Archive for February, 2013


I Chap 17 and 18

CHAPTER seventeen

The whiskey had been on display in the window of the Laura Creek Mercantile for two days, well, one and a half, and speculation among the town’s citizens continued to run high. In Percy’s opinion that whiskey had appeared out of thin air and been right there in plain sight for one day and twelve hours too long. The mercantile wasn’t open yet. That remained a blessing. Punk wanted it for himself. Percy just wanted it gone, gone back where it came from, wherever the heck that might be.

“It didn’t just sprout up out of nowhere, Punk,” Percy grumbled as they stacked crates of dry goods against the wall in the storeroom. “Shorty and I unloaded those supplies off those wagons, and I would’ve noticed if there’d been whiskey in any of them.”

“Well, maybe they were in a crate that wasn’t marked ‘whiskey’,” speculated Punk, having to stop to scratch his baldhead a minute to think.

“No, I don’t think so. Miss O’Bannon had been gone a full day before those bottles showed up in the window. We’ve been in here working on shelves and that whiskey wasn’t in that window. Miss O’Bannon didn’t put them there, I didn’t put them there, and you didn’t put them there. And that whiskey didn’t just sprout up out of thin air—somebody in this town put them there, on purpose!”

Percy stopped what he was doing and looked Punk in the eye. “Whoever did it wanted to cause Miss O’Bannon trouble. You can bet when Howard finds out there’s liquor in this store there’ll be a lot of trouble. More trouble than there already is, you can count on it.”

“It stinks of a trap, don’t it,” grumbled Punk as he followed Percy outside for another load of crates and barrels to bring inside.

“It sure does.”

“All right,” Punk began, optimism shining in his eyes, “let’s turn the tables on the bastard who wants to cause trouble for Miss O’Bannon. Let’s you and me divide up those bottles, get’em out of that window.”

“I don’t know.” Percy groaned; he really did hate being in charge. He hadn’t resigned as deputy, although it sorely tempted.

Punk continued to press his case. “You’re lettin’ your conscience get in the way of good sense. That’s good whiskey, it’s meant to be enjoyed, sipped, guzzled or swilled, but definitely not used to dress up a storefront, not in this town.”

“You got a point,” Percy verbally agreed, but shook his head, still not convinced.

Huffing with impatience, Punk crossed his big arms while Percy speculated aloud, “If we could just figure out who might have done it. Howard had already left town—that we’re in agreement on. We didn’t find the whiskey until the morning after he left town. Shorty saw him ride out. Howard didn’t come into the store; at least Shorty didn’t see him come over here.”

Punk looked about ready to explode, his lips curled up in a pucker, his thick brows drawn together over his black eyes. Percy dithered; he couldn’t help it, that’s how his mind worked. Punk, now, Percy knew him for a man-of-action and damn the consequences. Percy envied Punk, for whom the problem had a simple solution.

Howling with frustration, Punk threw up his arms. “I don’t put nothin’ past Howard Buttrum, not after what he done the other day. He could’ve left town, circled back and planted the bottles. It would serve him right if they disappeared.” Grumbling to himself, Punk unloaded a barrel full of something off the end of the wagon. He settled the barrel on his right shoulder before he re-entered the storeroom. Percy tried lifting one of the barrels and couldn’t, so he rolled it up the back step to put it inside.

Punk helped him place his barrel on top of the one he’d brought in. Percy, out of breath, straightened and rubbed his back. The lull gave Punk the opportunity to expound on his theory, “I just don’t see that it makes any difference who done it, or why they done it. The way I see it, those bottles of amber nectar in that window display are a gift from the fates. They are free for the takin’. The dumb fool that put’em there can’t very well come in and say they was stolen, can he now?”

“I know, and I agree, you have a point. All the same, it doesn’t seem right to take them and never mind the how, who or the why of it. I’m a minister to the good people of Laura Creek, and a sworn deputy of the town, and I can’t, in good conscience, take something just because it’s there and no one else has laid claim to it. That’s expensive whiskey, Punk. I have to try to find out who it belongs to.”

Punk went to the back door and spit before he muttered an oath. “Well, you just go right ahead then, be afraid of going to hell. But I don’t got any such scruples to get in my way of taking what I consider to be a gift right from the gods.”

“Just wait a minute. Can we agree on one thing?” Percy asked, coming alongside Punk at the door and looking out toward the mountains and the meadow, “Can we agree those whiskey bottles better disappear before Howard gets back? That’s all Miss O’Bannon needs is to be in violation of a city ordinance.”

“Well, shit!” Punk barked, then spat a black stream of tobacco juice out the opened door of the mercantile. “I’m for takin’ it home. That’s what I been sayin’. Get it out of that window. I like whiskey. That’s a good brand too. Fancy, you know. The kind Buttrum drinks.”

“I’m almost certain it is his whiskey. Howard’s, you know, but how did it get here, is what bothers me,” muttered Percy. Both men left the doorway and went out to look at the front window where those bottles sat, the sunlight shining through the liquid in the bottles.

Percy, tall and skinny in brown coveralls and blue shirt, his red hair all messed up from scratching his head, tried to think what to do about this unwanted, yet coveted, cursed whiskey. Punk, always sweaty in his leather breeches and leather apron over his sleeveless shirt, stood there with his thumbs hooked into the waistband of his breeches, beneath his apron, looking obstinate and resolute.

Percy gave his scalp another good rake-through, “It’s close to two o’clock,” Percy muttered. “Okay. I say we each take six bottles.”

Punk nodded enthusiastically, gave a little hop, and rubbed his hands together with eagerness.

“But…” Percy qualified, ignoring Punk’s groan, “we don’t crack a bottle until we talk to the sheriff.” Punk looked about to cry, therefore Percy quickly added an amendment, “The sheriff could be back today. It’s Friday. He went after Miss O’Bannon the day of the big storm. That was Tuesday. Two days gone and two days back—it’s possible.

“I’ve got an uneasy feeling my brother-in-law could be back any minute now. He left the day after that big storm. Shorty said Cousin Lottie didn’t know where he went, but I’m thinking he went to La Grande. My guess is he couldn’t send a wire from here so he had to go to La Grande. It’s the closest telegraph. He could get back here today. He’s got a burr under his blanket about something. You can count on that. He’s going to get back here as soon as he can, so he can be here when Miss O’Bannon gets into town.

“We have to get this stuff out of here, that’s all I know for sure. But we can’t just take it and call it ours, Punk, not yet. It didn’t get here on its own. It belongs to somebody. It isn’t ours, Punk. We can’t keep it. The sheriff will know what to do. We have to wait.”

Punk chewed on it, spit again and grumbled his agreement.

* * * *

Sit down, both of you,” Eula instructed. The smell of ham and potatoes, and the heat coming from the kitchen, had Lottie feeling queasy, and she turned her head away at the very thought of swallowing the buttery, cheesy scalloped potatoes; the day was too hot for such a hearty dish. As for her uncle, he ignored his wife, maintaining his vigil at the front room window.

“Howard, get away from that window, you’ve been pacing about like a lion in a cage ever since you arrived home this afternoon. Good grief, you’re giving me a headache.” Aunt Eula screeched.

“You, young lady, are going to make yourself ill if you don’t stop this moping about, for goodness sake.” Eula shook her finger in Lottie’s face as she passed by on her way back to the kitchen. “I haven’t seen you take more than two bites of anything this week. You can’t keep this up. Now, you get in here and sit up and eat something.”

Lottie knew very well how she must look. She’d caught a glimpse of herself in the mercantile window and knew she looked pale as a ghost, her hair a mess, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.

She sighed, her eyes going to her uncle Howard. He wasn’t paying her aunt any attention either. He stood with his hands behind his back, gazing out the window. She saw him check the time on his pocket watch. She looked at the mantel clock, and jumped when the clock struck the quarter hour of five forty-five. He’d last checked the time at five forty-two. Lottie half expected the world to come to an end at any second, the way he kept checking his watch and looking out the window. With her conscience pinching at her, she rather hoped it would.

“Howard, come to the table, right this minute,” her Aunt Eula ordered. “What in the world are you waiting for? That’s the second time you’ve checked your watch in less than five minutes. You know if you don’t eat at precisely five thirty you get indigestion, and I’ll have to get you a hot water bottle and some bicarbonate of soda. You’ll be up all night.”

Lottie dragged herself over to the dining table. Riddled with guilt and consumed by jealously, she’d found it almost impossible to function at all. She’d lain in her bed for most of two days straight and finally came to the conclusion she had to retrieve her uncle’s whiskey and put it back in his cellar before he discovered anything missing.

Now that she’d had time to think over her actions, she realized she would be in more trouble than the O’Bannon woman when her uncle discovered she’d appropriated his whiskey, even if it was for a worthy cause.

A little after three o’clock, just after her uncle’s arrival home, she’d rushed over to the mercantile only to find the whiskey gone from the front window of the store. At that point she considered slitting her wrists, but she fainted at the sight of blood, and feared she’d botch the job. She couldn’t take poison—it would upset her stomach. She thought about jumping off a cliff, but there were no nearby cliffs that she knew of; besides, she had a fear of heights.

* * * *

With his stomach tied up in knots, Howard told himself he should eat; but how could he? Damn. The wire he’d received from Stanley O’Bannon now burned a whole in his vest pocket. He had instructions to hold on to the O’Bannon woman until Mr. O’Bannon could arrive in Laura Creek. The two-hundred dollar reward money was as good as his. He only needed the sheriff to bring the woman back to Laura Creek. They could arrive any moment. How could he think about food at a time like this?

He’d made good time getting to La Grande before noon Thursday, sending the wire and receiving a response within the hour. His ride home had been uneventful. He’d arrived home a little after three o’clock.

Since it was Friday, around four o’clock, he’d walked over to check in at the bank, given instructions to close as usual. The town seemed quiet. He’d looked in on the mercantile. Punk Baker and Percy were in there working like a pair of idiots. Well, let them, he thought as he made his way back home. The whole town was about to get a good lesson, the trusting fools. They wouldn’t listen to him, didn’t want to believe he knew better. Well, they would soon learn.

Howard patted the papers that lay over his heart, inside his vest pocket, went to the table, and sat down to eat. Surprisingly, his wife’s ham and scalloped potatoes never tasted better. With his appetite returned, he could now look forward to his wife’s peach and rhubarb pie.

* * * *

With about an hour of daylight left, Telt turned the team and wagons down the road to Laura Creek. Polly had supplied them with a large hamper of food, enough to last them two days. When they’d stopped at noon at Emigrant Springs to eat the last of Polly’s fare, both he and Wren had shed their heavy dusters. Wren, wearing her russet skirt, her brown flannel shirt open at the neck and sleeves rolled up to her elbows, looked like a young girl, her hair down, blowing in the breeze.

He was in his shirtsleeves. Both of them had their hats pulled low over their faces to shade their eyes from the burning sun. Mac trotted along up front, running alongside of Bonnie and Bob, and Queenie sat on the board seat between them. Telt pulled the wagons up before the door of the mercantile in a cloud of dust. They could see Percy and Punk inside the store through the window. They were setting up a counter on a side wall.

Shorty ran up to greet them with Peanut at his heels. “Pa said you might get back today. Some storm, huh? Big tree came down up there above your cabin, Sheriff. Didn’t hurt nothin’. We had shingles gone off the church roof. Pa took care of it.”

Telt jumped down from the wagon seat, gave Shorty a grin and ruffled the boy’s red hair. Before he could stop her, Queenie leapt from the board seat onto the rump of a mule, then onto the ground. Peanut began to yip and run circles around her. Mac sat on his haunches a few yards away, well out of the melee.

Telt reached up with both arms to help Wren to the ground. He held her there at eye level, enjoying the feel of her body pressed to his.

“You should put me down,” Wren whispered.

“Hmmm, yeah,” he said on a sigh, looking at her face, her hair, drinking her in.

Giving him a tap on the shoulder with her fist she insisted, “No, really Telt, you should put me down, Percy and Punk are watching at the window. They can see us.”

“Hmmm, let’em,” he said, about to kiss her full on the mouth.

Wren pulled back and punched his shoulder hard this time. Telt set her on her feet, then he heard Howard Buttrum’s big voice calling to him from across the street.

“Sheriff Longtree,” Howard shouted. “I must have a word with you.”

“Shit,” Telt grumbled, his gaze reluctant to leave Wren’s face. He dropped his hands from her waist and turned to face the banker. Mac slunk forward, his teeth bared, head down, ears back, his smoke-blue eyes trained on the banker. Wren put out her hand to signal Mac to back off. Telt understood; she had no desire to speak with Mr. Buttrum, so she went inside to have a look around her store.

“Buttrum,” Telt said, and smirked. In a hurry, the banker huffed and puffed, out of breath from the exertion of trotting across the street. Telt waited impatiently for him to stop wheezing.

“There have been…developments,” Howard managed to say at last. He mopped his brow with his snowy white handkerchief. “I suggest you bring Miss O’Bannon to your office immediately.”

“Is that right?” Telt replied. “Well, I’ll tell you what, Miss O’Bannon and I are tired and hungry. Her mules need to be watered and fed. And, we could both use a good night’s sleep. Whatever…developments…there have been will have to wait until morning.” Telt started to move away. The banker laid a hand on his arm to stop him and withdrew a wanted poster from his vest pocket. When he flipped it open, Telt caught the gleeful glint shining in his eyes.

He didn’t have to see Howard’s face to know the bastard stood triumphant. Telt could almost feel the ground shift beneath his feet. At first he felt sick inside, then he went cold with rage.

“Where did you get this?” he growled, shaking the sheaf of paper beneath the banker’s nose.

Howard met his blistering question without shame. “I found it on your desk.” The man looked in the window, his eyes following Wren as she looked around the store, Percy and Punk pointing out all the improvements made since she’d been gone.

“I went in just to get some peace,” Howard confessed, his gaze unabashedly locking with his. “I happened on a stack of new posters and notices. This one’s not even a month old. The…uh, our telegraph was down at the time. I went to La Grande and sent out a wire yesterday to Stanley O’Bannon, of O’Bannon Brothers Enterprises. He’s on his way. He thought he could be here in about a week. You have to arrest her, Sheriff. You’re to hold her until Mr. O’Bannon arrives.”

“Shut up, Howard! Don’t tell me how to do my job,” Telt snarled. He started to wad up the flyer but thought better of it.

CHAPTER Seventeen

All the improvements and the progress inside her mercantile had Wren smiling, that is until she turned around and met Telt’s thunderous expression. She looked beyond him to Mr. Buttrum, standing in the doorway with a satisfied sneer on his face. Now what has the man done? she muttered to herself. Telt walked up to her, took her by the arm and started to lead her out of the storeroom and out of the store.

“Punk,” Telt snarled as they crossed the room, “impound the wagons and the mules at the stable. See to it the mules have water and plenty of feed. The city will pick up the bill.” As he elbowed his way around the banker, Telt growled, “Right, Mister Buttrum?”

“Impound?” Wren squealed, tripping over her own feet as Telt dragged her out the door. Buttrum stood there, a satisfied gleam in his mean little eyes and a sly smile quivering under his mustache.

“Where are you taking me, Telt? What do you mean…impound my mules and the wagons? I want to know, immediately!” Wren cried. She tried to come to a standstill, but had to keep moving or else get dragged down the street. “What is going on? Let go of me. I can’t keep up with you! You’re hurting my arm, Telt!” she wailed as he marched her down the street, her skirt whipping in the wind, her hair flying around her face.

“You’re going to jail,” he barked before he loosened his grip on her arm.

“Jail! Why? Whatever has gotten into you? What is the meaning of this?”

Telt slammed his office door closed on the banker, who’d followed them down the street. The old door didn’t latch; it’d been slammed too many times, and the hinges were slack. Wren held her breath, catching a glimpse of Mac and Queenie, who managed to skitter inside when the door made a rebound.

Wren was aware of Shorty peering in the window, his face pale, sandy brows knit together. She also knew that the banker was out there too, listening to every word—the bastard.

Moving a lock of her hair from her face she tried to read the expression on Telt’s face. His blue eyes were stormy, dark, and glittering with bad temper, and his jaw was set. She faced him, unafraid. “Whatever this is about, if you would give me the chance, I’m sure I can rectify the situation.” Her gaze went to the window where Shorty and Mr. Buttrum stood, peering in. “That man is behind this.”

Her anger flared to the forefront, and she flashed the loitering Mr. Buttrum a withering glance before she reported, “Punk informed me that Mr. Buttrum actually threatened Mr. Meirs and Mr. Claussen with foreclosure. They had to leave the job unfinished…yet again. He threatened to call in the Tatom boys’ note on their ranch if they didn’t desist in the construction. Percy and Punk have been over there alone putting up shelves. Whatever this is about, I know Howard Buttrum is behind it.”

She waited for Telt to say something, explain what was going on. He stood there looking at her as if she were a stranger. It scared her.

She watched him remove a wanted poster from his pants pocket, “What do you know about this?” he asked, his voice sounding cold and flat.

It took her a moment to calm her outrage and quiet herself enough to read and comprehend. She blinked, took the paper from his hand and stared at it, the words making no sense. When they finally came into focus she thought she might go off like a rocket. “Two hundred dollars? My God! He’s practically accusing me of stealing. Of all the preposterous, asinine, ridiculous, evil things I’ve ever heard of!”

When she looked up she could see it in his eyes—Telt didn’t believe her. She shook the paper in the air in front of her. “You think this is true? How can you think such a thing, how can you?”

Her knees were trembling. Shaking all over, she started to giggle. Then she lost control and hysteria took over. She knew she was laughing and crying. She also knew she couldn’t stop.

Telt reached out to help her to a chair. “Don’t you touch me, you, you bounder,” she snapped, and slapped away his hands. “How dare you think me a thief and a liar. How dare you touch me, with thoughts like that about me in your head?”

She heard herself scream, “You can’t believe this!” Shaking the flyer in his face she added, “I’ve never…never, stolen anything in my entire life. I would never!”

She swallowed a hard lump of tears, struggling to regain control. “I bought and paid for my mules and the wagons.” Flinging her arm out toward the window, she shook her head while putting the words in order in her mind. “Or rather, my corporation bought them,” she explained between clenched teeth. “All the proof I need is in my satchel. I bought and paid for…in full…all of the merchandise that I brought with me from Oregon City. I bought it and had it stored even before my father passed away. I wanted to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. I planned everything ahead of time. I knew I had to leave. I knew I couldn’t stay and live under my uncle’s thumb. I wouldn’t! I couldn’t do it. I don’t know if Uncle Stanley is guessing about the mules and the wagons, or if someone saw me and reported back to him. But I have my papers, my bill of sale for the mules, for the goods. All of it is in my satchel—all of the proof is in there. I keep it with me wherever I go. You know I do.”

* * * *

Telt put his hand to her cheek. Oh, God, he wanted to believe her. That damned satchel. Of course she had all those papers in there. He’d seen that satchel for himself the first day he’d set eyes on her. She had it with her on their run to Pendleton—Jesus, he hoped to hell she was telling him the truth.

He took her by the shoulders to look deep into her big brown eyes. He’d come to love that face. He tried to see into her soul. Her brown eyes were full of confusion and hurt. He sure hoped she was telling him the truth.

“You have to stay here, Wren, while I go get your satchel. We’ll have this straightened out in no time. Just stay here, all right?”

The look in her eyes was killing him. He would swear on a stack of Bibles that she was telling the truth. Buttrum. The son-of-a-bitch. He sure would like to shove that wanted poster down the man’s gullet.

When he looked to the window, he expected to see Howard still standing there with that smug look on his face, but he was gone. At least that was something, he didn’t think he could resist punching him in the nose; this way he didn’t have to control himself. Shorty still had his nose pressed up against the glass. Telt was sure Shorty would spread the word that he’d taken Miss O’Bannon into custody.

Still shaking, Wren nodded, but Telt couldn’t be sure she understood. She was just agreeing with him. Her face pale, she collapsed on one of the barrels by the stove, her hands shaking, she held on to the barrel’s rim.

“I don’t know why my uncle did this,” she mumbled as the tears tumbled down her cheeks and dripped from her chin. “I thought he might try to stop me, but not this way.”

Telt knelt down before her and drew her into his arms. “Shhh, don’t worry; everything is going to be all right. You sit right here and I’ll be right back. Buttrum better be long gone, or I swear, I’m going to punch him in the gut!”

Shorty took off like a shot as soon as Telt stepped out of the door. He watched the boy run next door to the mercantile, no doubt to report the latest developments to his pa.

* * * *

Howard waited behind the stable door while Punk unharnessed the mules and led them off to their holding corral behind the stable. Once Punk was out of sight, he entered the stable and hoisted himself up onto the side of the first wagon. He hadn’t been up on one of these since he was a kid, but his father used to have one, and it seemed to him there was a compartment up front beneath the dash. His father used it to store ammunition, guns, and rope. If he were going to keep something valuable, he would keep it there. He hoped that was just what Miss O’Bannon had done.

The carbine was lying on top of the compartment. Howard moved it to the bench seat. He lifted the compartment lid and there was the worn, brown leather satchel. Snatching it up, he tucked the bag under his suit-coat and jumped off the wagon.

Sticking close to the side of the wagon, he slithered out the stable door without disturbing the chickens pecking around the wagons outside in the stable-yard.

Just as the sheriff was leaving his office, Howard ducked quickly behind the opened stable door. He held his breath and stood very still, his heart pounding a rapid tattoo in his chest. The sweat pouring off his forehead dribbled into his eyes. It burned like hell, but he didn’t dare move.

He waited for Telt to enter the stable before making his escape. It was dusk. By sticking to the shadows of the buildings, dodging behind the sheriff’s office and the mercantile, he unlocked the rear door of the bank and disappeared inside.

* * * *

Telt walked up to the wagons parked just inside the stable. He heard Punk out back pumping water into the trough for the mules. He climbed up onto the wagon to find the carbine lying on the seat. He looked toward the back of the stable. Maybe Punk had moved it. The compartment under the dash gaped open…empty. The satchel was gone. He climbed over the seat into the bed of the wagon and moved aside several boxes in the bed of the wagon, but no satchel.

* * * *

At the sheriff’s office, Wren dried her eyes while she paced the room, condemning her uncle to all manner of tortures. “A wanted-poster. Of all things despicable,” she hissed aloud.

She shuddered to think what would have happened to her had she been arrested in Pendleton, with no one to help her. All she could think was her uncle had lost his mind. Somehow, Mr. Buttrum was involved in this. She put several curses upon the banker’s head.

When Telt returned empty-handed, the bottom dropped out of her world. He couldn’t look her in the eye. Her voice flat, her heart in her throat, she stated the obvious, “Don’t tell me. The satchel’s gone.”

He nodded, went to his desk, opened the drawer and removed the jail cell key. “We’ll get to the bottom of this,” he said. His voice cracked when he went on to tell her, “I have to lock you up.”

“What? No! Telt. I did not steal those mules or those wagons. That wanted poster is my uncle’s idea of…of, I don’t know—he wants to keep control of me. No. Not control of me but my money. I fooled him. He doesn’t like to be fooled, not by a woman, anyway. He’s a lot like Mr. Buttrum in a lot of ways. He doesn’t believe in women being in business.

“I don’t know, maybe he doesn’t know I incorporated myself. Maybe he really does think I stole the mules, the wagons, and the merchandise. It just doesn’t matter, because I can prove I didn’t steal anything. Please, Telt,” she begged as he took her arm to lead her down the short, narrow hall to the jail cell.

“I can’t believe this, you’re really going to lock me up? It’s dark and stuffy back here—it stinks.” The crib-constructed board walls smelled sour and stale, musty. There were spider webs in the corners. “There is absolutely no light, no window, and no fresh air, I can’t breathe back here. I’ll get claustrophobic if I have to spend more than five minutes back here.”

She set her feet and balked when he opened the barred door. She looked at the flat, hard bench that was supposed to be a bed. Her eyes traveled to the corner and the galvanized bucket. She shuddered. “Is that supposed to be the privy? My God.”

Telt let go of her arm and reached down under the bunk to retrieve a couple of bottles of whiskey, one of them about half full, or empty, whichever way you want to look at it.

“I don’t think I should leave these in here, not with the mood you’re in.”

“Jokes. You’re making jokes,” she grumbled, still refusing to step into the cell.

“You might tap me on the head with one of them when I turn my back,” he added on a half-hearted chuckle.

Too stunned to comment, she sniffed and put her nose in the air, refusing to give comment, in no mood for humor. “I don’t give a damn about your stash of whiskey.”

Behind her, she heard him clear his throat, and felt his hand on her elbow as he moved her one step forward and into the cell. He waved Mac into the cell, then closed the door and locked it behind her. Wren squeezed her eyes shut with the sound of the cold iron door closing on her back—this was a really bad dream—a really, really bad dream.

“Guess I’ll have to keep these in my desk drawer,” he said, indicating the bottles in his hands. She refused to meet his gaze. She might cry, and she would hate that. She knew he was still there. She heard him let out his breath. “I’ll get a lantern so you’ll have some light before I leave.”

If he said one more word, she would scream. He didn’t believe her. Telt, her Telt.

Fool. She was a fool. He was just one more man in her life who was going to betray her. Telt Longtree was just one more man who wanted to keep her down. Oh, she had warned herself, she’d known better. Yet she’d fallen, and fallen hard. And look where it had gotten her.

“Wren,” he said, his voice sounding ragged and raw with emotion. “I’ll be back,” he said after a long pause.

* * * *

He heard her soft mew of distress. She stood facing the far wall, her shoulders stiff, back straight. Mac swung his large body around, his eyes beseeching…he whimpered. Telt could hardly stand the accusing look in the dog’s blue-white eyes as he sat back on his haunches and stared. Wren stood there in that dark, stuffy cell. Telt could do nothing to change what he had to do.

He left her to get a lantern. He lit it and hung it on the wall outside the cell. She had remained standing in the same spot, seemingly rooted. He wanted to tell her he had a plan, that he wasn’t going to allow this to happen to her, but he couldn’t promise her anything. It was a frame-up. He knew in his gut…who…was behind it, but he didn’t have any proof.

click chapters 19 and 20

H chapters 15 and 16

CHAPTER fifteen

Behind her registry counter, Polly Moran, the proprietress of the boarding house looked up from her account book, and when her sharp gaze locked on her guest, she exclaimed, “Telt Longtree. You dog. I haven’t set eyes on you since last April. What have you been up to?” Telt tipped his hat to her. She took a breath. “No good, I’d bet my best corset.”

Usually, Telt came to Pendleton looking for a night or two of hard drinking and a few hands of poker. Sure, he availed himself of the dance-hall girls, but mostly he came looking for some excitement. When that excitement began to wear off, and his hangover began to dull his senses, he took refuge at Polly’s. He wisely considered it downright dangerous to go on a toot for more than a week in a no-holds-barred kind of town like Pendleton.

The town of Pendleton stretched out along the Umatilla River in the bottom of a draw. Polly’s boarding house sat on the south slope of the draw on the east end of town. As it happened, Wren’s warehouse, also on the east end of town, along the river, stuck in between a mill and a granary, sat just below the boarding house on the main road into Pendleton. Telt could see the roof of the warehouse from the wide veranda that wrapped halfway around the first story of Polly’s Boarding House.

He’d left Wren directing the warehouseman, and two of his helpers, on how and what she wanted them to load into her wagons. Telt hadn’t told her what he had planned, he just said he needed to make a call and wouldn’t be more than an hour or so. She barely noticed when he rode off. Telt had to shake his head at that. When the woman went to work, she was all business; the rest of the world could go hang.

Telt had discovered Polly Moran and her boarding house about six or seven years ago while in the military. He knew her whole story: A dance-hall girl from the Silver Spur, she’d married a well-to-do rancher who died and left her with a lot of land and plenty of money.

Polly had a voluptuous figure, going to seed a little bit, but then she wasn’t a spring chicken anymore. Telt suspected a good strong corset had a lot to do with her hourglass figure. She had fiery red hair that didn’t look natural. He didn’t think anyone came into this world with that shade of red hair and suspected she got it from a bottle. The laugh lines and wrinkles around her eyes and mouth she disguised with a liberal amount of face powder. Even with a slight double chin, she still presented to the world a mighty fine figure of a woman. Considering her to be a worldly woman, Telt hoped Polly would turn a blind-eye to his renting the best room in the house for himself and his lady.

Grateful for the warm welcome, he flashed her his best smile and said, “Polly, this is a special occasion.” Planting his hands on her registration counter of polished oak, he leaned in to take her into his confidence, “Tell me that honeymoon suite of yours is available.”

Polly blanched, then squealed with delight, “No! You rascal, you didn’t?” Her ample bosom jiggled, flesh spilling out over the top of the low-neck, wasp-waisted, black satin gown she wore today. His gaze went to her bosom, and his thoughts went out of his head. “Didn’t what?” he asked.

Polly grabbed him by his shirtfront and gave him a little shake, “You big, dumb clod…honeymoon suite…marriage?”

He blinked. “Oh, oh, no, didn’t…but might,” he offered, his grin back in place.

“Telt Longtree, I’m confused here,” Polly said, folding her plump arms on her highly polished counter with her breasts cradled within the folds of her arms. “You planning on having a honeymoon with yourself? If so, you don’t need my best room, which is available, by the way. What you need is a cold bath, or get thee to a nunnery.”

He really didn’t understand why he needed a nun, but he did realize he better come right out with it before he pissed her off. Polly didn’t have all that red hair for nothing.

He shifted from one foot to the other while twirling his hat on one finger, then took a deep breath, looked around, and leaned in over the counter to gaze into Polly’s pretty, hazel eyes. “I’ve got a special lady. We…we…well, I was hoping you’d let us have that big room with the bathtub. You see, we just come over the pass, during that storm yesterday, with two wagons, six mules, and two dogs. We sure would like a big bed…you understand?”

Polly pulled back, her eyes fairly glistening with devilment. “What, no monkeys or elephants, just one man, one woman, two dogs and six mules and two wagons? You can’t get all that in one room, Telt. The woman and the dogs, maybe, but no mules, you hear? I don’t allow mules, not the four-legged kind anyway.” She narrowed her gaze. “You runnin’ a circus?”

Her laughter boomed up to the rafters. The doors were open to her veranda. Telt noticed an elderly couple sitting in the wicker chairs out there, their heads turned, looking inside, ears straining to hear his story.

Trying to hush her, he lowered his voice, “Okay, okay, but you’re going to let us have that room. Right?” he pleaded.

He had to wait for his answer. Polly was a smoker. When she laughed too hard, it set her off into a coughing fit. She hacked, blew her nose, and wiped her eyes with a red lace handkerchief she’d produced from her cleavage. She waved it in his face while she caught her breath.

He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his nose. Damn, that hanky reeked of eau de cologne. Made his eyes water.

Polly stuffed her hanky back down between her breasts with one finger. He couldn’t help it, the gesture fascinated him, her bosom fascinated him. Polly had a mighty fine, plump bosom.

“Five dollars for the room,” she said, suddenly completely sober. “Two dollars…each for the bath. Two people, three dollars each for supper and breakfast. If you keep them dogs in the room that’s a dollar a dog, two dollars to stable your horse.”

He pinched her cheek. “Won’t need to stable the horses or the mules, they’ve got a coral down at the bottom of the hill. I don’t know how you do it, but you always know how much cash I’ve got in my pocket. I’ll take it,” he said and slapped the double eagle down on the counter.

Polly picked it up, put it between her teeth and clamped down hard. “I don’t know what you got to complain about,” she said as she gave the heavy coin a flip, “you got three dollars change comin’. I bet there’s another dollar stuffed down in those trousers that hasn’t seen the light of day for a month of Sundays. You always hold out. I know you, Telt Longtree. I can’t wait to see this gal that’s got you all tangled up, spending your money. Can’t imagine what kind of woman it would take to get you to let go of your runnin’ money,” she said with a wink as she dropped the gold piece down between her bosoms.

“Well shoot, I got to get; she’s waiting for me down by the river at her warehouse. We’ll be back directly. Supper is at six, right?”

“On the dot: pork roast, sweet potatoes, applesauce, green beans, dinner rolls, and peach pie with ice cream.”

Telt stood there, his hat over his heart, and his mouth watering. “I love you, darlin’, but I know you’re too much woman for me,” he said, and swept her a bow, then put on his hat and sprinted out her door.

“You got that right, Sheriff,” Polly called after him. “No dogs on my beds!” she yelled.

* * * *

They’d made good time today getting to Pendleton. It wasn’t even five o’clock. The wagons were loaded, the mules in the corral chewing away on some alfalfa hay. The day was bright and sunny, a big contrast to yesterday. Wren sat watching some hens peck around inside the corral, wondering if she could buy one for their supper. She sure was tired of corn bread and beans.

When she’d passed this way on her way to Laura Creek, she made camp down by the river behind the warehouse. Now she looked forward to making camp. While she waited for Telt to return, she took inventory of what she would need to keep with her: her satchel, her carbine, her revolver in her duster pocket, and her peashooter—as Telt called it—in her other pocket. She’d laid the tarp on the ground beside the warehouse. And gone ahead and fed Mac and Queenie. They were lying in the shade of the warehouse, napping.

Glancing to the hill across the road, she admired the big, two-story house painted a lovely, light shade of blue and sighed a wistful sigh, missing her home in Oregon City. The veranda, and the trim around the windows and doors, was a crisp white. She imagined big beds, crisp sheets and hot water. There were two big maple trees on either side of the drive, and she thought she could see flowerbeds below the wrap-around veranda. She took note of a rider coming down from the house, only mildly curious as to his business.

He looked like Telt. Coming to her feet, she shaded her eyes against the setting sun. It was. It was Telt. Both dogs came to attention. They didn’t bark or set up an alarm. A knot of apprehension settled in her stomach. What business did he have up there at a house like that?

She watched him gallop down the hill, headed in her direction. He’d shed his black duster. He had the sleeves of his brown chambray shirt rolled up to his elbows. He liked to wear his hat low over his brow to shade his eyes.

She muttered, “He certainly is a good-looking man. I wonder why trail dirt doesn’t look half-bad on a man? It doesn’t do a thing for me.” The injustice made her want to stomp her foot.

“Hey,” he called out as he rode up to her. “You got everything loaded up?”

“Yes, everything, we’re all ready to go in the morning. I can hardly believe it. I thought it would take a day to get loaded, but with the extra hands, it took no time at all. I thought we would camp by the river tonight. I thought we could ask the warehouseman if we could kill one of these chickens for our supper.”

“Hand up your gear,” he ordered with a grin on his lips.

She complied, although puzzled. It didn’t matter if he wanted to carry her things down to the river; it was all right with her.

“Now climb up there on the fence rail,” he instructed.

“I don’t need to ride. I can walk down to the river.”

“We aren’t going to camp down at the river, not tonight. Now climb up on that fence, and I’ll swing you up in front of me on the saddle. You’ll have to ride sideways. It won’t be too comfortable, but it’s only a short way up the hill. I wouldn’t want you to slip off Roonie’s shiny backside.”

“Up the hill? Telt, where are we going?” she asked, even as she hopped up on the second rail of the fence and prepared to board Roonie.

“Just hang tight,” he said as he hooked her by the elbow to swing her up to sit sideways on the saddle in front of him, one of her legs going over the saddle horn, her other leg draped over his thigh.

* * * *

The scalloped-edged, blue and white sign on the lawn read “Polly Moran’s Boarding House.”

“Telt. No,” Wren hissed in protest, squirming around to look into his face, meeting that grin, the one that said, we’re doin’ it anyway. “I can’t go in there looking like this. I don’t want anyone to see me. No. I’m not going in,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest and setting her jaw.

Telt urged Roonie up to the hitching post at the side of the house. The dogs, trotting alongside, had followed them up the hill, tongues hanging out, appearing happy and looking forward to more adventure. Wren hated them for their carefree attitude, and she hated Telt Longtree for being obtuse and inconsiderate. “We would be perfectly comfortable camping. We could have a nice camp down by the river.”

He had started to dismount. “I’m not sleeping by the river with the rattlers, rats and skunks,” he told her. “We’ve got a big room upstairs there, with crisp, clean sheets on a big featherbed, and a big, big tub. Big enough for two,” he said, his hand resting on her thigh and a naughty gleam in his eye.

She brushed his hand off; the heat from it threatened her resolve. She would not go into that boarding house. She would not. He stood there, waiting. She could see by the look in his eyes that he awaited her surrender, not about to give in. Situated the way she was in the saddle, with restricted blood-flow, her toes had started to fall asleep. She wanted to move, to get down, but didn’t dare.

After what seemed like a very long time, but probably not more than a couple of minutes, she allowed him to lower her stiff little body to the ground.

“I’ll go in,” she snarled up to his grinning face, “but—I want to go in the back door. I do not want to be seen, Telt. Did you tell anyone you had a woman with you?” she asked, tears coming to her eyes. Which Wren found almost as exasperating as the predicament in which she now found herself.

“Look…,” he said, taking Roonie’s reins and tying them off at the hitching post. Wren slipped out of sight behind Roonie.

* * * *

Telt found her by moving Roonie’s head to the side—he couldn’t believe it. “You’re really scared to go in there. You are the same woman who set out to cross the Blues all alone in one of the worst storms we’ve had in the last twenty years? You are the same women who traveled from Oregon City all by herself, driving six mules, with nothing but a dog for company. And now you’re gonna stand there and tell me you’re afraid to enter a boarding house. No, I can’t quite wrap my mind around it, I can’t.”

“Look at me,” he said, reaching out and pulling her up to his chest. He put a finger under her chin to lift her eyes to meet his steady gaze. “Polly Moran is a good friend of mine. I’ve know her for years. I know she’s gonna take to you right off. You got a lot in common; you’re both businesswomen on your own.”

She looked like a chastised child. He untied her satchel from the back of the saddle and handed it to her. She hugged it to her chest, like a safety blanket. He started to tuck her carbine under his arm, but she held out her hand, her gaze insistent. He considered not giving it to her, but her chin had started to quiver. He shrugged and handed the carbine over to her. The dark look she gave him said she wouldn’t fight with him about going inside, but she would never forgive him.

He hoped she’d change her mind once she made it through those doors and into the lobby of the boarding house, and encountering no one ready to dispute her right to enter just like all the other guests.

* * * *

Polly watched them through the lace curtains of her front parlor. “What-in-the-hell?” she muttered, jumping back as Telt, his retriever, and another dog that resembled a flesh-ripping canine from one of Polly’s worst nightmares, started for her veranda. The mean-looking dog’s eyes, my God, they were blue-white. Polly shivered. What really threw her was his companion. Telt Longtree’s…special lady?

Polly thought of Telt as a big ol’ hunk of male. He could melt a woman’s heart with one of his smiles. She knew him to be fair and kind, not a mean bone in his body. Polly couldn’t tell what he had walking there beside him beneath that long, dirty, cattleman’s duster. Whatever—male, female, boy or girl, they carried a carbine under their arm. Polly thought the sour look on the person’s face said they knew how to use it too, and probably would, at the drop of their dirty sweaty-looking old hat.

Telt escorted his so-called ‘lady friend’ up to her registration desk, looking as proud as could be. Polly tried real hard to see what he saw in this grubby little woman. As soon as the two passed over her threshold, Polly noticed the woman’s fine, dark eyes. That is, after the woman brought her head up and gave Polly a look that told her, if you don’t like what you see, you can go take a flying leap.

Coming to stand before the registration desk, the woman dropped her satchel to the floor and removed her felt hat. Her hair came tumbling loose, falling over her ears. Polly didn’t think the woman knew it, but this worked to soften her features and gave her more of a waif appearance—a look that Polly found more appealing.

Telt removed his hat and began the introductions. “Polly, this is Wren O’Bannon. Wren, this is Polly Moran, the owner of this establishment,” he said, and stood there with his hat to his chest and, Polly thought, his heart on his sleeve.

The women eyed one another for a second, a very long second. Polly wasn’t sure how to react; the urge to bust out laughing she found nearly her undoing. The little woman looked like she wanted to make a break for it. Telt had her by the coat sleeve, his body behind her to keep her right where she was. This struck Polly as amusing too. He glanced her way and Polly read the look in his eyes; he wanted this to work. She couldn’t laugh; she didn’t want to offend a good customer.

“O’Bannon,” Polly repeated, looking to Telt, then taking a hard look at his woman. “O’Bannon, you say?” she asked again, putting the question to Telt. He nodded.

To Miss O’Bannon Polly asked, “You any relation to Gregory O’Bannon?”

The woman batted her big eyes, looked to Telt, then turned to Polly. “He was my father,” she managed to answer, her voice weak, full of uncertainty, but decidedly sweet and feminine with a slight brogue.

“Was?” Polly repeated.

Miss O’Bannon swallowed and managed to make a response, “Yes, Ma’am. He passed on to his reward early June this year.”

Polly put her hand to her heart and felt the tears welling in her eyes. She whispered with remorse and sorrow, “No, oh, I’m sorry to hear that. He was a good man.”

“You knew my father?” Miss O’Bannon asked in disbelief.

Telt jumped in, looking relieved to have the women settled down.

“I’ll get Roonie back down to the coral,” he told them, taking advantage of the situation to make his escape. “I’ll leave you and the dogs with Polly to get settled in,” he told his lady, giving her cheek a tender little stroke with the back of his knuckle before he left her side.

Polly could see Miss O’Bannon wasn’t too keen on being abandoned. She reached out to stop him but found the ugly dog pressed against her thigh. Polly saw the look of resignation in her eyes as her shoulders slumped forward. They both watched Queenie trot out the door to follow Telt.

Polly came around her registration desk to put her arm around Miss O’Bannon’s waist. She started to pick up the satchel, but Miss O’Bannon was there before her.

“You come with me, Wren O’Bannon. It is Wren, isn’t it? That’s a pretty name,” Polly said before the woman could make a reply. “Tell me now, what is Gregory O’Bannon’s daughter doing out here, the backside of nowhere, with a rascal like Telt Longtree?”

Miss O’Bannon took a second to look around her to take her bearings, then, as Polly ushered her up the stairs, she told Polly about the mercantile in Laura Creek and the warehouse in Pendleton. The ugly dog followed politely, which Polly found unnerving.

“I haven’t seen your daddy for a couple of years. Could be more, now that I think on it, might be more like eight or ten. Time does have a way of getting by me these days. Your daddy used to come this way now and then to do some horse trading with the Cayuse.”

Miss O’Bannon nodded; her eyes had gone wide with wonder as Polly opened the door to the honeymoon suite. Polly was proud of this room; she’d decorated it herself, choosing each embellishment very carefully. There were white lace curtains at the tall windows, and white lace on the canopy that hung over the enormous, four-poster bed. On the floor she’d tossed a real bearskin rug. The dog took an instant dislike to it and started to growl. Miss O’Bannon called him to heel. But he proceeded to inspect the thing from one end to the other, then, deciding it was not a threat, lay down on it and let out a big sigh of contentment.

There were paintings of roses in gilded frames hanging on the wallpapered walls of embossed moss-green. White ceiling tiles, embossed with gold, drew the eye to the chandelier, dripping with crystals that hung in the center of the room. There were two bedside tables, and on each table sat a crystal lamp. A large chifforobe made of warm, black oak stood in the corner of the room.

“The bath and water closet are through there,” Polly said, pointing to a door to the side of the chifforobe. “Hot water on tap, indoor plumbing,” she said, and winked, “everything up to date,” her bosom swelling with pride. “You’ll find some bath salts in there.”

Polly opened the little gold pendant she had pinned to her bosom. “It’s almost five-thirty. Supper’s at six. I’ll get out of your way, and I’ll see you shortly.

“Welcome, Wren O’Bannon, welcome. It sure is a treat to meet you. You and Telt Longtree, what a pair,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief, chuckling to herself as she went out the door. Closing the door behind her, she let loose and laughed right out loud all the way back down the stairs.

CHAPTER sixteen

It was a beautiful room. Wren, surrounded by all the luxuries she had longed for, for weeks, thought she’d died and gone to heaven. And yet, she felt miserable. No, she was angry, afraid, and she didn’t understand why she felt that way, it didn’t make any sense at all.

Her confusion made her angrier still. Stripped down to her chemise and petticoat she scrubbed her face, neck, arms, and hands until they were good and pink. She attacked her hair. Brutally, without mercy, she dragged the brush through her tangles until her eyes watered.

The conversation inside her head insisted she had no one to blame but herself; after all, she couldn’t deny that she wanted Telt Longtree, regardless of the consequences to her reputation. And, damn-it-all, she still wanted him—God help her. Right at the outset she’d known how uncomfortable her life would become if she allowed herself to get involved with the sheriff of Laura Creek. Having him all to herself, making love, was divine, as she had known it would be. She had no complaints. But this part, the swallowing of her pride while maintaining her self-esteem, and accepting the fact of her folly, that proved a bitter pill and the true source of her anger. The time had come to hold her head up and accept that what she’d done would forever change how people looked at her. She had to go out and face the public, deal with certain censure and judgment.

What really go her goat—Telt wasn’t ashamed…not one little bit. With that stupid grin on his face, he meant to show her off, a woman to whom he was not married, a woman he’d no intention of marrying. Right now, she would bet he was talking to his horse, telling Roonie how pleased he was with himself for having a woman to bed tonight.

The real crux of the problem, she’d seen it coming and did nothing to stop herself. She knew better than to think she’d have done anything differently if she had it to do all over again. That rankled too. The question now became how to proceed. Wren gave herself about fifteen minutes to decide.

Looking at herself in the mirror above the pedestal sink, she straightened her shoulders and aloud advised, “You better get a spine…a good stiff, impervious one.”

She started to French-braid her hair. She had it styled in a loose chignon at the nape of her neck, combs in place, when Telt returned.

“Polly said supper is at six,” she called out from the bathroom. She heard Telt whistle and assumed the whistle expressed his approval of their accommodations.

The bathroom door opened. She stood over the sink and looked at him through the reflection in the mirror. No, she had no regrets. How could she? The look in his blue eyes told her all she needed to know. He was proud to be here with her. There was no shame in his eyes, no regret, just anticipation.

* * * *

“You’re irresistible.” He moved up behind her, wrapped his arms around her womanly waist and pulled her into his hips. “Hmmm, you smell good,” he said as he pressed a kiss to her shoulder. Her hand cupped his jowl, holding his face, her fingers felt warm on his skin and smelled clean when he closed his eyes and inhaled her scent.

“We don’t have time for this,” she said on a sigh, closing her eyes.

“No,” he groaned. “I reckon we don’t. I’m hungry.”

“Me too,” she said, and whimpered with frustration.

“Okay, then,” he said, and pushed himself away from her. “But damn, just wait ‘till we get back from supper, lady.”

With shining eyes, she turned and faced his threat. Coming up on her toes, she pressed her lips to his while her hands tugged at his shirttails. She laid her palms flat upon his chest, he fingers seeking his erect nipples, playing with them briefly before moving on around to run her fingernails over his bare back. Telt grew helpless and held his breath.

“I think you should eat a hearty meal. You’re going to need nourishment. It’ll increase your stamina,” she whispered, her lips against his shoulder before she withdrew, leaving him standing there on the precipice of unsatisfied desire.

Fighting his way out of his shirt, he quickly doused the flames of his passion with lots and lots of cold water. He quickly washed his face, arms, underarms and neck, then toweled off.

Wren, wearing her russet skirt and cream-colored blouse, sat on the edge of the bed patiently waiting for him, her hands folded in her lap, all innocence. Grinning at her from behind the towel, he’d about convinced himself that food wasn’t all that important. About the time he’d made up his mind to take her down, one of the clean shirts from his saddle bag flew across the room and hit him in the face.

* * * *

Polly couldn’t believe it to be the same woman. The girl on Telt Longtree’s arm was stunning. Wren O’Bannon wasn’t a beauty in the modern-day sense, more artifact than real. Polly suspected the woman didn’t realize what she had was genuine beauty, real and earthy. She had big, dark eyes, dark brows, and full lips. Her face was heart-shaped, cheekbones high and full. Polly sat amazed by the transformation.

However, she cursed the girl; Wren O’Bannon probably didn’t wear a corset, didn’t need one. Her figure was full where it needed to be full, and curved where it needed to be curved. The girl’s curves hadn’t been apparent when covered from shoulder to ankle in that awful duster of hers. Polly sighed, oh, to be young again, firm, round, and ripe.

Telt had his hand on the girl’s waist; everything about him said, look what I’ve got. On the other hand, Miss O’Bannon appeared ready to turn tail and run. She held herself all stiff, a tight little smile upon her lips.

Polly, a long time observer of human nature, thought the crux of the problem lay with Mr. Longtree. The girl didn’t know where she stood with the man—of course he probably hadn’t told her, hadn’t tried to assure her—no, men didn’t do that, didn’t think about that. By the looks of it, Polly would have to say, the girl had nothing to worry about; Telt Longtree was as far gone over a woman as a man could get, which delighted Polly no end.

However, she did think he’d put the girl in a very untenable position. A man could fool around with conventions, but a lady…? Never. The two of them were pushing the edge of acceptable behavior. As for Polly, she didn’t give a damn about any of that nonsense.

“Come on in,” she called out to Telt and Wren as they crossed the front parlor to the dining room. “Come in,” Polly waved her hand, “come meet the other guests.”

* * * *

There were four other people seated at the large, oak dining table. Telt nodded to the elderly couple he’d seen sitting on the veranda earlier, then to a large woman who looked to be in her late fifties. Polly introduced her as a permanent resident of the boarding house, Miss Swanson, Pendleton’s schoolmarm. Giving her a nod, Polly then introduced them to a Mr. Bowman, a harness and plow salesman from Boise. Wren, Telt noticed, smiled at everyone, but he could feel the tension in her body beneath his fingers on her arm. He wanted to remind her to take a breath, but didn’t dare.

Polly announced, “Everyone, this is Miss Wren O’Bannon from Laura Creek. She’s the new owner of the mercantile there. She’s here in Pendleton to pick up more supplies,” Polly said with her arm draped around Wren’s shoulder.

Looking beyond Wren to Telt, Polly said, “This is the sheriff of Laura Creek, Telt Longtree. He’s acting as Miss O’Bannon’s escort across the Blue Mountains.”

Wren sagged with relief. Telt heard her exhale and he wanted to grab Polly and give her a big fat wet kiss.

* * * *

Polly made it sound reasonable, even decent that she would of course need the sheriff for her protection. Wren instantly fell in love with Polly Moran right there on the spot. The woman could do no wrong in her eyes. She would forever be the salt-of-the-earth in Wren’s opinion.

The rest of the guests didn’t matter. Wren didn’t care what anyone thought. Her conscience relieved, she sat down and ate until she couldn’t swallow another bite.

* * * *

Both dogs were asleep on the bearskin rug when Wren and Telt returned to their room after supper. The dogs acknowledged their return by lifting their heads, shifting their bodies around, and promptly going back to sleep.

Telt stayed quiet, giving a comment or two about the good food, but for the most part, he appeared pensive. If he felt as full and replete at she did, then it could be he was too full to make conversation. The meal Polly had served her guests was delicious, beautifully prepared and served.

Telt’s silence, however amplified Wren’s feelings of inadequacy. She worried that Telt’s expectations were too high. She really didn’t know what she was doing. So far, she’d just been going with what she wanted. Telt, she had no doubt, had plenty of experience with women; it made her wonder how she compared. She couldn’t ask and really didn’t want to know.

He left her side to light the lamp by the bed. Without looking at her, he went into the bathroom and started to run the water into the tub.

A bath. Oh, yes, a bath. How wonderful. She hadn’t had a real bath in weeks. Seated at the vanity before a lovely gold-rimmed oval mirror, Wren pulled the combs out of her hair to loosen her braid. She would wash her hair as soon as she had her turn in the tub.

When she looked up, Telt stood behind her. He began to unbutton the waistband of her skirt. She turned around, and looked into his eyes. They were a dark blue. Their gazes held as she rose to her feet and went into his arms. Her skirt dropped to the floor. She helped him unbutton his shirt, then flattened her palms on his bare chest, running her hands over his warm skin. He started to undo the pearl buttons on her blouse. He slipped it off her shoulders and moved the sleeves down her arms.

Without saying a word, he led her into the bathroom and began to help her out of her chemise and petticoat. Naked, Wren climbed into the oversized copper tub, the hot water stinging her ankles. She hissed, then closed her eyes as the water came up over her hips. The water smelled wonderful, like roses and oranges.

Telt removed his trousers and climbed in to sit behind her, his long legs bent up to either side of her hips. His hands cupped the hot water and began to baste her back. She leaned forward to turn off the tap.

“Slide down, I’ll wash your hair,” he whispered reverently. Wren slipped down into the water, her head resting on his abdomen and her hands on his hairy shins.

* * * *

The feel of her hair engulfing his manhood, the sides of his legs, covering him, made Telt hard. His hands moved into her hair as he lathered in the chamomile soap. She moved forward and got on her hands and knees to rinse her hair. He couldn’t resist the temptation. He began to place inappropriate kisses all over her ripe, pink rump. Wren started to giggle, and he kept nipping and planting kisses.

Before he could stop her, she slithered around, sliding up at him with a naughty gleam in her eye. She took the soap away from him and began to give him a thorough cleaning. Her hand slid all over his chest and down into the thatch of hair above his cock. It was while she soaped his testicles that he had to grab her hand, had to stop her or embarrass himself.

She pulled back and waited for him to rinse the soap off. She gave him a wicked little smile of satisfaction, then pulled herself up onto his thighs to straddle his hips. She slowly lowered herself, taking the length of his erection deep inside her. She opened herself like a flower ripe for pollination, her head back and body forward. His hands were on her hips as she slid her womanhood up and down the length of his stiff shaft. Her breasts were right in his face, wet, round, and sweet smelling. His lips latched on to one of her nipples. Her thrusts came quick and grew deeper. She gripped the edge of the tub and arched her back as the world went dark, then burst into a blinding light of sensations and consuming ecstasy. The night had just begun.

Click here to read chapters 17 and 18

G chap 13 and 14

CHAPTER 13

Traveling north and west, the storm followed them, the mules fighting for every inch of ground covered. The sun, low in the western sky, sank behind a barricade of slate gray clouds, as Wren, with Telt driving her wagons, neared Deadman Pass.

Far from being a desolate, lonely spot, Deadman Pass promised miniature meadows of lush grass and shelter beneath the stands of stately Ponderosa pine. Tired and sore from being pitched and bounced over the mountain road, with the wind constantly in her face, it didn’t matter how the place had acquired its name, it looked like heaven to Wren. Her shoulders tense from hanging on to the hard board seat, legs cramping, toes aching from clutching the insides of her boots, it took her a moment or two to find her land-legs when Telt helped her to the ground.

Between the two of them, they made short work of settling the mules in the corral. Telt’s horse remained tethered to the rear of the last wagon while they set up camp, which consisted of a tarp stretched between the two wagons for shelter. The storm, with one last, startling streak of lightning and crash of rolling thunder, made a grand exit, dumping a load of pea-sized hail that covered the ground before moving off to the northeast.

They huddled together beneath the tarp, with the dogs at their feet beneath a one of the wagons, to wait out the downpour. Wrapped in Telt’s arms, her lips close to his ear, she said, “I think you saved my life today.”

Her eyes burned…scratched and raw from the dust. Tears trickled down her cheeks, making a trail through the dirt of the day. Wren squeezed her eyes closed and wiped away the tears with the hem of her blue denim skirt. “I admit I couldn’t have held on much longer. I should’ve turned back. I know that,” she confessed.

* * * *

Telt appreciated her confession. He couldn’t call her a ‘damned fool’, but he had to get her to see reason. Mustering up extreme restraint, he took a stab at it. “It isn’t going to be easy for you, I know. But damn it all, woman.” he growled, just before he gave her a good shake, “You’ve got to come to grips with the fact that you just aren’t built to handle some things.” Sorry to be so rough, he looked down into her dirty face and her wonderful eyes. Her eyes reminded him of the big brown eyes of his retriever. They were full of trust and adoration. The kiss he gave her came as a surprise to him. It must have surprised her too; she mewed and latched on to him tight.

Raising his head, unlocking his lips from hers, he held her away to add, while he could still think straight, a confession of his own to soften his chastisement. “I had the devil of a time keeping that team from running off. I don’t know how you managed to hold’em as long as you did. I thought my arms were gonna get pulled right out of their sockets. Hell, I bet they’re a good two inches longer than they were yesterday. I haven’t worked like that for a good long while. And I was scared—as—hell.”

* * * *

Wren snuggled closer, her head resting on his solid chest, comforted by the sound of his voice, rich and mellow, vibrating in her ear. She wanted to feel his skin on her cheek. Held within his embrace, she felt at home, she’d found a safe haven. She had never experienced this before.

She didn’t know how long it would last. Every man she’d ever come across (her father included) couldn’t be counted on for the long haul. She told herself Telt wouldn’t be any different from all the other men in her life: her father, her uncle Stanley, her cousins. She’d learned long ago to be self-reliant, depend on no one. She warned herself not to get used to this. She knew better than to believe she had what it took to keep a man, especially a man like Telt.

The clouds parted and the last of a watered-down sun slipped out of sight beyond the crest of the Cascade Mountains to the west. “You stay here,” he ordered, setting his hat on his head, preparing to go out to take care of the mules and see to Roonie.

Wren shook her head, “No, I’ll make us a fire and start the coffee.” To her way of thinking, they should stay on an equal footing. “I need to get up and stretch my legs. I’ll do my part. Seems the least I can do. You’ve gone to a great deal of bother today on my account. I’ve got feed for the animals in a storage bin inside the wagon. You’ll find a bucket or two for the feed and some pails for water.”

Marbles of hail covered the ground. When he stomped off, Wren heard him grumble to himself something about obstinate, mulish women. “Should’a known you’d have it all planned out, right down to the last detail. Didn’t plan on a storm though. Didn’t plan on gettin’ yourself near killed in a electrical storm or lost in the dust, or knocked in the head by a God damn tree. Can’t plan for that. Have to get some sense, woman.”

* * * *

As he worked, Telt worried that seducing Miss O’Bannon (Miss Independence, Miss Mule-headed take-on-more-than-you-can-chew) might not be as simple as he’d first thought. The woman thought and worked like a man. In the last two days, he’d stood by and watched her barter and wrangle to get what she wanted. She was damned good at it, too. That frightened him. He would have to get used to that.

He reckoned Wren O’Bannon felt compelled to prove she didn’t need anyone, that she could do whatever came up all by herself. As angry as that made him, to think of her as a little girl, as a young woman, battling her way through life on her own with no one to take her side, opened the door for speculation, for a glimmer of hope. Her ambitious nature might just work in his favor. ‘Cause she wanted him. She hadn’t pulled away when he’d kissed her. No, sir, she wanted more. He could feel it. Oh, yeah.

* * * *

The wind, Wren noticed, had died down to a soft, cool breeze. Maybe they could sleep without worrying about the mules or the wind blowing the tarp off from over their heads. She poured out a splash of warm water from the coffee pot into a shallow pan before she added the coffee grounds, and ducked back under the tarp. With a warm, moist towel, she wiped her face, neck and arms, then changed her damp chambray shirt for a shirt of soft, brown flannel. She had just buttoned the last button on her shirt when Telt, on his hands and knees, crawled in to join her.

“I think the storm’s passed,” he said as he took off his hat and made himself comfortable beside her, stretching out his legs. “Looks like the dogs are done for the day,” he commented, looking down past his feet at the two sleeping dogs lying side by side beneath the wagon on Mac’s rug.

“I gave them some of our corn bread and bacon and a little water before they retired,” she said, of a sudden nervous.

Telt Longtree filled up the space. No, he overpowered it. He brought with him the smell of the earth, the rain, the pines, and the heat of his strong, male body. Wren shivered with the realization that they were alone out here, she was alone with this…this big, grinning bear of a man and she had to sleep here, under this tarp beside the man. The prospect created an interesting and titillating dilemma; this brought on a nervous giggle, which she stifled by clamping her lips tightly shut.

He started to remove his duster, his elbows getting in her face. They rolled it up to use as a pillow at their heads. She’d laid out her duster beneath the tarp they were lying on as a barrier against the wet ground. They would use her bedroll and quilt to keep warm. With their heads very close together as they settled in, Telt leaned in to put his lips to hers. This kiss felt experimental, tentative and butterfly tender.

She sighed as they parted and relaxed, eager to give in to her womanly instincts, but unsure as to how to go about it. He’d settled back on his haunches, his blue eyes searching her face expectantly. Without thinking, she dipped the towel into the warm water and boldly began to wipe the dirt from his face and neck. Daring him to stop her, she moved her hand down to his chest, her gaze never leaving his.

He grasped her wrist. She halfheartedly tried to pull away, but he tugged her closer and brought her lips to his. With one hand, he removed the combs from her hair. He ran his fingers through it as it cascaded down her back. His arms folded around her as she gave herself to his kisses.

Her body throbbed, all thoughts of consequences lost as the kiss deepened. Wren felt his hand, surprisingly warm, move up under her shirt. Her skin broke out with gooseflesh as his rough fingers played with her nipple and cupped her breast. She arched her back as his head went down and his lips and tongue began to lick and tease. To accommodate him, she unbuttoned her shirt and pulled back the fabric.

Her fingers went to his hair. She sang a pagan whimper of desire as one hot hand snaked up her cool thigh and his fingers slithered into the folds of her womanhood. She jerked, startled by the resonating response of her body to move against his fingers. Instinct told her she must go with the swirling eddy of lust to find what she so desperately needed. Yet she feared the unknown, the untried, and held herself back, fearing the consequences of going over the edge.

* * * *

Telt took himself off to Pendleton three, four times a year to slake his needs. But dance-hall girls were more for fun than passion.

Holding Wren, kissing Wren, touching, exploring Wren… this was heady stuff. He’d never had a woman respond quite so greedily to his touch. He flicked his tongue over her nipple. She bucked against his hand. The heat of her melting core made his fingers slick as he worked the bud of her passion. Her arousal fascinated him to the point that he ignored his own need for release.

With her eyes closed and head thrown back, she had started shaking her head, unwilling to let go. She’d never done this before, he could understand that. This woman needed control. She wanted control of everything she did, everything she tried. But she’d gone too far; he didn’t think she could control this, not her body’s response to his touch, not her desire to achieve the ultimate pleasure.

His fingers moved in and out and around her mound, and his lips pulled on her nipple. He felt the muscles inside her woman’s canal spasm, caressing him, rippling around his fingers. He looked to her face as she broke over to the other side, into that weightless realm where pain becomes pleasure and the aching throb becomes bliss. She writhed against his arm.

He felt the sting of tears at the back of his throat, knowing he’d brought her safely and satisfyingly to her first ultimate release. Aware of the privilege and the responsibility to be Wren O’Bannon’s first lover, he vowed he would be the only lover she would ever need.

Wren moved her hands to his chest and began to unbutton his shirt. Her eyes told him…she needed more. Sliding her hand down his chest, to his stomach then beyond, she found his proud erection straining to get free of its confines. It was his turn to buck.

She couldn’t know what she was doing to him…or could she? She rolled him onto his back, loosened his belt, unbuttoned his trousers and brought her face down to his chest to plant small, warm kisses upon his abdomen. Her fingers stroked his manhood. He groaned and told himself he’d better put a stop to this or else…he didn’t get a chance to finish the thought as she ran her tongue up the length of his erection.

That did it; taking back control, he rolled on top of her, his hands on her shoulders, pushing her down. His knee forced her legs apart to give him entry. Her eyes opened wide with fear, then her lips spread into a sassy smile, and he groaned with real trepidation.

With one hand, he pushed his trousers down below his knees, then pulled up her skirt to her waist. “Are you sure, Wren? I won’t like it, but I can stop here and now,” whispering even though there was no one to overhear.

Taking shallow breaths, her body still and stiff beneath him, their gazes locked. First her hands splayed across his chest, then slid around to his ribcage and down to grip his bare hips. Without flinching or looking away, saying not a word, she pulled his body down, her eyes giving him permission to meld his body with hers.

* * * *

Wren closed her eyes and filled her lungs with the scent of him. She would never be satisfied with herself if she didn’t follow through with what she’d started. She had to know. If only for tonight, she had to have all he had to give her. She’d known her mortality to be a fragile thing today. Now, tonight, she wanted to feel alive.

Her eyes opened as he pushed into her slowly, his gaze never leaving her face. When he slid past her barrier, she flinched and her eyes fluttered closed. He waited. She took a deep breath, opened her eyes, and moved her hips against him, her hands, hot and perspiring, kneaded his backside. He moved deeper into her core.

* * * *

Telt wondered how he’d gotten to be almost thirty years old and never experienced this before. Why Wren O’Bannon? What made this coupling mean so much more than simple self-gratification? He could feel her pulse, her every shudder and quiver beneath him. An unseen force sent a spectrum of delightful sensations through his body, which had them fused together, working toward one single goal. They hit their rhythm, coming into it naturally, fitting together perfectly; at last, two bodies made whole.

This time he knew she would not fight against her need. She held on, her fingers digging deep into the muscles of his butt, anticipating the ride, ready to go wherever he took her, reaching for it, expecting that it would be a ride like no other.

Telt fought back his urge to howl like a wolf when the explosion came. They writhed as one, each cresting and rolling with the beauty of complete and utter pleasure. When the waves of desire began to ebb, they lay together in awe of their accomplishment. Then they began to laugh and cry, both realizing they’d just made history together.

Telt was the first to move. He struggled to pull up his trousers and not crush her. He sniffed back a tear or two as he rolled back onto his side to help her rearrange her skirt. She was so beautiful. All rumpled. Her cheeks rosy and eyes bright, he had to kiss her, hold her.

Breathless, she put up a hand to stop him. He nodded, understanding she wanted privacy to repair. “Maybe I should go out and get us some coffee,” he said, taking the hint.

* * * *

After he left, Wren took the damp towel and attempted to tidy herself, but found it no use. She rolled her eyes at the sight of her own blood on the cloth. Now at the point of no return, she bit the side of her cheek, and reminded herself that she’d wanted it, she’d provoked it. She told herself she was glad she no longer had to protect her virginity…glad she’d allowed Telt Longtree to help her take that last step into womanhood.

Her stomach growled, grinding on empty. With her hand on her stomach, she lay back and closed her eyes, a cat-like smile on her lips. She stretched, reaching for the quilt, pulling it up under her chin, just for a second, she told herself. She would rest just for a second.

* * * *

On his knees, Telt crawled back in under the tarp without spilling the cups of coffee he had in each hand. He rocked back on his haunches when he saw Wren had dropped off to sleep. “Well, damn.”

Making himself comfortable he planted himself next to her and downed one cup of coffee, then reached for the corn bread and bacon she’d placed up on the edge of the wagon bed. While he ate, he sipped at his coffee and noted that it was good coffee. Sure as hell better than the stuff he brewed up.

Watching her sleep, her lips pursed, ready, inviting his kiss, he began to plan tomorrow night. They needed a bed, a bed with clean sheets. A bathtub would be good, yeah, a big bathtub with room for two.

His hand dived into his pants pocket. He pulled out six bits. That might get them a couple of beers and a beefsteak. Damn. He had a double eagle. Yeah, but he’d left it in the coffee can back at the cabin. He’d been in a hurry when he’d left this morning, hadn’t given a thought about money. Hadn’t given a thought to much of anything except catching up with Wren. This morning, this morning he never would have dreamed, not in a million years, that Wren O’Bannon would give herself, no, offer herself whole-heartedly and with enthusiasm. No, he wouldn’t have believed it then and he couldn’t quite believe it now.

This morning….that seemed like a lifetime ago…this morning. Up until now, he’d been breathing in and out, living in limbo, waiting for something indefinable to happen that would change everything. The waiting was over. Now his blood was pumping, and he looked forward to tomorrow and all the tomorrows to come.

“Holly hell,” he hissed when his memory struck pay-dirt. “I think I have a twenty dollar gold piece. I think I squirreled that away, sewed it into the strap of my saddlebag last New Year’s Eve. Howard gave me a bottle of Kentucky Bourbon. I got mad at Howard, I don’t recall why, that was some mighty fine bourbon. At the time, I had plans to get the hell out of Laura Creek. Well, forget about runnin’. I have a double-eagle saved back for a very special circumstance. And this is definitely a special circumstance.”

He fished for the saddlebag under his head beneath his duster. Being careful not to disturb Wren, he pulled the bag around just enough to get a hold of the strap. He felt of the thick, worn leather and saw that his crude horsehair stitches had held. His fingers found the outline of the heavy coin through the soft leather. Grinning, he extracted the coin, gave it a flip, then tucked it in his trouser pocket. After sliding the saddlebag back under his duster, he hoisted his cup to give up a toast to Miss Wren O’Bannon and the promise of tomorrow night, another night spent in sublime exploration.

He polished off a couple more slices of her corn bread and a couple strips of bacon, saving back some for her breakfast. He blew out the lantern and lay down beside her, his arm going out to pull her closer to his side. She mewed and snuggled in as he wrapped them in the quilt.

Before he closed his eyes, he wondered if she’d given any thought to the consequences of their union, probably not. It was clear to him Wren O’Bannon had never been with a man. Although, she’d a very healthy need to learn how they could give each other pleasure. He had to be grateful for that. The result of lovemaking, without precautions, was the issue of children. He doubted she’d thought of that.

He hadn’t either, he had to confess…at least not until this second. The deed was done—too late now to worry about it. And, he intended to repeat the deed as often as she would allow.

In the dark, he smiled to himself, picturing in his mind’s eye the child they might produce. Perhaps a stubborn, bright-eyed son for him to take fishing, or maybe a sweet, chubby-faced little girl with soft brown ringlets who would wrap his heart around her little finger. He went to sleep with a smile on his face.

CHAPTER 14

Howard stood watching from the back steps of the bank while Meirs and Claussen sawed boards and took them inside the storeroom addition to the mercantile. Yesterday and today, they were busier than bees over there. He needed to put a stop to it. He had to stop them, Percy and Punk, the Tatom boys, all of them.

Miss O’Bannon’s note, left in the message box at the telegraph office, had done much to allay everyone’s doubts. All except Howard’s, that is. To his way of thinking, she’d run as soon as she realized she couldn’t deliver on her promise to open as agreed to in the contract. He’d felt duty-bound to make sure everyone knew the real reason she’d left. She’d come to her senses, he’d declared, realized a woman wasn’t up to the task of setting up a mercantile. The town needed a man to run their mercantile. A man could build, expand as he grew his business; a woman, a woman had to have help. And Howard wanted to make damn sure she didn’t get any—he didn’t say that out loud, of course. But to Howard if the new owner, in this case a woman, couldn’t get the job done on her own, then they had no business taking on the job.

As for the sheriff taking out after her, well, he approved. It wouldn’t be right to let a female go off, maybe get herself killed, and not try to make the attempt to take her to safety. Pendleton would be a good place for Miss O’Bannon. Maybe send her packing back to Oregon City, or wherever the hell she’d come from.

Howard thought the sheriff a good man, most folks in and around Laura Creek would agree with him. That storm had raised all kinds of hell yesterday, with shingles torn away, tree limbs down. No real damage, no forest fires, but a good windstorm all the same. No telling what kind of trouble a traveler could run up against in weather like that. When Howard found out Punk Baker was taking bets on the odds of the sheriff returning with the mules, wagons and goods, Howard did all he could to expound on the doubts the smithy raised.

Percy, his own brother-in-law, was a problem, acting as deputy in Telt’s absence. Howard didn’t like the way folks listened to him when he assured them Miss O’Bannon would return, probably tomorrow. Percy insisted she’d return with a couple wagonloads of merchandise, merchandise she’d promised to deliver in her note.

* * * *

Between Howard and Punk, folks were beginning to have doubts the mercantile would ever open. Percy wasn’t sure what else he could do. He took his oath as deputy seriously; in Telt’s absence, he represented law and order. The mantle of authority wasn’t a comfortable fit, but Percy wouldn’t shirk his duty. There was nothing to do but wait, wait for Telt to bring Miss O’Bannon back safely with the goods. He had to believe he was right. Meanwhile he intended to keep working on the mercantile. One thing for sure, Howard had a lot to answer for. And so far pretty much everyone that he’d spoken to, agreed with him. The store was nowhere near ready to open. Percy had to wonder what would have happened if a man had bought the place. He thought probably Howard would’ve gotten his nose rearranged.

Punk was good help, although too pessimistic for Percy. Between the two of them, they’d installed a lot of shelves this afternoon. Percy just wished Punk would stop with his doom and gloom. Refusing for the third time, “I’m not going to bet, Punk. A mule is a different animal, they aren’t like a horse. A horse will shy and go all wild-eyed in a storm, where a mule will just stop and put down his head with his tail between his legs. I’m pretty sure Telt and Miss O’Bannon will return safe and sound before Saturday. I think by Saturday, if we keep going, this mercantile will be ready for stock on the shelves.”

Jack and Archie Tatom gave out a second to Percy’s prediction from the back of the store. Mr. Claussen and Mr. Meirs abstained, unwilling or too busy to be bothered to voice an opinion one way or another.

With all six of them inside working today, two men sawing and fitting, and four men hammering, all on different parts of a job, it was easy to get in each other’s way. With all the racket, no one noticed when Howard enter the store.

“You men!” Howard shouted above the din of hammers and saws. Percy raised his eyes heavenward to offer a prayer. By the stern set of Howard’s jaw, Percy didn’t think Howard had come in to cheer them on. “Stop your work, all of you.” Howard ordered, his feet spread apart and hands on his hips.

Punk, in his usual blacksmith attire, a sleeveless shirt and leather pants, kept right on nailing in a cleat that would secure a shelf. Percy, up on a ladder with the level, jerked Punk’s pant leg and Punk stopped pounding. Howard walked by them to make his way to the back of the store.

Mr. Meirs and Mr. Claussen, who were the professional carpenters, were measuring planks for the floor. Mr. Claussen did the sawing and Mr. Meirs did the trimming and fitting. Both men were getting on in years, a little bent over from doing the labor they loved, building anything and everything: outhouses, homes, barns, and yes, a mercantile. The Tatom boys, both dressed in faded flannel shirts and dungarees, continued to nail in the last of the floor planks. The pounding of their hammers drowned out Howard’s big voice.

Percy came down off the ladder to follow Howard through the new storeroom entrance. Standing back, he waited as Howard scanned the scene. With a scowl on his face, Howard cleared his throat and shouted, “I order you to stop this, right now.”

Percy saw Mr. Claussen look up from the long board he had laid out across his sawhorse. Mr. Meirs, who had been fitting the trim around the back door, replaced the pencil behind his ear and got to his feet.

“I’m going to call in your loans if you do not desist in this, this…construction immediately.” The pounding continued and Howard strode cross the room and tapped Jack Tatom on the shoulder. “Stop that infernal racket.” Archie, the younger of the two boys, quit pounding when his brother elbowed him in the ribs.

Percy found himself shoved aside as Punk, with blood in his eyes, his hammer raised, aimed for Howard’s hard head.

“You son-of-a-bitch!” Punk roared.

Percy leapt forward, scrambling to grab the hammer out of Punk’s hand before he put a hole in the back of his brother-in-law’s skull.

Percy, one hand clasped around Punk’s raised wrist and one hand on his shoulder, stepped in front of him, and stared the man down. No one moved. Percy, tall and skinny, stood between the giant, Punk Baker, and his brother-in-law’s imminent demise.

Howard spun around. Percy couldn’t see his face, but he hoped Howard had sense enough to know he shouldn’t push it, he better back off. Percy felt the muscle in Punk’s shoulder relax a little and he let go of Punk’s wrist and removed the hammer from his hand.

Percy turned then to try to reason with Howard. “You can’t foreclose. Howard. You have to give notice…have a reason to foreclose…you can’t just decide to do it on a whim.”

Percy still hoped for a reasonable solution out of this. Surely, Howard wouldn’t foreclose simply because they were making a few shelves. That didn’t make sense. Percy felt certain Howard wanted this mercantile as much as, maybe more than, anyone in the whole damn town.

“I’ve already spoken to Jim Brandtmeyer,” Howard announced, grinding out the words between clenched teeth and pushing Percy out of his way. He stood there like a stone column, his eyes hard and glinting with determination, meeting the incredulous gaze of each man in the room. “There will be no-more-lumber. Mr. Brandtmeyer saw sense when I explained it to him. I expect you men to see reason as well.”

Howard looked smug and confident, perspiration visible on his brow, and Percy had a terrible urge to kick him in the butt when he turned his attention to the Tatom boys. “You boys,” Howard said, to address Jack and Archie Tatom, “you are two days in arrears on your monthly payment of twenty five dollars. You have a balance due of two-hundred ninety-two dollars and twenty-five cents,” the figure flowing out of his mouth as easy as spit. “If you stop this…this unnecessary construction, go home right now, you’ll have until Monday to make your usual monthly payment with no penalty. If you don’t, I’ll call in your loan…in full. I will take your cattle, and seize the proceeds from your hay and grain crop.”

Percy could only stand by and watch as the blood drained from Jack and Archie’s faces. They looked like two dried up cornstalks, arms dangling at their sides and shoulders slumped, in shock.

Punk snatched the hammer out of Percy’s hand. He stepped around Percy with one shove of his big hand. “Let me hit him, the weasel, the lily-livered, God-damn parsimonious fart.”

Punk had Howard by his suit lapels, pulling him up almost off his feet before Percy leapt in, as did Jack Tatom, both responding strictly on adrenaline, Percy was certain. Between the two of them, they could barely hold the smithy back from committing murder. Percy hung like a monkey from Punk’s thick-as-a-tree-limb bicep, and made a plea to the smithy for sanity, “No! Punk…just a minute…wait.” Percy didn’t let go until Punk lowered his weapon of choice. With feet on the floor, he addressed Jack and Archie Tatom, having to look around Punk’s boulder-sized body. “Jack, you signed a loan contract?”

The boys weren’t allowed to reply. Howard, free of Punk’s vise-like grip, once again able to breathe, straightened his clothes and said with all arrogance, completely oblivious to the fact that his violent death remained a very real possibility, “We’re like family here in Laura Creek. We make all of our agreements in good faith with a handshake at the Laura Creek People’s Bank. You should know that, Percy.”

“Yah, he’s right,” echoed Mr. Claussen, shaking his head, his thick thumbs looped into his coverall straps. “To dah bank I apply for dah loan to pay Robbie’s first year at university. Dah quarry vas doing vell, but not so vell I could pay for education. Dah banker he vas all smiles den, when he takes my house as collateral. A handshake sealed dah agreement.”

“Fools, all of us,” grumbled Mr. Meirs, his dark eyes downcast. Percy knew Mr. Meirs to be a freedman who’d moved his family west at the end of the Civil War. He’d told Percy that Mr. Claussen offered him a partnership in the quarry after he’d helped Mr. Claussen lay a foundation for his barn. By trade, Otto Meirs was a stonemason. Percy, at that moment, felt deeply ashamed he had to claim Howard as a relative, even though it was by marriage.

Otto spoke, his voice quiet, head down out of habit, “I put up fifty acres of forested land as collateral for the loan to rebuild my home after the fire.” He brought his dark head up and looked around the room to say, “Mr. Buttrum, you was reluctant to make the deal. You knew my farm wasn’t worth much without the farmland to go with it. But you finally shook hands on the deal. You were the one who said we didn’t need no paper.”

Punk took a step and got in the banker’s face. Percy grabbed his arm to hold him back. Howard pulled in his chin and Punk leaned in, his bronzed, sweating face less than an inch from Howard’s nose. “Someday, you’re gonna get yours, Howard T. Buttrum.” Punk snarled.

Percy saw Howard blink. He wrinkled his nose. Percy realized Punk’s breath was sour with the smell of tobacco juice, he’d noticed it himself. Punk had a tendency to spit with every word.

“You’ve pulled some mighty fancy deals around here.” Punk snarled. “No one’s complained…yet. But you’ve never been blind mean before now. I don’t know what you got against Miss O’Bannon. I don’t need to know. But you get this,” Punk’s brown spittle flew in Howard’s eye as he poked Howard in the chest with one of his pile-driving fingers and told him what was what. “I don’t owe nothin’ to nobody. You don’t own any part of me. As of right now, get your God damned nags out of my stable. And…I want twenty dollars, cash, for feed and curry. I’ll just hold your fancy buggy as co-llat-er-al!”

Howard rocked back on his heels. Percy saw a line of perspiration trickle down the sides of his jowl and into his high, starched collar. Percy suspected Howard pulled a hand down over his face as much to wipe away the sweat as to wipe away the spit.

The room had gone pregnant with silence as Punk turned his back and went back to work.

Percy couldn’t believe it. This couldn’t be happening. He stood there a minute trying to figure out what to do.

“I guess I quit,” he said, his eyes wide open, unblinking and looking Howard in the eye. “I’ll not send or receive anymore telegraphs in or out of town. You own the telegraph office building, but you don’t own my home, me, or my son, Howard. I won’t be holding any more sermons in your church, either. And I won’t be delivering any more mail,” he said, then walked away to help Punk.

Mr. Meirs and Mr. Claussen picked up their tools. “You’re a bitter man, I tink, Howard Buttrum. I go home,” Mr. Claussen told him, “but I don’t got to like it. No, sir, I don’t.”

Percy stopped to watch as the Tatom boys followed the carpenters out the back door. He knew the boys had counted on this work to buy their grandmother her new mattress. This wasn’t right, it wasn’t right at all.

Howard left in a huff, not saying a word to Punk or Percy. Percy saw him standing out there on the street for a few moments, his hands on his hips. A man alone.

* * * *

Howard didn’t know what to do with himself now. He couldn’t go to the bank; no one there would talk to him. And he couldn’t go home for the same reason. He wandered next door to the sheriff’s office and sat down behind the desk.

Ungrateful, that’s what they are. That ‘O’Bannon woman’s to blame for all of this. If I could get out of this deal with her, I could find another buyer—a man, someone reliable. These people have to open their eyes, understand that a woman can never run a business. Why, women change their minds like they change their hair ribbons. They marry, get pregnant; a woman’s place is in the home with her children, seeing to the needs of her husband. To prove my point, that O’Bannon woman’s already taken off. In town for two whole days and now she’s gone. Women are fickle, unpredictable, unreliable creatures at best.

Howard wouldn’t hire a women to work in his bank. He had two employees, a teller and a manager, both men with families. He dismissed entirely the fact his employees, men, were not speaking to him. His manager and his teller had explained to him their wives would make them quit if for any reason the opening of the mercantile was delayed because of bank interference.

Howard assured his employees he wanted the mercantile. He wanted it open and running as soon as possible. He just wanted the owner of the mercantile to be right for the town. Miss O’Bannon was not the right owner.

He had to put a stop to the construction in order to put her in default of their agreement. He’d hoped she would be discouraged and pull out of the deal. She would’ve taken a big loss, but women were foolish when it came to business. She never should’ve taken on the property in the first place. He blamed Crookshank for not explaining that to her at the outset. Crookshank should have known better, should’ve known Laura Creek needed a man with a family to run the mercantile.

He didn’t say it out loud to his employees, but Howard didn’t want some short, snoot-faced female running his mercantile. No, by God, he just wouldn’t have it.

It had been two days and still no reply to his telegram to the O’Bannon Brothers in Oregon City. He wondered why. He regretted that Percy had quit before Howard had an opportunity to discover if he’d received a reply. Ah, well, some things couldn’t be helped. He could go over to the telegraph office and take a look, see if there were any messages for him. He had a key to the telegraph office. He had no idea how to receive messages or send them, but that wouldn’t stop him from looking through those messages that had already been translated. As mayor, he had executive privileges under certain circumstances.

As he sat there in the sheriff’s chair, Howard let his fingers play with the unopened envelopes on the sheriff’s desk while he mulled over the events of the day. The addresses on the envelopes didn’t interest him. A good sized package wrapped in butcher paper and string took up a corner of the desk, probably flyers, he decided. Lost in thought, he took out his pocketknife and cut the string that held the package together. Nothing but wanted posters, legal notices and public flyers, just as he’d thought. With little else to do, he began to flip through them.

He flipped over one with a woman’s face on it, he found that interesting. It was upside down. He turned it around, and there was Miss O’Bannon’s face looking right at him. It was her, all right, big eyes, all that hair. “WANTED: WREN O’BANNON, FOR QUESTIONING IN REGARDS TO THE POSSIBLE THEFT AND ILLEGAL PROCUREMENT OF SIX MULES, TWO FREIGHT WAGONS PLUS MERCHANDISE, BELONGING TO O’BANNON BROTHERS ENTERPRISES. A REWARD OF $200 IS OFFERED FOR INFORMATION REGARDING HER LOCATION. Below, in fine print, Howard found the name and address for a Stanley O’Bannon, O’Bannon Brothers Enterprises, Oregon City, Oregon, as contact person.

Howard couldn’t believe his eyes. He reread the notice then jumped to his feet, holding the notice up in front of his face. “I’ll be gone to hell in a royal hand-basket,” he mumbled as a satisfied, triumphant smile entrenched itself on his round and ruddy face.

A plan began to formulate in his mind. When he stepped outside, the sun was setting. He could hear hammering next door at the mercantile. That didn’t matter anymore.

He heard a holler and a commotion coming from the direction of the stable and turned to see two horses, his horses, coming at a hard gallop towards him. Punk whistled, hollered an obscenity and waved his hat encouraging the steeds to mow him down. Howard heard Punk’s maniacal laughter behind him as he took off at a run with his fancy carriage horses breathing down his neck.

* * * *

Her uncle Howard had left before supper on horseback, headed east for La Grande. He wouldn’t tell Lottie or Aunt Eula why, only that he expected to be back late tomorrow afternoon. For all the trouble he was in with his employees, with Percy and Aunt Eula, Uncle Howard had appeared a man pleased with himself.

Aunt Eula wasn’t speaking to him. She’d found out what he’d done, threatening to recall the loans of hard working, God-fearing folks. In general, Howard had made a jackass of himself, Aunt Eula had proclaimed, giving Percy, her own brother, a reason to quit his job. What would the people do without a minister for their church, she’d asked?

“You’re a tyrant.” That’s how Aunt Eula had put it to him. Lottie couldn’t help but overhear, her Aunt Eula had screamed, and Aunt Eula never raised her voice, never. Under normal circumstances her aunt’s remarks would’ve sent Uncle Howard through the roof, but not tonight. He just smiled and patted Aunt Eula on the cheek before he mounted his horse and rode off.

As much as Lottie wanted that store to open, and wanted to see her creations in the window of the mercantile, she also wanted to ruin Miss O’Bannon. She wanted that almost as badly as did her uncle.

The night was warm and pitch-black as Lottie emerged from her uncle’s cellar. Her dark cloak hid the heavy picnic basket she carried as she made her way over to the mercantile. There were stacks of lumber behind the building. Lottie picked her way around them to enter through the newly framed storeroom. The back door to the mercantile creaked open and Lottie took a few steps into the dark room. She stumbled and cracked her shin on a nail-keg. The big window at the front of the store offered a bit of reflective light and she moved toward it. A display stage was in place, built up a foot above the floor, at the front of the store.

Aunt Eula had spoken to her about the possibility of making up some of her dresses, bonnets, and bags for the new mercantile. Her gowns would show nicely here, Lottie thought, and sighed with regret. She set her basket down and began to empty the contents upon the stage for all who passed to see. She found a wooden shipping crate behind her and scooted it next to the twelve bottles of rye whiskey she’d stolen from her uncle’s cellar. She stood for a moment to consider her actions. Her decision made, she left the store the way she’d entered, her basket empty.

click here to go chapters 15 and 16

One Arm Tied Behind My Back

She stumbled out the front door and down the wet steps, tears streaming down her cheeks. His smiling face a blur, Kay took a leap and flew into his waiting embrace. With her eyes squeezed shut, she wept against his neck, inhaling the smell of him, savoring the masculine feel of his hard, strong body, feeling the stubble on the nape of his neck against her cheek.  He smelled of musty fatigues and deodorant. It was a masculine smell, a warm smell, a lovely, comforting smell. He smelled like Spence, her lover, her mate, her heart. He was home. After two long, lonely years, he was home—home to stay. With his face buried in her neck they wept, until she pulled back seeking a kiss.

“God, you smell good, Kay. I probably smell like a duffle bag. Can’t wait to take a real shower, with soap that actually lathers, and get into some civies.”

A giggle escaped her lips before the heat of his kiss dissolved it. It was good to know their minds still traveled along the same wavelength. While in Afghanistan, their letters contained, practically word for word, identical questions. Often, they expressed the same thoughts, even though they were hundreds of miles apart, but after…after the explosion, things changed. Letters grew short…vague. The telephone conversations crisp and dry.

Without thinking, her hands slipped to his shoulders, then upper arms, and with their lips still locked, she clutched the empty sleeve, and her breath caught in her throat, just for a split second.

With his forehead pressed against hers, he murmured, “I’ll have a prosthesis in a couple weeks; be almost good as new, doc says.”

A lump, icy and cold as a well-packed snowball, formed in Kay’s throat. With a nod, she cut through that icy plug to ask the dumb question, “Does it hurt?” Instantly sorry, unable to shut up, she babbled like an idiot, making it worse, “My left arm, right at the shoulder, has this burning sensation. I can’t sleep on my left side anymore.”

God, if he shut her out, as he’d tried to do when he was in the army hospital in Germany, where he’d been flown after the explosion, Kay didn’t know what she would do. She couldn’t live without him. The arm didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. He had survived. He was home, and he was going to stay home.

“Doesn’t hurt much anymore…but yeah, it bothers me. Lightning shoots up my arm, to my neck. The pain makes my ears ring. The arm is gone—I know. It’s weird. But I’m good with it. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. I’ve worked through some stuff.  I’ve got a lot more to do. But we’ll do it together, Kay. Together.”

“Just love me, Spence, don’t ever cut me loose.”

“Hell, Sweetheart, I can do that with one arm tied behind my back.”

MY LAMENT TO THE PIMP OF PROSE

My words, each a pearl, perfect and pure I expose

For examination, only to have the brightest stripped,

Disemboweled by the hard-hearted,

Laser-eye of The Pimp of Prose.

I wonder what am I doing.

Why do I spend my days seeking,

striving to draw the attention of the unseen face,

The Pimp of Prose?

So eager am I to please this peddler of the soul,

I fret and stew to dress and redress my meager offering,

hoping to one day delight the demi-God,

The Pimp of Prose.

Keeping the lure of gold in his mind’s eye,

I know he will choose, not mine, but the prominent name.

My heart shrivels with each rejection.

I weep, my shame exposed.

Over, and over I crawl on bended knee,

 Place my words written with my blood,

Before that elusive, mocking crown.

I serve every syllable, bright and shiny, upon the alter.

I endure the snorts of disdain:

Not good enough.

The wrong shape.

The wrong color.

Don’t need another one of these.

And I wonder what makes me think I could ever please

THE PIMP OF PROSE?

By Dorothy A. Bell