conclusion. To do that, I needed nourishment and a tall, cool glass of something containing lots of caffeine.

But first, I had to run the obstacle course of the Joseph Holiday Flea Market. The seasoned campaigners had decided this should be our first objective.  I couldn’t allow them to see that I was already starting to fade, so I put on my game face to do what had to be done.

It was beginner’s luck that I discovered a booth selling homemade fudge just inside the door. With a sugar boost, I made it through the flea market and down the street two blocks to where I found real food and caffeine.

Thoughtfully, I, and all my fellow bus-mates, were given a voucher for dollars off at the restaurant of our choice, thereby assuring we would all eat hearty. While I savored my roast beef sandwich, my head cleared a bit, and I reasoned I could do this if I could pace myself; after all, I had four-and-half hours of shopping to endure. I had a list of merchants in my coat pocket, and I withdrew the list to study it, deciding on a plan of attack.

I would work the stores from north to south on the east side of the street, cross over and return on the west side of the street to the parking lot and the bus. Along the way, I would take advantage of any place that offered a place to sit and rest. If I had too many parcels, I could leave them in the bus. Feeling more confident, I visited the restroom, adjusted my purse on my shoulder, and set out to conquer.

Three hours later, all my plotting having failed me, I limped into Mad Mary’s Soda Fountain and Emporium, lugging a very large bag of stuff, and plopped myself down at her counter.

What kind of stuff?  you might ask. At this point, I couldn’t exactly remember. The day had become something of a blur. I was drunk from purchasing; staggering from one shop to the

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next like a crazed fiend—choosing and buying—opening and closing my purse, stashing receipts in my pockets, sweating, thirsty, I was out of control.

With my hand under my chin to hold my head up, I glanced at the clock and groaned in agony. I still had an hour and thirty minutes to shop. I knew there were stores out there I had skipped. I would have to backtrack now.

Carolers entered the store to sing songs of praise. The battalion of seasoned campaigners were out there; I could hear them laughing, unfazed, undaunted. I was beginning to despise their unflagging enthusiasm.

In my weakened condition, I guess I must’ve become slightly paranoid because, as I looked around at the other women sitting in groups and clusters at the tables, and along the counter, some in worse shape than myself, I had an epiphany, a crazy, wild moment of clarity. We had all signed up for this mission, willingly, eagerly.  We’d signed on to shop our hearts out for one entire day.  Like lambs to the slaughter, we’d accepted incentives and enticements, we were all aided and abetted into indulging in our vice for out-of-control spending.   We’d been given permission to fall off the wagon of reason and into the abyss of shopaholic despair.

Suddenly I saw everything more clearly. This was a subversive plot! It was a cunning strategy of mass aversion therapy! And I….I was cured! I knew it right then—I was cured for all time. Those poor souls out there, those women in that battalion of jovial, veteran campaigners, they were the incurables—after all, therapy doesn’t work the same way for everyone.

I vowed to see the day through, take my medicine like a good little soldier. I drank down my hot chocolate, picked up my shopping bag, squared my shoulders, and headed off to those shops I had not visited.

But now, I kept my head about me, and even rode the delightful horse-drawn wagon from one end of Joseph to the other, then back to where I started. I actually took the time to glean

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some enjoyment out of what remained of the day, making it back to the bus moments before our departure time.

In my seat, with my parcels tucked in around my feet, I closed my eyes. Ashamed and full of remorse, I knew I was way over budget, I had blisters on my feet, my knees screamed with fatigue, and my shoulders ached.  I was battle-weary but alive, and that was enough.

By now, the sun had slipped down behind the mountains.  Our balmy twenty-five degrees at midday had fallen off into the teens, with a light snow falling at dusk.

While wishing I was at home soaking in a warm bath, the bus driver took us away from beautiful downtown Joseph and back to Enterprise where he parked on a side street near the end of the parade route. Once again, we disembarked in mass and marched two blocks to enjoy the feast of a homemade chili the townspeople of Enterprise had made for all of us who came to enjoy the Christmas parade.

With my belly full, I trudged back to the bus, barely acknowledging the diehard veteran shoppers still laughing, still weaving in and out of the shops, still merry and seemingly still full of fight, their Santa hats and twinkle-light necklaces flashing in the dark, making them appear in my eyes, as extraterrestrial beings…inhuman.

Feeling defeated, I surrendered to the fact that I would never have the stamina of the seasoned veteran shopaholics that rode the Holiday Bus to Joseph. I would never make the grade—earn the right to wear a twinkle-light necklace.  It wasn’t in me.

Accepting that I was a wimp and a pansy, I watched the parade from the warmth of the bus. Melancholy, I longed for my slippers and my warm jammies.

As we left the Christmas lights and all the good people of Enterprise behind, the diehard veteran shoppers at the back of the bus began to sing Christmas carols. I tried to sing along, but I had trouble keeping my eyes open long enough to hold a tune.

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After twelve and a half hours of shopping, walking, eating and talking we rolled into La Grande, right on schedule at seven-thirty P.M.  We wished one another a merry Christmas and left the bus. Lugging all my booty, I limped to my car and asked myself, would I do it again?

No, was my first response.  Well, maybe, I thought, once I was home and able to sort through all my purchases. By the time I lay in my bed, all snug and warm, I had decided to wait and see. Perhaps doing the Holiday Bus tour to Joseph was like giving birth, perhaps it would take time for my memory of the pain and the stress to fade, but in all likelihood, I would probably have to try it again.

Merry Christmas to all the hearty souls who brave the Holiday Bus to Joseph and to those who are wise and stay home—Happy New Year.

A thriller of a short story “Aloha Sweetheart” by Dorothy Bell

ALOHA, SWEETHEART

Hunkered forward, eyes peering through a narrowing arch of windshield into the blizzard, nerves frayed, Fain MacKay sang to herself , skipping words, then humming the tune “over the river and through the woods”.  She’d turned off the radio, refusing to listen to the ominous weather report and impending road closures. In her headlights, the highway, what she could see of it, was a fluffy blanket of white—like driving through cornstarch. No center-line, no fog line, all white on the roadway and in the air—she was in a snow globe—a true, honest to God white out.  Creeping along, her foot barely on the gas, she feared she’d missed the turn.

Her dear husband was off somewhere, the fool, the idiot. No doubt somewhere swank and expensive—off with his sexy, bubble-headed secretary. “Probably gone to Hawaii”, she grumbled to herself. “Wish I was in Hawaii. But no, Cory says we can’t afford it, can’t take the time off, can’t leave the business.  Promised me we’d go for our twentieth anniversary. Yeah, right, if promises were horses beggars would ride. One more year, just one more year, twenty years putting up with Cory McKay and I might’ve gotten my wish, I could go to Hawaii. Nineteen years, nineteen years of married life down the tubes. Maybe, I’ll take myself to Hawaii, that is if I don’t die out here in this blizzard.

“Thanksgiving—have to go to the old cabin on Lake Lea, it’s a MacKay tradition. Pam should’ve come up here with me, but no, she wants to spend the holiday with her buds on campus, not her sad-sack, wreck of a mother.

“Well Pam probably blames me for screwing up the marriage, tearing our family apart. So, this is my punishment; dying  in a blizzard—alone.  Never mind that it’s Cory, the dirty, rotten lecherous fool, who’s to blame for screwing up this marriage.

“I might be on the downhill side of forty two, but I’m far from being an old hag. Damn it, I’m in darn good shape—better than fair looking—holding  up nicely.  It’s my philandering husband who’s having the mid-life crisis; trying to reach back in time to hold on to his youth. I’m very comfortable with my age and my life, thank you. That is, until Cory took off on this flyer, then my life took a sharp downward turn, a nosedive right into the ditch.

Her rear wheels spun out, fishtailed, letting up on the gas she concentrated, trying not to over correct. It worked. Still moving forward, not sideways, not backwards or stopped dead against a tree.

“Ditch—I’ll end up in one, buried under three feet of snow!

“I’m  a masochist, that’s what I am. I should have my head examined. What was I thinking, coming up here alone on Thanksgiving, crawling off into the woods like some wounded critter to lick my wounds, nurse my bruised heart?

“Answer: I needed to get away from the lawyers…Cory’s lawyer—my lawyer, the bribes, the threats: sign now with 3.5 million and keep the house, don’t sign, and forfeit the business, the cabin—my mind!”

The snow, coming down in big, feathery flakes, stacked up on the wiper blades. Her fingers cramping on the steering wheel, eyes wide, Fain searched for the turnoff to the lake. She had to be close—she’d just passed the sign that pointed down to hot spring.

Spotting the snow-shrouded wooden sign to the MacKay Cabin, she hung on tight to the steering wheel and plowed through the middle of a three-foot deep barricade of snow. When the poof of snow cleared, she was on the narrow lane that lead down to the cabin. With her headlights on low beam, she thought she saw footprints going down the middle of the road, but they disappeared at the bridge that crossed Salt Creek. Probably a deer, maybe a bobcat; the night wasn’t fit for man nor beast.

The cabin stood dark and deserted in her headlights. She turned off the ignition, put the keys in her coat pocket and leaned back to watch the snow slide down the still warm windshield. Stupid little memories spilled across her mind in a kaleidoscope of colors, smearing together, the happy hues ruined by murky browns and grays. Like Cory’s obsession for murder thrillers, and his pranks. That New Year’s Eve, the temperature hovering at zero, when he’d poured water on the outhouse seat. “My version of a hot foot,” he’d gleefully explained as he’d dribbled hot water down her backside to unstick her poor bottom from the privy bench—funny, and yet cruel at the same time—that was Cory.

Resting her head on the steering wheel, she wept; she’d been crying for days.  Stopping herself, refusing to cry anymore, she screamed into the silent night, “God, I hate Cory MacKay’s guts!” then sobbed, “God, I miss the son-of-a-bitch.”

A gust of wind rocked the car. The windshield cleared. The cabin lit up. “Like a prairie shit-house!” Cory would’ve said.

Cory?

Cory! He’d come to his senses. Ditched his pubescent secretary!

Heart in her throat, tears streaming down her face, Fain raced to the cabin and burst through the front door, expecting wine, candles and Cory.

Even with the lantern on the fireplace mantel lit, and the fire in the fireplace crackling away, the pale yellow light couldn’t reach into the shadow filled corners of the sparsely furnished, one room cabin. A swirl of snow rushed in behind her. The wind grabbed the door, slapped it shut, then flung it wide, letting it smack back against the log wall. Fain squeaked, jumped and spun around. The gust blew out the lantern light and a flop of snow doused the fire in the grate, sending a cloud of smoke into the room.

Feeling her way to the stone hearth, she walked her fingers along the rough mantel to the box of matches. Striking a match, she faced her pale visage in the lamp’s glass chimney, and hardly recognized the hollow-eyed, owlish face looking back at her. She looked like a mad-woman.

She was mad, mad as a hatter, thinking Cory was here, waiting for her.  Stupid.  But there was a fire in the fireplace, and the lamp, someone had lit the lamp. Someone was here, or had been here.

A whisper of air, a sigh glanced her cheek and snuffed the match. Startled, sensing a presence, expecting to see Cory and his big smart-ass grin right behind her, she turned and chucked the box of matches across the room. The box hit the slate floor and burst into flame. For a few brief seconds the room was full of a hellish orange light. Pivoting, her eyes scanned all four corners. Catching sight of her reflection in the window, she screamed, her heart jumped, took off like a diesel engine. Shaking, teeth chattering, clutching her chest, the burst of flame extinguished as quickly as it flared, leaving her breathless, in the dark, the smell of sulfur and smoke in her nose.

“Get a grip, Cory isn’t here. No one’s here. All that snow… the weather’s got you imaging things, Fain MacKay. The Forest Ranger, what’s his name, Terry…he lit the fire, and the lamp. He’s a good guy. Expecting us, like usual. We’re here every Thanksgiving, come hell or high water. This year it’s hell, but I’m here. I didn’t see any lights when I drove in. The snow, all that snow on the windshield blocked my view, that’s all. Just the weather. ”

Backing away from the window, she found the spare matches in the drawer with the dishtowels, and despite her trembling fingers, and after fumbling around a bit, she relit the lamp. Holding it up, she made her way to the still-opened door—it wouldn’t close. Desperate, teeth clenched, eyes squeezed shut, she put her back to it. Without warning, the door shut with a slap. Her wet boots slid out from under her. In slow motion, her back against the door she descended to the floor, concentrating on holding the lantern steady to prevent it from smashing and setting the entire cabin on fire.

The slate floor beneath her bottom, cold and hard as a sheet of ice, she reasoned, it’s the storm. Giggling in spite of herself, working hard not to become hysterical, she realized she was being ridiculous. Cory would love this. The wind, the snow… and me scared out of my wits. Sleep deprivation, that’s it. It’s been weeks, maybe months, since I’ve slept through the night. I’m hungry. My nerves, shot to hell. Tea, there’s tea in the cupboard.

After getting up off the floor, she shed her coat then pumped water from the pump at the sink into the teakettle. Kneeling down before the hearth, she shoved aside the wet coals and laid a fire.

As the fire came to life memories of cozy nights spent before the hearth, wrapped in Cory’s arms, filled her head. Her throat tightened with unshed tears.

Practical. She needed to stay focused and practical. There was food in the car. She had two bags full of deli food out there—she was hungry, that’s all, hungry and tired. She needed her overnight bag, her fuzzy robe and slippers, a big chicken breast and a lovely cinnamon roll smothered with frosting, and maybe some popcorn—after that, she’d be right as rain, or maybe have a belly ache. Either way, she’d feel better than she did at the moment.

Giving a glance out the window, noting the snow blowing down from the roof, she opened the door, ducked her head and made a dash for the car, delivering a curse as the snow sifted down her neck, “Cory MacKay, I hope you burn in hell!”

Swiping away the snow from the door handle, she discovered the car door wouldn’t open. She hadn’t locked it. She didn’t even remember closing it. Maybe it had frozen shut. Behind her, the cabin door slammed and the lights went out inside.

Taking two steps toward the porch, the food and her overnight bag forgotten, Fain watched a small gold light pass before the big window. Someone was in there.

Pulse hammering, perspiration mingling with the snow on her upper lip, she prayed, “God help me.”

Looking back to the car, she deliberated, smash the window? Wouldn’t do you any good, no keys! she remembered. Walk back to the road? I’d freeze.

It was Cory. It had to be. He was in there. Oh, yeah, he was playing with her. There was a hatchet on the porch. Making up her mind, she was through playing games. Like hell she’d give up the business. She wasn’t going to give up anything! Not for 3.5 mil…not for a trillion! She’d teach Cory MacKay a lesson, and about time. Game time was over!

***

            The dawn came crisp with a clear blue sky. Terry Bottger, the forest ranger who stayed down at the hot spring year round, packed his snowmobile with a gas can, a chain saw and his rifle. After a storm, he made the rounds to check the roads for downed trees and property damage.

Pulling up to the MacKay place, he spied Mrs. MacKay’s blue BMW buried under a mound of new snow. The MacKays usually came up for Thanksgiving.  But, he’d heard about the split and wasn’t sure he’d see either one of them up here this year. As usual, his mind went on a lightning-fast fantasy ride with the beautiful Fain Mackay as his leading lady, then he noticed the cabin door hanging by a single hinge.

With rifle at the ready, he approached the cabin. Inside, the furniture looked more like kindling. Bloodied stuffing from the daybed was everywhere. Broken glass from the window crunched under his boots. There were lines of dried blood on the floor, the walls and the fireplace.

Lying in a mangled heap near the fireplace lay Fain MacKay…beautiful, luscious Fain.  In her lifeless hand, she held a bloody hatchet. Her face gray, she was covered with cuts and dried blood. A large splinter of glass poked out from the cornea of her left eye.

Shaking, Terry backed out of the room. Air, he needed fresh air. Using his cell phone, he dialed 911.

***

            As the EMTs  hefted Fain MacKay’s body into the ambulance a black Hummer drove in. Terry groaned, it was Cory MacKay. Terry didn’t have much use for the man, he hadn’t deserved a woman like Fain.

Looking like a model out of Winter-fest’s best-dressed ski bum catalog in a black and glow-in-the-dark chartreuse snow jacket, and pants with black and green ski boots to match, Cory, the arrogant bastard, demanded to know, “What’s going on? What’s happened?”of the ambulance attendants, slamming the door of the Hummer behind him.

Terry stepped back to allow the sheriff, who had responded to the 911 call, apprise Mr. MacKay of the situation, “Looks like she just went berserk—went on some kind of wild rampage, busting up the place,” the sheriff answered. “It snowed all night, so there’s no way to tell if there was anyone else up here or not; everything is buried in at least three feet of new snow. But I’d say no one else was up here, other than Mrs. MacKay. If there had been anyone else in that cabin with her, they’d be all cut up.  But there are no fingerprints, other than your wife’s in there, on the door and the lamp. Could be she had a stroke.  Emotions running high—you know that kind of thing sometimes happens.”

“No! ”  Covering his face with his gloved hands, Cory slumped into a heap on the steps. “I called Pammy, our daughter. She told me Fain had come up here. Said her mother sounded desperate and upset. Going through a divorce, all that crap of sorting it out brought me to my senses. I tried to get up here last night but the damn weather stopped me. The highway closed.” Cory gulped and swallowed down a sob. Eyes brimming with tears he raised his head to the sheriff, “I came up here to beg Fain to take me back.  I’m an ass. My fault…put her through hell, my fault. Start over…tickets to Maui in my pocket. Second honeymoon.  Fain, oh, Fain, God no…”

***

            The ambulance headed down the road with the forest ranger leading the way. With his back to the sheriff’s car, Cory struggled to his feet and tried not to wince, reminded of the cuts on his back and shoulders.  His bandaged hand in his coat pocket, he clutched the envelope that contained the two airline tickets to Maui. A smile twisted his lips into a sneer, and he whispered, “Aloha, Sweetheart,” then remembered he was the grieving husband and squeezed a tear out to let it slide down his cold cheek.

Free read, Laura Creek chaps 3 and 4 by Dorothy A. Bell

Chapter 3

Wren let the mules take their head as they crossed the meadow, going straight for the creek. Twenty acres of this meadow went with the purchase of the mercantile. She took note of the meadow grass. It was tall and brittle dry, not worth much as forage, at least in late August. But along the creek, under the shade of the cottonwoods, it still grew green and lush.

Staking out a line between the trees near the creek, she followed the routine she’d set for herself and her mules, removing harness and unfastening traces before tethering her team of six to a line of rope.

Now off duty, Mac waded into the creek. Stretched out on his belly, he began to lap up the cool mountain water. After tying off the last mule, she stood for a moment with her hands on her hips to watch. She envied him.

After seeing to her ablutions, she downed some bacon on a day-old biscuit dripping with honey, followed by two large cups of water. At last it was time to remove a couple layers of trail dust from her face, neck and arms.

She shed her trail duster, chambray shirt, and denim skirt, closed her eyes and went about scrubbing the vision of the sheriff’s big, tan, open face—such a nice face—out of her head. Everyone stood back for him, not out of fear, she didn’t think, but out of respect. He was an imposing presence—he would be in any crowd. She stood there in her shift and petticoat, water dripping down her face, and sighed, remembering his clear blue eyes.

“Foolish woman!” she chided, and splashed cold water in her eyes.  The water dripped off her chin to fall between her bosoms. “What the hell’s gotten into me?”

A fresh wave of humiliation washed over her. With a shudder, she squeezed her eyes tightly shut. That smile on his face wasn’t a smile of admiration. She was entertainment, an oddity. And who could blame him…who could blame any of them? Was it any wonder Mr. Buttrum hadn’t take me seriously? I believe it was dear Uncle Stanley who pointed out my lack of basic womanly instincts. He’d predicted I was doomed to a life of spinsterhood. Not that I care…right? 

Marriage wasn’t anything she’d ever dreamed of or longed for.  Marriage meant being under the thumb of some man…a man like her uncle Stanley or a man like one of her drunken, whoring cousins. No, Wren didn’t mind the thought of being a spinster. She could do as she pleased, eat when she wanted to, sleep in a bed she had all to herself and be in charge of her own life. Children, well, she did sort of regret that she would never have any, but they would just get in the way of her ambitions. If she kept busy she wouldn’t miss them at all.

I believe my dear uncle also pronounced me plain. No, he categorized me as…a…‘hermaphrodite, a freak of nature, neither man nor woman’. Yes, I believe those were his exact words.

She did feel that having lost her mother when she was a young girl of twelve had a great deal to do with her lack of interest in the finer points of her gender. By the age of twelve she was already working in her father’s mercantile. At that age her appearance didn’t matter; she and her father were in mourning and, for the next fourteen years, she wore black. It became her uniform, her armor against unwanted advances, her official badge of authority.

With a shake of her head, Wren pushed her evil critic down a dark hole in her mind, way down in with all the rest of her unhappy thoughts.

Having to sniff back a couple of tears, she could admit she hadn’t made a very good first impression today. She had to wonder—why it never entered her mind to clean up before coming into town?

The answer came quickly; all she had in mind was her property, and that was as it should be.

If she were a man, she reasoned, no one would have thought anything about the dirt, grime, or the sweat. No, they would’ve congratulated that man for bringing supplies to their remote little outpost. They would’ve welcomed him as the new proprietor of the mercantile with open arms.

It wasn’t fair, but that was the way of the world.

And on top of it all, she’d allowed the sheriff to throw her off her stride. Who would have thought there’d be a man up here in this remote backwoods, or anywhere for that matter, who would catch her fancy like that and run away with her good sense? One look at him and she’d forgotten all about everything. Even with Mr. Buttrum growling in her face.

Occupied for a few minutes, having to rifle around in her traveling trunk behind the wagon seat, she dug out her good russet-brown skirt and her good cream-colored blouse with the lace ruffles down the front. Seated upon the wagon bench, she slipped into her skirt, still shaking her head for losing sight of her goal.

She had miscalculated, that was unlike her. She should’ve given more care to her appearance. Although she didn’t put much stock in that sort of nonsense, she needed to pay more attention, now that she was out from under the protective umbrella of her late father’s and her uncle’s family business.

It was imperative to get herself under control. She’d allowed a man to distract her, although just for a few brief moments. She couldn’t afford to waver from her purpose, not if she wanted this venture to succeed; there was far too much at stake, and too much work to do. And certainly, she couldn’t spare a second to indulge in silly fantasies.

Truthfully, she didn’t see why being a female would be a problem. Oh, Wren knew there was bound to be skepticism and prejudice, she was used to that. To her mind, her qualifications and experience overruled the fact of her gender. Mr. Buttrum didn’t worry her in the least, she could handle him. He wasn’t nearly as vile as her uncle; the proof of that lay with his lovely wife. If Wren was any judge, she would guess that the mayor was controllable—his lovely wife knew how to handle him. With persistence and determination, Wren could win this battle—although maybe not the war.

“You will steer clear of the sheriff, my girl,” she told herself as she buttoned her blouse. “He brings out the worst in you. You know very well men muddle the brain.” 

He made her feel giddy, and she told herself she didn’t like feeling giddy. But it was a very small town, and she was bound to run into the man. She would not go all weak in the knees if he spoke to her or glanced in her direction. She would not! Besides, she didn’t have time for it. A man like the sheriff was bound to tangle up the female mind faster than a spool of barbed wire.

Barbed wire could be very painful.

Maybe he was married to that fragile little bird-like woman beside him. Yes, she hoped that was the case. Then, she could enjoy the fluttery feeling she got in the pit of her stomach by just thinking about him, but keep her heart under lock and key.

Giving herself a mental shake and climbing down from her wagon, she put aside her frivolous, flighty thoughts about the sheriff.

To sober herself, she brought forth the image of the banker and his magenta face. Yes, the banker…now, there was a big bag-of-wind if ever she’d seen one, and she knew what she had to do. She had just the needle to prick his balloon and she was going to take great pleasure in deflating the pompous windbag.

Critically, she examined her reflection in the dirty little mirror she had hanging on a nail on the side of her wagon. The bag-balm she’d used on her blistered, calloused hands was added to her poor, cracked lips. To rub it in, she pressed her lips together and rolled her lips between her front teeth. With a nod of approval and an encouraging little smile, she decided she looked almost respectable.  With efficient, ruthless strokes, she brushed the dust from her hair and drew the sides up with a pair of tortoiseshell combs, thinking to control her abundant locks in her usual bun on top of her head. But, after a little consideration, she opted to allow her coffee-brown tresses to fall in waves down her back. No use letting her best feature go to waste, she reasoned. She tried to convince herself that it was a strategic maneuver to gain sympathy and power, but she knew she wanted the sheriff to see her hair. Men were partial to long hair, and she had long hair, lots of it, always had. It might be to her advantage to make use of all her assets, even if the effort was a little late in coming. From here on out she vowed to try harder to put forth the proper image.

Face scrubbed clean, cheeks pink and glowing beneath her tanned complexion, satisfied she no longer looked like a scruffy vagabond—she smelled a heck of a lot better. Her eyes, even though bloodshot from the dust and sun, were bright with anticipation of the forthcoming battle.

Tucking her blouse into the waistband of her skirt, she was pleased to note the waist wasn’t as tight as it had been a week ago.  Prone to plumpness, she wanted to do a little dance of glee, for it would seem she’d melted off a pound or two over the miles. She slipped on the brown silk weskit over her blouse and fussed a moment or two with the lace to get it to lay just right at her throat and across her ample bosom. She cast aside her work boots, replacing them with a pair of black, high-button shoes. After slipping her calloused hands into a pair of cream-colored kid gloves, she fixed her best straw hat on her dark-brown hair with a long, ebony hatpin as the final touch.

Having done all she could with her appearance, it was time to get to the business at hand. Grabbing hold of the side of the wagon, she hoisted herself up with one foot going to the wheel axle. On the inside of the wagon, beneath the dash, was an enclosed wooden box. She lifted the wooden lid to retrieve her father’s old satchel. With her satchel in hand, she jumped down, adjusted the black reticule on her wrist, then squared her shoulders.

She was ready.

“Mac, guard the camp,” she ordered, and was satisfied when Mac responded with a bark of obedience, plunking himself down next to the wagon, head up and alert.

***

Telt looked out his office doorway as Eula Buttrum directed her troops. She had the women of the town scurrying about like ants on an anthill, dragging in sawhorses and old doors to construct makeshift tables. It would appear the ladies had decided to welcome the potential owner of the mercantile even if the mayor had yet to put his stamp of approval on the deal. To Telt, women were strange creatures. Anytime more than a couple of them gathered in, there had to be food and drink. Lottie Bledsoe was out there placing bowls of food on the table, filling cups with cider. She was hustling around like all the rest. He watched her until she started to squeal and hop around, swatting at the yellow jackets with her lace hanky. He had to look away, afraid he was going to burst out laughing.

The kids had started a game of tag, dust billowing up from their running feet, forming a cloud that sifted over the town. Telt heard Shorty shout, “You’re it!” Peanut, and about a half-dozen other mutts, chased after the kids, barking and yipping, creating as much chaos as possible and loving it.

So Shorty was back from his mission, whatever that was. He’d bet a nickel Shorty was responsible for spreading the word to the men at the quarry and the mill. They’d started to trickle into town about a half-an-hour ago, settling in out front of his office to swap stories, once in a while breaking out into all-out laughter. The sour smell of tobacco smoke from their pipes and stogies drifted into the office. Even Percy was there in the middle of them, putting in his two cents worth. Telt hoped the smoke would help to discourage the spiral of flies circling inside the doorway.

From his vantage point, it would appear everyone in town had dropped what they were doing. Howard had closed the bank. Percy had abandoned the telegraph. Everyone waited on Miss Whoever-she-was to find out what, exactly, was the ‘sit-chee-a-shion’.

“Howard,” Telt grumbled for about the twelfth time, turning around with a cup of fresh cider in his hand, unsure as to how it had gotten there, “I don’t see how I can arrest the woman. She hasn’t broken any laws that I know of. Maybe if you could give me something to go on, other than her mules were shittin’ in the street, I could help. Why don’t you tell me what’s really going on here?”

Slumped down in Telt’s chair, Howard sat hunched forward, his head in his hands. They’d been here almost an hour, and Howard had yet to say anything…well, anything coherent. All he could do was grumble a lot of drivel about females posing as muleskinners, lookin’ like boys.

Leaning back, Howard twisted the ends of his handlebar mustache with thumb and forefinger. The rickety old office chair squawked in protest. Howard was not a small man. Telt wanted to warn him to watch it—the chair might give out—but then it might be kind of amusing to see Howard on his butt, and maybe Telt might get a new chair out of it.

“What is going on here?” Howard barked, “What is going on here is a God-damned travesty! That’s what’s going on here!” he shouted, pounding his fist down on the beat-up old desktop. Telt saw it shudder on its splintered old legs. With raised eyebrows, he considered there might be a new desk in this too, if Howard kept abusing his office furniture.

“You’ll have to be a little more specific, Howard. How is it a…a…what-you-call-it, ‘travesty’?”

Howard Buttrum was the man who had pressed him into becoming sheriff of Laura Creek in the first place. Telt would never have taken the job willingly, but once Howard recognized him as a retired lieutenant the man wouldn’t take no for an answer. Once in a while Howard did seem to seek out his advice, not that he ever took it. Telt hoped this circumstance would be the exception. “I’d like to help, but first I have to know what the problem is, Howard. So you got to open up and open up right now.”

Telt sat down on the edge of his desk and put his cup down, then crossed his arms. Leaning forward slightly, he got in Howard’s face. “Who is that woman? What does she want here in Laura Creek? And why the hell are you so all-fired worked up about it?”

He pulled back when Howard thrust himself out of the chair and began to fight his way out of his suit coat like a boxer, snorting mad, huffing and puffing. The man’s back was wet with sweat, his white shirt sticking to his skin.

Queenie, as if disgusted, tired of all the fuss, got up from her corner blanket. She ambled down the hall, her big, reddish-blonde fan-tail between her legs, heading off to the jail cell where it was quiet and cool.

Patiently, Telt kept silent as Howard wiped his sweaty face with his monogrammed white handkerchief and combed his fingers through the thinning remains of his hair.

Finally, after a few deep, deep breaths, Howard spoke, “The problem is I don’t believe it! I don’t believe a word that woman says. I don’t believe she drove those wagons from Oregon City up here all by herself, and I don’t believe she’s any relation to the O’Bannons. No female could handle a team of six by herself—it stands to reason. On the other hand, if it turns out she is who she says, then I’ve gone and sold the mercantile to a Woman!” This pronouncement came in the form of a confession that Howard T. Buttrum had blundered…horribly. And the result of his horrific blunder now had the potential to destroy the viability of the entire town.

Telt shook his head, thinking he must have missed something. It wasn’t impossible for a woman to drive a couple of wagons with a team of six mules. Women were tough. Telt had seen women, Indians mostly, take on a man’s chores, do’em without complaint, and get’em done. Selling the mercantile to a woman didn’t seem to be that bad of a ‘sit-chee-a-shion’. And there certainly wasn’t any law against a woman owning a mercantile, at least he didn’t think there was.

With arms flapping in frustration, Howard brought his point home, bellowing, “She-is-a-charlatan! I know it! I’ve been hoodwinked!” He added, looking for all the world like a pouting baby, “Yes, sir, I’ve been hoodwinked good and proper by that female! Oh, oh, she had help!” he shouted, shaking his big head, setting his jowls into motion.

Telt didn’t think the man should get so worked up all the time; it couldn’t be good for his heart.

“That cheap, chiseling judge, Crookshank…he’s behind this.  He’s laughing his bony butt off! You can take my word on that!”

With his brows knit together, Telt remained skeptical as Howard raised his fist and his voice to the almighty, “I demand credentials! I want solid proof of this corporation! I won’t settle for less. I will not hand over the keys to that store to a…woman! I’ll be damned if I will!”

The room fell silent for a moment. Telt listened to the sounds coming from the street: the barking dogs, the shouting children, and the droning buzz of the flies. He took back his desk chair, resting his elbows on the oak-top.

He asked, “You are talking about Judge Crookshank…the same Judge Crookshank who circles by here every now and then? Nice old fella, with a long beard, usually a good story to tell?”

Howard nodded vigorously. “He’s finally gotten back at me!”

“Gotten back at you? You aren’t making sense, Howard. You say the woman is lying, and the judge is in cahoots with her. As far as I know the judge doesn’t lie, it kind of goes with his job. I’m confused. I didn’t know you and the judge had a grudge going. I thought he was a friend of yours.”

Sputtering and spitting, Howard shook his head. “Oh, he’s a friend…a good friend!” In a deflated voice he added, “He introduced me to Eula.”

Telt posed the question in his mind (not out loud, that would be foolhardy), Well then, what’s the problem? 

Howard answered his unspoken thought by explaining, “Seven years ago come September I asked Eula to a concert. Francis thought he was courting Eula at the time. Eula and I started seeing one another and Francis was out. Eula was mine. It’s an old scab for the judge. He thought he was actually a contender for her hand. I knew he would never win her. Eula is a beautiful woman. She would never settle for an old goat like Francis Crookshank.”

“I still don’t see how he tricked you into selling the mercantile to someone you didn’t want to sell to. You had to know who your buyer was. Well, what I mean to say is, you must’ve had some hint that it was a…a female. Surely her name would have given you a hint. Didn’t it, Howard?”

Howard came to the desk, palms down, arms stiff, and a snarl on his face, shaking his head, “I would have if the judge had been up front with me and told me it was a woman buyer! Damn it…women don’t buy properties! Men buy properties. Women buy ribbons, fripperies and bon-bons! That brings up the question—where is her man? By God, if she’s a single female, then that makes it all the more unsuitable!”

In Howard’s mind, this might be obvious and reasonable, but Telt wasn’t sure he was of the same mind. Actually, he’d never given the matter much thought.

Howard went on to expound, “No woman, single or married,should be allowed to have enough cash on her to buy more than a new bonnet. It never entered my mind a woman would buy property, let alone buy property up here. Most women want to be in a bigger town, not stuck out in the backend of nowhere, especially a single female. I don’t like this; I don’t like it one little bit!”

Howard straightened. He shook his head, his sweaty face a study in misery. “Crookshank handled the sale. I trusted that man!”

Telt cringed; Howard looked like he was about to cry, for Christ’s sake! He thought it prudent to remain calm and quiet as Howard went on to explain.

“The contract for the sale of the mercantile was with the Big O’ Corporation, signed Wren O’Bannon. Wren could be a man’s name…I thought it was a man’s name. The judge didn’t say a word. Hell, he didn’t have too. It just stood to reason the buyer was a man. I assumed it was a man. I’d heard good things about O’Bannon Brothers Enterprises. I just assumed Wren O’Bannon was one of that outfit…a man!

“You know, of course, they own more than one mercantile over in the valley. They have their own warehouses and they haul freight, too. I had no reason to be cautious. I trusted the judge, ‘my old friend’, to get me a good deal. And it is a good deal.

“Hell, I was overjoyed the O’Bannons were interested in our little, no-account mercantile. I figured it must be the railroad was coming soon, and the O’Bannons wanted to be here, all set up, when that first train came blowing through. There was no reason to question the gender of the purchaser. Hell, I was paid top dollar for that store and property,” Howard bemoaned, then growled with frustration and punched the desktop.

Scrubbing his balding head with the palms of both hands, Howard wailed, “Property! Twenty good acres…sold to a woman! What’s a single female going to do with twenty acres of meadow? Shit! God a-mighty!”

Telt, leaning back in his chair, biding his time as Howard paced the room, ignored the chair’s groan of protest. With his hands behind his head, he muttered to himself, “Well, at least I ain’t bored anymore.”

The banker came to a halt before the open door. He jerked, eyes flying open, at last awake to all the activity going on outside. Telt saw the man’s jaw drop, and figured Howard had just crashed back down to earth.

Eula came up to him, her bonnet blown back off of her head, her thick mane of blonde curls loose from the chignon at the nape of her lovely, white neck, and handed her husband a cup of cool cider. Telt recognized the sweet mischievous smile on her lips. He heard Howard sigh.

Howard looked down into his cup of cider, then at his wife. He looked up and down the street. Telt could see he was taking in the tables, the food, the children, the dogs, and the men gathered in around the front of the office. Howard took a deep breath, his chest expanded, then he bellowed like a bull moose in rut, “Eula! Eula Irene Buttrum!”

Startled, Telt lurched forward. His old office chair gave out from under him and he flew backward. The result…he knocked his head on the wall behind the desk. After a lot of cussing and clatter, he found himself sitting on his ass on the floor, his once four-legged chair now a three-legged chair. “Damn you, Howard, you blow-hard!” he growled, rubbing the back of his head, nursing his wounded pride.

Meanwhile Howard demanded, “Eula Irene Buttrum, what in the tar-nation is going on out here? What’s all this?”

CHAPTER 4

The sounds of children playing echoed in the hills above town.  The sounds inspired Wren to quicken her pace and, with renewed purpose and determination, she set out to take possession of her property.  Keeping to the shade along the creek, she emerged from beneath the trees onto the main street near the north corner of the sheriff’s office. Out in the street there were a dozen or more children, and their dogs, playing. In front of the sheriff’s office a group of ladies hovered over a couple of makeshift tables weighted down with bowls and pots full of food.

It was her intent to slide by without bringing attention to herself. It was obvious the town was preparing for some sort of celebration, but the sooner she straightened out Mr. Buttrum, the sooner she could see her property and decide her next move.

Mrs. Buttrum and the wispy little blonde Wren had seen clinging to the sheriff’s shirttails stood handing out cups of what looked to be cider to the men and children. The smell of real, home-cooked food nearly made her swoon. She’d been living on a diet of beans and biscuits for better than three weeks, with a rabbit now and then. She almost drooled when her nose picked up the smell of fried chicken and freshly baked bread. More food was coming; several of the ladies continued to fuss around making room for it all.

Suddenly feeling a little weak, Wren stumbled but caught herself. Looking to her right, her eyes met those of a redheaded man. She’d noticed him earlier, shortly after Mr. Buttrum began shouting at her. He’d come from the direction of the telegraph office and had tried to help. She nodded and smiled at him; he blushed and nodded. There were other men with him, some squatting and others leaning against the sheriff’s office. They stopped their conversation when they spotted her.

Wren steadied herself as all activity came to a standstill. The children stopped running, even the dogs plunked down on their collective haunches as all eyes turned her direction—so much for sliding by unnoticed. Pasting a valiant smile on her lips, taking a firmer grip on her satchel, she prepared to run the gauntlet of onlookers. Moving forward, with shoulders back and head high, she found the friendly face of the woman she’d assigned as the banker’s wife, Mrs. Buttrum.

Nervous, she wanted to lick her lips, but didn’t dare, as she needed to leave them alone and allow the salve she had applied to moisten the cracks. Her mouth felt dry, and she desperately wanted to clear her throat, but that was a sure sign of insecurity. Feeling the need to say something, she prayed her voice wouldn’t fail her, and screwed up her nerve to make conversation. “My, this looks festive,” she managed to say, working very hard to meet the eyes of several of the ladies gathered. To her relief she found nothing more than curiosity written on their cheerful faces. “I do hope this business won’t delay your celebration,” she said directly to the banker’s wife. Mrs. Buttrum flashed her a beautiful smile and nodded as if in approval.

Wren hoped she’d erased any traces of the grimy muleskinner from her person and transformed herself back into the businesswoman that she was. However, she was not fool enough to believe changing into some acceptable female garb would alter one whit Mr. Buttrum’s opinion of her.

From out of the corner of her eye, she spied Mr. Buttrum. He filled the doorway to the sheriff’s office. Large and imposing, he glared at her, his eyes hard and full of malice. No, Mr. Buttrum definitely was not impressed with her improved appearance or anything else. Not one little bit.

Putting her nose in the air, she dismissed Mr. Buttrum and his surly attitude to accept his wife’s outstretched hand, allowing Mrs. Buttrum to draw her into the circle of ladies that had gathered about the tables. “Pish-tosh, the welcome is for you,” the woman declared, her gray eyes shining brightly with warmth and good will.

It took Wren a moment to digest this. Taking quick survey of those gathered about her, the children, the men and women, it appeared the whole town had stopped doing business for the day. There were at least twenty or more adults, and at least a dozen children. The tension eased out of her shoulders, and her throat constricted with tears of relief.

Could it be that things weren’t as bad as she’d feared? 

She could feel his eyes on her, a formidable aspect looming in the doorway of the sheriff’s office, daring her to look him in the eye. He stood there, the obstacle to her goal. Instantly, Wren sobered beneath Mr. Buttrum’s icy glare. She pulled back her silly tears, chanting an affirmation to herself, I am confident. Stay calm and be prepared to do battle. 

With renewed resolve, she turned her gaze back to the ladies, who were far less hostile.

With a smile and a nod of her head, Mrs. Buttrum immediately began the introductions, “I’m Eula Buttrum. My husband is Howard Buttrum, our mayor whom, you’ve already met,” she offered almost apologetically.

Wren couldn’t help it, she glanced back at the man. When their eyes met, she nodded and smiled at him, hoping to needle him just a bit. She would not allow him to ruin this warm welcome with his sour aspect.

Turning to Mrs. Buttrum, she said with a big smile, “I…I’m very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Buttrum, my name is Wren O’Bannon. Please call me Wren,” she said, holding out her hand to the beautiful Eula.

Eula’s hand was warm and gentle. She smiled and told her, “Wren, you must call me Eula. We’re very excited at the prospect of having a fully stocked mercantile. All of the ladies here have been waiting for this day a very long time. I know you’re going to like it here, I just know it!”

This was encouraging! Eula’s excitement was contagious. Wren wanted very much to believe the woman. “Eula,” Wren repeated, “this…” she stammered, indicating the tables of bounty set out before her, “this is quite unexpected. However did you manage it in such short order?”

Eula shrugged off the question and drew forward the fragile little bird-like woman. “Miss O’Bannon? It is Miss, isn’t it?” Eula asked and waited for Wren’s nod, then went on with the introduction, “this is Miss Lottie Bledsoe, Howard’s niece. She teaches school here. She’s from Chicago.” Said as if this were important somehow and definitely meant to impress. Wren shook hands with the pale, waif-like woman and wasn’t surprised to find her hand limp and cool.

Not the sheriff’s wife; oh, dear! Wren made note of that and bemoaned to herself, Oh, that’s too bad, he’s fair game! It was hard to ignore the rush this tidbit caused. Already, she felt the heat bloom down low in her belly, and her heart rate picked up in tempo. This was not the time to dwell on the possibilities. She told herself she didn’t want to, anyway.

She swallowed back a giggle when Eula elbowed to attention the tall, gawky, red-haired man who’d come to her aid earlier. All the while she’d been exchanging pleasantries with Mrs. Buttrum, he’d been staring at her. But so had all the other men that were gathered.

“Miss Wren O’Bannon, this is Percy Terrel, my brother,” Eula said with a good deal of pride in her voice.

Wren didn’t see the resemblance. Eula Buttrum had wonderfully thick, blonde hair, expressive gray eyes and a flawless complexion, whereas freckles covered her brother’s face. Upon closer examination, Wren did find a few freckles there on the bridge of Eula’s nose. She guessed the sunbonnet was doing its job.

Wren gave Eula her undivided attention as the woman went on to say, “Percy runs the post office, and he’s the telegrapher. He’s our minister and sometimes a deputy for the sheriff. Percy and his son, Shorty, moved here from Woodburn a few years back.” Wren smiled and made certain she expressed the proper degree of respect to a man who wore so many different hats.

As she shook Mr. Terrel’s freckled hand, he managed a garbled, “Good-to-meet-you”, but not without his face turning beet-red and breaking into a sweat. She had to wonder how such a shy man came to be a minister.

With a sweep of her arm, Eula told her, “There are lots of other folks here, but you’ll meet them by and by. You’ll want to get your business out of the way. You go ahead,” Eula said, giving her a little push toward the open doorway, still blocked by the banker.

Yes, it was time to set Mr. Buttrum straight, the sooner the better. Wren charged herself to ignore his forbidding demeanor and, with head high, put her hand on the doorframe, making her intent clear. Without saying a word, she met his nasty glare and let him know she was going in, even if she had to push him aside to do it.

He took one step back, about two seconds before she would’ve shoved him.

Inside, the sheriff’s office was like a mineshaft. It was dark, cool, filled with dust-motes, and smelled of old wood and tobacco smoke. She sensed the people of the town closing in around the front window and the door. The folks outside, their faces pressed to the glass window, sucked up the light in the room.

Her eyes adjusted to the gloom and settled on a potbellied woodstove in the corner, with three barrels drawn close around it.  She could visualize the men gathering here in the wintertime to have a smoke and pass the long winter days. There was a hallway a couple of feet from the side of the stove. She assumed it led back to a jail cell and tried not to think about it.

On the other side of the room sat the sheriff’s scarred and battered oak desk. A man was on the floor on his hands and knees, his head and broad shoulders under the desk, with his backside in plain view; she presumed it was the sheriff.

She heard him swear an oath as he dragged a crippled chair out from under the desk and propped it against the wall. He fished around under the desk and, coming to his knees, tossed a broken chair leg behind him toward the woodstove without a backward glance.

Anticipating the direction the chunk of wood would take, she dodged the projectile with a nimble hop to the side. Far from being dismayed, she couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

***

The musical sound of feminine laughter behind him gave Telt a start, and he cracked his head on the underside of the kneehole of his desk. His hand going to the goose egg on his pate, he peered over the top of the desk.

A woman stood there! A woman he’d never seen before.

The first thing that took his notice was the woman had the most luxurious, curly dark hair he’d ever seen. With it draped about her shoulders, he could only imagine it cascading down… shoot…probably all the way down her back. Damn! He licked his lips—must be to her waist.

His eyes traveled downward to come level with her waist, and his fingers itched to put his hands around her. Without his permission, his line of sight naturally traveled back up a fraction to come to rest on all those creamy ruffles that covered her well-endowed bosom, and he started to fantasize about all the hidden flesh lying beneath those ruffles. He preferred full-bosomed women. This woman, he could imagine, was firm, warm, and smooth to the touch.

Like a man in a desert seeing a mirage, he subconsciously licked his lips again.

Pulling his eyes away from the woman’s bosom, he cleared his throat and pushed himself up to get into a full kneeling position. This brought his line of sight to the woman’s smiling, laughing eyes, which disconcerted him as much as looking at her ample bosom.

Her eyes were dark brown, full of mischievous golden sparks. Her cheeks were round and glowing pink. With her lips parted, he could see her white teeth and her little, ruby-red tongue….

Hell! And Fire! Alarm bells went off in his head! He didn’t know if he could stand. Must be the blow he’d taken to his head, he told himself. It was that muleskinner gal, danged if it wasn’t. How in hell had she gotten herself up to look like…look like a…lady?

He gave himself a mental shake to snap out of it and, with the aid of the wall and the corner of his desk, rose to his feet, all the while his eyes locked with hers.

Howard cleared his throat, which reminded Telt to pull himself together. After all, he was the sheriff; he needed to maintain a certain degree of dignity. He represented law and order, and so far he’d seen very little order in this town today. “Sheriff Telt Longtree, Ma’am,” he said to her with as much authority as possible.

She held out her gloved hand to him. He hesitated, then took it, and just held it. With that touch, he forgot to breathe, and his ears started to sizzle. He heard her say in that lilting way of hers, “I’m pleased to meet you.”

***

Wren went all gooey inside the second their hands touched. Even with her gloves on, there was heat. “I do hope you won’t have to put me in your jail, Sheriff,” she heard herself say, and couldn’t believe it—she was flirting. She even giggled. The man was compelling, with thick, dark wavy hair and eyes of light blue, almost opaque, making a delicious contrast against his tanned complexion.

Everything about the man was substantial, his face, his shoulders, his chest, even the size of his hands. Her poor love-starved body experienced a series of tingling shock waves, the waves seeking out the womanly places where no man had ever gone before, where even she’d never dared to explore.

Giving herself a mental shake, she cleared her mind, determined to regain her senses. She detested simpering, silly females. She was supposed to be a self-assured businesswoman, not a fluffy-headed goose.

Really, the man had the most infuriating effect on her.

“I am Wren O’Bannon of the Big O’ Corporation,” she managed to say, sounding self-confident and composed, even though she felt light-headed and jittery. “I’ve purchased the mercantile from the city of Laura Creek and I would like to take possession immediately.”

Her words brought about the immediate release of her hand. The sheriff visibly pulled back. Cast adrift, she was once again alone in a sea of hostility.

With the lingering feeling of his fingers through her gloves, warm and strong, Wren denied herself the pleasure of drawing her hand to her breast to savor the sensation. She knew she didn’t dare look into those blue eyes—she’d be lost—so instead, she turned to the banker. Surely that would put the starch back in her. God only knew she could use a splash of sobriety at the moment—her heart was bouncing off her ribs.

“I believe, Mr. Buttrum, you represented the people of Laura Creek in the sale, correct?” She hated it that she sounded breathless, but it pleased her to see Mr. Buttrum blanch slightly, taken off his guard by her sudden shift of attention.

Before he could speak, she had her satchel open on the sheriff’s desk and said, “I have copies of our contract, Mr. Buttrum, should you care to look it over again, although you have the same contract as I.  I also have an affidavit from Louis B. Clarkston, of Clarkston, Meyer, and Rugh, my attorney, who handles the corporation’s legal matters.”

She looked up through her eyelashes to see how the sheriff was responding to her presentation. He had that fish-out-of-water look on his face again. As he picked up the papers she’d laid out and began to look them over, she tucked a smile back and pressed her lips together.

She then turned to Mr. Buttrum, giving him her undivided attention, passing him a long white envelope, “This is a letter for you from Judge Crookshank. He said you and he were old friends.”

Mr. Buttrum turned that funny shade of purple again. She ignored his ire, collectively addressing Mr. Buttrum and the sheriff. “The judge is a long time friend of my late father,” she said with a nod and a brief smile to the sheriff. “I found the judge to be very helpful with the negotiations of the purchase,” she said with her eyes steady and directed toward Mr. Buttrum.

***

“I just bet you did,” grumbled Howard as he stepped back to scan the letter before he handed it off to Telt, who took his time, actually absorbing the contents, which listed, in detail, Miss O’Bannon’s many talents and vast experience. Telt also read the personal part of the letter, “Give my regards to your lovely wife. My mouth waters just thinking of her huckleberry pie.”

Over his shoulder, Howard groused, “The dirty son-of-a bitch, thinking of my wife’s pie. The old letch.” Snatching the letter out of Telt’s hand, Howard wadded up the missive, his jaw tight and teeth clenched. He opened the potbellied stove and tossed the letter into the ashes, then slammed the door shut with a satisfying clank.

***

From Mr. Buttrum’s response, Wren gathered he was not pleased.  She glanced at the sheriff and found no clue in his open face. He did sort of smile at her; she wasn’t sure what that meant, perhaps he meant to reassure her. She wondered what in the world the judge could have said in that letter to further enrage the man. There was something very wrong here. The judge said he and Mr. Buttrum were good friends. She was sorry she hadn’t read that letter while it was in her possession.

Whatever he’d said, it wasn’t helping her case.

Mr. Buttrum turned the full force of his wrath on her, “You’d better be prepared to open your doors for business by the first of September, Miss O’Bannon! That’s less than two weeks. It’s in the contract.”

More threats; the man was impossible. She’d taken about all she could stand. It was time to let him know with whom he was dealing. Drawing herself up to all of her five-foot-two inches, she told him in a voice cold and hard, “Oh, I shall be open for business, Mr. Buttrum.  That is, provided, as stated inour contract of sale under provisions, covenants and considerations, the building is sound and in a ready-to-move-in condition with shelves, storage, and a living space.”

She noted a flicker of, could it be deceit, pass across the banker’s hostile countenance. He’d looked away from her, just a fraction of a second, and it gave her an uneasy feeling. She looked to the sheriff, but as soon as her gaze turned to him, he looked away toward the window. She was in for some challenges, all right. The banker stood there looking belligerent.

Taking advantage of the momentary silence in the room, she decided to make a little threat of her own, “I understand Judge Crookshank will be this way again in a month or two. He gave me the impression he looked forward to seeing the community of Laura Creek with an up-and-running mercantile. Let us hope that any disputes that may arise between us will be taken care of long before he arrives,” she said with a knowing smile on her lips.

“Is that a threat! How dare you threaten me, you runty little Banty hen! I’m the mayor of this town! Damn it! What do you know of provisions, covenants, and considerations anyway? That’s legal jargon!”

Wren took note of the sweat that had begun to soak his starched white collar. Bluster and bluff. It was best not to respond, but it took all of her will to remain impervious.

“Damned suffragettes. No, sir! You need to get down off your high horse, young woman! This is a man’s world up here. This isn’t the big city. You’ll soon find you’ve bitten off more than you can chew and I’ll have my store back. I’ll see to it that it gets a proper owner, not some sawed off little snippet of a female who thinks she can pull the wool over my eyes with her grandstand play of fancy talk and pieces of worthless paper. You need a man to bring you back in line, young woman. Which begs the question: does your family know what you’re up to?”

Unfortunately, Wren flinched.

“Ha!” the banker bellowed, shaking his finger in her nose, “I’ll wager they do not!”

CLICK HERE TO GO TO CHAPTERS 5 AND 6

A chaps 1 and 2 by Dorothy A. Bell

November 8, 2012

Laura Creek Mercantile

By Dorothy A. Bell

Chapter 1

Blue Mountains, Northeastern Oregon, 1881

Wren O’Bannon urged her team of six mules up the far bank to negotiate the turn down into Laura Creek, her final destination. Her two freight wagons careened, listing on two axles, rocking back, tongues twisting, perilously close to tipping over. With one foot braced against the dash to keep from going overboard, or worse pulled down between the traces, she hollered, “Haw!” then flicked the reins as hard as she could.

The mules, with their heads bowed, headed for the inviting shade of the tall timber. A cloud of powder-fine dust rose up just as she opened her mouth to shout out a correction. Now the dust sifted in her eyes, down her throat and up her nose. Cursing, she strained for control, drawing back the lines, sweat mingling with the dust down her neck.

So close! If she lost control now it would all go for naught—all her hardship, sacrifice, sweat, perseverance—everything—all in vain.

“Hup! Hup there!” she yelled above the thud, rattle and jangle of her wagons. No time to be dainty, she choked, hacked up a wad of muddy saliva and spit to the side. Providence took a hand, and as her team worked their way up and across the bank, the wagons righted themselves and rolled onto the narrow track. Holding back the hysterical tears of gratitude, she set her jaw, and pushed herself and her team toward their new home.

Soon the forest parted and in a small dell lay the town of Laura Creek. She’d dreamt how the town would look, and the dream had kept her going, moving eastward over the miles of torturous trail, across the barren landscape that followed the Columbia River, then up into the beautiful Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon.

With a flick of the reins she gave out a jubilant, “Yee-haw!”

Rolling into town in a cloud of dust, she pulled back on the reins, rumbling to a stop before the vacant mercantile.

She had to swallow back the urge to crow. She’d done it…all on her own! She’d arrived without killing herself or her mules and without any loss of merchandise. Excitement and relief brought forth a rush of emotions. Victory, of course, but there was disappointment, too. There was no one with whom to share her moment of triumph. It was a circumstance she was accustomed to, just one more painful reminder that she was on her own, no one was going to pat her on the back or make this easy.

Bone weary, thirsty and hungry, and she had to pee, her need to get her hands on the keys to her new home became an imperative. There was a lot of work to do before nightfall. Swiping at her tears of self-pity, she sucked in a big breath of fresh air, then pulled herself back in line.

Unrealistically, she wanted to unload the wagons first—get settled in. Then see her property, the twenty acres of meadow behind the store that went with the purchase. But she was getting ahead of herself. Before she could appraise the layout of the mercantile, she needed to find a Mr. Buttrum, with whom she’d made the purchase. According to Judge Crookshank, Buttrum owned most of the town; he was the mayor and owner of the bank.

With the wagons stopped, and the noise and jostle stilled, a sense of peace and quiet settled over her. A cloud of dust swirled down the street. The ringing sounds of a blacksmith pounding his anvil, sounds of civilization, came from the stable at the far end of town—the sound provoked a smile to form on her chapped and cracked lips. The upward lift of her lips caused her to wince. When she squeezed her eyes shut the burning sensation caused tears to seep out of the corners of her wind-scorched eyes. Rocking her head from one side to the other, she made herself relax her shoulders and loosen her grip on the reins. Once the stinging stopped, she opened her eyes to look around. The question was, could she have a real life here? A life where she wouldn’t have to deal with her lying, cheating, conniving, domineering Uncle Stanley.

Massaging the back of her neck, she wished she could rub all the hurtful memories of heartache and betrayal from her mind, or at least make them fade into the background. A shout from the bank steps behind her startled her, claiming her attention.

“You there! Move your wagons! Are you blind? You can see the stable down at the end there. Your mules are fouling our street!” informed a robust, dapper-looking gent.

With her luck, this would be the banker. Why was it they all had that same look, a look that branded them a pompous ass!  She shook her head, rolled her eyes when he withdrew from his vest-pocket a gold watch on a fob, as if he meant to put a time limit on said removal of the offensive wagons and mules.

Like it or not—she knew it in her gut—here was the man she sought. Anxious to get this meeting over and done with, she climbed down from the wagon seat. Shaky and dizzy, it took a few seconds for the ground beneath her feet to stop rolling. To ready herself for the confrontation with the gentleman on the steps, she wiped the sweat from her face with the sleeve of her canvas duster and pasted a friendly smile on her lips.

“Remove these wagons at once!” the gentleman ordered, coming down the bank steps, glaring at her, his chest thrown out, all bluster and bully, all of which she guessed was meant to intimidate her. Well, Wren knew a thing or two about intimidation—she’d learned from a master.

Mac, her canine traveling companion, took exception to the gentleman’s tone and charged forward, teeth bared. The black wooly fur on his shoulders stood straight up. Wren lunged forward, grabbed him by his collar, hauled him back, and commanded, “Sit!”

With a tight grip on Mac’s collar, she put her smile back in place and held out her hand to the man, “Good day. Wren O’Bannon of the Big O’ Corporation. I’ve come to take possession of my mercantile. I’m betting you’re Mr. Buttrum. Your friend Judge Crookshank described you to me when he informed me that you were looking for a buyer for the mercantile. I understand you’re the owner of the bank and the mayor of Laura Creek as well. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Not surprisingly, the man stood cold and rigid as a stone block, ignoring her outstretched hand. With a great intake of air through his nose, he puffed out his chest like a rooster pheasant and assured her, all in one breath, “Indeed, I am the owner of this bank, and I am the mayor of Laura Creek. It is neither here nor there to me who you are. Get these wagons off the street and away from my bank!”

Being a woman in business, Wren had run up against male opposition before. Still, she didn’t think she would ever become immune to the unreasonable hostility or incivility she often encountered. She’d learned a few things over the years: never back down, never show fear, and never lose your temper.

The latter was the hard one. She had a flash-fire temper and right now she wanted very badly to give this popinjay a piece of her mind and a lesson in manners.

Always pragmatic, she also knew that the sooner she could get past this ridiculous confrontation the better. Besides, she didn’t have the energy or the patience to argue with the blowhard—right now.

Gathering up her composure, putting her temper in check, she suggested, “Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Let’s start over.” Once again she offered her hand for him to shake. “How do you do, Mr. Buttrum, I am Wren O’Bannon, of the Big O’ Corporation. I am the new proprietor of the Laura Creek Mercantile and I wish to take possession of my property as soon as possible. Once I have the keys in hand, I will remove my wagons.”

He still wouldn’t take her hand. Actually, he looked ready to explode, the way the veins on his forehead popped out and his eyes snapped with indignation. All in all, it seemed an odd, if not downright hostile, response to her introduction, certainly not an auspicious beginning for her new enterprise.

Chapter 2

Seated at his desk, going through a stack of wanted-posters and fliers, Sheriff Telt Longtree bemoaned the fact he couldn’t find anything better to do than this. With the heat of the day, and the quiet, he kept nodding off.

As the days of summer marched by in a slow, dull procession, it occurred to him he was squandering the best years of his life sitting here behind this desk twiddling his thumbs.

The last memorable event he could recall took place late last April when a skinny, wild-eyed mountain lion came down the middle of the street, bold as brass, headed for the stable and Punk Baker’s chickens. That day, as every man in town took a shot at that poor old cat, it seemed to him the critter had as good as committed suicide.

He might have to wait for Billy Camalitta to come down the draw with his sheep before he’d get any relief from his inertia.  Billy wouldn’t arrive until sometime around the first of October, on his way to the Grande Ronde Valley grass for the winter. There were always a lot of complaints about Billy’s sheep. A flock of over five hundred wandered all around the town, getting in people’s houses and barns. That should keep things interesting for him, at least for a few weeks.

“Sheriff!” Shorty shouted, bursting through the slatted office door.

Half asleep, Telt came up out of his chair, the papers on his desk sent flying every which way. The rickety door banged against the wall, snapped back, and hit the kid in the forehead.  Shorty’s yelp set Queenie, Telt’s retriever, off to barking like to bring the roof down. Shorty’s pup, Peanut, took off like a wind-up toy. The dogs started to circle his desk around and around, yapping, and barking loud enough to split his eardrums. He reached out to grab a dog, any dog, or a kid, but found nothing but air. Pandemonium reigned.

Sticking two fingers in his mouth, he gave out a loud whistle. “Queenie, sit! Peanut, sit! And for God’s sake, Shorty, shut the hell up! You ain’t bleedin’!” Grabbing the kid by his ear, Telt yanked the boy’s head around to assess the damage. “You’re gonna have a goose-egg, but the skin ain’t even broken!”

Shorty rubbed his head, then brought his fingers down before his eyes, checking for blood. Telt suppressed a chuckle as the kid frowned in disappointment. At six-foot-two, he towered over the boy.

Shorty shut his yap, brown eyes wide tipped his freckled up and sniffed back his hurt. The dogs plopped down on their haunches at the boy’s feet. Telt nodded, satisfied to have order restored. “Now, where’s the fire, boy?”

The boy stopped his sniveling, drew himself up and caught his breath, “No fire, sir.”

Telt folded his arms across his chest and growled, “There better be a fire. You come through that door like you had a firecracker up your butt.”

Shorty vigorously nodded his head, “Yes, sir, I did, sir.  Sorry, sir. Uncle Howard sent me, said be quick!”

“Bank robbers?” A rush of adrenaline surged through Telt as he removed his army Colt and holster from his desk drawer, gave the well-oiled cylinder a spin to be sure it was loaded, and settled the gun belt on his hip. Months had passed since he’d used his gun. The weight of it, the feel of it on his hip, felt good…felt right.

When he’d first come to town four years ago and found himself with a sheriff’s badge pinned on his chest, he hadn’t really minded the dull pace of the town after ten long years in the army chasing Indians. But lately, the quiet and the routine had begun to wear on him, making him feel restless and rusty.  Maybe it was time to head down to Pendleton for a few days…play a couple of hands of poker and put his arms around a willing female.

Headed for the door, Shorty tripped over the dogs, nearly falling on his nose when he leapt in front of Telt to hold him back. “No robbers, sir! Uncle Howard said we got a ‘sit-chee-a-shion’. He said, ‘Get the sheriff! We got a sit-chee-a-shion.’ What’s a sit-chee-a-shion, sir?”

This brought Telt up short. Out of habit, he combed his fingers through his hair before he set his Stetson down low over his forehead. Looking out the window, then back at the boy, he shrugged his shoulders and muttered, “Damned if I know.”

***

Shorty’s ‘sit-chee-a-shion’ seemed to consist of six mules, two freight wagons, one pint-sized muleskinner, and one very big, very agitated, monster of a mongrel dog. At least, that’s what Telt could make out as he stepped out of his office and onto the street. Whatever else there might be, it afforded Buttrum the opportunity to stretch his vocal cords.

“Oh, Sheriff Longtree! Thank goodness!” Lottie Bledsoe exclaimed, skipping towards him, the skirt of her yellow and white gingham dress daintily held up by one small hand, revealing her pristine white petticoats. “I was on my way to the bank,” she managed to report, breathless and noticeably excited.  “I heard Uncle Howard shouting. There’s a person over there…and…” Lottie exclaimed as she tried to match her stride with his, “…and a huge ugly beast! The animal is going to attack Uncle Howard! And I don’t think that…person…can stop him!”

Miss Lottie Bledsoe, the town’s schoolmarm, had the uncanny knack of timing her sojourns about town to coincide with his rounds. Telt no longer found it strange when she popped out of nowhere. She was about the only single woman of marriageable age for a fifteen-mile radius. Shortly after her arrival in Laura Creek almost two years ago she’d set her cap for him. And with persistence she might just wear him down.

The long winters did have Telt considering matrimony as an antidote to his loneliness…his boredom. He asked himself: could he take Lottie night and day, “until death do us part”?  The axiom “marry in haste, repent at leisure” came to mind. He figured he wasn’t that bored, not yet.

A small crowd had gathered in the street in front of the bank. It was Saturday, and a lot of the men from town were at work in the quarry or the mill, but the womenfolk had come out to witness this event. Huddled together like a flock of clucking hens, nervous, they wisely kept their distance from the vicious dog on the wagon seat. Unlike their fearless, or was he foolhardy, mayor, Howard T. Buttrum.

Telt approached and spotted Mrs. Buttrum behind her man, peering around his substantial shoulder as her husband confronted a kid dressed in an oversized coat and dirty hat.  Buttrum, was all lathered up, red in the face, and sweaty. From the looks of things the kid, with his legs braced apart, feet planted, shoulders back against the wagon, and the dog above him on the seat, was holding his ground. Telt shook his head; you had to admire gumption, even if it was misspent and futile.

Shorty skipped around in front of him, trotting backwards, sadistic glee shining in his brown-button eyes, “Do yah think that dog’s gonna kill Uncle Howard, Sheriff? I bet he could!”

Telt advised, “Get hold of Peanut. I’d say that dog eats rats bigger than her for breakfast!”

Shorty’s pa, Percy Terrel, Telt’s deputy of sorts, had a hold of Buttrum’s coat-sleeve. Percy must’ve heard his son’s excited voice, he looked up and met Telt’s eyes. In two long strides, Percy had Shorty by the scruff of the neck, yanking him against his side.

Telt nodded and gave Percy a grin. He understood. The man had his hands full with Shorty. Percy stepped aside for him as Telt moved into the crowd to evaluate the sit-chee-a-shion, as Shorty would say. And sure enough Shorty was right; Buttrum needed to shut up and back off, or that dog would kill him, and that very real possibility made this a very definite situation.

Percy spoke over his shoulder. “The kid got the dog up on the wagon seat. A good thing too, or Howard would be wearin’ that dog for a bowtie.”

Telt just had to chuckle. He’d like to see that. He looked around for the person responsible for this kid—and the dog. No one stepped forward, and he didn’t see any strangers among the familiar faces. Buttrum and that mongrel had everybody on edge.

The kid didn’t look scared or even intimidated, he appeared obstinate, jaw set, gloved hands clenched at his side. He was sun scorched, soaked in sweat, and covered in trail dirt.

Telt put his head up, shading his eyes with his hand against the mid-day sun, and thought it must be near ninety degrees. The kid had to be roasting under that coat. He looked into the kid’s big, almond-shaped brown eyes—stubborn eyes—that said I’ve been around some, and I know what I’m doing. Telt sure as hell hoped he did, ‘cause that snarling, growling dog needed a firm hand.

It was his job as sheriff to stay calm in this kind of situation, although Telt thought it more comical than dire. What happened next confirmed his assessment.

The kid glanced over his shoulder, looked up to the dog, and said, “Hush, Mac, yah beasty!”

The voice didn’t match. The soft, lilting voice sounded playful in its cadence, with a hint of an accent—maybe Irish. Stranger still, the dog stopped snarling, went down on his belly, and laid his big, dark head on his enormous black paws just like a sweet little puppy. Impressed, several of the ladies gasped in awe. But those eyes, those blue-white, ghostly, fiendish canine eyes stayed alert. Wary, Telt hoped no one would make any sudden moves. No tellin’ what an animal like that would do.

The kid—no, he corrected himself, the female—drewherself up. Telt reckoned she was trying to gain some elevation. No matter what she did, she was still gonna be too short.

Displaying a foolish amount of confidence, she brazenly met Buttrum’s menacing countenance with chin up. With nary a waver nor a flinch in her tone or attitude, she declared loud enough for all to hear, “I’ll not stand here and be harangued by you in this public manner, Mr. Buttrum!”

This woman had balls. Everyone knew Howard T. Buttrum wasn’t a man to tolerate insolence, especially from a female. This woman, however, didn’t seem to realize to whom she was speaking, and pressed on.

“We have business to discuss, and business should be conducted in an orderly, civilized manner. As a businessman I’m sure you concur,” she pointed out as if speaking to an inexperienced rube, a cool smile on her cracked lips. Her eyes as hard and as dark as a walnut tree. And there was a challenge there, too, as if she knew full well no one told Howard T. Buttrum what to do or how to do it. But her eyes said it was about time someone did, and she was just that someone, by God.

If Telt read her right, she was mad as hell, a smoldering little pot of molten metal, and Buttrum just kept stirring.

She looked coarse, tough, covered in dust, her appearance at odds with her melodious voice and her refined manner. Telt decided she looked like something out of an old army duffle bag, dressed from neck to toe in an oversized canvas duster and a sweat-stained felt hat, covered in dust. Her demeanor was confusing and at odds with her appearance. The same went for her voice and her refined manner—she was imperious, regal in the way she delivered her set-down. Telt had the distinct feeling this diminutive, intrepid woman was used to getting her way. The problem was, so was Buttrum; but she couldn’t know that, or could she? Telt had a hard time holding back the urge to burst out laughing. Could it be Buttrum had finally met his match?

****

Wren was decidedly uncomfortable with everyone standing about, watching and listening, while Mr. Buttrum continued to humiliate her. Well, she’d not traveled nearly three hundred miles all on her own, over dusty, rutted, boulder-infested roads, driving six mules pulling two freight wagons, to have a posturing blowhard tell her she had no right to her new mercantile just because she was a female! At least, as far as she could make out, that was Mr. Buttrum’s soul objection.

Which was ridiculous, of course. Why, these days, women were doctors and lawyers, soon they would vote. Men like Mr. Buttrum would have to stand back and accept it.

She was about to point out to Mr. Buttrum that, male or female, she was the legal owner of the mercantile, and he must stand aside; she meant to take possession immediately.

But at precisely that moment, a tall, thick-chested man shouldered his way through the crowd. She couldn’t miss the shiny star on his chest, it was at eye level. Looking at him, she forgot what she was about to say; as a matter of fact, she forgot everything. Her mind went blank as she stared up into his big face, a nice face. Her mistake was looking into his eyes. They were clear blue, like the sky. She pressed her lips together to keep from ooohing…and making a fool of herself—but my, those eyes were pretty.

Then she saw the fluttery little blonde hanging on his arm and shook her head—what utter nonsense. She wanted to tsk, tsk!  Pretty he may be, but he obviously lacked sense; the blonde was all wrong for him.

Mr. Buttrum was still ranting, she knew, but the sheriff had her attention. She wished she’d stopped outside of town to clean up. She looked like hell, but five minutes ago that hadn’t mattered. It did now. She couldn’t take her eyes off the man with the blue eyes.

When he half smiled at her, there was definitely a twinkle in his blue eyes, and she wondered—what was he smiling about?  Then it dawned on her…he was laughing at her.

With the butterflies batting their wings against the walls of her hollow belly, and beads of perspiration forming on her upper lip, she instinctively decided to teach him a lesson, invite him to join her in this farce by addressing him directly.

“I believe you’ll agree with me, Sheriff. We shouldn’t stand about in public creating a nuisance on such a fine, peaceful day. You must have an office where we could sort this matter out in a more civilized fashion. What say you, Sheriff?  What would you recommend?”

Wren found his reaction quite satisfactory. It certainly wiped the smile off his lips, and when he blinked, his eyes darting around to those gathered, there was a hint of panic in those blue eyes.

Now, let him see how it feels to be the main attraction—like a cornered animal.

Well, he looked like a big ol’ fish, gulping for air, his face red as all eyes turned away from her and trained on him. Giddy with triumph, she had to press her lips together to keep from smirking.

It flashed across her mind that she didn’t think she’d ever felt giddy before, at least not since she’d left puberty.

***

Damn if his tongue hadn’t doubled up to twice its size—stuck to the roof of his mouth—and his brain turned to mush. Shit, he couldn’t even swallow. Worse yet, Telt suspected the grimy little dab of a female had put him on the spot, knowing full well the effect it would have on him, just to show off. That galled him.

“Well” he stammered, his eyes going around to those gathered, coming to rest on the mayor’s sanguine countenance. Uh…I don’t know all the particulars, but…sure, we could take this down to my office.”

Buttrum, a scowl on his sweaty, florid face, brows knit together, eyes blinking, looked to be as confused as everyone else. Telt didn’t think he’d ever see the day when Howard T. Buttrum would be brought to a standstill, completely bumfuzzled, and certainly not by a sawed-off female! Howard T. Buttrum at a loss for words? Unheard of! 

As his eyes traveled around the expectant faces of those gathered, Telt happened to glance down at Lottie, who had taken up her place at his side. She had her lace hanky pressed firmly to her little nose; all he could see was her big blue eyes. It was then he became aware that they were standing downwind of six sweaty mules, one dusty, riled-up dog, and one hard-assed muleskinner woman. The smell was a bit ripe.

But before he had a chance to say anything, Howard found his voice, “I’ll have no business with the likes of you!” he roared, bringing his big face down and coming nose-to-nose with the muleskinner gal, which set her dog off.

Buttrum’s big voice carried to the next county. Telt watched the gal correct her dog with a wave of her hand, and to his relief and amazement the beast settled down.

But Buttrum was just getting started, “You’re nothing but a filthy little beggar!” he charged, his finger wagging in the little muleskinner’s face. “You’ve got a lot of brass, young woman, coming in here feeding me a pack of lies! Trying to pass yourself of as an O’Bannon, claiming an association with an outfit like the Big O’ Corporation! Ha! You’re a joke!” When her lips twitched, curving up into a slight smirk, Howard raised his fist. He huffed in disgust when the little gal didn’t even back away or bat her eyes.

Telt did note her flared nostrils and her narrowed eyes, but she quickly wiped that smart-ass smirk of her lips, which he thought was deceptive…and dangerous. He had recognized that smirk for what it was; she was controlling herself, but with a herculean effort.

Telt put his hand on Buttrum’s shoulder to hold him down, knowing how the muleskinner gal’s lack of response provoked rather than defused the man’s outrage.

Buttrum swiped Telt’s hand off his shoulder and snarled, “I don’t know where you got all that…that contraband you’ve got there in those wagons, and I don’t need to know! You stole it, no doubt!” he shouted.

With a sweep of his arm, he dismissed her, saying “We’ve nothing to discuss, young woman! I’ve been duped! The whole town has been duped!” Swinging around, Howard ordered, “Arrest this…this…person, Sheriff, for fraud, and thievery, and God knows what else!”

***

Dealing with her Uncle Stanley had served Wren well. She could almost thank him for his volatility. Because of him, she’d become immune to irrational theatrics and, as a consequence, to Mr. Buttrum’s of this world and their bombastic attitude. From experience, she knew better than to exchange barbs and accusations with a man who was righteous and in his pulpit. As long as Mr. Buttrum had an audience, she could never hope to win an argument with him.

Stay calm, she told herself. He has no grounds to stand on.  You have right on your side.  

Which was easier said than done. She had to fight against the urge to giggle, she always giggled when she was nervous or afraid. It was a terrible habit. If only she could get away from the man. Her full bladder was becoming painful. She needed food…and water…both would help to refresh her. Water…she needed a drink of water in the worst way!

A lovely woman, handsome, fair-haired with fine gray eyes, came out from behind Mr. Buttrum. Her clothes were stylish, and Wren could see the other ladies looked to her for leadership. Wren assumed this was Mrs. Buttrum. Possibly it was foolish to assume, but Wren, a consummate people-watcher, enjoyed the game, and she was rarely wrong.

***

Telt stood there, seriously considering tossing Buttrum into the nearest water-trough to cool him down. The man was turning purple and looked about to have a stroke. But Eula Buttrum, usually a quiet shadow next to her husband, stepped forward and put a halt to her husband’s tirade. With her sky-blue bonnet bobbing up and down, she reasoned, “Howard, she’s right, you know,” with a nod and a gentle smile toward the muleskinner gal.

Dumbfounded, the folks gathered went quiet. Howard, his mouth agape and eyes bulging, gave her a look that said he thought she’d lost her mind.

“The middle of the street is no place to be discussing business,” she said to her husband’s face. Her gray eyes scanned the crowd and came to rest on Telt. She offered him a timid, sweet smile, then returned her gaze to her husband. Fanning herself with her lace hanky, she said, “It’s very hot here in the sun. Couldn’t we go down to the sheriff’s office and sort out this matter where it’s cooler?”

Telt thought he saw a glimmer of sympathy in Eula’s eyes as they turned to the muleskinner gal, and then to her dog. Eula nodded and smiled at the gal.

Yup, Mrs. Buttrum, for whatever perverse reason, had taken up the gal’s side of things. Now this was interesting. Telt held his breath, as did they all, to see how Buttrum would handle this turn of events.

Telt stood by as Mrs. Buttrum, God bless her, remained stalwart, her beautiful eyes steady in her perfectly oval face in spite of her husband’s obvious wrath. She stood her ground, her lace-gloved hands folded into the trim little waist of her calico-print dress, in a determined, no-nonsense fashion.

Buttrum, once again, appeared bereft of speech. Mrs. Buttrum’s reasonable demeanor left her husband with nothing more to do than sputter a bit before he flapped his arms in surrender. Telt pressed his lips together and looked away—the big man was in check—at least for the moment.

Sweat rolling down the sides of his face and neck, Buttrum tugged at the lapels of his brown suit coat and ran a finger around the edge of his highly starched collar before saying, “Very well. The sheriff’s office it is, where there’s a brand new, hardly-ever-used jail cell just waiting for you,” he said, shaking one big fat finger in the dirty little female’s face.

This seemed to be the end of the interview, so Telt signaled to Mr. and Mrs. Buttrum, Lottie, Percy and Shorty, and the townspeople, and of course the dogs, Queenie and Peanut, to adjourn to his office.

His signal moved everyone, everyone but the muleskinner gal.

She harkened them back by clearing her throat loud enough for all to hear. Smiling sweetly, her eyes going to one and all she announced, “I’ll be along very shortly, after I’ve watered my animals and made myself more presentable.”

Telt, everyone, stood there watching as she hiked up her long duster coat, revealing several inches of trim, stocking-encased leg, to hoist herself up onto the hub of the wheel, without any assistance, and climb over the side of the wagon to the wagon seat. Before sitting down and taking up the reins, she shoved the big black mongrel over, murmuring endearments to the beast as if he were the dearest, most gentle of pets, then yelled out a sharp “Yah!” that set her team into motion, turning them to go behind the mercantile to the open meadow out back.

“Well, don’t that take the prize,” Telt grumbled, removing his hat and slapping it against his thigh while dust from the retreating wagons blew in his eyes, and the eyes of all gathered. The woman definitely thought of herself as royalty, and everyone could await her presence. Somehow, it tickled his senses. Buttrum wasn’t going to be amused. That held its own appeal.

CLICK HERE TO GO TO CHAPTERS 3 AND 4