Free read Laura Creek chaps 7-8

CHAPTER 7

Coming in late, heads turned when Telt entered the church. He wouldn’t have been late, but he’d gone home to change his clothes because his one and only white shirt was covered with grime, and he’d torn his good trousers. Now he had on a pair of work dungarees and a clean, blue plaid shirt. It didn’t feel right wearing-work day clothes to church. Damn-it-all, anyway.

The consequences of getting involved in Miss O’Bannon’s struggles were expensive; he needed to keep that in mind. When he came within an arm’s length of the woman, he noticed, he had a tendency to lose perspective. It was a physical thing. She stirred his blood—he wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

But the roof of the mercantile was done, now leak-proof. With Percy’s help, the three of them had made short work of the job. Wren O’Bannon did her share and then some, and without a peep of complaint.

As his eyes adjusted from the bright morning sunlight to the softer light inside the little church, he noticed a lot of people were in attendance today. He didn’t think for one minute they were here to listen to Percy give one of his mind-numbing sermons. No, indeed, they were here to get a look at the new owner of the mercantile and to observe, first-hand, the ongoing feud between Miss O’Bannon and the mayor Howard Buttrum. Telt muttered a curse on the man, then felt ashamed of himself for cursing on the Sabbath.

He searched the congregation and found Miss O’Bannon seated on the aisle, three rows down. She’d changed into that frilly, cream-colored blouse. He liked how it accentuated her nice full bosom. But he didn’t much care for that straw hat she had on her head, it hid all that glorious hair. She turned around for a quick glance as he took his place at the back of the room. She looked down right away, avoiding eye contact.

Telt spotted the back of Howards’s square head and the back of Eula’s best bonnet in the pew at the front of the church, and Lottie sitting next to Eula.

Lottie. No woman had bonnets like the ones Lottie wore. She made them herself. They were one of a kind frippery things, all lace, ribbons and bows. She sneaked a peek over her shoulder to the back of the room and gave him a shy, dimpled smile and a nod before turning back to rise to her feet for the opening hymn.

****

     Mr. Terrel’s commanding presence before his congregation impressed Wren. To her, Mr. Terrel, Percy, gave the impression of being shy, tongue-tied, but up in his pulpit he appeared confident, almost eloquent, when he spoke. She smiled up at him when he looked out over his flock, his tenor voice raised in song. His complexion turned bright pink by her doing so, and she almost giggled.

He cleared his throat at the end of the song, announcing, “We would like to take this time to welcome to our community Miss Wren O’Bannon, the new owner of the Laura Creek Mercantile.” As he looked in her direction, Wren suspected him of looking at her hat to avoid her eyes…that tickled her.

Everyone turned in her direction. She nodded and smiled. He went on with a few other announcements: a new birth, and a coming potluck after the Wednesday night choir practice. He led the congregation in a prayer for Grandma Tatom, too ill to attend church services today. He also led the congregation in a prayer for four-year old Pauly Brandtmeyer, who had stayed home with the mumps.

While up on the roof this morning, she’d gleaned from Percy some interesting information regarding Mr. Buttrum, his wife, and their relationship with Judge Crookshank. Once Percy opened up, she didn’t have to do much prodding. He told her Howard Buttrum, born and raised in Chicago, attended Harvard with the then Mr. Francis Crookshank, now Judge Crookshank. Good friends then, and good friends now. He told her all about himself, about his wife leaving him and Shorty. The man simply unloaded a raft of history without her even asking.

Wren thought about trying to get the sheriff to cough up some information about himself, but didn’t even try. Working together up on the roof without speaking, anticipating each other’s moves and needs, felt very intimate…a bonding took place. She found it disconcerting to work in tandem with someone. She’d always worked alone, expecting no one to help her, or work with her. It was a lovely feeling, a heart-warming feeling. She shouldn’t be feeling anything—there was no future in it.

****

     Telt couldn’t take his eyes off her. Even the back of her head kept his attention. He sure would like to know what she was thinking. If he could see into her eyes, maybe he could read her mind. This morning, up there on that roof working with her, they’d done just that, read each other’s minds. He’d never been able to do that with anyone before. No words spoken, no words needed, they worked in harness together…a team.

“Before I deliver our sermon for the day, are there any announcements anyone would like to make?” Percy asked to bring everyone’s attention to the business portion of the service.

A silence came over the room. Telt blinked and watched her come to her feet. Instantly a knot of dread formed in his gut. The pew creaked as she rose, the sound reverberating throughout the room. She stood there with a hymnal clutched to her waist, one hand on the back of the pew in front of her.

He pushed himself off the wall he’d been leaning against, alert now. Who could guess what the woman was up to? He figured Miss O’Bannon had a purpose to every move she made. He wouldn’t be at all surprised if she instigated a riot. Telt shifted his gaze to where Howard sat. He saw the man lurch forward, shift his body to glare at the woman. Telt hoped he wouldn’t have to intervene; he’d left his pistol at the office.

Miss O’Bannon turned Telt’s way and looked right at him, then ducked her head. In that brief second of eye contact, she’d revealed her vulnerability, but only to him. He wanted very much to go to her, stand at her side, give her his support, but he held himself back, stayed rooted to his post at the back of the church.

“Miss O’Bannon,” Percy said, by way of acknowledging her, “do you have something you wish to say?”

To Telt it looked like she hesitated, maybe having second thoughts. When she dipped down, he thought she would sit down, but she laid the hymnal on the seat behind her. As her eyes scanned the congregation, he caught the tentative smile on her lips before she pulled herself up, preparing to speak.

She no sooner cleared her throat than Howard shot to his feet, no doubt intending to stop her. Telt held back the urge to holler at him to sit down and shut up. However, Eula knew how to control her husband. She grabbed the man by the seat of his pants and pulled him back down onto the hard bench. As a result, a loud thud echoed throughout the church. There ensued a moment or two of snickers and whispers as every eye followed the byplay. Heads swiveled back and forth, to Miss O’Bannon, to Howard, then back to settle on Miss O’Bannon. Under normal circumstances, Telt would’ve thought it funny too, but he didn’t like the tension in the room.

“I would like to thank you all for the warm welcome,” Miss O’Bannon said. Telt thought she sounded a little nervous, shaky. He saw her grip the pew in front of her, probably to steady herself.

****

     Wren had a complicated proposal to make, although she’d broken it down and put it in the form of a simple request. Her idea had to work. It could very well be the only way she would get done what needed to be done. She took a deep breath to steady herself and screw up her courage before saying, “There are several things that need to be done at the mercantile before I can open for business, most of them well beyond my capabilities. I have a list. What I would like to do is offer merchandise in exchange for skilled labor…or building materials.

“If any of you would be interested in an exchange, I will be at the store this afternoon, and we can discuss, in detail, the possibilities. In the coming weeks I hope I’ll have an opportunity to meet all of you. I look forward to our becoming good friends and neighbors.” She smiled her best smile and reclaimed her seat. The buzz of excitement that ensued pleased her, but she had to sit down, her legs felt as if they were made of jelly.

As the sermon followed her announcement, the little church grew stuffy with the noonday sun. With more singing than sermon, the service was blessedly brief. Wren stood outside the church afterward, visiting with a group of ladies who bombarded her with questions about what kinds of wares she intended to stock in her store.

As they stood there talking, she tried to memorize their names.  There was Mary Brandtmeyer, a very plain but sturdy woman, who had a toddler attached to her hip. Mary’s husband owned the sawmill. The husbands of Mrs. Edna Claussen and Mrs. Meirs owned the rock quarry.  Wren could remember Mrs. Claussen because she spoke with a thick German accent and Mrs. Meirs was the only colored woman among Laura Creek’s population. The widow Margret Tatom, she discovered to be the daughter-in-law of the absent Grandma Tatom for whom they had prayed. Susan Hobart didn’t have any front teeth, and her husband Ned worked at the mill. An elderly lady by the name of LuLu Olhouser, ninety if she was a day and almost deaf, lived in town with her daughter Pammy Deeds, who translated for her in a combination of inventive sign language and short-speak. Pammy’s husband, George, worked at the mill.

Wren received several invitations for Sunday dinner, including one from Eula Buttrum, but she turned them all down. Truly, she had a lot to do. She didn’t have time to socialize.

She could feel the sheriff watching her. She wanted to deny herself the pleasure of looking into his all-too-penetrating gaze. But couldn’t resist. Everything about Telt Longtree pleasured her: the way he worked, moved, talked. Common sense warned her if she allowed her heart to have its way, her life would become very complicated and very painful very quickly.

Lottie Bledsoe had the sheriff by the arm. Miss Bledsoe wore a sunny yellow dress of gauze over a white satin underdress. She’d artistically woven sky-blue ribbons into the puffy sleeves and around the lace at her throat. She had upon her hair of gold a straw bonnet, tied with a blue ribbon beneath her almost-chin. The couple stood in Wren’s peripheral view, Lottie doing most of the talking. Wren could hear Miss Bledsoe clearly and suspected the woman spoke every word for her benefit.

“We’re going to have fried chicken for our Sunday dinner, your favorite,” Lottie said to the sheriff, who, Wren noticed, stood as stiff as a wooden post, his shoulders back and chin tucked in. “Aunt Eula has baked your favorite lemon pie. I thought, after we eat, we could take a walk along the creek. It would be lovely and cool. Maybe we could take a blanket and sit awhile. I have a new book of sonnets.  We could read aloud to one another.”

Wren didn’t wait to hear the sheriff’s response to all of Miss Bledsoe’s plans. It simply was none of her business. Besides, she had to get away, or she would explode into a giggling fit.

Setting off towards her camp, she muttered to herself, “Sonnets, indeed.” To her mind, the sheriff wasn’t the sort who would appreciate sonnets, but then you just never knew; but Wren couldn’t picture it.

She told herself she must fight against the urge to save him from Miss Lottie’s clutches; she should let him suffer, the big oaf. If he couldn’t see Miss Lottie was all wrong for him, then she certainly didn’t want him.

No, she had to stay out of it. He was spoken for or as good as.  More to the point, he presented a complication she didn’t need. She had to live here. She had to work here and make her way. There could never be anything between them. Lottie, Wren was certain, would see to that.

****

     Telt followed Miss O’Bannon’s retreat with his eyes, no longer listening to Lottie plan his day. If Miss O’Bannon thought she could glide away without explaining herself, she had another think coming. That woman was plotting some kind of retribution…keeping notes in a little black book. Not only that, she’d stopped arguing with Howard; had just let him blow. That wasn’t right.

Women, it had been Telt’s experience, loved to argue, especially if they were right. Miss O’Bannon had something up her sleeve.

As for Lottie Bledsoe, Telt didn’t like her planning his every minute. He sure as hell didn’t intend to sit in the shade and read sonnets to her. Never. She’d been getting awfully pushy lately. Miss Bledsoe made it sound like it was a done deal, she had him all hobbled and hog-tied.

While Telt mulled over his predicament, the banker and his wife joined them.

“That woman is up to something,” Howard said, echoing Telt’s thoughts exactly, but for different reasons. They both watched Miss O’Bannon pick her way across the meadow with her skirts held up as she waded through the tall, dry grass, headed toward her wagons. “After our Sunday dinner, you get down to that store and keep an eye on her.”

“We were going for a walk after dinner down by the creek, Uncle Howard,” complained Lottie, her mouth forming a pout. She looked like a pouting child, a child who was about to stomp her foot in protest. It came as something of a surprise to Telt to know the woman could express that much disappointment.

“The sheriff won’t have time for that kind of falderal today. A sheriff is on duty seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, Lottie.  Better get used to that right now,” said Howard.

For a moment there, Telt thought Lottie might stick her tongue out at her uncle. To her credit, she didn’t. She prudently looked down at her feet and bit back whatever she wanted to say in rebuttal.

Telt didn’t care much for the sound of any of this. Damn, they did: Buttrum, Mrs. Buttrum, Lottie, probably the whole damned town, had him all wrapped up. This situation reminded him of the day they’d stuck him with the damn job of being sheriff in this one-horse town.  He’d been labeled the prize package then, and now they’d tagged him as the chump to wed the schoolmarm. Well, damn. Everybody, the whole damn town, had another think comin’ if they thought he’d stand around and let them serve him up like…like a Christmas ham.

“It’s Sunday, Howard, such a lovely day. Surely the sheriff and Lottie can have the afternoon to enjoy themselves,” she said with a sweet smile directed to Lottie and a smile and a wink to Telt.

Telt could see by the unreceptive curl of his lips that Howard wanted to put his wife in her place, but Telt forestalled him. He had to take back his life, and right now. “Well, Ma’am, your husband is right,” he said to Mrs. Buttrum, which caused Howard to nod with satisfaction and Eula to purse her pretty lips in forbearance.

“I am on duty every day,” he confirmed, turning to face Lottie, hoping to discourage her desire to form a union. “I’m on duty twenty-four hours a day. Sunday’s are no different from any other day, so I’ll have to give a pass on that fried chicken, Miss Lottie. You sure do make a good fried chicken. Nobody can argue that. But I’ve got some things I need to take care of right away.”

To get Howard off his back he said, “I’ll be sure to drop in at the mercantile this afternoon.” With that said, he tipped his hat to the ladies, backed up, then spun around, and taking big strides, he started after Miss O’Bannon.

Muttering to himself, he started out across the meadow, “I’ll keep my eye on the O’Bannon woman, all right.” He hadn’t seen Queenie since this morning when he spied her from up there on the roof of the mercantile, cavorting with Miss O’Bannon’s mutt. He suspected he’d find her out in the meadow with that damned mongrel. “And…I’m gonna get my darn dog back,” he vowed.

CHAPTER 8

     “Uncle Howard, why did you send him away?” Lottie whined with tears of frustration trickling down her pale cheeks. “Now he’s not even going to have dinner with us. He’s going after that…that woman.”

Lottie couldn’t believe it, it was happening again. She knew it, another suitor slipping through her fingers; she could see it happening all over again. She wanted to lie down on the ground, tear her hair out and pitch a fit. No one cared about her needs, her dreams they came as a distant second to everyone else’s agenda.

Two years ago, living in Chicago with her parents, she’d fallen madly in love with a young man by the name of Wesley Potter. Before she and Wesley could set a wedding date, her parents shipped her off to the wilds of Oregon to live with her aunt and uncle. With no regard for her feelings in the matter, they arranged for her to make use of her college education to become Laura Creek’s new schoolteacher.  Everyone assumed she would forget Wesley Potter. And she had, almost, because of her interest in Telt Longtree. Miserable, she began to sob with despair.

“Now see what you’ve done, Howard?” her Aunt Eula hissed.  “You’ve upset Lottie. Honestly, Howard, sometimes you can be so thick-headed.” Her aunt wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “Surely the sheriff could have one day? Sunday, Howard. Surely the sheriff could have Sunday to devote to courting our dear Lottie?”

Lottie clasped her lace handkerchief to her bosom, her voice swamped with tears. “You’ve as good as pushed him into that woman’s arms, I just know it. He watches her, Uncle Howard.”

Her uncle waved away Lottie’s fear as if he waved away a pesky gnat. His callousness reminded Lottie of her father; he hadn’t sympathized with her dilemma either. Her Uncle Howard would never understand.

As proof, he declared, “Hogwash! I say to the both of you. Of course he’s watching the woman. The whole town thinks she’s a nuisance. She broke the peace and quiet of the Sabbath this morning up on that roof pounding away, showing her limbs to God and the world.  Then she made a spectacle of herself…pleading for help in church, of all places. And besides, she’s a fraud. I hope the good people of this town have enough sense not to be drawn into her brazen, shifty dealings.” Her uncle went on to expand on his theme as if she and her aunt were dull-witted. “Longtree’s got better sense than to get tangled up with a conniving, she-devil like the O’Bannon female. A woman like that is nothing but trouble from the get-go. No, sir, the sheriff is watching her because he knows what I know. She isn’t what she says she is.”

Lottie could only stare at him; apparently he too thought Miss O’Bannon a calculating, crafty little witch. Uncle Howard didn’t like being made a fool. And Miss O’Bannon had managed to do that by purchasing the mercantile without him knowing she was a female. All he had to do was swallow his pride, accept the fact that he’d been outsmarted by a woman.

His whole life wasn’t on the line. He wasn’t the one whose heart would get crushed by a conniving, ambitious, intrepid baggage.

Howard took Lottie by the arm, put his other arm around his wife and led them away from church, headed toward home. As they passed between the bank and the mercantile, he said, “There’s something fishy about Miss O’Bannon. There’s something fishy about this whole thing. A woman on her own like that, it isn’t right. How is it she has enough money to set herself up in a mercantile? Tomorrow I’m going to start investigating. I want to talk to her family.”

Lottie sniveled and dabbed at her eyes with her lace kerchief, her lower lip trembling. She caught her aunt Eula’s eye. They exchanged glances. Tight lipped, Eula appeared angry and upset. Uncle Howard didn’t help the situation by reminding them both that he expected his Sunday dinner on the table in half an hour.

Lottie suspected her uncle knew very well how unhappy they were with the situation. He quickly changed his tone, offering Lottie a few well-chosen, condescending words meant to salve her disappointment.  “We have to let the sheriff do his job, sweetheart. Don’t you fret, Lottie dear,” he said and pinched her cheek. “The sheriff is yours for the taking. I’ll have a little talk with Longtree. Once he sees the advantages of latching on to a fine little woman like you, why, he’ll want to get you to the altar before the-cat-can-lick-his-whiskers.”

****

“Sheriff Longtree, I haven’t time to chat just now,” Wren said, exasperated with herself for being unable to control her racing pulse after turning and finding the sheriff to be only a few paces behind her.

Mac and Queenie lay together in the shade beneath the first wagon. At the sound of her voice, Mac crawled out to bid her welcome with some investigative sniffing of her skirt. Queenie followed and butt-wagged over to lick the sheriff’s hand. Wren watched, and forgot to be impatient as the man gently loved-up his dog. She caught herself just before she started to sigh.

“Hello, there, Old Girl,” the sheriff said to his dog, kneeling down to give her a good rub. “Ever since that big lug came to town, you’re kind of fickle, you know,” he said, shaking her head and ruffling her ears.

Silently assuring herself she had herself in complete control of her emotions—and the situation—Wren stated, in her best no-nonsense tone, “I have work to do, Sheriff,” then removed her hat. “I need to change my clothes.”

“You go ahead, I can wait,” he said, still kneeling and petting his dog.

Wren narrowed her eyes and gave him a withering glance meant to send him about-face. He needed to leave and leave now. She put her hands on her hips and huffed, before reasoning, “Surely whatever we have to discuss can wait until later. I’ll be at the store in an hour or so.” She started to go around the side of her wagon to change her clothes.

“I’ll leave as soon as you tell me why you’re making entries in that little black book of yours.” When she turned to look into his eyes, she could see he was pleased to have stopped her in her tracks.

She purposefully retraced her steps, coming within a few feet of him, eyes direct and chin up. “Nothing illegal, Sheriff, I assure you.”

He didn’t blink, didn’t nod, didn’t look at all convinced. “You don’t seem like the type of female to play games,” he said, his eyes looking deep into her own. “But I’ve had enough experience to know some folks like to bend the truth to suit their own agenda. That can be kinda cute in a female, but sometimes it’s just plain infuriatin’.”

She almost snickered. She tried very hard not to give any tells. This was a poker game with high stakes. She had to play it close to the vest. “I don’t play games, Sheriff. I don’t have time. Recordkeeping is part of being in business.”

“In that case you won’t mind telling me what it’s all about. Why are you keeping track of my time and Percy’s time and your time? What are you up to, Miss O’Bannon?”

She took a moment to ask herself why all the questions? Then it occurred to her—his line of questioning had the smell of Howard T. Buttrum all over it.

“Oh, I see,” she murmured, narrowing her eyes, zeroing in on him. “Mr. Buttrum wants to know, doesn’t he? He sent you out here to sniff around, didn’t he? He wants to know about the little black book. Well, you tell Mr. Buttrum he’ll have to wait until the end of September, when the judge returns to Laura Creek, to find out what I’m about.”

She could see she’d hit a sore spot. He winced. “I’m not a sneaky spy,” he growled, on the defensive. “What the hell? Why does everybody assume I’m Howard Buttrum’s tool? I’m my own man, damn it! Buttrum doesn’t know anything about your little black book, and he won’t, because I have no intention of telling him,” he said, his jaw working and his blue eyes snapping with outrage.

She let her shoulders relax and unclenched her fists as she weighed his words, trying to decide if he was lying. No, she thought he was telling the truth. She’d personally witnessed the man go toe-to-toe with Mr. Buttrum. The sheriff didn’t impress her as a boot-licker. A man with eyes as clear blue as a mountain pool couldn’t…wouldn’t be a good liar.

She had to relent, at least a little. “Don’t worry about my black book, Sheriff,” she said over her shoulder as she started around the end of her wagon again, then stopped to add, “Believe me when I say it’s necessary, and no one will be hurt by it. As a matter of fact, it may well turn out to be a very good thing. But none of that matters at the moment.

“I have a lot to do before I can get to the store today. So you really must go,” she told him, “I have to change into my work clothes.”

“Like I said, go ahead. I’ve seen you in your underclothes. I didn’t mind a bit,” he said, a playful gleam in his eyes that did little to settle her nerves. “I won’t soon forget, either. You’re a very handsome woman, Miss O’Bannon.”

Now why is he resorting to false flattery? Wren felt her cheeks flame with outrage. Why is he deliberately provoking me, baiting me?  Well, she would not go down that road. No, sir.

Gathering all of her dignity about her, she took a stab at his pride. “Shouldn’t you be attending Miss Bledsoe? I thought I heard her say something about you and she going down to the creek to read sonnets or something.” The second the words came out of her mouth she knew her mistake. Yes, she’d been eavesdropping on their conversation. But the sheriff’s initial response was satisfying, nonetheless. He physically blanched, blinked several times, and his jaw clenched up.

****

Telt stood there, impotent, grinding his teeth. Women! They had bigger ears than a jackrabbit. Oh, she looked pleased with herself, her lips turned up in a cute little smirk. She’d made a direct hit, all right. It took a second or two longer than he would have liked, but he finally untied his tongue. “Don’t much care for poetry, Ma’am. I’m more of a hands-on kind of man,” he said, and moved in on her. Now it was her turn to squirm. “Besides, I’d rather be here with you,” he added for good measure, his voice smooth and compelling.

She shook her head at him, but he kept moving in on her.

“I…I expect you to be a gentleman,” she stammered. “You…need to leave me to change my clothes…in private,” she said, her voice trembling. She was probably hoping to discourage him by turning her back on him.

Telt grinned at her dismissal. Oh, this lady had a lot to learn if she thought he could be gotten rid of that easily.

“It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon,” he said, turning his face to the crystal-clear, blue sky. “You worked hard this morning. What work do you have to do that’s so urgent you have to get it done on a Sunday afternoon? Surely, whatever it is can wait until tomorrow.”

She hustled around the end of her wagon, and he burst out laughing.

****

 Drat the man, he was laughing at her…again…giving her that grin. She couldn’t look at him for more than a second without melting, and he knew it, the devil. She scolded herself as she slipped behind her wagon, well out of his view.

Her work clothes were hanging on a nail on the side of her wagon.  As she slipped out of her russet skirt and blouse and donned her work clothes, Wren wondered why he’d singled her out. She was nothing out of the common way. No man had ever taken the least bit of interest in her. There had to be some way of making herself impervious to his slow way of breaking down her defenses.

Her fingers went to work in a flutter of precision as she wound her hair up into a bun on top of her head and stuck a couple of combs in it to hold her curls in place. She found her old felt hat up on the wagon seat and smashed it on her head, knowing full-well it was awful and made her look like an old hag.

Speaking up so that he could hear, she told him, “Nothing to do? On the contrary, Sheriff, I have a lot to do. I’ve no time to while away the afternoon in your company or the company of anyone,” she said, coming around the wagon to face him.

She forced herself to look him squarely in the eye. “I have a considerable number of very urgent matters that need to be taken care of right away. I need to get them done before I go over to the store. You have to leave, Sheriff, now,” she ordered.

“Not until you tell me what’s so all-fired urgent you haven’t got time to talk a minute,” he said, moving in on her like a wolf for the kill, his tone suddenly impatient and deadly serious.

Wren took a step back and found the wagon pressed against her shoulders. She couldn’t look away. He had her pinned. Of a sudden she found it hard to breathe. There wasn’t enough air. This wasn’t fear; this was something else. His eyes were devouring her. Wren had never swooned in her life, but she could respect those ladies who had done so. Now she understood.

“I…I need to unload my wagons,” she said, her voice failing her, coming out in more of a squeak than a steady, confident tone. She moved to duck under his arm. He stopped her with a light touch of his hand on her shoulder. His head tilted just slightly, the better to maintain eye contact.

Wren attempted to pull herself together. She felt ridiculous. It was exactly as she had feared. She had become a simpering ninny just by his proximity. She had to stop it, and stop it right now.

She squared her shoulders and tipped her face up to meet his eyes and hoped she sounded more confident than she felt. “I only have so much time to figure out how I’m going to store everything. I have to unload these wagons, Sheriff,” she said, her hands flying out in all directions as her frustration level mounted, eroding her control.

“I’d thought to have a store where I could put all the goods I brought with me. I thought I had a store with a storeroom. Now I shall have to put some things in the old lean-to out here in the meadow. I really don’t want to do that, because anyone who cares to can come along and help themselves. The dry-goods and perishables, I’ll have to put upstairs in what was to be my living quarters, because there are no shelves on which to display them. That means I will be living out here until display shelves can be found.”

Wren felt the tears well up into her throat. She cursed her vulnerability. It was unfair she lose control in front of this man, unfair he could make her feel so weak-minded and vulnerable. Why did she have to break down now, in front of this man, of all people?

****

Telt looked into her eyes. The bravado, the façade, was but a thin veil, a disguise to hide her uncertainty. He realized it for an act of self-preservation. Miss O’Bannon presented herself in such a way that gave people the impression she knew exactly what she was doing at all times. But her eyes gave her away; she was just going at it one thing at a time and hoping it would all work out. Telt couldn’t help himself; he had to touch her, try to sooth away her fears and all the uncertainty.

He ran his finger along her stubborn little chin and let it roam up the side of her jaw to her cheek. He couldn’t stop; those big, brown eyes and dark lashes, moist with unshed tears, drew him in like a moth to a flame. Before he knew it, his lips were on hers. At first, the kiss was light.

He gave her a minute to decide if she liked it or not. He figured the slap would be coming any minute if she decided the latter.

With his eyes open, braced for the smack, he watched as her eyelids fluttered closed, her dark, moist lashes brushing her soft cheek. Her hat fell off the back of her head, and the combs that were holding her luxurious hair went with it. Her curls, set free, cascaded down around her face and down her back. Instead of a slap in the face, he heard her sigh in surrender. Her hands slid up his chest to his neck, then to the sides of his face to pull him down. Her body begged him to deepen the kiss and gave him permission to explore at will. Telt gathered her in closer. She came willingly.

Her lips parted, accepting his tongue. His body responded to her whimper of need. With one hand on her waist, he used the other hand to fondle and tease one of her firm, round breasts through the fabric of her blouse. He felt her buck with shock at his intimate touch.

Then her tongue was taking over his mouth. He slid his hand down to grasp one rounded half of her beautiful backside and pressed her hips closer against his. His desire was apparent. Of her own volition, she moved her hips over his, grinding against his straining erection.

Telt found himself in the position of being the one to hold on to a shred of control. He pulled back. She was on her tiptoes, her eyes still closed, her lips parted; every inch of her begging for more.

They were standing out in the open meadow in plain view of the whole town. Telt glanced over his shoulder toward the church and saw a small herd of men starting out across the meadow, coming in their direction. His voice hoarse with desire, he said to her upturned face, “You got company comin’.”

He knew she didn’t understand why he’d stopped.

“What?” she asked, her voice a whisper.

“You got company comin’,” he said, finding his voice, and moved aside so she could see for herself.

“Oh, good heavens! I need a minute,” she cried, eyes flying open.  One hand going to her throat and the other to her tumbling hair, she fled behind the wagon. Telt took a deep breath. At some point, he’d lost his hat. He spotted it there under the wagon. By the time he retrieved it and had it in place on his head, once again the blood flowed, no longer pooling in his groin.

CLICK HERE TO GO TO CHAPTERS 9 AND 10

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Free read Laura Creek chapters 5 and 6

CHAPTER 5

     It was lovely, cool and peaceful along the creek. Wren returned to camp, washed her hair and gave herself a thorough, all-over wash. Angry, she had to wash away all the grim and grit, then try to find a way through this predicament.

Weary, worn down, depressed and defeated, she blessed Mrs. Buttrum’s timely interruption. The woman had saved her from having to attempt a rebuttal to the mayor’s challenge. Being prejudiced, it didn’t matter the circumstances that had brought her to Laura Creek; Mr. Buttrum, she knew, would never accept her or her motives.

With her wagons end-to-end, her bedroll laid out between and her back to the end of a wagon, she had an excellent view of town to the east. Dressed in a clean chemise and a pair of clean drawers, she’d thought to feel better; but instead, the old feelings of loneliness, frustration and betrayal overshadowed any good that she could find at the end of this long, hard day.

The emptiness she felt gave room for the memories of all that had gone on in the months before she left Oregon City. They settled around her heart and mind like a dark shroud. Never would she believe her father had meant to write her out of his will…entirely, but he had. Everything belonged to her Uncle Stanley now. It was wrong.

She’d poured her heart into her father’s half of the O’Bannon Brothers Enterprises. She’d dedicated her life to building it up, nearly singlehandedly, into a thriving, profitable business.

Of course, after her mother’s death, when the depression began to overpower her father’s will and mind, she naturally assumed more and more of the mantle of the business. He’d allowed her to do so; encouraged her to do so.

He had no justification, none whatsoever, for writing her completely out of his will. Every time she thought about it, examined the final outcome, bitter resentment gnawed at her gut and squeezed her heart until she thought she might die of the pain.

Plumping the feather pillows behind her head, she stretched out on the quilt she’d laid down over the bedroll and tried to convince herself that she’d done the right thing—taken the only option she’d been given. She’d struck out on her own to make her own way. The offer she’d received from her uncle to work for him as clerk in the Oregon City Mercantile, stripped her of all authority. Magnanimously, he’d said she could keep her room in the house she’d lived in all her life. But her uncle cautioned that he and her cousins would be moving in immediately to take possession. Making it sound like a joke, he’d hinted that perhaps she’d get a better night’s sleep if she found her own accommodations rather than live under the same roof with a house full of randy bachelors.

Swiping away the hot salty tears on her cheeks with the back of her hand, she shook her head; she’d made the right decision by purchasing her own mercantile. There was no life for her in Oregon City. It was the right thing to do, coming to Laura Creek—the only thing she could do. But, this new venture wasn’t going to be easy, thanks to Mr. Buttrum.

Wide awake, gazing up at the stars, she weighed her problems against her blessings. The warm welcome she’d received, that was a blessing. Although gratifying, it had delayed the inspection of her property. With the prospect of a mercantile in their near future Mrs. Buttrum and the other ladies hadn’t bothered to contain their curiosity or their enthusiasm. That was the good news for the day. But the sun had gone down behind the hill before she’d seen the inside of her store.

The delay in taking possession of her property suited Mr. Buttrum. She had not missed the sly gleam of satisfaction in his eyes as she surveyed her property. The mercantile, the building, was a sore disappointment; small, devoid of any kind of storage, no shelves and no counters. Above the store, in what would be her living space, conditions were rough, stark, uninhabitable. She could see daylight coming through the roof along the peak. There wasn’t a proper floor in the attic, and no staircase, just bare beams, boards, and a pull-down ladder. In a few short weeks fall would come, and her store would be as cold as an icehouse. She wasn’t so green that she didn’t realize, in the mountains, fall and winter could come on quickly with bitter cold.

Of course she’d pointed out these shortcomings to Mr. Buttrum.  She’d told him, with no bark on it, he’d failed to meet the promises made in their sales contract. She’d demanded he make repairs immediately.

It was futile to expect satisfaction or fairness from the Howard T. Buttrums and the Uncle Stanleys of this world. Mr. Buttrum rebutted true to form with the standard ‘if you were a man you’d see this as a challenge, an opportunity to make it your own’.

Little did he realize she was accustomed to this form of reasoning. Mr. Buttrum thought to discourage her. He would soon learn Wren O’Bannon would not surrender—she would get what she wanted. It would require extra labor, planning, and a good deal of patience, but she intended to win. She didn’t have a choice; she’d burnt all her bridges, and there was no going back.

Mr. Buttrum, unfortunately, had inadvertently touched upon her Achilles heel. Her family, what was left of it, had no idea where she was or what she was up to. With any luck, it would be a very long, long time before they found her, not that her uncle was looking for her or would miss her. Why should he, he had it all now. Hopefully the mayor would be distracted from making inquires as she pushed forward to take possession of her mercantile, with or without his cooperation.

However, along with the problem of what to do about her store, there was the problem of her attraction to the sheriff. A blind woman could see that the wispy little schoolmarm had him as good as hooked and reeled in. The poor man didn’t even realize the danger. Wren didn’t either, at first, but she quickly saw past Lottie Bledsoe’s simpering demeanor. Beneath her fluttery, breathless act lurked an expert angler with a determined mind. Wren was the target of her “I wish you’d drop dead” glares all afternoon.

And who could blame the woman, Telt Longtree was a lot of man. He was clean-shaven, something Wren found particularly attractive in this day and age of mustaches and beards. He had a dazzling smile that took her breath away. His laughter came from deep down, a full, a rich baritone. He liked to laugh and visit with people.

He loved his dog. The retriever didn’t leave his side the whole afternoon. However, the man was probably as poor as a church mouse, he fit in with everyone else in town.

The mayor, and owner of the bank, Howard Buttrum, however, had plenty of money to spread around. He’d built the church, lavishly furnished it with a stained glass window, gilding on the altar, even Roman pedestals for flower arrangements. All of this, Wren had learned from a woman by the name of Margret Tatom and her mother-in-law known to everyone as Grandma Tatom. The two ladies had nothing but good things to say about Mr. Buttrum and his largess.

Over the course of the afternoon, Wren learned a rock quarry and sawmill provided incomes for many of the residents, but they were seasonal industries.

If and when she actually managed to open her mercantile, these people might not always have cash money. The mercantile would have to accommodate a large portion of business that came in the form of trade. This would require some careful planning. She would have to revise her bookkeeping somewhat, tighten her belt.

“Ah, Mac,” she sighed as she braided her still-damp hair in the soft gloaming of the summer eve, “we’ve got our work cut out for us here.”

Taking up a little black book and a stubby little pencil, she started to make notes. First things first, “number one”, she said aloud to the dog as she continued to write in her book, “We need a place to sleep other than the hard ground.

“I haven’t complained, and I know you don’t mind, but it would be nice to get away from the flies and mosquitoes. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at that roof on our new mercantile and see what can be done. I think I saw some shakes behind the store.” Mac lay next to her; he grumbled and shifted his weight onto his hindquarters. She rubbed his chest, “I know, sounds like hard labor, doesn’t it, old boy.”

She closed her eyes and inhaled the fresh warm air, listening to the crickets chirp and the frogs croak. She turned on her side, opened her eyes and watched as a flock of swallows flew low over the meadow, dipping and diving, gathering bugs. A slight haze of dust had settled over the tall grass, lending an air of ethereal beauty to the landscape, making her think of fairies. She sighed and congratulated herself on her accomplishment, to have arrived safe and sound.

The mules were content, asleep on their feet, tethered along the creek. She’d made a deal with Punk Baker, the tobacco-spitting, barrel-bellied man with a complexion the color of tanned leather. He owned the stable and ran the town smithy. She’d traded him a pound of hard candy and three pouches of chewing tobacco for six bales of his hay. Therefore, her mules were well fed and fine right where they were, for now.

It was time to get practical, no more stargazing or feeling sorry for herself. To start with, her mules would need a fence or some kind of enclosure in the not too distant future. Jotting down the details, she wrote: number two, a fence for the mules, number 3, shelves for the store; but first a place warm and dry to sleep

As she made her list, it became clear her problems were beyond her talents, time consuming and labor intensive. She’d not anticipated these difficulties. They definitely upset her agenda.

Giving her feather pillow a good punch and fluff, she consoled herself with the fact that she didn’t have to rise before dawn and harness up the team to start out over some rutted, boulder-infested road in the morning. When she started out from Oregon City, she’d had her doubts about driving a team of mules, period. Let alone haul freight through unfamiliar territory. So now, she reasoned, she would learn how to fix a roof, make shelves and survive a winter with no source of heat. Simply a matter of new and different challenges, that’s all.

“Tomorrow we get started on our store and our new home,” she told Mac, tucking her black book and pencil under her pillow. She stretched and yawned, thinking she might be able to sleep now.

Mac came to attention, his all-seeing eyes drawn to the meadow that lying between their campsite and the town. Wren made out a few orange glowing lights shining in the windows of the houses between the buildings of the town. Twilight was fading to indigo, and it was hard to make out any definite shapes or human figures.

She didn’t mind the deer and elk, they were expected company in a meadow like this. Varmints, such as mountain lion and bear, were not welcome. Along the way, she’d had her share of camp invasions of porcupine and skunk. Then there were the skunks of the human kind, and those Wren feared the most. So when Mac put up his ears and growled his serious growl, she paid attention.

She hadn’t bothered with a campfire. She didn’t need to cook; she was full as a tick from having eaten well of the spread the ladies had laid out. And she certainly wasn’t cold. Besides, the grass in the meadow was tinder dry. A fire would be unwise. She had her camp lantern hung above her head on the rear gate of the forward wagon. The freight wagon at her back gave her some protection from the night air.

She had personal protection with Mac serving as her bodyguard. For backup, she had a carbine in her wagon, a small derringer she kept beneath her pillow at night, and a revolver tucked away in her duster pocket.

Mac came to his feet, his head down, shoulders hunched, lips pulled back to reveal his sharp canine teeth. Alarmed, Wren pulled out the derringer from under her pillow. She got to her feet, eyes and ears open for movement. She didn’t cock the pistol. She prayed she wouldn’t have to. The derringer wasn’t much of a weapon. If she could get the varmint into her circle of light, at close range, the derringer could sure-as-hell shatter a kneecap, buying her time to make a better defense.

Mac’s growl lowered to a snarl, becoming more intense. He lunged out beyond the lamp light. Wren cried out, “Mac! Come back here.”

Staying close to the forward wagon, she moved toward the front to peer around it into the darkness. With her little derringer in one hand, she stepped up on the tongue of the wagon, her hand going up and over the edge of the dashboard, searching for her loaded carbine. To the dog’s credit, Mac returned to her side, his head down and ears pulled back.

****

 Telt heard the dog growl. Halfway across the meadow, he remembered the dog. He’d just come from walking Lottie to her cottage. She’d offered to make him a cup of coffee. Somehow the invitation, accompanied by a sweet, coiling smile and a warm touch of her hand on his sleeve, made him think of an invitation from a spider to a fly.

She’d been as sticky as pine tar all afternoon, and wide-eyed and twittery. She’d clung to him like a Virginia creeper…he’d never seen her like that before. She’d made him nervous, giving him cause to reconsider settling down with her.

After making good his escape, he felt the need to walk awhile. Thoughts of a certain brown-haired female filled his mind. He’d walked around, checking doorways and looking between buildings, for what…he wasn’t sure. All he’d come across were some cats who were either sparking or about to tear one another apart; it was hard to tell. Without thinking; he turned and started across the meadow, his reason being, he, as sheriff, should check in on the newest resident of the community.

That mongrel was still snarling. He could hear him. He sure hoped Miss O’Bannon really could control the beast. Coming to a standstill, he quietly called his retriever, Queenie, to heel.

“Miss…Miss O’Bannon? It’s Sheriff Longtree,” he announced to the camp. He spotted the bedroll on the ground laid out between the wagons, and the lantern hanging from the tailgate, but he couldn’t see anyone about. He figured if the dog was here, and hadn’t come at his throat yet, then the woman was nearby.

The air crackled with anticipation; he felt decidedly exposed. He wouldn’t put it past the feisty little woman to have a gun aimed right at his heart.

The hair on the back of his neck stood straight up. He told himself he was a damn fool to come out here. He had no business out here accosting a woman on her own.

He shook his head. Well…accosting, no, he wasn’t going to accost her. He revised his thinking. He just wanted to see for himself that she was all right out here, see if she needed anything.

No. That was a bald-faced lie! Oh, hell and damn it! He wanted to see her. He wanted to see her face, and that hair, and to see if she was as fascinating as he thought. He wanted to talk with her alone. He wanted to look into her warm, brown eyes and hear her soft, lilting voice. He wanted her all to himself. That’s what he really wanted.

***

At the sound of the sheriff’s voice Mac gave out a series of barks. His ears straight up and tail wagging, the bark was a warning, not a threat. Wren allowed herself to relax…somewhat. She moved her hand away from the carbine on the storage box.

She stepped out, staying close to the shadow of her wagon, to where her duster hung by a hook to the side of her bedroll. She felt better knowing her revolver was close at hand.

Mac loped away just as it occurred to her she was darn near naked. Her duster stank, but she was clean and the thought of putting it on was abhorrent. Completely forgetting she had a quilt on the ground behind her, she went for the blankets that were somewhere in the wagon beside her.

***

The big dog bounded right up to him and began sniffing his pant leg, then his crotch. Telt scratched the brute behind his ears.

Queenie, to Telt’s amazement, circled around, and the two dogs began to sniff each other, getting to know each other as only dogs can.

Telt moved into the lantern’s light and spotted her. Scantily dressed in her white chemise and pantaloons, she had her head stuck under the tarp of her wagon. With a blanket in her hand, she sprang off the wagon tongue and quickly wrapped it around her bare shoulders. Wispy curls fanned around her forehead and neck. She looked deliciously disheveled.

He sympathized, but he couldn’t help but grin. This idea of his to come out here, was turning out to be one of his better notions. In the glow of the lantern’s light she looked like a young girl. Her hair, done up in a loose braid, hung down over one creamy-white shoulder, almost to her waist. Her lips were plump, the color of ripe strawberries. Her round, high cheeks pink with embarrassment, or more likely, outrage gave her an elfin quality. Her big, brown eyes glistened with wary intelligence. Her skin glowed soft and golden in the lantern light, giving the impression of warmth and suppleness. All in all he found her utterly irresistible.

He knew she was cold, standing there in her thin chemise and drawers. He could see each round breast, nipples raised and hard, begging to be fondled and warmed by a masculine hand. A cool breeze always blew across the meadow, especially in the evenings and early morning.

He blessed the meadow breeze.

He could plainly see she was a curvaceous little thing. Her hips were round, her bottom firm, and her arms, almost plump. He suspected what he was seeing was muscle. She would have to have muscles to handle a team of six. There was nothing fragile-looking about her. She looked strong and extremely feminine at once. It was an irresistible combination.

Out of respect for her predicament, he stopped short of her bedroll and half-turned his back. “I’m…sorry, ma’am,” he stammered. “I just came out to make sure all was well,” he said, but not before getting an eyeful.

Mac and Queenie had decided to lie down on the bedroll together.  Telt envied them their ease with one another. Miss O’Bannon was looking at the dogs too, glaring at them in fact.

He could understand if she found her dog’s lack of concern a mite traitorous. There she stood defenseless, half undressed, and there her dog was, lollygagging with a blonde retriever bitch.

He saw what he thought might be a derringer in her hand as she arranged the army blanket around her shoulders.

“I guess they’ve taken a shine to one another,” he said, only to have that glare pointed in his direction. “I can’t say I’m sorry to find that animal of yours in a forgiving mood. For a second back there, I thought I’d have to defend myself, at the very least sacrifice an arm bone. You sure do have some dog there, ma’am.”

He caught the sneer on her pretty mouth when she gave her dog a disgusted glance. She huffed and tugged the blanket up as if it were a shield against his intrusion and a prop to her dignity. “Well, yes,” he heard her say. “At least, I always thought he was my champion.” He saw her little chin lift slightly, and her lips purse in disapproval. “I see now he does have his weaknesses. I’ve never seen him act like that before.” Queenie licked the brute’s ear. Telt couldn’t miss the disdain written on Miss O’Bannon’s face. He had to press his lips together to keep from laughing.

“I can only give as his excuse…he’s tired, I guess,” she said with a shake of her head that sent ripples along her thick braid, the length of it moving over a bared shoulder to come to rest between her breasts.

“You must be pretty tired yourself,” he managed to remark, having to swallow hard before he spoke. Without thinking, he moved into the light of her lantern.

Backing away, her brown eyes widened when she came up against her wagon. Her voice unsteady, “You needn’t have bothered to come out here to check on us, Sheriff.” She swept her arm out and he spotted the derringer. She quickly pulled her arm in. He didn’t know if it was because she didn’t have much on, or if she didn’t want him to see she had a gun.

Her nose went up. She rearranged the blanket about her and made a haughty little sniff before assuring him, “As you can see, Mac and I are quite comfortable and accustomed to camp life.”

To hide his grin Telt looked around, then up at the night sky to the multitude of stars. “Yup, it can be romantic,” he said with a smirk on his face. “But,” sobering, his eyes once again locking with her gaze, “I reckon you’re anxious to get settled into your new home. “I see you have one of those little peashooters.”

Her eyes went wide, the blanket dropped down to her waist, and she stood there looking at her hand, the hand holding the shiny little weapon. She looked like she’d forgotten she had it. Her cheeks grew crimson and her eyes shut tight.

The problem was, now the snub-nosed barrel was pointing right at his crotch.

“Is it loaded, ma’am?” he inquired, half reaching out to take it from her.

“Good heavens,” she hissed, her eyes flying open, realizing her target.

He wanted to laugh aloud, but pulled his lips to the side to hide his grin. Fascinated, he watched her take the weapon between her thumb and forefinger, bend over and place it beneath her pillow, the blanket falling off her body and slipping to the ground. Hell, he could see her skin, glowing pink right there on her rump beneath the fabric of her drawers.

She huffed, gathering up the blanket as she straightened. “Of course it’s loaded,” she vollied, “it wouldn’t do me much good without bullets. It wasn’t cocked. I don’t shoot what I can’t see, Sheriff.”

He knew he was cocked; damn if he wasn’t randy as hell. He knew he was smirking, but couldn’t help it. He saw the sparks leap into her eyes and knew he’d pissed her off. She proceeded to give him an earful. He reckoned he had it coming.

“After all, a pistol is just a chunk of metal without bullets,” she explained. He was glad she’d put the gun down, or she might have taken a shot at him or maybe chucked it at his head.

She waved her arm out to the expanse of the wide-open meadow, once again forgetting about her state of undress, and the blanket slid down to her waist…again. Impatient, she jerked it back up around one shoulder.

“I’ve been out here for almost a month on my own,” she told him, her jaw tight, clearly on the defensive. “There have been vermin of all kinds lurking about,” she told him, her eyes swimming in unshed tears, her chin quivering. He could see she was fighting against her weakness as she squared her shoulders and sniffed back the tears. “I also have a military carbine and a Colt revolver,” she informed him, her head high and chin out in a challenge.

He took that as a serious warning, but he was still enjoying himself. She was a sight when she was in a snit, her cheeks flushed, her bosom heaving, taking short little breaths.

“My little…’peashooter’ as you so disparagingly called it, is for close range. My cousins taught me how to shoot. My derringer won’t kill, but it sure-as-hell will maim and give me time to get one of my other weapons. It would be foolish of me not to have a revolver handy. And before you say another word, yes, I know how to use the derringer, despite my stupidity of just a moment ago.”

Torn, he wanted to laugh at her outburst, but more than that, he wanted to fold her into his arms and assure her he would allow no harm to ever come to her.

Danged if she wasn’t prickly. But at the same time she was hard to resist.

He stood there, feeling like a dumb-ass, shifting from one foot to the other for a few seconds before coming up with something to say.  “Well, good,” he finally muttered. “I’m relieved to hear it,” he said, his voice holding a little more authority.

He saw her nod, as if to say ‘so, there, you big chuckle-head’ and knew his grin was back. She had him dancing around, all unsure of himself, all tongue-tied. Just a little bit of a thing, a woman, and yet he she’d kept him off balance.

“You need anything out here tonight, you fire a shot from one of them weapons you got in that arsenal of yours,” he said, struggling to maintain a straight face. “I’ll hear it, or Queenie will, and we’ll be out here on the run,” he assured her, hoping to sound powerful and manly. He tipped his hat and said, “Good night, ma’am. We’ll get out of here and let you get some shut-eye.”

“Come on, Queenie. Say good-night,” he told the dog. Reluctantly, Queenie got up from the bedroll, leaving her newfound companion, to take her place at Telt’s side.

Behind him, he heard Miss O’Bannon call to him, “Sheriff. Thank you for looking in on me. I…I’m not used to someone…to anyone…thinking I might need looking after.”

He glanced over his shoulder, tipped his hat, then winked at her, his grin in place. She’d just given away a secret. He put it in a safe place in his mind to take out and study later. He had to wonder…who in the hell was the real Wren O’Bannon? She might not be what she pretended to be, at least not altogether.

***

That wink and that grin said it all; he was laughing at her again. And why not. She’d almost cried, for heaven’s sake. She’d allowed him to get her on the defensive, a strategic mistake in any confrontation. Wren wished she’d kept her mouth shut. Why hadn’t she?  She’d shown him her weak underbelly…figuratively speaking. She blushed. Oh, Lord, he’d caught her in her underclothes. Little wonder she’d gone all defensive, a sure sign of insecurity, she knew.

“Just doing my job,” she heard him say before he disappeared into the darkness. With the blanket pulled closer about her, she shivered, feeling like a lost child instead of a self-reliant woman of property.

Mac, the traitor, followed the retriever out into the pasture. Wren went out to the edge of the lantern’s light to call him. He ambled back to her side. They stood on the rim of light as the night absorbed the sheriff and his dog.

The dark, lonely night closed in around them, leaving her bereft and abandoned. Mac shuddered and let out a whimpering sigh, at odds with his powerful body.

She put her hand on his big head and whispered, “I know,” and swallowed down the hard lump of tears that threatened to overwhelm her. “We both must be very tired,” she said by way of giving them both an excuse to indulge in such cold, lonesome melancholy.

CHAPTER 6

Wren awoke with the potent smell of game in her nostrils. Elk and deer, she’d learned after being on the trail awhile, had a particularly musky scent about them. They smelled like a combination of urine with a dash of skunk.

Still dark, a sliver of gray lined the rim of the mountains to the east. The stars were still out and the air crisp but still. Mac groaned and hunkered down, curling into a tight ball. She was grateful that he knew better than to go chasing a herd of big, antlered elk.

Wren thought there were maybe fifty head of elk in the meadow, all snorting and snuffling as they foraged the meadow grass. They pawed around close to the wagons as they made their way to the creek for a drink of water.

She lay on her stomach for a while, watching them until the dawn began to change from charcoal gray to pink. A new day, her melancholy of the evening before had distilled down into a concentrated sense of stubborn perseverance. Not Mr. Buttrum, not her unfinished store nor living quarters would stop her from taking hold of her enterprise and opening on time.

When the elk moved away from the wagon, she dressed quickly and gave herself a breakfast of cold chicken saved from the feast yesterday and a piece of Eula’s delicious huckleberry pie. She washed her meal down with a cup of cool water from her water barrel, then pulled her tool-caddy out from the back of the wagon. She intended to get to that roof before the heat of the day beat down on her full-bore.

***

     Telt awoke from the throes of an erotic dream. Naked in the dream, he rolled in tall, fragrant meadow grass with an equally naked, sloe-eyed vixen with long, curly brown hair, their bodies writhing, enjoying wild, aggressive sex. Not making love, they were engaged in sex. He lay breathing hard, sorry the dream had come to an unsatisfactory end. Someone was pounding on something. It echoed all around the meadow and the mountains.

He figured it was Punk at the stable. It wasn’t like Punk to be up this early on a Sunday morning and going hard at it. Like almost everyone in Laura Creek, Punk took the Lord’s Day seriously. Unlike almost everyone else, Punk didn’t attend church, but he sure took the day of rest.

Queenie scratched at the door to get out. Telt reluctantly got up from his warm bunk and padded barefoot, wearing nothing but his under-drawers, to open the door for her.

His cabin was a ways up a dirt trail that took off from behind the stable. He’d cleared off a flat spot and erected his home on the side of the hill across the creek. From his front porch, he could look through the pines and see right down Main Street of Laura Creek.

He’d lived at the jail for the first year, a dismal year. He couldn’t say why he’d stayed, but something about Laura Creek and the people made it feel like home. Once he’d decided to stay, he wanted a place of his own.

Instead of going to Buttrum and taking out a loan at his bank to buy a chunk of land, he’d gone to Punk. After some tough negotiating, he’d acquired ten acres in the timber above the stable. He negotiated not with cash but with his brawn, working as Punk’s slave. For a year he constructed outside corrals, inside cribs, and an extra lean-to for hay storage at the stable.

Every blister and gouge of flesh was worth it. He earned enough to build himself a two-room cabin. The rooms were big. A mammoth fireplace took up one end of the room to keep him warm throughout the winter. During the winter months, over the past few years, he added furniture to his home, making a table, a couple of benches, a settle which he’d placed before the fire, and counters in the kitchen area with a hand-pump at the freestanding sink.

He’d thought about adding a loft to accommodate a wife and maybe a couple of kids. He couldn’t picture Lottie Bledsoe being comfortable here. She liked her cottage, with its curtains, china-hutch, and mullioned windows. Telt didn’t figure his cabin would be frilly enough to suit her, and he sure as hell wouldn’t stand for that kind of decoration in his cabin.

Then he wondered, what would Miss O’Bannon think of his home?

He dressed, taking extra care to brush his hair and shave. He found a freshly laundered white shirt and a pair of hardly-worn dark trousers in his military trunk. He made time to put a little shine on his well-worn boots; not that today was any different from any other Sunday, of course.

He poured himself a second cup of coffee and shoveled in some scrambled eggs as he dressed. The hammering hadn’t stopped, not completely. It stopped now and then, only to resume with a steady, even rhythm. Curiosity had him wondering what Punk was up to, and why it needed to be done on a Sunday morning.

Queenie hadn’t come back yet from her morning rounds. He did wonder about that. She was pretty regular about getting her breakfast.  About to call her in, there came a knock on his door.

“Hey, Shorty,” Telt said, greeting the boy who stood on his porch. Shorty, in his Sunday-best, gray tweed trousers, which were too short, and white shirt, frayed at the collar and cuffs, looked excited, red in the face, a little sweaty.

“We got another sit-chee-a-shion,” Shorty said, no panic in his voice, just a big grin on his freckled face.

Telt squatted down to give Peanut a good rub behind the ears. As he rose he took a guess, “Our mayor again?”

“Uh, huh, and that mule-drivin’ lady,” said Shorty as he stood aside to let the sheriff pass before him out the door.

***

Telt came down the hill from his cabin, to see the mayor standing in the middle of the street in front of the mercantile. Drawing closer, it looked like Howard had dressed in a hurry. With his thinning hair all rumpled, white and blue pajamas poking out beneath his suit coat and pant legs, Howard looked like an unmade bed. The sight was nearly Telt’s undoing. Then he heard Howard shouting to someone on the roof, and any amusement Telt might have enjoyed drained from his mind like sand between the fingers.

“Miss O’Bannon!” Howard shouted to the person scaling the roof of the mercantile. The person was all business, hammer in hand; equipped with a tool-belt slung low on the hips. “We observe the Lord’s Day in Laura Creek. We do not labor on the Lord’s Day. You will desist in that racket immediately.”

In reply, the person slapped down a cedar shake from the pile of shakes on the roof, then proceeded to pound down three nails with an accuracy Telt would have thought only a professional could accomplish.

“Come down from there right now, Miss O’Bannon! I’ve sent for the sheriff, Miss O’Bannon.”

The roofer hammered in a couple more shakes before removing the nails from between her lips to shout down to him. “If you’d seen to it that this roof was properly shingled in the first place, I wouldn’t be up here on the Lord’s Day doing the job myself, Mr. Buttrum. I intend to be open for business in less than two weeks. Unlike you, Mr. Buttrum, I keep my promises,” the roofer yelled in a voice that Telt had come to know well—he’d heard it in his dreams.

His heart in his throat, he saw her, Wren O’Bannon, wearing a man’s blue work shirt and a denim skirt pulled up between her legs and tucked into her waist like a Turk, straddling the peak of the roof. She had her glorious hair pulled up under an old sweaty hat. Telt couldn’t see her face, but, he took note, her ankles and calves were exposed, although unattractively encased in brown stockings. The shapeliness of her ankles and calves, however, he could not dismiss.

The peak of the roof was at least twenty feet from the ground and the pitch was steep. He had to hand it to her; she knew enough to attach a couple of two-by-fours the length of the roof as a cleat for a toehold.

He closed his eyes and a horrible vision arose in his mind’s eye.  There lay beautiful Miss O’Bannon on the ground, her pretty neck broken, her body shattered and that hair of hers all bloody from her cracked skull. He shuddered to erase the image.

How the hell she’d managed to get those bundles of shakes up there on that roof, on her own, he didn’t want to know.

The banker’s shouts weren’t helping matters. He was just causing a dangerous distraction. Damn the man. Telt felt utterly helpless standing there with his mouth open, watching her expertly lay shakes on the roof of the mercantile. It would’ve been more fascinating if she weren’t in imminent peril of falling and breaking her pig-headed, fool neck.

Howard, red in the face as usual, swung around and flew in his face. “Good, you’re here. I want that woman to stop that racket. Order her off that roof. Arrest her, Sheriff. Damn female woke me up out of a sound sleep. Woke the whole damn town up with her banging. I left my bed, came down here half-dressed, and what do I find? A mad-woman up on a roof doing God only knows what. There must be an ordinance against causing a disturbance on the Sabbath. The woman is a menace. She’s godless, and I want her stopped. I’ll break the contract. By God I will. I’ll see her, and that damned Judge, Crooked Crookshank, behind bars for defrauding me…and all the good people of Laura Creek.”

Telt held back the overwhelming urge to put his fist down the mayor’s throat and managed to say in a controlled voice, “Howard…”.  Howard ignored him, and threw a few more useless threats up to the rooftop.

Telt barked, “Howard!” to get the man’s attention. “Shut the hell up, Howard.” That did the trick. “If I’m going to arrest anyone for disturbing the peace, it’ll be you. Now go home.”

Howard puffed out his cheeks, the veins on his forehead and in his neck ready to pop. Telt braced for the explosion, standing like a mountain against Howard’s furry. “You…you have the audacity to threaten…me…with arrest? You, who have arrested not more than a half dozen miscreants in all of your four years of office. Ha! You’re fired, Longtree. Turn in your badge.”

***

     Wren stopped her work and shuffled her feet along the peak of the roof to get closer to the edge, where she had a better view of the sheriff and Mr. Buttrum. Perfectly able to hear every word, she waited to see how the sheriff would take Howard Buttrum’s latest punch.

To her everlasting delight, the sheriff actually chuckled. She couldn’t see his face, but he laid a big hand on the mayor’s shoulder. She saw him lean down and put his big face within inches of the mayor’s red nose.

The sound of the sheriff’s deep voice rose up to her ears. “The people elected me to this thankless job, Howard. At least I think they did. I remember standing there, minding my own business, then you were there pinning this badge on me, remember? Two months ago, I got reelected. If you recall, you nominated me. I have two years to serve. Now, if you, and the good folks of this town, want to take a vote and recall me, I’ll go. Until then I’m the keeper of law and order. You, Howard, are creating a disturbance.”

She watched him poke the mayor repeatedly in the chest. “Go home or go to jail,” Wren heard him say before he gave the banker one more push with that finger of his, just enough of a push to throw the mayor off balance.

She wanted to cheer and crow from the rooftop, her estimation of the sheriff now elevated to the moon and beyond.

***

     Telt heard Howard release the pent-up head of steam he’d been storing in his chest. He sounded like a steam locomotive hissing and blowing, idling at the station.

Consequently, what Howard said next didn’t have much potency behind it. “You get her to stop that infernal pounding. I don’t care how you do it.”

Telt didn’t move as Howard fished out his pocket watch from his trousers. He flipped it open, read the hour, then snapped it shut. “You have, by my watch, two and a half hours before church begins. Take care of it, Sheriff. I’m filing a verbal complaint, as a citizen of this community, and I will have satisfaction.”

“Like I said, go home,” Telt repeated, working hard to keep his mounting impatience under control. He looked up to the peak of the roof, over the entrance of the store, and saw her, squatted down, probably listening to every word. She tipped her hat to him and nodded, then went back to work. Oh, he was right, the very first time he’d set eyes on her, he knew this woman had brass, a lot of brass.

Muttering to himself, Howard left the field and headed toward home. Squaring his shoulders, and with a groan of resignation, Telt set his hat more firmly on his head. “Shorty,” he called, knowing Shorty Terrel was close by, an interested bystander.

“Yes, sir,” Shorty replied, Peanut at his side, coming out from the shadows of the bank next door.

“Go see if your pa can come help us get this roof fixed.” Shorty didn’t waste time with words; he took off for home with his dog at his heels.

“Sheriff,” Telt heard Miss O’Bannon call down to him, “If you plan on coming up here to lend a hand, would you please mark the time and sign your name in my black book. You’ll find it there in my tool-caddy, just under the ladder. There’s a pencil inside the binding.”

The woman has a damned tool-caddy. Telt muttered to himself. All I got is a bucket for my tools. I do fine. Continuing to grumble, he rifled through the tools in the box and found a hammer and the black book. Curiosity overcame him. He flipped through the pages. It was a diary of her journey. He wished he had more time to read it. In the last couple of pages, she’d written notes in regard to the condition of her newly acquired property.

He heard her up there pounding away and knew he didn’t have time to waste. He guessed the hour to be about half-past seven. He saw she’d started at half-past six. Her first step, she’d written, Roofing manual suggests: ‘set toe-cleat on either side of the ridge of the roof to safely make repairs’. Found a stack of two-by-fours in the lean-to. The roof is weak at the ridge point. Found plenty of shakes behind the store. Question? Why were they not affixed to the roof? After these notations, she’d signed her name with a flourish and dated it.

“Sheriff,” she called down, “would you, in your own words, make a brief note of your confrontation with Mr. Buttrum, and sign and date it?”

He wanted to ask why? After a second of hesitation, Telt decided…why not? and shrugged away his doubts.

He was surprised how easily his thoughts translated into script. He didn’t write much, and thought maybe he should do it more often; he was good at it. “Howard Buttrum demanded I remove Miss O’Bannon and incarcerate her for disturbing the peace. Request denied. I asked him to go home. Threats were made, a verbal citizens complaint. Mr. Buttrum continues hostility toward Miss O’Bannon. Cause unknown and not understood.” Telt nodded with satisfaction.

He hoped Miss O’Bannon had a good reason for making these notes. He wasn’t used to clever people. He knew he wasn’t a clever man, but he knew enough to guess she wasn’t doing all of this recordkeeping for the pure folly of it. With her stubby little pencil, he signed and dated his statement.

He picked up a hammer from the tool-caddy. He was just starting up the ladder when Percy showed his freckled face around the corner of the building. “There’s a black book there and a pencil, Percy. Sign your name and put in the date and time under my notes. Then take up a hammer and follow me.”

As he started up the ladder, Telt glanced down. He could see that Percy was uncertain as to why he needed to sign in. “Shake a leg, Percy.” He yelled down, “We need to get this done before church starts.”

Telt tumbled a bundle of shakes up the steep roof end-over-end toward the peak. Three rows of roofing were single layer only. Miss O’Bannon was right. The roof would leak like a sieve if not repaired.

Off toward the meadow he heard Queenie barking. He crouched on the edge of the roof to watch Mac and his dog chase and jump around in the tall meadow grass like a pair of pups.

“They’ve been out there for over an hour,” she told him as she passed him the nail bucket.

“That mutt of yours,” Telt grumbled, his eyes still on the cavorting dogs, “Uh…he hasn’t been castrated, I s’pose?”

“No, he hasn’t, Sheriff,” she replied, not meeting his eyes as she set to pounding in shakes.

“Uh, huh.” He mumbled, “That’s what I need…a litter of ugly, mongrel pups.” He set a shake and pounded it down. “That’ll be just dandy. That’s all I need is a batch of ugly pups.”

CLICK HERE TO GO TO CHAPTERS 7 AND 8