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?”
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