Laura Creek Mercantile

Post Jan 20, 2013


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.


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.