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.