Archive for January, 2013


Laura Creek Mercantile

Post Jan 20, 2013

CHAPTER 11

Wren put her lead mules, Bonnie and Bob, to harness and drove one empty wagon over to the well behind the mercantile. While Mr. Meirs and Mr. Claussen, busy picking up their tools and scraps of lumber, she filled her drinking-water barrel and the barrel she used for bathing and watering the animals.  Her hope, to get the chore done without being caught.

She expected Telt to arrive at her camp soon; he said he’d come by. She didn’t want him to question why she needed water, since she now had access to a well and the creek. She feared if he questioned her, she’d have to think of a lie, and for sure he’d call her on it. It would be a long haul to Pendleton, steep and rough; she and her mules would need water.

By the time the sun had gone down behind the trees, she had her water barrels full and her mules back on their tether line where they could graze on the meadow grass downstream from her fire-pit. She had cornbread cooking in the Dutch oven over a bed of red-hot coals and a pot of beans bubbling away off to the side of the fire. As she laid bacon in a cast-iron fry pan, Queenie loped into camp. The retriever pranced by her, wading into the creek to join Mac.

Telt came up beside her. “Good evenin’,” he said with a grin on face his. Nodding, he shifted his gaze to the dogs, who had started to jump over and around each other, cavorting, riling up the water at the edge of the creek. “Aren’t they something, though?”

“Good evening,” she said in turn, her hands going to her hips, “I can’t get over it. I’ve never seen Mac act so silly. He’s always been a serious kind of fella, even as a pup. He’s my bodyguard. He’s not supposed to behave like a…a…big goof.”

Telt shook his head. “I handpicked Queenie ‘cause she was the quietest and most docile pup of the litter. I wouldn’t know what to do with a dog that constantly pestered for attention.”

Wren looked down at the heavy iron skillet and the uncooked bacon and knew she should put it back on the fire, but she didn’t want to move, didn’t want to end this moment. The top of her head came right to his shoulder. It would be so easy to lean against him. She wondered what he’d do? Would he put his arm around her, would he pull her closer…? He looked nice, his hair combed, wearing a clean blue shirt. Her nose nearly touching his shirtsleeve, she inhaled his scent. He smelled fresh, like the air after a rain.

She should’ve done more to fix herself up a bit. Her hair, it hung loose, falling forward when she leaned over the campfire. Next to him, she felt dowdy and squat. Instead of fetching water, she should’ve at least brushed her hair and put it up in combs. At least she’d changed her dirty white blouse for a clean shirt. It didn’t fit; it had belonged to her father.

Impatient with herself, and her feelings of inadequacy, she pulled away from him. What did she care how she looked. Her appearance had never mattered to her before. Besides, she didn’t want to get involved with Telt Longtree. Maybe someday, after she’d opened her mercantile, after she’d settled in, it might be fun to pursue a flirtation with the man. Going back to work, she stirred the beans and finished laying bacon in the fry pan.

He didn’t move, she felt him there—behind her—could feel his eyes on her. She hoped if she ignored him, he’d go away. It stood to reason, a good looking, virile man like the sheriff would have something more entertaining to do than standing around watching a grubby old maid lay bacon in a pan. She waited to hear his hasty excuse to leave, and prepared to dismiss him with a smile and a wave.

When she heard him mutter aloud, “You’re something too,” she discounted the comment as he’d said something similar about the dogs. She glanced up, expecting to see a teasing grin on his face, instead met a dead serious, intense—could it be lascivious—steady gaze.

Nervous, she deliberately chose to shunt aside both his innuendo and his gaze, full of unspoken meaning. “Oh, well, yes, you don’t have to say it; I know I look a fright. I can’t remember the last time I combed my hair or looked in the mirror. I haven’t had time. We made real progress today, though.” Looking up at him through her lashes, expecting to find the gleam in his eyes nothing more than a figment of her imagination, she met that same, unmistakeable, appreciative gaze and stammered, “I hope you’re hungry. It’s not much, just bacon and beans. I did manage some cornbread in the Dutch oven.”

“It smells good,” he said, moving in on her. Uneasy with his nearness, she stepped to the side, and wondered what in the world he was doing? It sure wasn’t her beauty that drew him; that was for damn sure. A woman on her own, maybe he thought her easy prey. She needed to understand what he saw in her. It occurred to her that his fascination with her could be simple curiosity, or more likely, a pathetic attempt to scare the heck out of her.

She’d had a lot of time this afternoon to think about Telt Longtree. She really didn’t know him at all. If this thing between them should happen, and she knew it would, because she couldn’t stop thinking about him and melting every time she looked into his eyes—then they should get to know one another a little better. They’d become too intimate too fast. She went around him to get the tin plates off the log where she’d laid out a blanket to make a place for them to sit.

“Please, sit down,” she pleaded, finding him right beside her as she turned back to the fire. She made the mistake of looking up to his face and meeting that penetrating gaze of his, and couldn’t look away.

He held her with his eyes. She didn’t understand what she saw, the intensity of his gaze made him appear wistful, needy. His eyes begged her for something, something she didn’t know how to give. She’d never had a man interested in her before, not like this. She didn’t know what to do…how to act…what to say. His hand reached out, and he took the plates from her, his fingers brushing her own. She blinked and broke the spell. He took a deep shuddering breath, dropped his hands to his sides and sat down on the log.

Feeling out of her element and self-conscious, Wren stopped short of telling him to go home, leave her alone. She couldn’t do this, she wasn’t any good at it, she didn’t want to waste his time.

“Your name, Sheriff, Telt, that’s an unusual name,” she heard herself say. With fumbling fingers, she dished out some beans onto a plate and scooped up some of the cornbread from the Dutch-oven, only to lose it in the fire. Trying again, she managed to get a good-sized chunk on the plate. Carefully, she picked out a couple pieces of the bacon and laid them across the beans. Holding the plate with both hands, her knees quaking, feeling like she had a belly full of grasshoppers, she passed him his supper.

While she made a plate of food for herself, she hardened her fluttering heart and decided if he wanted to stay around then what better time than the present to find out a little more about this man—the man she couldn’t resist. The man destined to be her ruin, if she wasn’t careful.

Being polite, he waited for her to come and sit down beside him, which added to her feelings of inferiority. She didn’t think she would ever get used to this, having a man, a good looking man, wanting to spend time with her. There had to be something wrong with him, there just had to be another reason, other than attraction, why he’d come to see her this evening, why he would spend time with her.

Telton was my mother’s maiden name. Telt for short,” he told her as he held out his hand, taking her plate so that she could settle herself next to him. His fingers, warm and rough, gliding across hers startled her, rattled her so much that she didn’t remember asking him about his name. And for a second, she didn’t understand his answer. Goodness, she had to get her nerves under control.

With her cheeks burning, she sat close to him, her hip touching his. He didn’t move away. When he handed her back her plate, he winked at her; and she giggled like a silly ninny. Tucking in her chin, she told herself to behave and squared her shoulders, vowing to act her age, not like a thirteen-year old school-girl. “Is your mother still living?” she asked, proud to have regained her composure.

She had to wait for his reply as he sunk his teeth into a forkful of hot cornbread. Butter dripped off his strong, suntanned fingers. He closed his eyes and ran his tongue over his lips, and she thought she would swoon. He shook his head and swallowed, and she swallowed too, her mouth dry as dust.

“Didn’t know my mother or my father,” he told her. “The folks who took me in, the Newbergs, they told me my folks drowned crossing the Snake River near Fort Boise on their way to the Willamette Valley back in ‘52. They knew my folks. Mrs. Newberg knew my mother before she married. I was just a sprout of four months when my folks drowned. I lived with the Newbergs until I got old enough to fend for myself.”

Fascinated, she forgot to be nervous and asked an impertinent question, “Were you happy?” He shrugged his shoulders and, for a moment, thought he would withhold his answer. Then he put down his fork and turned his head to look her in the eye.

“They made me feel wanted, if that’s what you’re asking. The Newbergs didn’t have much, but they always kept me fed and clothed. They had five of their own kids, me, and two other children who’d lost their folks on the way west for one reason or another. I don’t suppose it was easy for them. Walt and Mother Sharon liked kids, I guess.”

“Do you ever see them, visit them?”

“No,” he said as he scooped up forkful of beans and bacon. “Walt and Mother Sharon picked up, lock, stock, and barrel, and moved down to the Sacramento area about five years ago to be closer to their youngest daughter and to get away from the Indian trouble. I never kept in touch with any of the kids. We all scattered once we were old enough to leave the nest. I joined the army. I get a letter from Mother Sharon now and then. I let her know where I finally settled. I’ve written to her a couple of times.”

Wren, with the soothing sounds of the gurgling creek nearby to sooth her, finally relaxed enough to eat. The smell of the earth surrounded them. Beneath the shade of the cottonwoods, the air felt deliciously cool, wonderful, after the hot day. The dogs lay in the grass behind them nearer the meadow, dozing, and another question popped into her mind. “You said you came to Laura Creek about four years ago. What brought you here, of all places?”

He chuckled, his mouth full of cornbread. “I’d been in the army ten years, stationed at Fort Walla Walla fighting Indians. I’d had a bellyful. I’d made it to Lieutenant without getting killed, and my hitch was up. The time had come to move on.”

He paused for a second, his head cocked to one side, a lopsided grin on his face. “I rode into Laura Creek looking for a cool beer. I recall Howard had a big crowd gathered around right in front of the bank. He was up on the step pontificating, so I pulled up and sat there on my horse waiting to hear a speech. He pointed at me and I remember what he said. He said, That’s the kind of man we need. We need a soldier, a man of discipline and courage. A man who will wear this badge…and Howard held up the tin star and waved in front of everyone. I sat there on my horse like a fool, unsuspecting, entertained listening to the blowhard on the steps spout. Then before the cat could lick his whiskers, I had that badge on my chest. Howard had me swearing on a stack of bibles to uphold the law and folks were cheering. Looking back I see my mistake, I hadn’t bothered to change out of my uniform. I didn’t have any civilian clothes, the army had dressed and fed me for ten years. Once Howard set his sights on me and found out I’d just mustered out of the military, he had me as good as roped and tied. I became the prime candidate for the town’s first sheriff.”

The way he told the story had Wren laughing and gasping for breath, her eyes watering as he did his imitation of Howard T. Buttrum. Wren had no idea she could laugh so hard. It felt good, delicious and carefree. She didn’t know why she’d been so nervous, this was easy; this felt natural…right.

* * * *

She was so danged beautiful and she didn’t even know it. Sitting here, talking with her, Telt began to suspect that this woman, for all of her ambition and spunk, didn’t think much of herself. She really didn’t know the power she had over him. When he’d come around that wagon and saw her standing there, her hair pulled over one shoulder, laying down across her chest to her waist, her cheeks rosy, her eyes bright, she’d taken his breath away. She looked like a gypsy. She didn’t look real, she was a vision right out of his dreams.

He had to tell himself to take it easy, hold back. For a little while there, when she’d stood there next to him, he’d thought to hell with food. I don’t care if I ever eat again. I bet if I laid you down here, on the grass, you wouldn’t care if you ever ate again. I’m thinkin’ you wouldn’t mind one bit if I kiss you.

The way she’d laughed just now, all out, unembarrassed, not simpering or shy, had him wondering if Wren O’Bannon did everything all out. Feeling the blood begin to pool down low in his belly, he licked his lips in anticipation. The time wasn’t right, not yet, but soon. He didn’t think he could wait much longer. What he really found interesting, if he read the vibrations he’d been getting, he didn’t think she could wait much longer, either.

* * * *

Lottie Bledsoe lived in a little cottage beside the church. The echo of laughter coming from the direction of the creek had caught her attention as she removed her petticoats from her clothesline. Standing on her back porch with tears staining her pale cheeks, she watched the breeze blow the dark clouds up from the southeast. She could smell the smoke and see the small dot of orange from the flames of Miss O’Bannon’s campfire. Although she couldn’t make out the people, she recognized the sheriff’s sweet, brown-as-molasses laughter. She heard it in her dreams. Now she would also hear Miss O’Bannon’s lilting, rich giggle in her nightmares.

* * * *

It had been hard, the temptation great, but Wren had said not one word to the sheriff about leaving before dawn for Pendleton. She’d considered telling him and wondered what he would say. She asked herself what she would do if he insisted on coming with her. She told herself she didn’t want that. She had to go to Pendleton. She needed to get away from him for a couple of days to slow down this overwhelming need to feel his arms around her.

Before she turned down her lantern, she tore out a page from her black book and wrote out a note letting Telt, and everyone, know where she was going and why. With Mac at her side, she crossed the meadow and slipped the note into the message box at the telegraph office. Mr. Terrel would find it. Yes, that would be the best.

She slept fitfully, her dreams full of lust and rejection. When she awoke to the sound of the wind blowing in the grass an hour or so before dawn, she decided to get up and get the mules harnessed. They’d had a good rest and their bellies were full of fresh hay. They were cooperative and eager to step into the traces.

Proceeding as quietly as possible, Wren urged her team out of town, with Mac looping ahead of the leaders, Bonnie and Bob. With the meadow grass muffling the sounds of the wagon wheels, she drove the wagons behind Miss Bledsoe’s house. After going around the church, she swung to the right and onto the road that led out of town.

* * * *

“Sheriff…Sheriff.” Telt heard Shorty yell from the other side of his cabin door and he instinctively sprang to his feet. The boy banged on the door a couple more times and yelled again. “You got to get up. She’s gone.”

Telt jerked the door open and stood there in his doorway, half-asleep, bleary-eyed, looking right and left, then up to the swaying treetops. A stiff, warm breeze washed over him and he folded his arms across his bare chest. “Damn, Shorty, it’s still dark. And there’s a storm comin’, feel that wind. Everybody in town is still asleep. I don’t smell smoke, so there ain’t a fire. Go home, Shorty. Go back to bed.”

Instead of turning around and going home, Shorty gave him a little shove. “You gotta wake up, Sheriff.”

His eyes gritty and full of sleep, his brain still in a fog of lust-filled dreams, Telt growled, “Why?”

“She’s gone, Sheriff. Miss O’Bannon, sSir, her wagons are gone. Pa said to come get you.”

“Well hell, why didn’t you say so.” Telt scrubbed his full head of hair with both hands, hoping to bring back some circulation and some clearer thinking. “What time is it?” he yelled over his shoulder on his way to his trousers, shirt and boots.

“Must be almost 6:30,” Shorty offered. “I done what you said, Sheriff, I went out there to the meadow to check on the wagons and the stuff in the lean-to. I was expectin’ that dog of hers to eat me. Then I seen the wagons was gone. All the stuff is still in the lean-to. She didn’t take anything out. It’s all there.”

Telt nodded while he pulled his socks on. “What are you doin’ up so early?”

“Pa got up to tie down the tarp we have over the wood box ‘cause he heard the wind a howlin’. I heard him cussin’. Pa says we’re in for some thunder and lightning.”

“Yep, I reckon he’s right,” Telt said as he grabbed his hat and his duster. Leaning down, he pulled an old saddlebag out from under his bed, then stuffed a set of extra clothes into it. After that, he went to his larder to grab some cheese and half a loaf of bread to put in the other side of the saddlebag. Next, he got his rifle and some cartridges.

“You goin’ after her, Sheriff?” Shorty asked as they headed out the door.

“Yep,” Telt said, closing the cabin door behind him. Queenie and Peanut had left them, racing headed, their ears pulled back and tongues hanging out.

Telt found Punk in the stable, pitching hay into Roonie’s stall and the stalls of a couple of Percherons, which were there to get shod. “Punk, I’m taking Roonie out of retirement.”

“Oh, yeah?” Punk hollered back, over the whistle of the wind in the rafters. “I reckon he could use a little exercise.” Punk stopped what he was doing, pitchfork at rest. “Where you off to?”

“Don’t know exactly,” Telt said as he started to set the saddle on Roonie’s mottled, rusty-red and gray back. The horse sidled. Telt patted his neck. “Whoa, there, boy, been too long since you had a saddle on your back. We’re both a little soft, I’m thinkin’.”

* * * *

As Telt rode out of the stable-yard, heading down the street with Queenie keeping up alongside, Punk asked Shorty, “You know where he’s goin’?”

“That O’Bannon woman lit out. She took the wagons and lit out sometime, probably before dawn. He’s goin’ after her,” Shorty said, his hands stuffed down deep into his pockets.

Punk whistled a low whistle, his bushy eyebrows raised in speculation. “I’d give a monkey to be there when he catches up with that mule-drivin’ little gal. I surely would. All I got to say is, he better be careful. That Miss O’Bannon is a tough little nut. Sweet, but tough,” he muttered, shaking his head, the wind beginning to rattle the shingles on his roof.

CHAPTER 12

The storm came from the southwest, although the wind blew from all directions, swirling, tossing, and snapping whatever happened to be loose, fragile, or bendable. Wren almost lost her hat a couple of times, but retrieved it before it took flight. Now using her bandana, she had it tied on, the knot snug under her chin.

A spike of lightning rent the dark, bruised clouds to the east, the Grande Ronde Valley its target. A clap of thunder followed. The threat of a forest fire had her stomach clenched in a cold knot of fear.

Heat lightning hurried the mules up the mountain and over the summit. Unable to see exactly where the sun was in the sky, she wondered at the time, and guessed it to be nine or ten, still morning. The air whipped around her, thick with gray and brown dust. Indulging in a bit of wishful thinking, she prayed she’d find better weather on the west side of the crest, even though she’d heard about the fierce dust storms out on the rolling plains in and around Pendleton.

Rain, she’d been told, was not your friend in a dust storm. Rain and dust made mud. If she could keep the mules from running away with her and the wagons, she hoped to find grass, water, and some shelter in between the folds of the mountains at Deadman Pass, where she could wait out the storm and hope for better weather tomorrow.

The warehouseman she’d hired to keep an eye on her warehouse in Pendleton told her about the campsite when she’d laid over on her way to Laura Creek. She’d thought that traveling to Deadman Pass from Laura Creek under blue skies an easy day. Right now, she wasn’t so sure she could make it that far. In her gut, Wren knew she should’ve turned back at the first rumble of thunder, but the thought of the people of Laura Creek counting on her had kept her moving forward.

She thought of Telt and wished she’d given herself to him last night. What did it matter what anyone thought? She was up here all alone, and at any moment the wagons could tip over, or her team of six could take off through the mountains. A person could be struck by lightning, or find themselves in the midst of a forest fire. Any one of these occurrences would surely leave her dead, or very close to it, with no hope of rescue. Maybe if she’d allowed herself to be held, to trust someone, she might have broken down and told him she needed to get to her warehouse. Maybe he would be here beside her. Maybe she might have a chance in hell of living through this.

Her entire body burned with fatigue. Her shoulders, back and thighs trembled with the tension and strain of maintaining control of her team. Mac had stayed in front of the mules, barking, turning, shifting back and forth, forcing Bonnie and Bob to keep their minds on the road, not the lightning, not the wind, not the dust.

Half standing, one foot braced against the footboard, she called out encouragement to the team and to Mac, “Easy, Bonnie, easy, Bob. Atta boy, Mac.” Each time she opened her mouth a good peppering of grit coated her teeth, mixing with her saliva.

To her right, a dark figure on a red roan came alongside the wagon at an easy gait, like a ghostly apparition. She hadn’t heard him. The wind and thunder overrode the sounds of a horse’s hoof-beats. Wren saw him out of the corner of her eye, and at first thought it to be the shadow of a tree or just a very dark cloud. There couldn’t be anyone up here today except her. She was the only one dumb enough, ignorant enough, to try.

With eyes smarting with dust and tears flowing unchecked down her cheeks, she shifted her concentration from her team and the road ahead to the dark form drifting alongside the wagon. It was a man, a very large man, not her imagination.

Dressed in a black duster, his brown hat pulled low over his face, a face she couldn’t see because of the dusty bandana that covered his nose and mouth, his red rimmed, almost opaque-eyed gaze turned on her. A scream came into her throat. The wind blew dust down her gullet, putting her in a stranglehold, smothering the sound.

The rider took advantage of her condition and shifted his body from his horse to the wagon seat, making it look as easy as sliding into bed. His gloved hands snatched the reins from her and his elbow dug into her side, forcing her to give up the fight. Before Wren could regain her breath, he pulled the wagons to a standstill and set the brake.

Her body shaking, Wren instinctively went for the revolver in her duster pocket. She pulled back the hammer without withdrawing it and jammed the deadly barrel into the ribcage of her abductor.

* * * *

It had been a long time since Telt had known the feeling that death was only a hair-trigger away. He thought it a good thing he’d set the brake, he instinctively jerked on the reins and stiffened. The leaders of the team reared off their front legs, but the wagon hardly moved an inch. “Well hell,” he hissed and cursed himself for a fool. He’d completely forgotten about her damned arsenal.

Without thinking, he put up his hands. Holding the reins in one hand, slowly lowering the other, he pulled the bandana down from his nose and mouth. He turned his head to meet her wide-open, bloodthirsty gaze. He saw fear there in her big brown eyes. But more importantly, he saw her desperation. Her face was brown with dust. Muddy streaks trailed down her pale cheeks from the tears brought on by the sting of the wind and grit. His need to protect her, to win her trust, became more than just a challenge. Now, he made it a quest.

He didn’t dare move his hands. He could see by the expression on her face that shock kept her from comprehending his identity. “If you would let the hammer down, nice and easy, on that revolver of yours, Wren, I’d put my hands down,” he said, keeping his voice low and even, feeling his grin spread across his big face, his skin cracking, caked with dust.

“Telt!” His name came with a huge release of air. She slumped forward, squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them and blinked.

He couldn’t blame her, he probably did look pretty sinister in his long black duster and his face covered with a bandana. He thought she might cry. He allowed himself to breathe again when she withdrew her revolver from his ribs, pointed it out over the side of the wagon, and carefully lowered the hammer. He made note that she put it back in her duster pocket and gave it a pat to assure it’s nearness.

He lowered his arms, not taking his eyes off her face, and asked, “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

She pulled back and blinked like a little kid who’d been caught playing hooky. Then she turned mutinous; he could see it on her face: her jaw clenched and her chin went up.

A rumble of thunder rolled over from the west. She ducked and burrowed her head into his chest. Yeah, she was scared spitless. He gave her a good shake. “Talk to me, Wren. Where are you going?”

* * * *

“Let me go,” she ordered, her dignity overriding her fear. With a shake of her shoulders, she tried to free herself of his hands, but he didn’t let go.

“Not until you answer my question,” he snarled. “I should’a guessed you were up to something. I sat there at your fire last night, answering your questions, and all the while you were plotting in that pretty little head of yours, how you were going to sneak out of town come morning. Well, the joke is on me. I should’a been the one asking the questions, I guess.”

Wren didn’t like his tone. “Who do you think you’re talking to? I do not plot, nor do I have to sneak, Sheriff. This is a necessary trip,” she said, using her authoritative voice, knowing herself for a bald-faced liar.

By the hard look in his eyes and the grim set of his jaw, she assumed he was neither impressed, nor did he believe her. Exasperated, she explained, “I am on my way to Pendleton, to my warehouse. I’ve bargained for a lot of merchandise in trade for labor and materials.”

* * * *

He had her by the shoulders, torn between smothering her against his chest and choking her. Telt couldn’t decide, so he thrust her away, afraid he’d kill her either way. The wind blew a cloud of dust from behind. It swirled around, then danced back into their faces. He spit over the side of the wagon. He was beginning to understand how Miss O’Bannon’s mind worked; that frightened him too. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me last night what you had in mind?” he asked her, his eyes down to the rumps of the wheelers.

* * * *

She knew this would happen. He hated her now; she recognized the signs of disgust. He also looked wounded, that she couldn’t understand. Well, she didn’t have to waste answering stupid questions. She huffed impatiently and, in her defense, explained, “I left word with Mr. Terrel. I put a note for you, for…everyone, explaining my disappearance, in the message box at the telegraph office last evening.”

His head came up, and he shifted his weight, the better to look her in the eye, “Well, ain’t that sweet,” he said, before he flapped his arms in despair.

“You sit right there.” he commanded her, his finger a fraction of an inch from her nose. His words and the look he gave her dared her to defy his order. She folded her arms across her chest and inwardly she railed against his authority—treating her as if she were a runaway child—the nerve of the man. She assumed he’d gone to tie his horse to the back of the wagon. She told herself she should take off, right now, and leave him and his horse in the dust.

* * * *

After tying Roonie to the empty wagon, Telt picked Queenie up and put her in the back. She was exhausted, her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth. Mac stood beside him, appearing to approve of the arrangement, then followed him back to the front of the wagon, where he left him to take his place up front with the leaders. Telt no sooner got up on the board seat than Wren jumped to the ground.

“You get back here!” he yelled.

“I’m getting your dog some water.” she yelled back and went to the side of wagon to dip out some water into a pan for the dogs.

Telt wanted to order her back onto the seat, but damn it, she was right. Queenie needed a drink and badly. Impatiently, he waited while Queenie and Mac refreshed themselves.

He waited for her to tie the lid to her water barrel back down. Completely ignoring his outstretched hand, she climbed back up onto the wagon under her own steam.

“I suppose you’re headed for Deadman Pass for the night?” he asked as he released the brake and set the team into motion.

“I believe it to be a good place to stop over, with a corral and grass,” she said, the challenge in her voice daring him to disagree.

“Oh, no argument here,” he nodded. “You know how it got the name, Deadman Pass?”

Wren shook her head. Telt grinned. She looked stubborn as a mule. He flicked the reins and shouted to the team.

They started out, the storm gathering up all around them. After a good rumble of thunder to the east, he spoke. “Four or five years back a band of Bannock Indians went on a rampage and attacked four freight haulers who were making a run with four wagons from La Grande to Pendleton. Slaughtered ‘em, right there in that little dip in the ground just as you head down into the plains above Pendleton.”

She had her eyes on the trail and her jaw set. He didn’t really expect her to give him the satisfaction of a response, so he continued his tale. “Before that, back when the settlers started movin’ in, the Indians warned the white man they didn’t want him using this trail. Of course, being the arrogant sons-a-bitches that we are, we didn’t pay any mind to that. We were going to use any damn trail we wanted, and no Indian could stop us. Besides, this trail across the Blues is the shortest route into the Columbia Basin. The Indians put up a ‘keep-out sign’, so to speak, to discourage travelers. They found themselves a poor old fur trapper and tied the poor old bugger up over the trail, stretching him out between two trees and left him there to dry in the sun. That’s when it became known as Deadman pass. But that didn’t stop us either, ‘cause here we are…here you are, just as arrogant as all those other folks that went before us.”

He knew that got her. She flashed those eyes at him. Her hands gripped the seat and she turned to face him before she let him have it. “Arrogant I may be, but I am not ignorant of the dangers or easily frightened, Sheriff Longtree. The Umatilla Indians helped to round up those renegades that slaughtered those freight haulers, I believe. And for their trouble a large portion of their lands were confiscated. They have been peacefully residing on what is left of their reservation for quite a while now.

“Which is neither here nor there—as you are aware, I am prepared, at all times, to protect myself—I am perfectly capable of driving these wagons by myself. I drove them all by myself from Oregon City to Laura Creek. I most certainly can make it to Pendleton and back to Laura Creek without your help. I don’t need you or anyone else. As I have told you before, I can take care of myself!” she shouted over the sounds of the storm, working very hard, he reckoned, not to cry.

* * * *

He had that look, that wounded confused look that she didn’t understand, nor did she believe. He looked hurt. Whatever it meant, that look made her heart pound and sent tingling sensations down deep into her nether regions.

Above the sounds of the wind and thunder and jangle and clunk of the wagons, she heard him say, “You don’t have to,” his voice full of tenderness. His eyes held concern…concern for her. She didn’t know if she could believe him. And she certainly didn’t know how to respond. She wasn’t used to concern; it made her uneasy.

He looked away, his eyes to the trail. She sat beside him, studying his profile, trying to see into his head. Was it an illusion or did this man really care what happened to her?

He answered her unspoken question when he turned back and looked her straight in the eye, deadly serious, to say, “Not anymore, you’re not alone. That’s what I’m trying to say here. It isn’t just you, anymore, Wren. Now it’s you…and me.”

He flicked the reins and called out to the mules to get-up. Mac barked out his recommendations as Bonnie, Bob, and the rest of the team put their backs into it, heading up the next incline.

“You’ve got me, now!” Telt hollered over the wind and thunder. “It’s us. You hear me.” he asked, turning to look into her dirty upturned face. “It’s us, you and me,” he repeated to dispel her disbelief.

Disarmed and deflated from fatigue, she sagged in surrender, ready to accept what he was telling her. She wasn’t sure if he meant that for today he was with her, or if he meant he would stay with her for just this trip. Whatever he meant, she was grateful to him. A knot of tears came into her throat. She started to cry. She couldn’t stop herself. She began to sob. Years and years worth of loneliness came pouring up and out of her like a gusher. He put one arm around her shaking shoulders and pulled her closer.

“Well hell,” she heard him grumble down to the top of her head. “I think I’m beginning to understand why your daddy drank.” And they both burst out laughing.

CLICK HERE TO GO TO CHAPTER 13 AND 14

CHAPTER 9

Mac set up the alarm, barking and growling. Behind her wagon, Wren fumbled with the buttons on her dirty, old, chambray shirt and tucked it into her waistband. She heard the sheriff calling Mac off and hoped her dog would respect the sheriff’s authority.

“You’re a stupid, silly, undisciplined piece of free-market-ware, my girl,” she spit out between her tight lips, her voice barely a whisper. “One kiss and you forget where you are, and who you are. God help you, if anyone saw what you were doing out there, you’ll never be able to look any of these people in the eye, ever again.”

Starting to wind her hair up into a knot on top of her head, Wren realized she’d lost her hat…and her hair-combs. Having to hold her hair in place while she searched for some hairpins, she cursed her trembling fingers. Furious, she kept up her scold. “You’ve opened Pandora’s box, that’s what you’ve done. That man’s going to be after you. There was nothing honorable about that kiss. Ohhh, no, he’ll be looking for a quick tumble now. Remember your cousins, how they talked about girls who gave away their kisses. That’s you, now. You’re one of…those…girls. You gave the sheriff the impression you’re more than ready. You’re prime for the picking, my girl. Ripe, overripe.” Sputtering and fuming, she moaned with shame while her body trembled, ached for more.

Discovering two hair-combs behind her jar of bag balm, she stuck them into the coil of hair on the crown of her head. The combs dug into her scalp. It hurt. Wren considered the self-inflicted pain her punishment for her scandalous lack of discretion and self-control. Rechecking the buttons on her blouse to be sure she hadn’t missed one, or worse, buttoned herself up incorrectly, she then tugged at her skirt and smoothed it down over her hips. Squaring her shoulders, she put up her chin, prepared to face the good people of Laura Creek, and…the sheriff.

*****

Telt waved to the seven men as they approached the freight wagons. “Jack, Archie, surprised to see you in town. Sorry to hear Grandma Tatom isn’t well,” he said after calling Mac off and ordering him to sit with Queenie under the wagon.

The Tatom boys lived on a big ranch about two miles outside of Laura Creek in a narrow little valley where they raised cattle and hay. Jack, the elder, maybe nineteen, and Archie, a couple of years younger, were the sole providers for their aging grandmother, their mother and little sister. Telt didn’t think they were the sharpest knives in the drawer, but they worked hard.

“Grandma told us to go to church and pray, so we did,” Jack said as he spread his thin lips into a wide smile, revealing a blank space where two front teeth should be. The two boys had on their Sunday best: boiled white shirts, gray wool suit coats, and trousers, both boys sweating profusely. As they approached, the smell of hot bodies encased in dusty wet wool hung heavy in the air.

“Hey, Sheriff,” said Jim Brandtmeyer, “we came out to talk to that O’Bannon woman about work. My missus said I’d better get over here. She wants a new cook-stove. I tried to tell her we can’t afford it, but she thought it’d be worth a try to work something out.”

The Tatom boys piped in, “Archie and me, we’d like to see if we could get Grandma a new mattress. We’ve been stuffin’ her old one with moss, but it’s all hard and it stinks. We both think she’d be better in no time if she could get some real sleep on a down mattress. We could work a week to pay for it, before we have to get in the second crop of hay.”

Telt nodded his understanding. Jim Brandtmeyer came forward with his hat in hand. He was middle-aged with six kids to feed. Jim owned the lumber and shake mill a few miles east of town. He had with him his two oldest boys. Both took after their father, built short, square and sturdy. Telt didn’t know any of the kids by name, ; Jim Brandtmeyer had too many offspring, even Jim had trouble remembering all their names. The two boys stood behind their father with unenthusiastic, blank expressions on their pimply faces.

Telt nodded to Percy and Punk, who’d filed in behind Jim. Punk spoke for them all, “Well, where is she? We ain’t got all day.”

Telt shook his head and laughed, but before he could respond, Miss O’Bannon came out from behind her wagon. “Gentleman,” she said, ignoring Telt and pushing past him under full sail. He winked and grinned at her.

They had changed their course back there, during that kiss. Telt knew they couldn’t turn back and they couldn’t ignore it. She could try to pretend nothing happened, but he wasn’t about to allow that.

“Gentlemen, I assume you’re here because of my announcement in church this morning,” she said, shading her eyes from the noonday sun with her little black book and lead pencil. Telt tapped her on the shoulder and passed her hat to her. He noticed her hair combs were stuck in the felt fabric inside the brim. He watched her face turn bright pink, and winked at her again. She slapped the hat on her head, winced, then groaned. Those damn combs. He could feel her pain. Her big brown eyes flew open, filling to the brim with unshed tears.

Looking to the faces of the men, Telt didn’t think any of them had noticed anything amiss. Stepping back, he leaned his hips against one of the wagons, folded his arms and crossed his ankles, ready to be entertained. Miss O’Bannon took her cue, now that he had moved out of her way.

She bartered with Jim Brandtmeyer for lumber for shelves and posts for a fence around her acreage. Punk offered to install a stove for her; that is, if she could get her hands on a stove. In addition, he’d keep her mules until she could get her pasture ready, all for some harness and a new anvil. Percy offered his and Shorty’s time to unload her wagons and stock her shelves, when they were installed, for new shoes and clothing.

“You’ll be wantin’ to talk to Lyle Claussen and Otto Meirs. They built the store. Otto’s a crackerjack carpenter and stone mason,” Jack told her. “I know they didn’t get to finish the job the way they wanted.”

“That’s true,” Jim said. “They put out cash money for lumber. Buttrum went all tight-fisted when they got the roof up. Buttrum told’em, ‘Good enough’.”

Telt saw her write everything down, her pencil moving, filling the pages in her black book. When she looked up, her eyes narrowed and her jaw set before she asked Jim, “I’ll want to speak to them. Are they in town today?”

“No, Ma’am, but I could send one of my boys out to let them know you want to speak to them. They’d like to break even on the lumber, I know.”

“Oh, I think they can do better than just break even. In time, I’m sure of it,” she said and gave all of them, with the exception of Telt, the benefit of her smile.

Feeling jealous as hell, he wondered, what did she mean…? They can do better than break even? And what the hell did she mean by “in time”? Feeling unsettled and edgy, Telt realized he hadn’t had a dull moment since Miss Wren O’Bannon pulled into town. She sure had a way of making things happen. Miss O’Bannon had marched into town and taken over like a general carrying out a campaign. No wonder Howard felt threatened.

Yes, sir, that kiss, that too felt like a threat, an exciting threat, but a threat no less. He had to grin. Just thinking about it gave his manhood a lift. Once the woman started something, she wasn’t one to quit; that he’d learned. A man better watch his step, or he could end up in over his head. Telt figured he better be sure he wanted to start something, before he…started something.

*****

By the end of the day, Wren had laid out all of the repairs and storage problems before the good people of Laura Creek. Her store now buzzed and hummed with folks planning and plotting the possibilities. Even those who hadn’t attended church knew, via the grapevine, they could find opportunity for employment and gain at the new mercantile. All kinds of folks were in and out of the store all afternoon, everyone except the one person Wren wanted to see the most, the one person she dreaded and longed to see, Sheriff Telt Longtree.

One problem arose. She didn’t mention it to anyone, but as she began to tally up all of the merchandise she had promised to deliver, it became clear she would need to make a trip to her warehouse in Pendleton. If she could get away the day after tomorrow, with any luck she would be back by the end of the week. By then she might have shelves. If she had a storeroom, she could stock the shelves and prepare to open for business. And by then, surely, she would be over this fever for the sheriff that had taken over her mind and body.

She smiled a sly smile. She would open her store, possibly before the deadline. She didn’t think Mr. Buttrum would be pleased; on the contrary, he counted on her to fail. However, he obviously had not reckoned on the good souls of his community.

With her pencil suspended over a blank page in her little black book, her thoughts took her back in time to a day she would never forget.

****

While cleaning her father’s room, changing his bedding she discovered her father’s will hidden beneath his mattress. Curious, she slipped away to her room to read it and discovered he’d written her completely out of his will. She would have nothing, no home, no place in the family business, everything went to her Uncle Stanley.

She couldn’t believe it—she assumed that because of her father’s illness, his incapacity, and that she single-handedly ran her father’s half of O’Bannon Brother’s Enterprises, she was by all rights a full partner. She consulted with her father to keep him apprised of her progress, successes, and problems. Her father knew how much she loved her work—it was her entire life. The cold reality of his will struck her hard, pierced her heart like a knife.

Once the shock of betrayal began to subside, she made the decision to strike out on her own and cashed out a modest bank account, which she had received as an inheritance from her maternal grandfather. Hurt and angry, believing she had no one who would care, she proceeded to incorporate herself into the Big O’ Corporation.

The lawyer that helped her form her corporation helped her find a warehouse far away from Oregon City and the prying eyes of her Uncle Stanley. The lawyer wasn’t the family lawyer; she knew better than to trust the family lawyer to keep her dealings confidential. To add to that, the family lawyer would ask too many questions—where had she found the money—why form a corporation—why a warehouse in Pendleton, of all places?

At the time, she chose the Pendleton location, believing it far enough away from the eyes and ears of her uncle and cousins that she could keep her activities a secret. As it turned out, the location made sense. The cargo vessels working the Columbia River could carry her inventory directly from the port of Portland up the Columbia to Umatilla Station, and from there, overland to Pendleton. Wren had no plan of how to proceed or where she would go, she just started buying and storing merchandise for her warehouse in Pendleton under the name of The Big O’ Corporation.

She searched for bargains, bid on inventory from businesses that were moving or going under. She became obsessed with the challenge of getting the best deal.

One day while searching The Oregonian for the next bargain, she spotted an intriguing ad. “Come join our friendly, growing community. Newly built mercantile for sale in Laura Creek, Oregon, ready and waiting for the right owner”.

After speaking to Judge Crookshank, and finding out that he knew the mayor of the town, she decided to make the purchase. It seemed serendipitous at the time.

*****

Retreat, Telt had once read, was the better part of valor, or something like that. It felt more like cowardice. With no excuse, other than to spy on her, he didn’t feel like hanging around the mercantile like some useless clod. She was right over there, just a few steps from his door. If he got close enough to her to look into her eyes, he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep his hands off her. He burned to get her in his arms again. Wren O’Bannon wasn’t more than a spit in the wind; short and firm, warm and supple, a woman who didn’t wear corsets, bustles or stays… damn, she was all woman.

Besides, he needed to fix his chair. It would keep his mind occupied for the afternoon.

All afternoon there came a stream of high traffic up and down Main Street, folks in wagons and folks on foot heading for the mercantile. Telt didn’t need to be right there in the doorway watching her every move. Wren O’Bannon had set forth a movement towards getting that store up and running, and he had to let her do it. In his mind, he could see her, with that black book and her pencil in hand, bargaining and dealing like an auctioneer on sale day—in her element.

With the new leg for his chair blocked and nailed to the underside of the seat, he discovered the darn thing rocked and wobbled from side to side. He’d tried sanding all the legs down without much success. While scratching his head thinking about what to try next, the door to his office opened and Miss Bledsoe, carrying a dinner plate beneath a linen napkin, entered.

Seeing the hopeful gleam of adoration shining in her cornflower-blue eyes, and the sweet smile on her lips, he felt guilty as hell. The woman would not easily give up her pursuit. Two days ago, that had seemed to be an okay deal. But today, Telt figured he better try to discourage Miss Bledsoe from her infatuation. Even if he wasn’t sure in which direction his heart would take him, he now knew that no woman would erase from his memory Miss O’Bannon’s unbridled passion in his arms.

Furthermore, he wasn’t interested in anything less than all-out heat when it came to kisses. Lottie Bledsoe didn’t have it in her. He compared the situation to his experience with some of the horses and dogs he’d met and had owned over the years—some had spark and others didn’t. Funny, but two days ago he hadn’t known what it was that was missing in his relationship with Miss Beldsoe. He shook his head. Because of one kiss, he’d become as fickle as his dog.

“I’m pleased to find you in your office,” Lottie said, a sweet smile on her thin lips. “Uncle Howard said you were probably at the mercantile, but I told him you wouldn’t want to be over there. It’s so crowded. Whatever can that woman be doing?” Lottie set the plate on his desk and pulled the napkin off to reveal fried chicken, potatoes covered with chicken gravy, and green beans, all still hot.

When Telt took his eyes off the plate of savory food and looked up into Miss Bledsoe’s limpid pools of blue, he thought of Miss O’Bannon. He would bet his best pair of boots she hadn’t eaten all day.

*****

During the afternoon Wren bargained with Mr. Baker for a sign for the mercantile. She wanted a sign much like the one he had over his stable entry. While standing there in the doorway of the mercantile, Wren glimpsed Lottie Bledsoe entering the sheriff’s office, balancing a plate of goodies between her lace-gloved hands. The harder Wren tried to focus on Mr. Baker and his ideas for her sign, the more distracted she became.

Thinking of Lottie Bledsoe soured her stomach, and try as she might, Wren couldn’t get the woman out of her mind. The fact of the matter, she was jealous of the girl’s pretty clothes, her willowy body, her fair complexion, her blue eyes, and in general, the way she exuded frail femininity. Jealousy came as a new and unwelcome emotion to Wren.

For the rest of the afternoon she could hardly think straight. She scolded herself, telling herself she had no time for such foolishness. The desire to march over to the sheriff’s office and strangle the woman threatened to override her good sense. At the very least, she wanted to squish Miss Bledsoe’s homey offering of food down her scrawny neck. Then, in a futile attempt to be reasonable, she reminded herself that she didn’t want the sheriff—Miss Bledsoe could have him.

Besides, he hadn’t bothered to set eyes on her all afternoon—so much for her kisses meaning anything to the man.

That kiss was a tease, a wicked experiment. Men!

Disgusted with herself for being disappointed that the flirtatious sheriff had not flashed his winking blue eyes or his big white-toothed, teasing grin at her all afternoon, she marched her sorry-self out across the meadow to her lonely wagons.

The sheriff could go straight to perdition; she did not care one way or the other if she ever set eyes on him again…ever. She was glad he hadn’t shown his face all afternoon. Very, very glad.

The sun, low in the sky, slipping over the side of the mountains, provided a splendid show of coral, violet and silver hues. She had a headache, no doubt caused by the lack of food, finding no time to return to her wagon for lunch. With her throat raw from talking all afternoon, and feeling hot and sticky, she wondered what she could fix for herself that would be satisfying and quick for her evening meal.

A soft, warm breeze ruffled her skirt as she crossed the meadow. She removed her hat and the combs from her hair. Instantly her headache receded to a dull throb at her temples, as opposed to the battering-ram that had been slamming at her forehead just a few moments ago. Closing her eyes, she rolled her shoulders and took a deep breath; and congratulated herself on a very productive afternoon. She had hope. She might be able to do all that she had promised.

As she drew closer to her campsite, she saw the sheriff’s dog lying there under the wagon with Mac. This would never do. The sheriff had to take responsibility for his own dratted dog.

In the twilight, she could see the glow of a lantern shining between and coming from beneath her wagons. She had company. She knew of only one person who might think he could just come into her camp and make himself at home—just one person who might think he would be welcome. Oh, how she wished she had her pistol with her. She would give him a welcome, all right. Maybe a rock? Yes, she would knock him in the head with a big rock. Probably wouldn’t even put a dent in that thick skull of his.

“Good evening, Miss O’Bannon,” greeted the sheriff with a congenial grin on his big face as he stepped in front of her, coming from between her wagons and affording her no time to find her weapon of choice.

“Eeek!” she squealed, in the foolish way that women often responded when taken by surprise, which she found exceedingly irksome. He’d managed to scare her even though she knew of his presence. She could just cry. Of all the nerve, the gall, and now to get all goosish and fluttery…even thrilled to see him…it didn’t seem fair, not fair at all.

“I made a pot of my venison stew,” he said, his big blue eyes full of uncertainty, looking like a big silly, sorrowful hound. She could almost imagine his tail going between his legs. “I figured you hadn’t bothered or had time to eat today.”

Wren stood there a second, hat in hand, her headache pulling her brows together over her nose, preparing in her head the set-down he had coming. The offer of food never entered her mind; she’d assumed he’d come for something else entirely…just one thing…her surrender…and maybe he had, but he had food. He’d thought of her. He’d stayed away, but he’d thought of her. Oh, dear, she could feel her resolve melting away.

“You’re hungry, you gotta be hungry?” he probed, looking confused and endearing, his eyes full of hope and nothing but good intentions.

Wren expelled her breath and with it went all of her fight. Oh, hell, she couldn’t resist. “You know darn-good and well I’m starving.” Her half-hearted acceptance brought his grin back. She flopped down on the warm grass, and he handed her a plate full of stew, a big slice of bread with butter, and a tin cup of cool water. Oh, she despised him for leading her into temptation. And she despised herself for not bashing him over the head with a rock like she wanted: maybe then he’d go away and leave her alone.

CHAPTER 10

At the cabin, lying in his bed, Telt couldn’t get Wren O’Bannon out of his mind. Beside the fact that he wanted desperately to explore every inch of her luscious little body, it worried him that he’d had to leave her out there alone in the meadow, vulnerable to the elements and predators. He couldn’t forget that she’d told him she wasn’t used to anyone looking out for her.

How had it come about that a bright, attractive, strong woman had no one to care where she slept or how she lived—if she had food?

Well, Telt mused, old Howard wasn’t the only one who thought it strange Wren O’Bannon didn’t appear to have any strings attached. She answered to only one person, herself. If she were a man, he wouldn’t find that strange at all, but somebody should be looking out for that young woman.

****

Wren, lying with Mac stretched out beside her, threw her arm across his furry chest, watching the dark clouds gather overhead, catching now and then a glimpse of the stars. A tear rolled down her cheek. She’d lost the battle, she couldn’t fight the attraction she felt for Telt Longtree. She couldn’t resist a man who cooked for her. As she suspected, he had intelligence, ethics, a strong sense of humor, all in all a good man. Somehow, he’d gotten her to talk about her plans, whom she’d bargained with, and for what.

She wanted him. She’d had crushes before, and she’d made a fool of herself a time or two, but Wren had never gone so far as to give herself, body and soul, to any man. Telt Longtree, if she let him, would take all she had to give; she knew it. By nature, she gave her all to everything she tried or wanted. Passion, she didn’t suppose, would be any different. She suspected that’s why she’d kept her virginity all these years. She knew once she made up her mind to give in to desire, she wouldn’t be able to stop. Finding someone who could accept that kind of dedication for the long term, she knew, wasn’t likely.

He didn’t push for her all-out surrender tonight. That gave her pause. Lying here, looking back over the evening, replaying their conversation, she could see that he had wooed her, coaxed her into relaxing, gentled her with his presence as he would a horse he wanted to bring to harness. She wanted to laugh, admitting to herself that it hadn’t bothered her at all; she’d found his way of talking and joking endearing, and of all things, sensitive.

Groaning in despair and shame, she whispered in the dark, “Telt Longtree, sensitive. Oh, my God. No man is sensitive. Calculating, yes. Don’t be an idiot. Sensitive. That man wants something. Of course he didn’t rush you tonight. He worked on you, broke down your defenses. He’s got you mooning after him, lying here in the dark talking to yourself.” She rolled her head back and forth, then took a deep breath. “Oh, you would’ve given in tonight. You wanted to, you even hoped he’d try, but he didn’t, he didn’t have to, he knows it’s just a matter of time.

“Hell, Telt Longtree might be the only offer I’ll ever get. Uncle Stanley says I’m destined to be an old maid. Do I want to be an old maid who’s never been kissed? That is the question.”

A conversation she had with her uncle right after her father’s funeral came to mind. Gloating that he’d inherited all of O’Bannon Brother’s Enterprises, which included all the properties, warehouses as well as the house she’d lived in her whole life, her uncle had made her a half-hearted offer to keep a roof over her spinster’s-head if she would agree to running the house, cooking and cleaning up after her uncle and his sons.

No, Wren told herself, at age twenty-six, if Telt Longtree offered her the opportunity to experience the pleasures of the flesh, she wouldn’t refuse on the grounds that she needed to preserve her virginity. After all, getting a little long in the tooth, with no prospects, no hope of finding a mate, a partner, a lover, keeping her virtue didn’t seem very important. Most men found her too strong-minded, determined and, some added, cold and pushy to the list of faults. So why should she save herself? She knew better than to think a prince would come to her rescue. No, she didn’t believe in fairytales.

Enough of that, she scolded, tugging the quilt up around her ears. Tomorrow couldn’t’ come soon enough. She closed her eyes to pray the coming day would pass quickly. She had a lot to do, a lot to keep her mind from going astray. Work would keep her from fantasizing about Telt Longtree and his broad shoulders, black wavy hair, and his blue, blue eyes, eyes that made her knees go weak when they smiled at her.

“I need to get out of town,” she said to Mac, who resented her restlessness and jerked his hind leg in protest. “I know, we just got here, but we need to get out of town. We’ll go to Pendleton to the warehouse. The sooner I put some distance between temptation and myself the better. This thing I’ve got for the sheriff came on way too sudden. It’s like a bad cold. I need time away from the source of my affliction, maybe build up some immunity. If nothing else, I’ll slow down the inevitable.”

Wren, unable to drift off to sleep, sighed, remembering the way his eyes lit up when he smiled. How he’d taken his handkerchief and tidied her up after she’d dribbled stew down the front of her blouse, cleaning her up as if she were a two-year-old. She couldn’t remember anyone ever doing such a thing for her. With a sense of doom, she considered they could very well become friends once their lust had cooled.

Of course there would be consequences if she followed through, had an affair with the sheriff. Everyone in town would know. Branded a harlot, she would suffer for the foolishness of her actions. The sheriff, she knew, wouldn’t suffer at all. She doubted it would do much damage to her business. Laura Creek needed her mercantile. She wouldn’t have a social life, of course. Mrs. Buttrum and the other ladies of the town might shun her. She wouldn’t be invited to teas and socials.

Well, she wasn’t a social climber anyway, but…she had hoped her life would be different here. She wanted to belong, be part of the community. Her whole life she’d lived alone, with no real, true friends, certainly no women friends. Once she started working in her father’s business, she’d no time for friends. She liked working. She never really thought much about what she’d missed, that is until now. The welcome she received upon her arrival in Laura Creek gave her a glimpse of what could be. With these disturbing thoughts on her mind, Wren drifted off into a deep sleep.

When she awoke, before she crawled out of her bedroll, she ordered herself to stop fantasizing about Telt Longtree. Feeling in control and resolute, she vowed to stick to business today, and dressed accordingly; first came black thigh-high stockings held in place by plain black garters. Her pantaloons and chemise of course, three white under-slips, adding a modest bustle tied at her waist with a satin ribbon. Over it all, she donned a plain black skirt and tucked in her highly starched white blouse into the waistband, then fastened a black satin stomacher at her waist for good measure. She wore her sensible black walking shoes, freshly polished, naturally. With her hair pulled up all neat and tidy, held in place by her tortoiseshell combs beneath her straw hat and wearing white gloves, she put up her chin and headed off across the meadow to the telegraph office to send a wire to Judge Crookshank.

She composed her wire, keeping it brief and to the point. Arrived safe: stop No loss of life or supplies: stop People accommodating: stop.

She omitted most of the details, of course. Now wasn’t the time to complain that her mercantile, the mercantile she’d purchased sight unseen, needed a lot of work or that it had been left, deliberately, unfinished. Or that the judge’s friend, Mr. Buttrum, insisted on giving her grief. The store would be ready to open on time. Mr. Buttrum, eventually, would have to account for his actions, and the judge, she knew, would see to it that he paid for his deceptions, all in good time.

Out of the corner of her eye, Wren sensed a shadow pass before the office window. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed her sense of foreboding. Her nemesis, Mr. Buttrum, had run her to ground. He stood watching through the window, waiting for her to leave, no doubt to take this opportunity to intimidate her.

Mr. Terrel became very nervous, asking her if she needed a reply, would she like a receipt, and so forth. Wren gave him a reassuring smile, a thank you, and started for the door, to find Mr. Buttrum had moved. She could still see him. Oh, not all of him, just his shoulder; he had positioned himself to the side of the door, waiting to ambush her. Wren squared her shoulders, prepared herself for a confrontation, determined to make it as brief and painless as possible.

She deliberately lowered her eyes, seemingly fiddling with her reticule while opening the door. Accidently on purpose, she slammed into Mr. Buttrum’s chest, giving him a shove with her hands. Thrown off balance, he stumbled back, his hand flying out to grasp her forearm, his fingers digging into her flesh.

“My goodness, Miss O’Bannon, what is your hurry?” he said with a nasty sneer on his lips, not bothering to tip his hat to her as any other gentleman would most certainly do. “You’re about early. Always busy, aren’t you? Always up to something. Most women have a home, but not you. At this hour most young women your age are busy seeing to their families, taking care of their men.”

With her head held high, Wren met his sarcastic sneer and, with a cool smile on her lips, said, “I beg your pardon, Mr. Buttrum. I didn’t see you lurking in the doorway; don’t you have a bank to run?”

After looking up and down the almost deserted street, she turned her gaze back to Mr. Buttrum and said to his face, “Yes, I am very busy. I have a lot to do, thanks to you and your unethical business practices. As to what I am up to, I am trying to meet my promises, unlike you, Mr. Buttrum. Yes, I am a busy woman, too busy to loiter about in front of the telegraph office, as some are wont to do. Good day,” she said, and stepped around him without saying another word. Fuming, with her back to him, she crossed the street to the mercantile, declaring the mayor the rudest man she’d ever met.

From inside the mercantile she watched Mr. Buttrum enter the telegraph office and shivered as a sense of dread and impending disaster washed over her. The mayor’s disapproval went farther than mere prejudice against women owning a business. The man had become obsessed with her downfall. He could learn nothing from the telegram she’d sent to the judge—could he? She didn’t doubt for a moment that he would do all in his power to keep her from opening the mercantile. The why of it didn’t make any sense to her, but she knew the man wouldn’t give up until he’d pulled every dirty, underhanded trick in the book.

When Mr. Claussen and Mr. Meirs, the builders, arrived shortly after her confrontation with Mr. Buttrum, bringing with them a wagonload of lumber, Wren forget all about the mayor and his wicked machinations.

Both Mr. Meirs and Mr. Claussen were well past fifty, and yet they juggled lumber and hammers, and went up and down ladders, as agile as men half their age. It wasn’t even close to noon, and she felt confident everything would get done, her storeroom, the shelves, everything, because of these two very experienced and energetic carpenters.

Punk Baker showed up shortly after Mr. Meirs and Mr. Claussen to install her woodstove in the back corner of the store. She’d hauled the wood stove in her second wagon, along with the farm implements. Using it now in the mercantile made one less thing she had to worry about storing in the lean-to in the pasture. She’d brought the stove for an example of what she had in her warehouse. She also had small replicas of the different styles and sizes of stoves, pie-safes, wardrobes, furniture of all kinds, and farm implements for her customers to choose from.

When Queenie came prancing through the open door of the mercantile, she knew the sheriff couldn’t be far behind. Mac got up from his blanket in the back of the store to greet them both.

Telt Longtree sauntered into the empty store, filling it up with his broad shoulders and big smile. Looking around, he said, “Good morning. This town hasn’t seen such a flurry of activity since, well, since I came to town a little over four years ago.” He picked his hat off his head with two fingers at the point, nodded in her direction and put his hat to his chest. “I thought I caused quite a stir, but nothing like this.”

Just hearing his voice made her feel warm all over. She fought the urge to walk over to him and plant a kiss on his big jaw. With a mischievous smile on her lips, she volleyed her response, “But I’ve got something you, no doubt, didn’t have, Sheriff.”

He grinned back, “Oh, I am of aware several things you’ve got that I didn’t have. But do tell, what is it, do you think, that draws people in?”

“Why, merchandise, of course,” she said.

“Oh, uh, I was thinking along another line altogether,” he said with a silly smirk on his face.

“Yes, I’m sure you were.” Feeling particularly bold, she put her head to one side to say in all seriousness, “The citizens of Laura Creek are anxious to spend their money, and they’re willing to put in some time and effort to make it happen. I don’t think anyone is going to complain about a little flurry of activity if the gain is to the good of the community.”

He nodded and agreed, “No, I don’t suppose we’ll hear any complaints. Maybe Buttrum will spout a few. But in this case, I think almost everyone will agree to ignore him.” The hammering up on the side of the building made it almost impossible to hold a conversation.

He chuckled, a throaty rumbling sound that gave her goose-bumps. “Yup, you’ve got everybody jumping around. You like that, don’t you?”

Wren giggled. Oh, yes, she liked it. She liked stirring up the whole town. She liked stirring him up too. Grinning at her like that, she knew he was enjoying himself too. They were standing there smiling at one another when Eula Buttrum crossed over the threshold.

Sashaying around the sheriff with a swish of her skirt, Wren greeted the mayor’s wife, “Good morning, Mrs. Buttrum.” Having to raise her voice to be heard over the sounds of construction, she felt her cheeks grow very hot. “I’ve been hoping you would come by. I want to talk to you about your pies.” Taking the woman by the elbow, she guided her to the back of the store where it wasn’t quite so noisy, and managed to slow the pace of her racing heart. “You make delicious pies. Your huckleberry is heavenly. Would you be able to bake some to sell here at the store? I thought a half-dozen to start. We could work out a trade, say, fabric, lace, a bonnet or gloves, perhaps?”

Eula put her gloved hand to the lace at her throat, appearing surprised by the offer.

If she had to guess, Wren would say Mrs. Buttrum had come over to look her over, and look over the mercantile. Her expressive gray eyes kept sliding toward the sheriff, then back to Wren.

Wren did understand. Lottie was Mrs. Buttrum’s niece, of course she would be watching, wondering, looking for signs that the sheriff had wiggled off Lottie’s hook. Wren watched the play of emotions flicker across the woman’s face, but held fast to her composure. If she meant to accept the inevitable, then she had to start now to set the tone for herself and her relationship with Telt Longtree. All would be revealed, her dirty laundry, her low morals, her lack of decorum, soon enough the whole town would have a lot to talk about.

“That’s a lovely dress you have on this morning,” she noted, her voice sincere, but counting on the subject to distract Eula from her speculations.

The dress, an unusual shade of smoky lavender, complimented Eula’s fair complexion. A delicate row of pale cream lace enhanced Eula’s swan-like neck, with the same lace trimming the cuffs and sleeves of the dress. “Do you sew?” Wren probed, before Eula could catch her breath from the first proposal.

“No, oh, no,” laughed Mrs. Buttrum. “Lottie is the seamstress.”

“Wonderful,” exclaimed Wren, and clapped her hands with real joy, “perhaps I could work out something with Miss Bledsoe also.”

This opened the conversation to current fashions, interests and dislikes. In no time, Eula assured her she would give the proposition of supplying the mercantile with her pies careful thought. And she thought her niece would jump at the opportunity to work up some dresses, blouses, and maybe some bonnets as well, in the fine fabrics Wren had in her inventory. It would give the dear girl some extra pin money, Eula had declared with enthusiasm.

As soon as Eula walked out the door, Wren turned to Telt, a self-satisfied smile firmly in place, feeling decidedly triumphant. As she flounced past him, where he’d been propped up against her back wall, she told him, “I’ve made sandwiches for lunch. I thought you might come by, so I made an extra one for you. I’ve got a couple of apples, too. We could go out back. There’s a bench next to the building…it’s in the shade.”

He grinned and obediently followed her out the back door. The dogs, Mac and Queenie, shouldered their way around them to get outside. The rough wooden bench sat at the back of the mercantile, in the shade. They had the bench and the shade to themselves. The pounding had stopped. Wren assumed Mr. Claussen and Mr. Meirs were enjoying their lunch in the shade of their wagon to the side of the mercantile.

After a short silence between them, Telt nodded his head and made the comment, “Looks like everything is going to work out for you here.”

“It certainly looks that way,” she said. “Everyone is very friendly.” She sat down on the bench and, when she looked up, he was smirking. Blushing, it took her a minute to regain her composure, then, feeling saucy, she added, “Some more friendly than others.”

He burst out laughing. She held her skirt aside, making room for him to sit beside her on the bench.

“I wish you didn’t have to sleep out there on the ground,” he said, taking his seat, his face losing its smile.

She turned to look into his eyes. They were warm with concern. She shrugged, uncomfortable to think he cared. “I’ll put my bedroll in the wagon as soon as I’ve unloaded the goods,” she said offhandedly, making it sound like a vast improvement in her situation. “It will only be for another week or so.”

“Still, I don’t like it,” he grumbled while she made a lot of work out of unwrapping his sandwich from its brown paper and handing it to him.

“I don’t know what else to do,” she said, then took a bite of her ham sandwich to keep herself from saying more. He sat there staring at her. Growing more uncomfortable by the minute, Wren found it hard to swallow. “If I stay in the wagon I can keep an eye on the goods in the lean-to, which to me, is a matter of common sense.”

“I can keep an eye on that lean-to for you.” She watched him open his mouth, and in two bites, he had his sandwich half eaten. “I suppose you have a close inventory of what’s out there?” he asked, his eyes going out to the meadow and her lean-to.

“I certainly do, Sheriff.”

He smiled and nodded before he bit into his apple. “There’s something else I want to talk to you about.” For a moment, he chewed as she polished her apple on her skirt to avoid looking into his eyes. “You know Laura Creek is a dry town, no liquor, Miss O’Bannon?”

She set her apple aside and turned her body towards him to meet his gaze. “Yes, I do know. Judge Crookshank informed me, and it was one of the conditions of the sale. To tell you the truth, it had a lot to do with my decision to buy the store and settle here. My father drank, Sheriff. I should say, my father, my uncle, my cousins were…are fond of their whiskey. It did nothing for their dispositions or for their health. I am happy to be far away from them.”

“I see,” he mumbled after he took his time to swallow. “Some folks get mean when full of drink.

She folded her hands in her lap and looked to the mountains and the peaceful meadow. She sat there a moment, trying to decide if she should take a chance and reveal something of her former life. She took a deep breath before she spoke, “My father wasn’t mean,” shuddering, she looked down to her hands, “He was just sad, very, very sad.”

Telt studied her, she didn’t dare look up, or she would burst into tears. Drawing herself up, she took a deep breath, set her spine and pulled herself together. “My uncle, he’s a mean drunk. I didn’t have much to do with him; maybe twice a year he would impose his presence upon us. He owned the mercantiles in Salem and Corvallis. He lived in Salem most of the time. That is, he did, until he inherited my father’s half of the business; now he lives in my old home in Oregon City, and he owns all of O’Bannon Brother’s Enterprises. He does travel a good deal up and down the Willamette Valley. As for my cousins, they like to fool around. Unfortunately, I’ve always been their prime target and often the butt of their tomfoolery. In my opinion they’re simply ignorant pawns of their father.”

He nodded, but Wren sensed he still had a lot of questions. She didn’t want him to pry any deeper. “I have to get back to work, Sheriff,” she said, and pushed up off the bench.

“Yeah, I have things to do, too.” Taking her hand and looking into her eyes, he said, “Maybe I’ll drop by your wagon later?” His fingers traced the calluses on her palms. She tried to pull her hand away, her cheeks growing hot under his gaze.

His dark brows drew together. The look he gave her made her cringe. She didn’t need his pity. He brought her hand to his lips and pressed a lingering kiss to her palm, his eyes holding her gaze. In that second, Wren knew she wouldn’t say no to him, and she knew he wasn’t going to leave her alone until he got what he wanted.

CLICK HERE TO GO TO CHAPTER 11 AND 12