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