CHAPTER Nineteen
After the office door shut behind him, Telt gave it an extra tug just to be sure. He didn’t have a key. He’d never needed one, until now. He had Wren now, and the need to protect her had become his only focus. With no moon, the light from the lantern within cast a soft orange beam into the dusty street. Closing his eyes and his mind to an unexpected, unwanted, useless sense of melancholy, Telt inhaled the scent of dust and pine to clear his head.
Out of the corner of his eye he detected a movement, and instantly knew who it was. Buttrum lurked over there, unsuccessfully trying to hide around the corner of the telegraph office. The man’s white shirt practically glowed in the dark—Queenie boofed, also aware of the watchful eyes on her.
Muttering under his breath, Telt spoke into the shadows, “Yeah, she’s locked up, like you wanted. You can go home now, you bastard.”
Without giving Buttrum a glance, Telt turned toward the stable, and Punk Baker’s shack. If there was any justice, in time, Buttrum would pay for his sins. For tonight, Telt would let him think he’d achieved his goal.
As he walked away from his office, he hoped Wren would appreciate that he’d thoughtfully locked Mac in the cell with her to keep her company.
* * * *
Down a narrow lane, past the stables and beyond the corrals, Punk Baker had a shack he called home. Telt knocked on the crude, rough board door. He smelled something good cooking. Sweaty, unprepossessing, uncouth, rude and ill-tempered Punk may be, but he knew his way around a cook-stove—his sourdough bread made a meal in itself. Hungry, his stomach grumbling, Telt couldn’t let himself think about food, not yet.
Punk opened the door on a curse. With a hostile sneer on his lips he snarled, “Sheriff. What you want?”
Ignoring Punk’s surly demeanor, Telt instructed Queenie to stay, then stepped around the bulky smithy and into the one-room shack. The heat in the room, saturated with savory cooking odors, gave Telt the sensation of walls closing in around him and the ceiling coming down on his head. Punk, everyone in town knew, didn’t seem to mind the heat; he could master anything to do with fire. The air in the room so thick with heat, Telt could hardly breathe. He wanted to turn around and get back outside where there was fresh air, but he stood his ground. Punk wasn’t the only one who could be prickly and uncivil. Not wasting time with civilities Telt asked, “When you drove the wagons down, did you notice a carbine on the seat? Or a brown leather satchel on the floor beneath the seat?”
His leather smithy-apron exchanged for a plain, white muslin sheet wrapped around his thick middle, Punk ignored the question and opened the oven-door. With sweat pooling between his shoulder blades, running from his armpits and brow, the room became the oven. Telt felt himself cooking, and feared if he didn’t escape soon he’d lose all his juice and shrivel up to a lump of black coal.. Using the sheet for a hot-pad, Punk pulled out a good-sized roasting-pan, which contained two golden brown pheasants. Telt stood by as Punk lovingly basted them with a wooden spoon, then ruthlessly shoved the pan back into the oven and closed the oven-door.
Drawing himself up, meeting Telt’s gaze with a disdainful curl of his lips and a cold gleam of defiance shining in his black eyes, Punk asked, “So you asking if I stole this carbine? Or are you thinkin’ I stole a what-you-call-it—satchel? Or maybe you think I took both?” Narrowing his eyes, Punk looked hard into Telt’s eyes to ask, “You come to haul my ass off to jail, Sheriff?” A shit-eatin’ smirk spread across Punk’s lips. “Go ahead and try it. You might be a big man, Sheriff, but you’re soft. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
Telt had no time to waste, nor patience for a pissing contest with Punk; he wanted straight answers, right now. “I’m asking questions, Punk, I’m not here to arrest you. When you brought the wagon down here did you see a carbine on the seat of the freight wagon? Did you or did you not see a brown leather satchel in the compartment beneath the seat?”
Punk spit into a coffee can beside the stove, met Telt’s gaze and said one word, “Nope.”
Telt hesitated, hoping for something more, something that would give him a clue where to start, but Punk apparently had no intention of cooperating. “Right,” he said and turned to leave, fully expecting the door to slap him on the hind-end on his way out.
“You got that nasty, bad ol’ thief all locked up good and tight so the good folks of Laura Creek can get a good night’s sleep?” Punk asked, stopping him in his tracks.
Telt hunched his shoulders, feeling the invisible knife the smithy had just stuck between his shoulder blades.
The word was out.
He took a deep breath and half turned around to reply, “So, I guess you heard all about how I dragged Miss O’Bannon over to the jail, did yah?”
Wringing the dishtowel between his two hands, in the absence of a chicken’s neck, Punk pinned Telt down with a jaundice glare. “Yup, that Shorty is a fine little reporter. I figure everybody in the whole damn county knows all about your bravery, and how you did your duty, Sheriff. I know I sure am impressed,” Punk said with a sneer and a shake of his head, before he spit another stream of black tobacco juice into the coffee can.
Telt turned back for the door. Refusing to take the bait, he tossed his response over his shoulder, “If you see any sign of a satchel, a brown, leather, beat-up old bag, you let me know.”
Just as he was about to shove the door open to leave, Punk called him back. “Why?” Punk asked, wadding up the towel and tossing it aside, his nose up, sniffing the air like a hound dog.
Telt gave him a cool, sideways grin, pleased that curiosity had gotten the better of the big man. “That bag has proof in it that would clear the charges against Miss O’Bannon. It has mysteriously disappeared, sometime between our arrival in town and getting the wagons down here to your stable.”
Punk stood there, his beady black eyes narrowed and his lips twisted up to the side, obviously considering the ramifications of the sheriff’s query. “So…you believe there is proof?” Punk asked, moving the chaw of tobacco in his mouth with his tongue, tucking it down between cheek and gum.
“You damn right there’s proof!” Telt barked, wanting very much to land Punk a punch to the nose.
Slamming the palm of his hand on the door to shove it open, he made himself stop to take a breath of cool night air. Queenie’s brown eyes looked up at him, and he calmed down. “Wren O’Bannon wouldn’t steal a jaw-breaker, let alone six mules and two wagons; anyone with any brains at all would know that.” Turning to look directly into Punk’s still suspicious gaze, he explained his predicament. “But…I got to get proof. Somebody doesn’t want me, or anyone, to have that proof. Now it doesn’t take a genius to guess who that might be.”
Punk’s big face lit up with a big grin, his eyes shooting sparks of delight. “Well, shit! We’ll tar and feather the bastard. But before we do, we’ll get the truth out of the son-of-a-bitch! He’s got it comin’,” Punk offered.
Telt nodded in agreement. “I’d like nothing better. It might come to that. First, let me try something else. Buttrum’s gone too far with his persecution. He’ll pay, you mark my words. He’s going to be very sorry. But keep that tar handy,” Telt advised as he started out the door.
“Wait!” Punk hollered, “I got a lot of supper here. You probably ain’t et yet. Miss O’Bannon neither.”
“Nope,” Telt replied, his hand holding the door open. Queenie rose up on four legs, her tail slapping against his leg, her eyes following Punk as he started to dish up the food.
A few moments later Telt left with a wooden box containing a veritable feast: roast pheasant, red potatoes, green beans, crusty sourdough bread, cinnamon rolls, and a jar of brandied peaches. He took the box up to his cabin.
* * * *
Mac sat beside Wren, huddled with her on the bench. The air, thick with heat, no ventilation, combined with the stress she felt and the lack of food, made her feel dizzy and nauseous.
She needed to think. This thing had her doubting her sanity. She couldn’t remember if she’d put that satchel in the compartment yesterday morning when they’d left Polly’s. Surely, she had. She remembered taking it inside the boarding house, but not leaving with it. She’d been in a heavenly fog when she’d left that boarding house.
At the moment, she knew herself for a fool. How quickly Telt Longtree had turned on her. It made her head spin how suddenly he’d come about-face, telling her she was beautiful…then arresting her… hogwash. Bullshit. Telt Longtree was full of it!
She couldn’t remember touching or seeing that satchel all day yesterday. She hadn’t needed it last night. Well…it didn’t matter anyway, because it was missing now. Tomorrow she would ask—Sheriff Longtree—if he would allow her to send a wire to Judge Crookshank. The judge would verify her story, as would her lawyer.
Tomorrow—but tonight she had to find a way to put aside the hurt and staunch her bleeding heart. The worry over the missing satchel was nothing compared to the wound she now suffered in light of Telt’s defection. She’d given herself completely to that man. She’d held nothing in reserve.
Their time together had been too brief. She’d prepared herself to lose him, eventually, maybe a month from now or a couple of months from now. She’d hoped for a year, and what a silly dream that had been. She knew the affair was doomed to cool. Nothing could stay that hot for any extended length of time. She knew now that with the right man, and with the right encouragement, she could go on forever on high flame. All the men in her life had feet of clay, Telt Longtree in particular.
Look how he’d abandoned her at the first sign of trouble. Oh, damn, and to hell with the him. She didn’t need him. What she needed to do was focus on her objective, her mercantile. She had five days. She put all of her hope in the judge being able, willing and available to back her up. Hugging Mac to her chest, she leaned back against the musty wall and closed her eyes.
The sound of the front door opening sprung her eyes wide open. Mac jumped off the bench and started to bark, not a snarling protective bark, more as a call for help and rescue. Wren could relate, but didn’t hold much hope when Queenie appeared, followed by Telt.
She made herself stay seated as he came into the light. “I’m taking you into custody for the night,” he said, no expression in his voice or on his big face, just a wicked gleam in his eyes.
“That seems a bit redundant,” she managed to quip, straightening her skirt and shifting her weight, as her backside felt decidedly tender after spending four days on a wagon seat and now on this mean, narrow little bench. Refusing to meet his gaze, she thought she heard him chuckle, but when she looked up he wore his inscrutable face, his tough, sheriff face. She itched to slap him.
He unlocked the cell door, then doused the flame in the lantern. Wren, in no mood for intimacies, clenched her fists, prepared to put up a fight if he tried to have his way with her here in this dirty, stifling hole.
He stepped inside the cell and came up close to her, then leaned down to her face, his arms straight, hands braced on his thighs. “Be very quiet. Keep Mac quiet. We’re going to go around to the back of the building and across to the stable. My cabin is up the hill.”
She responded to his orders by facing him, locking her gaze with his to muster every last vestige of bravado she could to make her response, “How nice for you, a cabin. I bet it has a bed and everything. Well, Sheriff, you can go straight to hell! You surely can’t believe I would tumble into bed with you after you arrest me in front of the whole town. I’d rather rot in here than let you lay one finger on me. Get out! Get out of here, leave me alone!” Ashamed of herself, she started to cry. When he pulled back, she regretted she hadn’t thought to kick him in the crotch.
He reached out to touch her, then withdrew his hand. “Look, there’s roast pheasant waiting for us at my cabin, compliments of Chef Punk Baker. You can sit here in this dark hole and feel sorry for yourself if you want to. I’d rather you come with me, though. We need to get our heads together and decide what to do.”
She swallowed down the lump in her throat, grasping at straws and fearing she was about to make a fool of herself again. She turned and tried to see into his mind, but it was too dark to see his eyes clearly. “We?” she repeated in a whisper, her voice drowning in unshed tears.
“We,” Telt answered, his lips close to her cheek. “Come on now. Let’s get you out of here. This place gives me the creeps.”
* * * *
Wren had eaten a meal fit for the gods. Mr. Baker was a genius. He was wasting his time shoeing horses, repairing harness and mucking stalls. She’d enjoyed a long, exquisite bath, and Telt had helped her wash her hair. With the light out, the dogs asleep on their rug, she could almost believe everything would turn out all right, lying in bed wrapped in Telt’s arms.
She found his cabin a pleasant surprise. At first, she strolled from one end of the big room to the other, her fingers touching the logs and the chinking between them. The room had texture and stability like the man who’d built it.
“I have to put you back in jail before dawn, you know that?” he murmured, his lips pressed into her hair.
“What?” she asked, uncertain of his meaning, becoming still and rigid within his embrace.
“You heard me.”
“I heard. I just don’t believe—what—I heard!” Pushing herself free, she swung her legs over the edge of the bed. His hand came out to grab her wrist. She jerked away and got to her feet.
With her throat clutching up with unshed tears, she managed to say in a surprisingly unemotional voice, “I’ll leave now. I see no point in staying any longer. I think you’ve gotten what you wanted. Do you feel it your duty to escort me back to my cell, or should I just go?” Not waiting to hear his reply, she snatched up her petticoat and started to step into it to pull it up to her waist.
“Will you get back in bed? Christ. Wren.”
She couldn’t see his face, but he actually sounded exasperated. Well, good, she thought. She hoped his conscience pinched at him for the rest of his life. She hoped he’d develop an ulcer. She wanted all his lovely, thick, black hair to fall out. She prayed he’d go to seed, become fat, flatulent and toothless. For all she cared, he could go to hell!
She knew when he came to his feet; she could feel the heat from his naked body right behind her. He was there, not touching her, but there. Her body betrayed her, quivering in all the forbidden places, responding to his nearness. She had to get out of here; she had to.
“Buttrum will be expecting you to be in jail, Wren,” he said, his breath falling on her neck.
She snatched up her chemise and slipped it on, not bothering to tie it around her bosom. When she reached out for her blouse, that’s when he stopped her by locking his hand around her wrist. “Will you stop and think a minute?”
“No,” she hissed, slapping his hand away. He didn’t let go of her with the first slap, so she gave him several good whacks. He let go, and she proceeded to put on her blouse. “I see no point in staying here if the mayor expects me to be in jail. I wouldn’t dare disappoint The Mayor, now would I?”
He tried to turn her around to look at him. She stiffened her shoulders and pulled away. “Will you just listen to me for a minute?” he begged.
Turning to meet his gaze, she met his dark, stony aspect. Righteous, with her nose in the air, she declared, “I don’t care to listen to anything you have to say, Telt Longtree, you…you…lout! Oh, I don’t blame you, not really.” She began to button up her blouse, her hands shaking, suddenly all thumbs. “I’m the one with the poor judgment. I knew what I was doing when you made the offer to get me out of jail for the night. I knew what would happen, and yet I came up here anyway, because…because I was afraid to spend the night alone in that terrible jail cell of yours. Right now, I think I actually prefer it to spending the night here with you. Now let me go!”
Without warning, Telt scooped her up and carried her over to the bed where he deposited her, none too gently, on the mattress. Before she could bounce, he was on top of her, pinning her down by the arms.
A tussle ensued as Wren did not intend to give in without a fight. At one point, she even thought it would’ve been fun if she hadn’t been so damned angry and hurt.
* * * *
“Are you done?” Telt asked, once she stopped thrashing beneath him. Breathing hard, her face red and hair wild, tangled about her face, she squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head from side to side. “Well, too bad,” he told her, adjusting his grip on her arms. “I don’t want to hurt you.” Prepared for more battle, aware Wren O’Bannon would never admit defeat quietly, he warned her, “You’re going to hear every word I have to say whether you like it or not. You’ll be safer in jail than anywhere else.” She kicked out. He avoided the blow by shifting his hip just in time. More than a little breathless himself, he went on to say, “I can be with you if you’re at the jail.
“I know Buttrum took that satchel, I know he did. I don’t know what he did with it. I can’t accuse him of anything because no one saw him. He’s after you, Wren. Can you understand?”
She’d gone still beneath him. Her breathing had calmed. He loosened his grip on her arms. He watched her take a deep, shuddering breath, then exhale, and he rolled off her to lay at her side, while keeping one arm across her middle just in case.
She opened her eyes and rolled her head to look into his eyes. “I’m supposed to believe you want to keep me in jail to keep me safe?” she asked on a sniff. “You want to keep me in jail to keep me near you?”
“That’s the idea.” In the dark, he heard her sob. He put his chin on the top of her head and slipped his arm up to her shoulder, not to hold her but to caress her. Pulling back, he looked down into her eyes. “Hell, yeah. Why? What did you think?”
Her eyes closing again, and the tears spilling down the sides of her face, she shook her head back and forth.
“Come on,” Telt coaxed as he began to unbutton her blouse. “Wren, what were you thinking when I said you’d have to go back to jail?” Quiet. She stayed quiet, and she was holding her breath. He gave her a little shake. “You thought I was gonna put you in there during the day, and bring you up here at night. You don’t have to say it. I know what you were thinking.”
He wanted to feel her, hold her breast. He began to tease her right nipple with one finger, moving it in a slow circle around and around. Watching her response, he smiled a satisfied smile when it soon came to attention. He stopped the motion to cup her breast in the palm of his hand. “Well, yeah. You’re right. That’s what I had in mind, all right,” he confessed before his lips found her ear lobe.
She moaned and turned her head away, taking her ear lobe from his lips. “If you don’t want to share my bed, you don’t have to,” he vowed, scooting up close to her. “I don’t want you to if you don’t want to be with me,” he said as pressed his lips to the nape of her neck. “I can handle that. I won’t like it, and I’d be miserable,” he admitted as he planted kisses on her chin and throat, “but I would never force you to be with me, Wren. Never.”
He heard her mew of surrender. She turned towards him, her hands going to his face. Getting up on his elbows, he came down to place a light kiss on her lips and tasted her tears. He drew back to gaze into her wonderful brown eyes. “You don’t have to come to my bed, but I won’t leave you in jail at night. I couldn’t sleep knowing you were down there by yourself. I won’t let you sleep with your wagons either, so don’t even talk to me about it. You can sleep here, but you don’t have to sleep with me. Will you say something? I can’t see your face. I need to know what you’re thinking.”
“Thank you,” he heard her whisper.
“What does that mean?”
“It means, thank you for caring where I sleep. Thank you for…for giving me the option to say no if I want.”
“Do you want to say no?”
“No.” She smiled a tremulous little smile at him. He could breathe. “I want to say yes. Yes, Telt, I want to be here with you. I’d be crazy to say I wanted to be in that jail cell. Nobody in their right mind would want to be in that jail cell. Being here with you is lovely,” she assured him with a deep kiss.
He let her go and she rolled out of bed to undress, then lay back down next to him. Soon her warm lips were on his bare chest, following the line of coarse hair down to his navel and beyond.
“Well, hell,” he muttered, just before he rolled on top of her to follow through with what she’d started.
* * * *
An owl hooted. Wren draped her leg over Telt’s hip and sighed with contentment. “Tell me what you’ve got in that satchel?” he asked her. The room completely dark, she couldn’t see his face or look into his eyes, but she loved to hear him talk with her head on his chest. He had a rich voice, deep and warm, soothing, reassuring. “I think we need to make a detailed list of what’s in that bag. I don’t know if Howard will try to destroy the contents or if he’ll just keep it hidden.”
“Are you sure Mr. Buttrum has my satchel? I could’ve left it at Polly’s,” she suggested, cuddling up against his warm, naked body, her hands moving along his hip and thigh, reveling in the feel of hard muscle and coarse hair.
She heard him suck in his breath. “I put it in the compartment myself, I know it was there.”
She sighed with relief.
“I’m not one hundred percent sure Buttrum took it, but sure enough I’d bet my dog he’s got it.”
The room went very, very quiet. Wren shifted to lay flat on her back, her eyes going to the dark log beams of the ceiling above her head. “The sales contract for the mercantile,” she muttered, feeling around for the quilt to cover herself. “I think the quilt is somewhere on the floor. I’m too hot anyway,” she mumbled.
“I’ll open the door for awhile,” Telt offered.
She let him go and lay there, lazy and satiated as a cat. He opened the door and stood there, buck-naked, leaning against the doorframe. She studied his dark, masculine silhouette. She couldn’t quite believe it, but this man actually desired her. She closed her eyes and gave up a prayer of thanks. The shadows of the trees fell across the front porch as a big, August moon moved over the sleepy little mountain town.
* * * *
The moon was so bright Telt could make out a herd of deer over in the meadow. “What did you say about the sales contract?” he asked, on his way back to the bed.
She waited for him to lie down, but he stood there, with the moon shining on her face, directing her words up to him. She was beautiful, luscious, ripe, irresistible.
“In the satchel I have my papers. The sales contract for the mercantile, my corporation papers, invoices, sales receipts for the mules, wagons, supplies, three account books, a picture of my mother and father, my mother’s pearls, her diamond wedding ring, a ruby brooch that belonged to my grandmother, fifteen hundred dollars in silver certificates and one hundred fifty dollars in gold coins.”
The thudding of his heart literally shook his body. He couldn’t get his breathe. Wren, unaware he was having a stroke, his blood vessels about to burst, his heart leaping out of his chest, went right on taking inventory. “I have a till, but it’s in a storage box. I think Punk and Percy brought it into the store. I keep a hundred in change in the till at all times, so I just packed it up like that. Oh, and my dirty clothes: one blue blouse, my cream colored blouse with the ruffles down the front, a skirt, and a pair of drawers.”
Telt felt it, the earth actually shifted from side to side beneath his feet. The bones in his legs had turned to liquid. The floor had turned to quicksand. He couldn’t find enough oxygen. The room started to rock and rotate. Did she say ‘fifteen hundred dollars’! Holy, jumpin’ hell! Diamonds, rubies, pearls, gold! Christ almighty!
“Telt?” he heard her cry out, her voice sounding far, far away as he stumbled to the bed, sat down and gripped the edge. “What’s the matter? Are you sick? It was the pheasant. Funny, though, I don’t feel sick.”
“Not sick”, he managed to croak out, while he tried to imagine what fifteen hundred dollars would look like, smell like, feel like. Jesus Christ, almighty
Sucking air, he huffed and puffed, coughed and sputtered a few times before he could talk. “Do you want to hear something funny, Wren,” he finally said, his voice cracking like a boy of twelve, his bare back to her, his head in his hands. “I get ten dollars a month as sheriff. I never have more than a couple dollars left after I pay my stable bill and food and so on. I sold some firewood last fall and got a twenty-dollar double eagle. I sewed it into the strap of my saddlebag to keep in case I took a notion to leave this damn town.
“Then you came along. I wanted you so bad I took that double eagle, the first double eagle I’ve seen for a good long while, and probably the last for an equally long while, and I slapped it down on Polly Moran’s counter to buy us a room with a bed, a big bathtub, and some good grub. That double eagle bought us one night. I’m not sorry. Don’t think I’m sorry. I’d do it again.
“But, hell, Wren, when I think what you had all that time we were out there together, when you were out there all alone… with that satchel full of…of shit and hell…a God damned fortune. You could’ve been killed for that old bag of loot, you know that?” Turning towards her, he couldn’t help it, he grabbed her by the shoulders and give her a good shake. Her eyes starting to roll, he demand to know, “What are you doing wasting your time with me? I’m a poor man, Wren O’Bannon. I’ll always be poor. Buttrum was right.”
He felt her go rigid and stiff beneath his hands. He knew right away that he’d said too much. He dropped his hands from her shoulders and turned his head away from her.
“What? What do you mean, Buttrum was right?” She was up in his face.
He knew it the second it escaped his mouth…he shouldn’t have said it. He shouldn’t even have thought it. She wasn’t going to let it pass. He knew that.
“All right.” He surrendered and faced her. “Buttrum said women shouldn’t have money, at least not more than they needed to buy ribbons and bonbons, whatever bonbons are. No woman should have enough money to buy property. There, that’s what he said.”
She looked like she might slap him. Her eyes were shining in the light of the moon, shooting sparks of anger…cold, icy sparks. With her hands raised, as if he held a gun on her, she scooted around him to retrieve the quilt from the floor and wrapped it tightly around her.
* * * *
Resting on her folded legs, her knees underneath her, Wren tucked the quilt around her bare bosom and under her arms, then folded her hands in her lap, composing herself before speaking. She promised herself she would explain this calmly. To allow herself to become hysterical, as she very much wanted to do, would undermine what she had to say.
“Do you realize I’ve heard that kind of talk all my life? My uncle believes that. He, I know, is unaware I had an inheritance from my grandfather, which enabled me to purchase merchandise for my mercantile. With my father out of his way, I’m certain if my uncle had found out how much money I’d inherited, he would’ve tried to get control of it. As my uncle would tell you, a woman wouldn’t know what to do with that kind of capital.
“I believe my uncle talked my father into leaving the stores and the warehouse to him. I don’t know how he did it. I don’t think my father would have left me out of his will entirely; no, my uncle had a hand in forming my father’s last will. I found that infamous will a year before my father passed away. I started that very day to take what I had and make my own way. I knew if I told anyone I had some money, they would’ve told my uncle, and he would’ve found a way to get his hands on it.
“My uncle is trying to take what is mine, what is truly mine, away from me with this trumped-up charge of stealing. Well, it won’t work. I may be a woman, but I’ve gone by the book, and I’ve done nothing illegal. I’ve used my money to buy myself a future. My uncle would’ve used it to buy more whiskey and women.
“If I were a man, I would be considered up and coming. But, I’m a woman; therefore, I must be lacking in feeling and womanly virtues, and incompetent to boot. And, more’s the pity, completely unworthy of a man’s affections or respect.”
“I didn’t say that,” Telt protested, too little too late.
She shook her head at him. “No, you didn’t. What I heard you say is you don’t see how you could possibly be desirable to a woman of means, such as I, because you work at an honorable profession but for a low wage with no hope of wealth.”
He started to interrupt, but she held up her hand to stop whatever he had to say.
“If the tables were turned, if I were a woman of little means, and you were an up and coming man of some wealth, and we…we were compatible, you would consider asking for my hand, and expect me to accept, because of who and what you are. Correct?”
She heard him growl while she allowed him a second or two to think it over. “I suppose,” he had to agree. Although clearly unwilling to concede to her argument.
She found his hand and held it to her heart. “Very well then, Telt Longtree, consider this, put gender aside, I’m a well-heeled entrepreneur with a future. You are a strong man who can offer me his protection, but you have very little means of support.
“Marry me, share all my worldly goods. And they are just goods, here today and gone tomorrow. I’ll make an honest man of you,” she promised, a smile forming on her lips and a tear trickling down her cheek. She hoped he could see how she felt about him. Surely, he could hear it in her voice. He remained quiet. She found it unnerving. “In return you will give to me the things that cannot be bought or measured by the amount of money you have in your pocket. You will give me respectability and the companionship I long for.”
* * * *
Telt pulled his hand away as the implications of what she was talking about sank in. “What? What the hell? Was that a proposal? Jesus, Wren, the woman don’t propose!”
She got on her hands and knees to gaze into his eyes to say, “She does if she’s the one with all the money. And she’s felt unloved and unwanted her whole life, and has finally found someone who desires her, actually cares about her. She would propose, and hope to never be alone ever again.”

CHAPTER Twenty
Late Saturday afternoon Percy stood outside the telegraph office. Cousin Lottie usually passed this way on her way to the Buttrum house for supper; he hoped to waylay her. The streets were empty, most folks settled in for the day. He spotted her as she started across the street, wearing a yellow dress, her sunbonnet shading her eyes.
“Lottie,” he called out before she reached him. Lottie stopped, looking about as if she needed a moment to recall where she was before she started toward him.
Percy didn’t think he’d ever seen such a sad face. “I…I have a letter here for you. I know I told Howard I wasn’t going to deliver the mail anymore, but I had to go up to the mail drop and bring the mail to town. There’s a letter here for you. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell him where you got it.”
Lottie offered him a watered-down little smile, peeping up at him through her pale lashes. “Thank you, Cousin Percy. Uncle Howard will hardly take note of any correspondence I might receive, so have no fear. I’ll not say a word. She asked, “Did Aunt Eula speak to you about giving Sunday service?”
He nodded, feeling sheepish and foolish. “I got angry and a little carried away when I told Howard that,” Percy answered. “But he’s wrong about Miss O’Bannon, and it was wrong of him to threaten foreclosure on the Tatom boys, Meirs and Claussen. I saw red, is all. I assured Eula I would do Sunday service. I’ll not let down my congregation.”
“I told her I didn’t think you really meant all that you said. Believe me I know what it’s like to be angry with Uncle Howard,” Lottie said and heaved a weighty sigh.
“Are you not feeling well?” Percy inquired. He wasn’t close to Lottie. She was a quiet, gentle little bird; he never knew what to say around her. She offered him a brave smile and a nod of her head.
“I’ve been feeling a little down. Thank you for asking; I’ll be better in time. Just a little tired, I think.”
“You take care of yourself. School will be starting soon.”
She perked up and said, “Yes, yes it will. I look forward to that. Thank you for the letter.”
Percy watched her walk away. He had a sense that something was not right with Miss Lottie. Living under the thumb of Howard Buttrum couldn’t be easy. He shuddered just thinking about it.
* * * *
The return address in the corner of the letter caught Lottie’s eye: Mr. Wesley J. Potter, Chicago, Illinois. Her pulse began to race. Blood rushed to her cheeks. She hurried around the corner of the telegraph office and tore open the letter.
My dearest, Miss Bledsoe, it read; she almost swooned. Pressing the letter to her heart, she raised her eyes heavenward. Wesley Potter. Oh, sweet, charming, poor-as-a-church-mouse Wesley Potter had not forgotten her. One year and eight months ago, that’s when she’d last seen him. It was six months since his last letter. She closed her eyes, her mind adrift on the memory of their last meeting. A tear escaped and dropped on her cheek. She opened her eyes, brushed aside her tears and anxiously read what dear Wesley had to say.
“My dearest Miss Bledsoe, I take pen in hand and pray your heart is still your own. Oh, dearest, I have thought only of you. I am reminded of a poem by that dear Irishman, Gerald Griffin. Do you remember?”
“A place in thy memory, dearest,
is all that I claim,
To pause and look back when thou
Hearest the sound of my name.
Another may woo thee nearer,
Another may win and wear; I care not,
though he be dearer,
If I am remembered there.”
“Ah, but I do care, I am driven mad with jealousy to think of you with another, his hand in yours, walking at your side, gazing at our moon. Are you still my darling girl, my sweet, yellow rose?
I have news, sad, and ironic. My maternal grandfather passed on to his reward and left me a modest fortune. I am now in possession of his meat packing business, his stocks, his house, and properties.
I have taken the liberty of calling on your parents to apprise them of my change of fortune in hopes they might hold no further objections to my suit, and once again ask for your hand, and your heart, dearest Lottie.
They have made me the happiest of men and have given us their blessing, if you will have me. I pray this letter flies across the miles and reaches you before someone else steals your heart. I am leaving tomorrow on a westbound train. I would swim the ocean for you, dearest Lottie. Look for me the last week of August. I will be the one wearing his heart on his sleeve.
Yours completely, Wesley J. Potter”
Lottie read the letter again. Then again. When she floated into the entry hall of her aunt and uncle’s house twenty minutes later, their raised voices brought her to a halt.
They were in the front parlor. Uncle Howard stood with his hands behind his back, his feet firmly braced, wearing his usual stubborn, mulish scowl on his face. Aunt Eula sat in her favorite chair by the hearth.
“That poor girl. In that terrible jail for almost two days. It is outrageous!” Aunt Eula declared, clearly agitated. She bounced up out of her chair and headed toward the kitchen. Uncle Howard groaned and followed her. The two of them passed her, nodding in her direction. Lottie felt a little disappointed they didn’t notice she was nearly beside herself with joy. As she followed them out to the kitchen, she decided she could wait with her news.
“Surely the sheriff would relinquish her custody to you,” Aunt Eula reasoned. Making more noise than was necessary, she pulled a pot down from her pot-rack, went to the pump in the sink and began to pump water into it. “We could keep her here until her uncle arrives to clear all of this nonsense up. Won’t you talk to the sheriff, Howard?”
Howard sat down at his place at the kitchen table. “Miss O’Bannon is a thief, Eula. I will not bring a thief into my home. Furthermore, it has not been two days…it has been one night and one full day. Why do you insist on exaggeration?”
Uncle Howard shook his head and rolled his eyes. But Lottie knew her aunt Eula could be like a dog with a bone when she set her mind to something, and she didn’t think her aunt would let go. Her uncle finally acknowledged her presence with a brief nod as Lottie pulled up a chair at the table and sat down.
She watched her aunt put eight ears of corn in a pot to boil, then check the roasting chicken in her oven. With that done, Eula slapped her oven-mitts down on the table and pulled her chair up to get in her husband’s face.
Lottie saw her aunt take a deep breath, then exhale…very slowly. Lottie, from her observations of her aunt’s technique, realized that trying to reason with Uncle Howard required preparation. To appear as a hysterical female would get you nowhere.
“Howard. Our mercantile? What of our store? Everyone is counting on the store opening in a matter of days. It simply must, Howard,” Aunt Eula said, her gray eyes wide and pleading, her lips in a lovely pout.
* * * *
Her spouse, Eula could see, was wise to her ploy and pulled back his chin to clear his throat. Eula hated it when he did that, it did not bode well for her cause.
“Miss O’Bannon, I fear, will be unable to open as per our agreement. But don’t you worry,” he assured her, chucking her on the chin in a dismissive way that she couldn’t abide, “You will have your mercantile, my dear. A new buyer will be found as soon as Miss O’Bannon’s uncle takes her into his custody.”
Eula had more to report, but she decided to allow a cease-fire while she put supper on the table. She would let him think the discussion at an end. She would have more of a chance to reason if he dropped his guard a bit. Food would mellow him, she was sure of it.
Twenty minutes later, she and Lottie set the meal on the table and all took their seats. Eula passed the chicken, corn, potatoes and gravy, and the bread.
She laid her napkin in her lap and looked her husband in the eye, determined to apprise him of current events, “I overheard Percy as he was speaking to Mrs. Brandtmeyer about Miss O’Bannon’s satchel. Percy says there were receipts and other business records in that bag, and now it has gone missing. The sheriff is witness to the fact that the satchel was where he had placed it in the wagon when they started out from Pendleton. Neither Miss O’Bannon nor the sheriff removed it from its place in the wagon.
“I saw that bag, Howard, I saw it myself,” she said. Her eyes narrowed with suspicion. She raised her pretty brows and offered a furthermore, “Everyone must have seen it; we were all there. She had it that first day when you met with her in the sheriff’s office. She did, indeed, seem to have a number of very important papers in that satchel.”
Eula went silent, satisfied she had her husband’s attention at last and started to butter her corn, her eyes down to her work.
“Poor girl, homeless…coming here all on her own,” she said with a tilt of her head. “She was very brave and courageous, don’t you think? She drove those wagons all the way from Oregon City to bring goods for our mercantile, and now this. I don’t think I care much for this uncle of hers,” she finished, and brought her corn to her lips and took a good bite. She could feel Howard watching her as the butter smeared her lips and dribbled down her fingers. She knew it would make him crazy.
For several seconds, he sat as a man in a trance, his mouth hanging open and eyes popping out of his head.
Lottie cleared her throat. Eula cast a glance her way and realized the color had returned to the girl’s cheeks, and her eyes were alight with excitement. It was clear she was bursting with news. Really, Eula couldn’t believe the transformation in the girl; she looked full of hope.
The young woman who had left their house last evening had been lifeless, dull, and on the brink of collapse, the exact opposite of the vibrant, bright-eyed girl who was seated beside her at the table.
“Something has happened…what is it, Lottie dear? What has happened? You’re looking positively radiant.”
* * * *
Howard reluctantly turned his gaze away from his wife and studied his niece. “Ah, hah,” he boomed, jubilant, and relieved to have the subject changed.
“I’ll wager the sheriff has come to his senses, eh, Lottie? Should we set another plate at the table for supper?”
Howard witnessed her entire face turn red, whereas before just her cheeks were infused with color.
“Sheriff? Oh, oh, no, dear me, no, Uncle,” she protested, her hand to her breast. “Sheriff Longtree is far too unrefined and rough for me. We would never suit,” she gushed, then bounced forward in her chair.
Howard looked to his wife for guidance here. All she had to offer was a blank stare. They both turned their attention back to Lottie.
Eula blinked before saying, “Really, I thought you and he made a lovely couple.”
Lottie shook her head vigorously, “I know, and I thought so too. No, we would have been miserable. I don’t think the sheriff cares for poetry. He’s too…too rough, I guess. I want someone more sensitive and romantic.”
Howard could see the girl could hardly contain herself. His niece was a silly widgeon, in Howard’s estimation. Oh, she was a nice enough young woman, modest and industrious, but fickle…as were most women. Whatever had her in alt was none of his affair. It was too bad though. It would have suited his agenda to have the sheriff brought into the family, so to speak.
Lottie laid a letter upon the table and turned it so Eula could read it. Howard disengaged himself from the conversation to concentrate on his meal.
* * * *
“Wesley Potter?” her Aunt Eula murmured as she began to read. “Wasn’t he the young man from whom your parents were trying to save you?” Eula asked before reading the letter one more time.
Lottie, with her hands folded in her lap, sat, working very hard not to clap and squeal with joy. She vowed to contain herself until she was alone in her room. It wouldn’t do to create a scene in front of her uncle.
“Yes, that’s correct. Dear Wesley worked behind the counter at our corner drugstore. We would have married if my parents hadn’t sent me to you and Uncle Howard. I had reconciled myself to going on with my life without dear Wesley, but now I don’t have to. He’s coming for me with Mama and Papa’s blessing. Isn’t that the most wonderful news? I can hardly believe it!
* * * *
Eula couldn’t decide if it was wonderful news or not. “I’m going to need a moment to adjust my thinking, Lottie, dear. This is coming at me a little out of the blue. I don’t quit know what to say. I’m very happy for you, dear,” she managed to say as she put her hand on the girl’s cheek. “Really I am, if this is truly what you want. But…this letter means you’ll be leaving us.” Eula had to say it aloud. It was the first thought that had come to mind.
“We have so enjoyed having you here in Laura Creek. Your school, the children, will miss you. We shall have to search for another schoolteacher. You’ve brought sunshine into our lives. With no issue of our own, you’ve been as a daughter to Howard and me,” Eula said, and sniffed back a tear.
“I really hadn’t considered leaving Laura Creek,” Lottie admitted with a shake of her head. “I suppose Wesley will want to live in Chicago. I will miss Laura Creek and my school, and you…both of you,” Lottie said to include her uncle in the conversation. He didn’t appear to be interested in the conversation, at the moment occupied with pouring more gravy over his potatoes.
“But I protest, you’re much too young to be my mother,” Lottie said to her. “We’re more as sisters. And who knows, you may yet have children of your own. You and Uncle Howard have only been married five years.”
“Six,” Eula corrected, giving Howard an accusatory glance before she dabbed her pretty, grey eyes.
* * * *
Relaxed, and happy to have the topic of conversation turned away from that O’Bannon woman, Howard tore his attention away from his meal long enough to put in his two cents worth by saying, “The letter certainly has perked you up. I’m glad of it. It’s good to see some color in your cheeks. When does your young man arrive?”
Lottie bobbed forward in her chair, eager to give them all the details. She rattled on right through desert. However, the conversation, too soon, came back around to more current events…primarily, Miss O’Bannon’s recent incarceration.
He inadvertently, more or less thinking aloud, mentioned that he planned on giving the Sunday sermon himself since Percy quit on his congregation.
Eula assured him, “You don’t need to worry about the Sunday service, Howard. Right now, I doubt anyone would come if they knew you were going to give the sermon. You aren’t the most popular man in town just now, Howard. I spoke with Percy, and he’ll be giving the Sunday service—as usual. However, he refuses to deliver our mail, and he will not work the telegraph.
“As for Miss O’Bannon, I don’t believe she’s a thief or a fraud, not for one moment,” declared his wife as she passed him the mashed potatoes, looking him straight in the eye. “She has done nothing but work hard to open the mercantile. That young woman is all business. She strikes me as a person who crosses all of her T’s and dots all of her I’s. This entire episode is a big misunderstanding, mark my words.”
Howard wanted to dispute her theory, but Lottie interrupted, saying, “That jail cell must be terribly uncomfortable. Surely something should be done to make it less Spartan for her, the poor woman.”
“Lottie!” Eula squealed, setting the gravy down before Howard could take the bowl from her. “You are brilliant! Yes, we’ll gather up blankets…and…and curtains. I even think I have a rocking chair in the attic. We’ll gather in the other ladies after church tomorrow. That poor girl needs our help. Why, we could even open the mercantile for her if it should come to that. I know how to work a till, don’t I, Howard?”
He knew his mouth was open, and he wanted to shout a resounding “NO!” but he couldn’t find his voice. Eula had rushed ahead so fast he couldn’t keep up.
“I was working as a waitress in Portland when your uncle met me. I took his order and gave him his change. He also took my address,” she giggled, and patted his hand as she ladled the gravy on his potatoes.
“Why, we could go to the jail and ask Miss O’Bannon what needs to be done to open the store.” Lottie suggested, bouncing in her seat, her eyes full of excitement.
He slapped his fork down on the table to take back control of the runaway females at his table by shouting a resounding, “No! No to the both of you.”
Eula blanched; he knew she feared for her fine, bone china. The last time he lost his temper at the table, he actually broke a serving bowl—unintentionally, of course. She set aside the gravy boat, then shifted in her chair, her head down to her plate, looking up to her niece through her eyelashes, a little smile on her lips.
He saw that smile. The woman didn’t take him seriously. She thought to manipulate him, wheedle him into doing what she wanted. Well, not this time. Not—this—time!
When she sat up very erect, moving her potatoes around on her plate, he waited, knowing she was going to say something disagreeable.
“It has been suggested that someone here, in Laura Creek, stole Miss O’Bannon’s satchel, someone who would like nothing better than to see her fail to meet her deadline. I know of no one who wants that, Howard,” she said, her gray eyes boring a hole into his head.
“No one but you, of course; you’ve made your feelings quite plain to one and all. I can’t think of anyone else who would wish to see Miss O’Bannon fail. What would anyone have to gain? I heard that Miss O’Bannon has sent word to Judge Crookshank to verify her legal ownership of said stolen mules and wagons. Whoever the miscreant is who took that satchel will be made to look a fool when the judge gets here.”
Howard straightened and met his wife’s eyes, without a flinch or any sign of guilt, to say in a calm and rational voice, “I know for a fact that Miss O’Bannon has not yet received a reply to her telegram to the Honorable Judge Crookshank or the telegram to her fancy lawyer. I have no doubt they have, wisely, washed their hands of her. And, I’m thinking of having the sheriff arrest Percy for unauthorized use of a telegraph machine. He quit remember? What’s he doing sending telegrams, is what I want to know. On whose authority did he presume to make use of a government instrument of communication?”
“Don’t be silly, Howard,” his wife grumbled. “He had the sheriff’s permission and I suspect he was ordered to send those telegrams.”
Howard shook his head at her. “Won’t do a bit of good, you know. As for you women decorating that dingy jail cell, go ahead, do what you want!” he bellowed, losing control. “The outcome will be the same. Miss O’Bannon will never be proprietor of the Laura Creek Mercantile, not if I have anything to say to it! The day that woman leaves town I intend to drink several toasts to her good riddance!”
* * * *
While her uncle expounded on his theme, it came to Lottie’s mind that Miss O’Bannon’s satchel was not the only thing missing in Laura Creek. That darn whiskey remained truant. Her confession was imminent, either to her uncle or to Sheriff Longtree. She shuddered. Confessing to her uncle was out of the question.

click here to see chapters 21 and 22

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