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Dance Hall Road E-book $4.99 pre-order available http://www.hartwoodpublishing.com/
Release date July 11, 2017 Dance Hall Road the first in a series of four. Do-si-do, Jo and the Pinkerton man
and one more as yet untitled. Look for Dance Hall Road in July, Do-si-do in September and Jo and the Pinkerton Man
around the first of the New Year.
A western romance
Buck Hoyt runs a whore house in the back end of nowhere. Scruffy and cantankerous, he hauls in the whores in the spring and sends them packing in the fall. In winter, Buck, a dedicated recluse, reads, writes and grows his hair.
But this winter, Petra Yurvasi, and her new born son impose on his solitude. Now shaved and shorn, Buck’s only purpose is to please and protect his woman and her child. Can he keep them safe from the evil brothers that want her silenced forever? If they face the evil together, they have a chance.
WE have great news!!!!!!
Hartwood Publishing has taken me on. My Dance Hall Series: Dance Hall Road Do-si-do, Jo and The Pinkerton Man, Trick Rider will soon be available not only as e-books for your Kindles, Nooks and all e-readers but also in paperback. Yipeee! Stay tuned. First Dance Hall Road will appear for your reading pleasure the first of July, 2017. Can’t wait to see the first new cover. I’ll be swagin’ and bragin’.
Our tiny home, 352 square feet is set in a mobile home park. We moved in January of 2016. First order of business, hook up to utilities, sewer, water. Next: skirting and steps, gutters on both sides, deck, landscape. Inside, … Continue reading
Flash Fiction Contest winner. 1st prize. We were given the first line.
One Arm Tied Behind My Back
By Dorothy A. Bell
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.”
Also available on Amazon Cloud:
A Day in the Life Of Enid Clay
By Dorothy A. Bell
September 1, 2014
More short stories
This is a simi-autobiographical account of a series of episodes in my life before knee replacement surgery. The names have been changed to protect the author. The events compacted for the sake of entertainment and the author’s sense of the ridiculous.
9:30 A.M., Unsuspecting, Enid Clay began her day.
Peering into her mirror, Enid assessed the damage the years had wrought. Sadly, the bloom had left the rose wrinkled, drab, colorless. A sarcastic sneer tugged at the corner of her delicate little mouth.
To her pathetically needy reflection, she doled out a begrudging positive, saying, “At least you’re not bald—yet.”
Abruptly, she turned away from her wilted aspect. The sudden movement set off a geyser of pain that shot up from her arthritis-riddled knees to her hips, up her spine, to the base of her skull where it rattled her brain.
With brown eyes tightly closed, she froze to wait out the assault. Once again able to breathe, she shuffled over to the doorway between her bathroom and the laundry. Huffing, she reached for the drier, then sidestepped into the kitchen doorway, where she stopped before making the final push to reach her kitchen counter and the sink.
Outside, a hummingbird shopped the jars of ruby liquid she’d hung in the branches of the willow. Craning her neck, she read the thermometer on the rail—it was already seventy-five degrees. A trip to the grocery store would get her out of the house. Perhaps today she’d wear her dress of filmy, flowered georgette. Having shed a couple of pounds, she reckoned she just might be able to button those buttons across the bodice.
* * * * *
At full throttle, blissfully optimistic, Enid rolled along on her little battery powered, three wheeled cart. Proudly sporting her flowy, flowery dress, a floppy straw hat on her head of died, ash-brown hair, her sunglasses with the butterfly wings perched on her perky, upturned nose.
Up ahead, she espied a landscaping project underway. Today a strip of chicken wire, attached to some slats, lay stretched half way down the bank and over the sidewalk. Like Mario Andretti in the Indy 500, Enid circumvented the hazard, veering her little cart into the grass, steering expertly, she turned back onto the sidewalk, right on course.
* * * * *
Shopping from a battery-powered cart is a tricky business. Obviously, grocery stores stock their shelves for the functionally mobile beings on two good legs. Enid, too short even if she had two good legs, seated on her cart, was decidedly handicapped. Shopping required careful planning and execution.
Although the day was beautiful, and Enid was looking particularly fine, she had no way of knowing that her stars were sadly out of alignment. Therefore, when she leaned into the freezer case, she unknowingly set off a series of unfortunate events that would go down as one of the most embarrassing days of her entire life. And that was saying something, because Enid had endured many, many embarrassing situations in her fifty-seven years of life.
* * * * *
Reaching out for a box of frozen bon-bons, the handlebar of her cart lodged in the door handle of the freezer-case. The cart lurched forward jerking the door off its hinges. Not all the way—but leaving it hanging drunkenly by one hinge at the top. The horror of the situation immobilized her. Her first concern: had anyone witnessed her vandalism? Looking right, left, all around—grateful, she found herself alone in the isle. Putting her cart in reverse, she attempted to straighten the door, but with no success.
Carefully disengaging her destructo-cart from the freezer door, she decided to forgo the bon-bons, they weren’t on her diet anyway, and she rolled on to tackle the meat counter.
A bit shaken, she reached over the side of the meat-case for a package of steak and the sleeve of her dress encased itself on the reverse throttle of her cart. When she turned her body to dislodge the fabric, the handlebar of her cart turned too, trapping her chubby bosom against the case.
Held prisoner, no use to fight, the final insult, her hat slipped forward and shoved her sunglasses down over her nose.
Two cold hands wrapped around her squishy waist. Enid squeaked. Her cart lurched forward. Set free, she shoved her hat off her face to find herself looking up into the grinning eyes of the butcher. He plucked her sunglasses off a package of sirloin and offered, saying, “If I can help, just ring the bell.”
Flustered, lips tight, she mumbled, and said “Thank you” retrieving her sunglasses. Mortified, she started to reach for the steak, then changed her mind, opting for the ground turkey—fewer calories, would last longer, all-round a better choice.
The butcher, hovering, anticipating her selection, handed it to her before she could make the attempt. “Allow me.”
Cheeks on fire, Enid, now mindful that the fates were playing with her, maneuvered her cart with care and a great deal of caution to the front of the store. Determined to confess, she explained to the clerk how she had accidentally torn the freezer door off its hinge.
The clerk suggested, in an unnecessarily snarky way, that perhaps Enid should shop with an attendant, as if she were some kind of addlepated, bumble-fub. Which Enid now felt that she was, but still, the chastisement scorched her dignity.
Feeling lower than a snails slime trail, Enid exited the store with her paltry turkey burger. Now the brilliance of the day struck her as irritating, and way too hot.
Catching sight of herself in the store window, Enid shook her head—her dress accentuated her tummy rolls, the colors in the fabric not at all flattering, the flower pattern far too busy for her small stature. The stupid hat was hideous.
But…. she did love her sunglasses.
Furious, whizzing along, Enid composed in her head a seething letter to the powers-that-be.
All freezer-case doors should be re engineered to accommodate the handicapped.
Nearing her home, convinced she was not at fault, she summarily dismissed the horrors of the grocery store fiasco as a fluke. Absolved, she marveled in the glory of the day, the beauty of the sky, the birds in the trees, the very air, sweet and warm—perfect.
Three city workers, doing something with the storm drains in the middle of the street, took her attention. They waved. She of course waved back. Consequently, she forgot to dodge the chicken wire hazard of the landscaping project.
Too late, she swerved to miss it!
The chicken wire snagged the hem of her dress. She felt the fabric tug at the empire-waist. In distress, she came to a complete stop and did the sensible thing—she backed up. In so doing, the skirt of her free-flowing dress wound up in the back wheels of her cart. The result, her dress tore at the gathered bodice, and more fabric wrapped around her rear tire.
Her fleshy, pink tummy exposed. Her bra and panties doing little to keep her modesty intact, she sat helpless to save her dignity, her sanity.
Rushing to her aid, the workmen set her free of the chicken wire. They rolled her lovely dress up in a wad and handed it to her. Unable to meet their eyes, she swallowed back her tears of humiliation. Her beautiful dress gathered about her, doing little to hide her nakedness or shield her from her humiliation, babbling her gratitude, she sped away.
Home, safe, she calmly parked her cart in its place in her laundry room. Shaking, she came to her feet. Arms out, she hugged her washing machine, the cool metal soothing her burning cheeks and the exposed flesh of her tummy.
In its rigidity, the machine’s inability to cast judgment gave her solace.
Enid cursed fate and circumstance. And yes, she needed a keeper—hell, she’d welcome a rubber room at the moment. Hugging the remnants of her pretty dress to her bosom she whimpered, “Oh, what the hell, just another day in the life of Enid Clay.”
This post, as well as all my short stories, can be snatched from Amazon Cloud: https://www.amazon.com/clouddrive/ref=gno_yam_clddrv#G=0&path=/Documents
Favorite Family Recipes
Grandma Cynthia’s Apple Dumplings
3 medium sized apples cut in half or 6 small apples pealed and cored. (Save peelings for syrup).
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup margarine or butter
5 and ½ tablespoons of ice water
Cut in ingredients as you would for a pie-crust. Roll the dough out thin on a floured surface. Cut into 6 squares. Place apples on the squares with cored side up, add cinnamon, nutmeg to taste, a squeeze of lemon or lemon rind or both.
Divide ¾ cup brown sugar among the dumplings, plus a dot of butter onto each apple.
With slightly damp fingers, wrap and pinch close each dumpling to form a pocket and place in a greased, deep-sided baking dish, then chill while preparing the syrup.
Bring to a boil 3 cups of water, 2 cups of granulated white sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla. Reduce heat, add peelings, simmer for 20 minutes.
Pre-heat oven to 375.
Remove peels from the syrup, then add two tablespoons of margarine or butter and allow to sit until sugar is dissolved.
Brush the dumplings lightly with a beaten egg white; sprinkle with white granulated sugar, pour syrup mix over the dumplings.
Bake for 40 minutes or until crusts are brown and tender.
Serve warm with cream, or ice cream.
Peaches, rhubarb—may be substituted for apples.
Sift together 2 cups flour
¼ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoons salt
Cut into the flour ½ cup butter and 1 cup white granulated sugar. Press sugar, butter, flour mix into the bottom and sides of baking pan, saving back some to sprinkle on top of 12 peach halves arranged on the bed of sugar flour mix. Cook 15 minutes.
Mix together a cup of heavy cream, (or sour cream) with 2 beaten egg yolks and pour over the top of the peaches. Cook 30 minutes more at 400 degrees.
Combine in a saucepan:
2 cups sugar
1 ¼ cups water
2 tablespoons corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
Place over low heat, stir constantly until sugar dissolves and comes to boil. Cover and cook 3 minutes.
Uncover and continue to cook without stirring until 238 degrees, wash down sides of pan occasionally with wet cloth.
Remove from heat; pour out onto cold, wet platter, or greased surface, cool to lukewarm 110 degrees.
Turn and fold with paddle or spatula until white and creamy. Add vanilla and knead until smooth.
Form into a ball. To prevent fondant from drying, cover with a damp cloth and store in tightly covered jar to ripen for several days.
Makes 1 pound.
You can add coconut, roll into balls, dip in chocolate, white chocolate or color the white chocolate with food coloring. Variations: place cherries in the center of a ball of fondant, or nuts, then dip in the chocolate.
Grandma Cynthia’s chunky bread and butter pickles
20 lbs of small cucumbers, cut in chunky pieces, soaked in a brine of 1 cup coarse salt and 3 quarts of water for 24 hours.
Prepare jars by placing in the bottom of each jar a washed, then towel dried, large grape leaf or two grape leaves if small.
Remove cucumbers from brine. Place cucumbers in a large pan or clean sink and pour over the top enough boiling water to cover. Drain quickly in a colander and pack closely while hot in the sterilized jars with the grape leaves. Cover at once with the following vinegar mixture, just at boiling point.
1 gallon of cider vinegar 5 to 6% acetic
11 cups of sugar
2 oz of whole mixed spices
1 oz stick of cinnamon
1 teaspoon whole cloves
Seal jars at once. Process for 15 minutes in boiling water bath.
Sinfully sticky buns
1 package active dry yeast
¾ cup warm water
¾ cup warm milk
¼ cup sugar
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons salt
3 ¾ to 4 and ¼ cups all purpose flour
The sticky part
¼ cup butter or margarine, softened
¼ cup sugar
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
¾ cup packed brown sugar
½ cup heavy cream
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans
First and foremost have all of your ingredients at room temperature or slightly warm, mixing bowls should be nice and warm.
In a mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add the milk, sugar, oil, salt and 1 ¼ cup flour. Beat on medium speed for 2 to 3 minutes or until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to form a soft dough.
Turn onto a floured surface; kneed until smooth and elastic, about 6 to 8 minutes. Place in greased bowl, turning once to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.
Punch dough down. Turn onto a lightly floured surface. Roll into an approximate 18-inch by 12-inch rectangle. Spread butter over the dough to within ½ inch of the edge. Combine ½ cup white sugar and cinnamon, sprinkle over buttered dough surface.
Roll up jelly-roll style, starting at the long side; pinch seam to seal. Cut into 12 slices.
Combine ¾ cup brown sugar and ½ cup cream; pour into a greased 13 inch by 9 inch by 2 inch baking pan. Sprinkle with pecans, place rolls over pecans and sugar/cream mix. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes or until well browned. Cool for 1 minute before inverting onto a serving platter. Yield 1 dozen.
Mom’s Vanilla Ice Cream
Never once did it remain just vanilla
Recipe is for a 4 quart ice cream freezer:
Beat together 4 or 5 eggs with 2 and ½ cups sugar and ¼ teaspoon salt. Slowly add 1 quart of whole milk into the egg and sugar mixture to get all of the egg from the sides of the bowl. Place mixture in the top of double boiler.
Cook custard over water until spoon is coated and the mixture begins to thicken (we use a wooden spoon, you can see the coating easier). Remove from heat and pour mixture into a larger cooking pot. Add 2 tablespoons real vanilla, 1 pint whipping cream, 1 quart of ½ and ½, plus one pint of whole milk.
At this point, you can add other flavors such as rum, mint or almond.
Allow custard to cool thoroughly before pouring into ice cream freezer.
Hint: chill your ice cream canister, paddle and lid before churning
You can change the milk to butter fat ratio to suit by switching to 2% milk. We think this combination is good, it’s rich without leaving a greasy film.
Before adding custard to freezer canister, add flavor combinations. Here are a few of our favorites so far.
2 large symphony bars with almonds, crushed
1 good sized jar of maraschino cherries, chopped
¼ cup rum flavoring, dark rum or Amaretto
¾ cups Ovaltine or chocolate drink mix. Reduce sugar by a ½ cup if you do this one.
¼ cup instant coffee (decafe if preferred) Kahlua, Irish cream, you name it, go for it.
½ cup walnuts, chopped
1 package mint flavored chocolate chips
1to 2 teaspoons mint flavoring (crème de menthe if preferred)
Mom always tried to make just vanilla; it never worked out that way. Bon appetite. Experiment: Pistachio, peach, strawberry, blackberry…
My favorite anytime cookies:
Cook 1 cup carrots-mashed and cooled
Cream together ¾ cup margarine, ¾ cup sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla and add cooled, mashed carrots. I substituted chunky applesauce for some of the margarine. The cookies turned out moist, no problem.
Fold in 2 cups flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, ¼ teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon grated orange rind and bake at 350 degrees for 12 minutes. Frost while warm. A half of a maraschino cherry on top is looks pretty and tastes great.
Sugar drop with oil cookies
Combine: 1 cup sugar, ¾ cup oil, 2 eggs, 1 teaspoon vanilla.
Sift together: 2 ½ cups flour, 1 ½ teaspoon baking powder, ¾ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon cinnamon. You may add nuts, chocolate chips, raisins, dates, cranraisins. Form into balls, roll in sugar and bake at 350 degrees for 12 minutes.
Also available on Amazon Cloud:
Uncle Corbin’s Way
Dorothy A. Bell
Word count 2,393 pages 8
For fifty years, I’ve hated being that orphan, Purdy Alton Day Pulchosky.
At the age of six, I tried to get everyone to call me Chuck. I punched, kicked and cursed those who refused. Consequently, I took a lot of hard blows, but the name Purdy Alton Day Pulchosky stuck like “crapped shorts”, as my Uncle Corbin would say.
“Purdy Al Day, Purdy Al Day”, I can still hear the childish voices taunting me, echoing in the school halls, and out on the playground. School was hell.
I hated my mother who’d slapped the moniker on me with no thought as to how it would affect me as I grew older. “It’s my maiden name, a proud family name,” she had explained a million times. But, Purdy’s all right for a baby: for a boy suffering an identity crisis, it was a rotten thing to do.
For a time I blamed my father, Alton Day Pulchosky for my name because he wasn’t there when I was born; my mother said he’d gone to war in Vietnam. I figured if he’d been there, he wouldn’t have let my mother name me Purdy. Purdy Alton Day is a sappy name, it’s embarrassing.
As a kid, I worked overtime to make a hero of my old man. I made up stuff about him all the time. I bragged about how he saved lives, leaped out of burning planes, survived tortures and earned tons of medals for shielding his comrades from grenades with his body.
After awhile though, when he didn’t answer any of my letters, I started to think he was stupid for going off to war—probably not worth knowing anyway. And in the dark of night, I knew he’d left because he’d rather go to war than take on a rotten kid like me. Who’d want a liar, a kid who was mad all the time and no fun?
To top off my Hell, when I was nine, my mother, on her way home from the tavern on a dark and rainy night got herself run down by a delivery truck at a downtown Portland intersection.
When I was ten, word reached the orphanage that my father had been declared missing-in-action. That doubled my guilt, and I hated him even more. As a boy, my emotions were all mixed up, complicated and stupid. As an adult, I do my best to understand why, although reconciling the circumstances of my childhood in my mind remains a challenge.
Reading what I’ve written so far, it sounds like a lot of hate, and maybe hate is too strong a word. And I’m not done; there’s one more person on my childhood hate list. My uncle Corbin, my dad’s brother, he’s up there at the top. The people at the orphanage found him after they got the missing-in-action notice. He was my only living relative, my only hope for a home.
I think I hate my uncle Corbin most of all. I hated him because he wasn’t my mother or my father. In my childish opinion, he didn’t have a single ambitious bone in his body. He couldn’t be a soldier because of his eyesight, and he didn’t work because while logging he accidentally cut off his left hand with a chain saw doing the only job he’d ever had for more than six months.
Okay, enough, you get the idea. Today, I am back here at this old, deserted cabin where I spent my youth. And all of the old hurts are gnawing away at my guts. I’ve reverted back to that kid who toiled away his youth on this scrub-patch of land, working like a slave for my despicable, heartless, cipher of an Uncle.
Where is Uncle Corbin today? Well, he’s warm and snug, tucked away in his nursing home. I’ve been putting it off, but today I told myself that while I’m in town, I might as well go out to the old cabin and look around. Uncle Corbin is on his last leg, and eventually I’ll be left with his property…his estate. I should see what’s left of the place.
His estate, hah! Estate my ass! One run-down old cabin, twenty acres of berry vines, moss, scrub oak and fir trees…his estate.
How the tables have turned; I now pay my Uncle’s bills, see to it he gets good care, and I visit him, and buy him new pajamas and socks, and underwear and fancy pads for his bed.
“You’ll want to see that he stays comfortable,” the administrator had said the day I admitted Uncle Corbin to Sandy Brook Assisted Living. That was right after his stroke, almost a year ago.
Everyday I ask myself, why do I care, and the same voice, which sounds very much like my Uncle’s voice, answers me, he’s the only family you have, Boy.
With a cold drizzle falling, my head wet, and rivulets of water running down the bridge of my nose, my hands thrust deep into the warm pockets of my down jacket, here I am, once again alone.
How did I stand living in this place? It’s so isolated here, the deep woods behind the cabin, the little creek down the slope, and the main road a half a mile up the lane. No electricity, no inside plumbing, one dinky, pitiful wood stove for heat, kerosene lanterns, a pump at the well by the back door, and an outhouse.
God, how had I stood it for eight long years…living here in this shack with that crusty, cold, old fart? I should’ve run away. Why didn’t I run away?
Today the cabin looks even more dilapidated and forsaken than I remember it. The roof sags and it’s listing to one side; the white paint is mottled with the gray of exposed mortar and boards.
Walking around it, tripping over the rocks, in spite of my bitterness I can’t help but smile as a memory slides into focus. Uncle Corbin called this patch of quack grass and clay dirt behind the cabin where he tried to grow tomatoes, lettuces and peas, his rock garden, because every year we harvested a new crop of rocks from the freshly tilled soil.
I hear the sound of water gurgling. It’s coming from the creek. I take off on a jog back around the cabin, making for the creek. This part of the state’s been in a big drought since the January before, so the water in the creek isn’t as high as it should be. The wall stands between the creek bank and the cabin.
Breathless, I laugh. It’s either that or cry. Inside, I’m still that helpless, pathetic, sullen kid. I love this creek. I wish I had my fishing pole. I love this wall—the look of it, solid and substantial, the feel of it on my fingertips, rough, cool and moist.
But, I’d hated building this old wall. Uncle Corbin and I worked on it for years. Every Saturday I gathered rocks and Uncle Corbin mortared them in. “To keep the cabin safe in flood,” he’d said.
When I’d grumble, he’d ask, “This is our home, Boy. You wouldn’t want it to wash away?”
Yes! I remember screaming in my head, God, yes, and I hope it takes you with it, Old Man!
Closing my eyes, cringing in shame, I remember my hateful curse. I recall the floods, the wall held. The cabin wasn’t touched. Uncle Corbin and I stayed warm and dry. This wall and my Uncle Corbin kept me safe.
Every year the wall needed reinforcing and care. Sometimes, to my way of thinking, my uncle gave more care to this damned wall than he did me. I had enough food, he kept me clothed, and he took care of me when I was sick. I even saw a doctor once when I had an earache and a temperature of a hundred and six.
When I was fifteen, I wanted to go out for basketball. I studied and got my learners permit. Uncle Corbin had an old pickup, but he wouldn’t let me take it to get my driver’s license, so I rode a rusty old bicycle I’d found in a ditch to and from the school, which is about three miles into town.
Rifling through my memory, I don’t recall minding that long ride home in the dark through all kinds of weather. Clearly, I recall despising my uncle’s callous attitude about it. Not once did he come to a game, nor did I receive any credit for doing a good job keeping up on my studies and doing a sport, all on my own.
That hurt and still pinches.
At sixteen, I wanted a car. I wanted a car real bad, so I put the notion to Uncle Corbin one summer while we worked on the wall. I can see him—he stopped and wiped his balding head with his faded red handkerchief and sat down on the cool stones we’d just laid. “Well, I guess that’s up to you, Boy. You know what you got to do.” He wiped his neck and that was all he said.
I can see myself, skinny and lank, watching him turn his attention back to laying the stones, leaving me hanging out there on a limb with no hope. Then, as now, when I visit him in the nursing home, I long to see some sign of warmth in his eyes, blue eyes, flat blue like mate crepe paper, no spark in them. These days there’s not even a glimmer of recognition.
And yes, damn-it-all-to-hell, back then, at sixteen, I did know what I had to do.
I got a job working at the hardware and a job on weekends at the gas station. I pulled weeds for Mrs. Watkins. I mowed lawns all over town, and the year I graduated from High School, I had a damned car of my own, paid for with my own sweat. And I was righteous, and mad as hell about it. I took damn good care of that car. I had it for ten years, and I kept it running like a top.
Back then, I thought of this cabin as my prison and Uncle Corbin as my jailer. Ten years of work getting through college and grad school, and at last finding my dream job as an Industrial Engineer, and here I am, right back where I started, reliving the past. I’m fatter. I have less hair, yet inside I’m still a mulish kid when I look at this wall and that pitiful old cabin.
It’s funny, but today, this place, looking at it through my adult eyes, I can almost turn it into a haven, a place far removed from the highly technical, challenging world where I have to compete to make my living.
By comparison, this place is quiet, uncomplicated, and somehow, although very run down, it’s clean and uncluttered. Inside the cabin, I sit down on the bench at the table where we ate every meal, and I look outside to that wall, that wall that we built together.
Near my Uncle’s cot, I find a stack of books. He read the same ones over and over: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Iliad, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Henry David Thoreau’s, Walden Pond, plus a twenty-six volume set of 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
The one room cabin smells good, like moss and earth. I flip to the inscription on the inside cover of Walden Pond; Uncle Corbin often showed me this when I wanted him to tell me stories about my dad. His little brother had given him this book and he’d printed an inscription: To a fellow hermit, happy birthday, March 10, 1963.
Today I discover, folded neatly between the pages, my Uncle Corbin’s will. And it hits me. Shaking my head, I try to deny it but I can’t, surely I can’t be thinking of keeping this place? Turning around, I squint hard. My head cocked to the side, I look at this place, really look at it, and I look outside to the creek and to the woods and try to see this place though the eyes of an investor.
I’ve never brought my family here. I guess I thought my boys to be too sophisticated for this rustic old place. But I wonder if there’s something here for them to learn? We could fix this cabin up, put on a new roof, slap some paint on it, maybe stick in some insulation. But, no plumbing, electricity or running water; no, that’s the lesson to be learned here.
Back at the nursing home, sitting beside Uncle Corbin at his bedside, his rough, leathery, boney hand held fast in my own white hands, my tears come hot and salty down my cheek. His last breath is a shuddering sigh, his fingers tighten and in death, as in life, my uncle has a grip on me. We were, after all, all things to each other. We built that wall together, built it against that ever-present danger, the flood.
His will is as straightforward and simple as the man, his ashes are to be planted in the streambed below the wall and this quote read: “Do not lose hold of your dreams or aspirations. For if you do, you may still exist but you have ceased to live.” Henry David Thoreau.
Which causes more disquiet within me rather than instill peace of mind, and I wonder at my Uncle’s dreams, what were they? Why had I never asked?
With the sun over my shoulder, I stand on the bank alone, watching his ashes drift into the current of the cold creek. My resentment fades. Hate is a very strong word.
I don’t hate. Uncle Corbin did a lot for me. I can see that. He wasn’t mean, he didn’t beat me, he never yelled at me, he never preached or accused. He gave me the minimum of what I needed, allowing me to decide for myself.
The last of his ashes I pour between my fingers and let them go and I wonder; can I give as much to my boys…Uncle Corbin’s way?
By Dorothy A. Bell
Blog at https://dabellm3.wordpress.com
Word count 4,749
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Too short on one end, Penny made use of a step stool to reach the top shelf in her small bedroom closet. The box of old handbags and shoes came tumbling down, bouncing off her left brow and ending upside down on the floor. Huffing and puffing, her white hair in her eyes, she clung to the closet door to steady herself. Shaking, she stepped off the stool, grateful she hadn’t fallen.
She gathered up the contents of the box: her good, patent-leather handbag, a small, gold evening bag, two pair of two-inch pumps that made her wince at the very idea of squeezing her bunions into the pointy toes, and one big, ugly, green leather hand bag, the color reminding her of over-cooked green beans.
She hated that green bag. It was too big, but it held sentimental value. Her first husband, Jack Albright, had given it to her on their very first Christmas together. They’d been married barely three months and he was due to ship out after New Years. She was pregnant, and he was leaving; how could she tell him she hated his gift?
She started to put the handbag back in the box when she spotted the stapled together, yellowed and brittle newspaper clippings poking out of the side pocket.
WILLOWDALE GAZETTE, SATURDAY, JULY 10, 1953
MEETIN’ PLACE ROBBED
The headline stopped her heart. As a wave of guilt and shame washed over her, she gathered her lower lip between her teeth. The headline brought with it memories, some wonderful, some sad and heart-pounding. She’d forgotten she’d stashed those clippings in that old handbag. Now, she surreptitiously hid them farther down in the side pocket, afraid to look at them. Those clippings and that ugly old handbag belonged together, they told the whole story, and what a story it was.
Hands shaking, she couldn’t resist, she retrieved the newspaper clippings from the side pocket and tossed the purse into the box. Seeking her reading glasses on her nightstand by her bed, Penny sat down to read the article below the headline.
It is believed the robbery took place after Friday night Happy Hour and before the opening of the Meetin’ Place Tavern Saturday, noon. Four to five thousand dollars were stolen from owner Walt Osgood’s office. The robber, or robbers, entered and exited through a basement window. Anyone seeing or knowing of any suspicious activity on the evening of July 10th near the Meetin’ Place, or Saturday July 11 early morning, contact County Sheriff Ron Knight. All patrons of the Meetin’ Place Friday night Happy Hour will be interviewed and questioned.
At eighty-three, Penny could remember very clearly how disgusted, abandoned, she’d felt back then. If she closed her eyes, she could smell him, hear Jack, feel him tumble into bed drunker than a skunk.
Her blood started to boil.
Six years her senior, Jack was long dead, of course. He held the distinction of being husband number one—she’d outlived four husbands, each one of them devils, devils she would forever miss and hold dear to her heart.
For the past two years, Penny called Brookside Assisted Living her home. She no longer cared where she lived, or how. The food wasn’t bad here and the company, well, she thought her contemporaries a bit loony at times and irascible, but it was alright, at least they were all about the same age.
She usually took a nap right after lunch, but, around three-thirty in the afternoon, around the time the mail man arrived, she’d go down to visit with the other old tabbies while they waited for the mail to arrive. She called it her Happy Hour.
Happy Hour. Oh, my oh my.
A Marine, fighting in the Korean War, gone eighteen months, you would think that Jack Albright would want nothing more than to stay home with his pretty, petite, redheaded little wife Penny and their ten month old baby girl. But, by the second week, Jack grew restless as a caged tiger. Tuesday afternoon he wanted to look up some of his old buddies. After that, he went out every afternoon around four, staying out later and later, coming home in the wee hours of the morning smelling of cigarettes and beer.
On Friday night, Penny stayed up to watch Jack Benny on the new television set Jack had bought the very first day of his leave. Excited to have him home—really home—home for three months of leave, her disappoint hit hard when it sank in that he didn’t want to spend every minute of every day with her and their baby girl, Betty Lou.
The first couple of nights that he stepped out, she waited up for him, but angry and hurt, she soon gave that up; going without sleep wasn’t an option with a baby to take care of. Exhausted, she fell asleep on the couch, coming to when the television station signed off with the national anthem. She got up to change Betty Lou’s diaper and give her a bottle, then dragged her butt to bed.
Lyin’ there in the dark in that big bed all by herself, she cussed that man, and feared there was something wrong with her that he didn’t want to stay home and make love to her. She’d put on a pound or two, she had stretch marks now and couldn’t wear a bikini. At nineteen, she lay there wallowing in self-degradation and self-pity.
Jack Albright was one good lookin’ son-of-a-gun. He was movie star yummy. He kind of looked like Montgomery Clift, soulful brown eyes, limber lips, a lean, tight body. Gorgeous! Penny was way gone on the guy.
At the ripe old age of eighty-three, Penny still was, as a matter of fact. She dreamt of Jack Albright almost every night.
His good looks didn’t help; it made matters worse, imagining Jack out there with some bar-fly hanging on him, nibbling at his neck, enticing him to do who knows what. She finally dropped off into a fitful sleep. The next thing she knew Jack was on his knees beside the bed, shaking her, trying to get her to wake up, slobbering drunk, in tears.
“Penny! Pen, wake up, I’ve done something….terrible. It’s bad, Pen. You’ve got to help me!”
“Jack…” She called out, groggy—half awake. The man was stinko. He was gonna wake Betty Lou, then she’d be up all night trying to get her back to sleep and, no doubt, Jack would pass out.
Every woman knows, sometimes, you gotta hate men. The topic came up quite often down in the Brookside lobby among Penny’s fellow inmates. So far, she’d avoided giving away particulars, sticking to generalizations. In her day, men didn’t have to worry about walking the floor with a colicky baby at three A.M, that was women’s work. As far as she could tell, things hadn’t changed a hell of a lot.
“Will you shut up, Jack. I don’t want Betty Lou to wake up. What are you talking about anyway? Are you crying?”
Pissed, she flung back the covers, swinging her legs over the side of the bed in a snit. “You’re drunk!”
Before she could come to her feet, Jack had her by the hips, holding her down to the bed. He shoved a wrinkled, brown paper bag in front of her nose. She could smell the bag.
To this day, if Penny closed her eyes, she could smell that thing; it had smelled of grease, smoke and stale popcorn. After all these years, she couldn’t go into a McDonalds without the smell of French fries and cheeseburgers making her stomach do summersaults.
Shoving the paper bag away from her nose, she asked, “What is that?”
Head shaking, she could see the beads of sweat glistening on his forehead.
Jack whispered in the dark, his beery spit hitting her in the face, “I stole it, Pen. I stole it. I don’t know why—stupid—I guess.
“I’m in trouble, Penny, big trouble. You gotta help me. You just gotta. I’m in a lot of trouble. I’ll go to prison. I’ll be kicked out of the Marines. They’ll throw me in the brig.”
He gave her a rough shake. “Pack up! We’ll get out of town tonight. We’ll run for it. We can go to Mexico….or Canada…!”
By then he had her scared too. Her stomach cramped up into a tight fist. She was shaking—the man was serious.
Penny repeated, asking him, “What’s in the bag, Jack?”
To her utter surprise and further disgust, he giggled. She suspected a joke, and seriously considered killing him.
Blubbering incoherently, he plopped down on the floor, his long legs splayed out to the side, his big feet going under the bed, hugging the paper bag. Penny couldn’t tell if he was laughing or crying; didn’t matter, either way she would have to kill him. He sat there rocking back and forth, blubbering and begging her to help him.
Penny thought being in love a silly thing. All these years later, she thought it a crazy, sappy state of mind. Love is blind and deaf.
She slid off the side of the bed and pulled Jack into her arms.
With her eyes closed, Penny could bring back the memory of his rock hard shoulders beneath her fingers as he wept into the nape of her neck. She remembered the mixed smell of cigarettes that clung to his hair and his clothes, and the sound of his sorrow and the heat of his body through her nightie.
They rocked back and forth for a little while, Jack crying hysterically as she tried to soothe him. “I’ll help you, Jack. I’ll help you. What’s in the bag? What have you done?”
He drew in a deep shuddering breath, then became still and quiet in her arms. “I robbed the Meetin’ Place.”
It took her a few seconds to absorb that revelation; she couldn’t breathe, but she could feel her heart thudding against her ribs. Half-asleep, she hoped it some fantastic dream. If it hadn’t been for the cold floor under her bare behind, she would’ve chalked this nightmare up to her supper of chocolate pudding and salami.
The Meetin’ Place was the only tavern in Willowdale. It was within walking distance of their apartment. She didn’t know why she hadn’t guessed that was where he’d slipped off to, night after night.
With his buddies? Like Hell!
With his buddies Hamms and Budweiser, drinking away his furlough instead of staying home making love to her. It would’ve been easier to take if he’d been with his friends. Definitely, now she would kill him.
“What are we gonna’ do, Pen?”
Oh, how she wanted to smack him upside the head…order him to grow up, but she loved the pathetic twerp. She might be just nineteen, but she was learning fast, and tonight she had to be the grownup.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. We can’t do anything tonight. We’ll sleep on it. In the morning we’ll come up with something. How much money’s in the bag?”
Jack opened the sack and dumped some of the contents on the floor. The bedroom door stood open and light from the hallway cast a weak beam of yellow light across Jack’s legs. The sight of all that cash took her breath away, but even scared spitless, she picked up a wad of bills and counted them.
“I gotta take a leak,” Jack groaned before he crawled off toward the bathroom.
Using the doorway for support, his long shadow came between her and the cash on the floor as he pulled himself up. She heard him flush the toilet, then turn on the tap, and she knew he was brushing his teeth. By the time he got back to the bedroom, she’d counted out almost fifteen hundred dollars, and that was only half the contents of the bag.
She heard him behind her taking off his clothes. She stuffed the money back in the sack and put it on the nightstand on her side of the bed. Jack stumbled across the room and fell onto the mattress. As expected, he was dead to the world in seconds, but Penny lay awake, her eyes on the bag.
* * * * *
They overslept. Penny got up with the baby, like nothing unusual had happened—just another day. While changing Betty Lou, she heard Jack bumping around in their room. She gave the baby her breakfast of warm pabulum and heard Jack get in the shower. Steam filled the hallway, the fog smelled of his sandalwood soap and shaving cream. It all seemed so good—so normal and so everyday.
But there was that damn sack of stolen cash on the nightstand, and her stomach bubbled like an acid-filled pool of green sludge. She closed her eyes and tried to wish that ill-gotten sack of booty away.
Reality came with the morning paper.
It was front page news—The Meetin’ Place had been robbed.
The county sheriff and a team of detectives had started an investigation. They suspected the robber, or robbers, had entered through a basement window and gotten away with over four thousand dollars.
Penny and Jack went through the day like a pair of wanted felons—jumping at every little sound. They both expected the cops to show up at any minute. The paper said the police were going to talk to everyone who was at the Meetin’ Place last night.
On automatic pilot, Penny went through the motions of being regular. She and Jack played with the baby. Jack took care of the kitchen cupboard door with the loose hinge, and she did a couple loads of wash.
Penny tried to eat, but everything tasted like cardboard. As the sun started to go down, they didn’t have any more notion of what to do than they’d had the night before.
Just like it was yesterday, Penny could see herself, on the floor with Betty Lou, blowin’ on her little toes, getting her to giggle. And Jack, pacing before the fireplace.
She asked him, “Why’d you do it, Jack? What the hell got into you?”
The look in his eyes said it all; he didn’t know. He was sick with guilt and filled with fear. She thought him handsome in his khaki slacks and olive green sweater; he didn’t look like a thief at all, he looked like a poster boy for the Marines.
Muttering to himself, he finally said, “I don’t know.” He paced back and forth a few more times, then flopped down on their saggy sofa, the one they’d found in the alley by the dumpster. Leaning back, his hands going behind his head, he turned his eyes to the ceiling and admitted, “It was just so damn easy. I’d been sittin’ there at the bar, like all the other nights, drinkin’ and shootin’ the bull, you know, bored out of my skull. When it came closin’ time, I was gonna walk home…sober up. I had to take a leak. The toilet’s in the basement. Of course you know that, you’ve been down there in that old basement. You said it stinks like rats down there.”
Even now, a chill ran down her spine thinking of that basement. Definitely, there were rats down there, big rats.
On the floor, in their tiny apartment, patting Betty Lou’s little tummy, she didn’t say a word. She intended to make him sweat, he had some explaining to do—she wanted to hear the whole story.
He must’ve realized she wasn’t going to give him a break. She heard him heave a weighty sigh. He closed his eyes and tossed his head back. Then confessed. “I was in the john.” Coming forward, resting his elbows on his knees, fixing his gaze on her, he explained, “I’d just turned out the light when I heard Walt comin’ down the basement steps, so I didn’t open the john door all the way.
“‘You go on, Doris,’” I heard Walt holler. “‘I’ll count this out in the mornin’. We can’t make a deposit until Monday anyway.’”
“‘Right. Goodnight then,’” Doris hollered back down to him.
“Well, I kept my mouth shut. I was standin’ behind the door, lookin’ through the crack between the casing and the door, and I watched Walt stuff this brown paper bag in the bottom drawer of his old desk.
“I know I should’a popped out right then and there, but I didn’t. I stood there in the dark while he locked up. I saw him put the key to his office under the coffee can full of sand in the hall where he snuffed out his cigarettes.
“The old fool,” Jack grumbled to himself. “Anybody could’ve come down into that old basement and swiped that cash, any time, no problem, Penny.”
Penny remembered being appalled that Jack could blame Walt Osgood for tempting him. She’d also thought her spouse a big horse’s-ass, but like a good little wife, she’d kept listening, trying to be supportive.
“I stayed in the basement as the lights went off, and I heard Walt lock the upstairs doors. I should take that cash, I told myself. Teach the old fart a lesson. That’s what I thought. I even thought it kind of funny. I was laughin’.”
Leaning back, Jack closed his eyes and then told her the God’s honest truth, “I was drunk, is what I was…and stupid.”
Opening his eyes, he stared up at the water-stained acoustical tiles on the ceiling.
“Crawling out that basement window, laughing my ass off, I had big ideas of what I was gonna do with the cash. I was gonna buy you some pretty dresses and get the baby a real crib and buy your mom a nice new bed. Last night, there for a while, what I‘d done didn’t seem so bad. No one would know it was me that’d done it. How could they know? Then, on the way home, I started to sober up and it hit me what would happen to you…to the baby, if they caught me…then not if they caught me, but when they caught me, and I knew I was in over my head.
“I’ve ruined us, Pen, I’ve ruined everything.”
Jack broke down, closed his eyes, put his head in his hands and started sobbing.
An embryo of a plan started to find purchase in Penny’s brain. “Watch the baby,” she told him as she hauled herself up off the floor.
“Where are you goin’?” Jack hollered after her.
She left the apartment for Mrs. Trask’s apartment across the hall. Mrs. Trask was an elderly old soul…lonely, and she loved Betty Lou. Penny would tell her Jack wanted to take her out to dinner. They wouldn’t be gone more than a couple of hours.
When she got back to their apartment, there was Jack on his back on the floor, his eyes closed, Betty Lou stretched out on his chest, one of his hands resting on her little back, both of them asleep. The sight brought a lump to her throat.
And with the sweet memory, a tear trickled down Penny’s old and withered cheek. Back then, she’d had no time for tears.
She rushed to their bedroom, changed her jeans and T shirt for a nice dress, stockings and high heels. On the top shelf of the closet, she found the big handbag she’d gotten from Jack for the one and only Christmas they’d had together
She hated that handbag, but it served the purpose that night.
She stuffed that stinky paper bag of ill-gotten gains into that ugly purse and marched out to the living room.
“Mrs. Trask is coming over to watch Betty Lou,” she said. “Come on, we’re going to Saturday Night Happy Hour at the Meetin’ Place.”
Jack opened his eyes, staring at her, stupefied. He laid there, his mouth open, looking up at her as if she’d gone crazy.
About that time, Mrs. Trask came in the door. Jack laid the baby gently back on her blanket on the floor while Penny showed Mrs. Trask what to give Betty Lou for her supper.
* * * * *
All the way down the block, Jack kept at her. He wanted to know what she was gonna do. Penny didn’t know exactly, but it was Saturday night and The Meetin’ Place was busy during Saturday Night Happy Hour. Walt laid out a taco bar. Lots of folks took advantage of the cheap eats and booze. She was only nineteen, but Penny knew…she knew.
She pulled up short a couple of steps from the front doors of the old tavern. The old building was made of red brick, built as a hotel and restaurant back in the early nineteen-hundreds. The multi-paned windows, painted over with flaking, peeling, green paint, allowed little needles of light to shine through like slivers of gold. Out on the sidewalk, they could hear the sounds of the juke-box playing a Hank Williams tune, and there was laughter and the smells of smoke, spicy hamburger taco filling, and salsa, escaping from around the door.
By this time, Penny had started to have second thoughts. Hell, she was having second, third and fourth thoughts. She wasn’t sure she could do it. She’d thought it a simple enough plan when she’d left the house.
“Penny,” Jack insisted, taking her by the shoulders and giving her a little shake, “what are you gonna do? You have that money, don’t you? You’ve got it in your purse. Are you gonna turn me in? Penny! You can’t turn me in!”
That surprised her, how could he think she’d turn him in? What an idea. It’d never occurred to her to turn him in. She would never.
She still wondered how he could’ve thought such a thing…how could he?
Indignant, she shook herself loose from his grasp. “Jack Albright, you idiot, I’m not going to turn you in. We’re going in there to enjoy Happy Hour and to find out how the investigation is going. It’s the neighborly thing to do. It would look funny if we weren’t interested. Curious, you know what I mean?”
He nodded, but she could see by the scowl on his face that he wasn’t too keen on the idea, so she gave him a sketchy outline of what she had in mind, “You’ll have a couple of drinks, brag to everyone about your Marine experiences, and I’ll sit there looking sweet and innocent and have a couple of cokes. We’ll visit with folks, eat some tacos. I’ll have to go to the bathroom, of course, and while I’m down in that dungeon, I’ll slip the loot back into the office…at least that’s what I hope to do.”
Over sixty years later and Penny could see him, see the look on his face, it had been priceless. She chortled to herself, then sighed, lost in the past.
Jack stood there, dazzling her with that big grin of his. She couldn’t help herself; she melted into his arms and he picked her up, swung her around and around, making her dizzy.
Before they went inside, he reminded her about the key to the office under the coffee can.
Penny splurged and had a couple of Shirley Temples to settle her nerves. Although she was starving, she didn’t think she could manage one of Walt’s spicy tacos.
A steady stream of ladies paraded up and down those basement stairs, passing in and out of the ladies’ loo like leaves in a swirling eddy. After an hour-and-a-half, she swam her way down there to use the facilities. She had to dawdle, washing her hands and primping, before she finally found herself alone.
The hall, lit by one piss-poor yellow light that cast shadows on the stairs and walls, closed in on her. With the all clear, and the sounds of the party going on upstairs, she slipped across the hall only to discover there was no key under the coffee can.
She began to sweat. She tried the office door, jiggled the doorknob and found it opened easily, and snuck into the room as two more women started down the steps. She couldn’t shut the door, or they would know someone was in the office, so she stood real still and tried not to breathe.
Those women fooled around down there, messing around in the hall and in that washroom for what seemed like hours. Then a couple of men came down as the women came out of the john and they started to have a little party down there.
She thought she would mess her pants, her stomach clenching up, squeezing and cramping. Finally, the party trooped back up the steps. By now, her eyes had adjusted to the dark and she made her way over to the desk in the room.
That’s when she nearly lost it; only by biting her tongue did she keep from screaming.
The office door opened wider and a beam of light spread across the room, exposing her. She ducked down real fast and bumped into the office chair. The person in the doorway stepped into the room. She figured she was a dead woman.
In a flash, Penny foresaw her future behind bars, her mother holding Betty Lou in her arms, the baby wailing, and her mother shaking her head.
“Pen…Pen, is that you, Pen?”
It was Jack. If she could’ve talked, she would’ve called him all kinds of dirty names, but she’d lost control of her voice, she couldn’t speak—hell, she was having trouble breathing.
Before she could think, she yanked that paper bag out of her purse and stuffed it under the office chair. She didn’t care anymore, she just wanted it out of her reach.
She remembered popping up off that floor like she’d springs in her butt, grabbing Jack by the arm and dragging him out into the hall.
Right about then, Walt came down the basement stairs. Jack twirled her around, put her back up against the wall and started to kiss her like she’d never been kissed before, with Penny, short of breath, on the brink of passing out.
They were leaning to the side of the office door, and Jack faked falling into the doorway before allowing her to come up for air.
“Hey, Walt, can’t a man have a little smooch with his wife? A little privacy, man.”
“I gotta get a new door for that office of mine,” Walt grumbled, head down, blushing, reaching around them to close his office door before he stumbled into the men’s john.
They went back upstairs. Walt returned, all bluster and bluff, and he took his place behind the bar, vowing to put in some better security. Penny thought he sure as hell needed to do something.
Pretending to be in no hurry to leave, Penny and Jack hung around awhile, managing to knock back a few more drinks and down a couple of tacos before leaving for home around nine-thirty.
Back in their apartment, they sat before the fireplace in their living room and counted their blessings.
The next day, Sunday morning, the headlines in the paper read:
Meetin’ Place mystery cash reappears, owner Walt Osgood calls investigation off.
Wisely, Jack suggested they head for the beach for a few days. Penny was more than willing to comply.
Sixty-one years ago, she’d clipped Saturday’s and Sunday’s headlines out of the Willowdale Gazette. But she’d forgotten about stuffing the clippings in the side pocket of her ugly green handbag.
Sitting in the Brookside lobby with the other tabbies, Penny considered sharing her discovery, reciting her adventurous tale. But, it was almost four o’clock, the mailman had come and gone, and here she sat silent as a tomb, lost in the past. Fumbling in her pocket for the key to her mailbox, her fingers encountered the clippings. She patted them, assuring herself that they were safe. She would keep her past to herself, hug her memories close to her heart.
With Happy Hour drawing to a close, it was Saturday night—Penny thought she would make herself some tacos for supper, maybe have a beer—a Budweiser for old time’s sake, and raise a toast to husband number one.
READ GERALDINE HERE OR DOWNLOAD FROM AMAZON CLOUD AT
Dorothy A. Bell
Redmond, Oregon 97756
Word count 9,543
The garbled, jumbled-up syllables spewing out of Geraldine’s mouth landed on Edie’s ears like static from outer space. She shook her head to clear the channels. “Say again, Gerry, slowly this time. You were talking so fast my ears got whiplash.”
Geraldine groaned and squeezed her eyes shut. Leaning out, she looked around the side of the booth and cast a furtive glance to the occupied booths at the front of the Koffee Kup Kafe.
Considered petite, Gerry had to half-stand to get her face closer to Edie’s, bringing her boobs, which were tightly encased in a hot pink tank top, up on the table. Whispering, she repeated, “I killed Ashton. I shot him. I didn’t mean to…but the gun went off and he fell down dead.”
Edie grabbed her sister Geraldine by the wrists and dug in her fingernails. Also short, but not at all petite, she too hauled her impressive chest onto the table to get closer to Geraldine’s nose. She whispered between clenched teeth, “That’s what I thought you said. You had a gun, Gerry? Where the hell did you get a gun? Why would you want to kill Ashton?”
Gerry snatched her hands away and rubbed her wrists. She huffed impatiently and plopped her size six little tush back down in the booth. “I didn’t want to shoot anybody. The gun went off…he startled me. Mr. Ralston said he was dead. He told me to come here to the Koffee Kup and wait.”
Her torso up on the table, her size sixteen ass off the seat, Edie asked, “Ralston? Mr. Ralston…who the hell is Mr. Ralston? Where did he come from? And why would he tell you to wait here?”
Trembling, Edie flopped back down onto the booth seat. “Why didn’t you stay put, Gerry? You should never have left the scene of the crime. We’ve watched enough CSI, Murder She Wrote and Columbo to know you never leave the scene of the crime, not if you want to be found innocent. It was an accident, wasn’t it Gerry?”
Gerry sat there shaking her head at her, lips drawn up tight, eyes narrowed. Edie recognized peeved when she saw it.
“Mr. Ralston’s FBI, Edie. He said to wait for him here at the Koffee Kup, have a piece of pie and a cup of coffee, and he’d take care of everything.”
“That’s crazy, Gerry. You think that’s the rational thing to do? You think, after you murder someone, you should go to a café and have a piece of pie and a cup of coffee?”
Edie watched her sister shovel in a big forkful of pie into her mouth. She wanted a piece of chocolate pie, but she was dieting again. If she ate pie like that she’d gain ten pounds overnight. “I can’t believe you’re actually eating that. How can you sit there and eat pie—chocolate pie, with whip cream…whip cream…Gerry?”
Edie slammed her ample shoulders back against the booth. The booth shuddered. She folded her hands tightly together between her chubby thighs, prepared to put forth a bit of logic. “This Ralston guy should’ve called the cops. You should be in handcuffs. You should be down at the police station getting fingerprinted. They should have you locked up by now. When did all of this killing take place, Gerry?”
Gerry swallowed, and in a very patient and reasonable voice said, “I told you, Edie, Mr. Ralston is FBI; those guys can do a lot of things the police can’t do. He’s been investigating Ashton on suspicion of drug trafficking and wanted to ask him some questions.”
Edie took a breath, sat back in the booth, and tilted her head to the side to glare at her zany, bats-for-brains older sister. “Why is it, Gerry, that you can’t settle down to a boring life like everyone else? Why must you pull me into your dramas? This drama, this…this is serious shit.”
The problem was, as Edie saw it, that even though Gerry was her older sister by four years, mentally Gerry had never gotten past the age of twenty-two. She would forever be a petite, vivacious, blonde haired, painted lips, fingernails and toenails bimbo. In reality, Gerry could pass for a woman ten years younger than her forty-seven years, but no matter how much makeup or hair dye she applied, she would never appear anywhere near twenty again.
After Gerry’s divorce, she’d found work as a concierge at a local resort, played the field, then set aside Edie’s warnings and went ahead and answered one of those local singles ads. First letter out, she got a response from C. G. Hardenburger, of THE HARDENBURGER’s of Central Oregon, a big rancher family. C.G. required an attractive woman, between thirty and thirty-five, to join him in his retirement. His interests: parasailing, hang-gliding and downhill skiing.
Gerry, despite missing the age requirement by ten years, and knowing nothing about parasailing or hang-gliding, and never mind that she got dizzy standing on the second step of a stepladder, answered the ad post-haste. Within a month-and-a-half, she and Charles Gordon Hardenburger—known far-and-wide as Rocky—ran off to Reno to get married.
Two weeks ago, two weeks after the couple’s return from Reno, Edie had arrived in Central Oregon upon Gerry’s SOS call, enlisted to aid her in preparing for a big blowout reception. She’d begged Edie to help her, said all she would have to do is run a few errands. Edie knew better, of course.
After a long pause, and some careful organizing of her thoughts, Edie asked, “Do you think it’s true? Do you think Ashton could be a drug dealer?”
Gerry forked off a good-sized bite of the pie and placed it in her mouth. She closed her big brown eyes to savor the chocolate goo, swallowed, and rocked her head, her pretty, painted lips pursed up in a bow. “Well, I wouldn’t put anything past him. But, somehow I can’t see it. He’s so obvious. He bought a jet, for God’s sake. Who does that? And a pontoon boat. Shelly’s driving a new convertible. They both flaunt their wealth all over town. He and Shelly, diamonds dripping off their fingers, driving around town in big cars, look more like a pair of pimps than drug dealers to me.”
That made Edie laugh, her sister had voiced her opinion exactly. Edie sobered. “Okay, did this Ralston guy say when he would come get you? Did he tell you to call the police?”
Gerry made a dismissive little phhhttt noise, and wiped her mouth with a paper napkin.
Edie sat back against the cool vinyl of the booth and closed her eyes. She hadn’t had one of her headaches for months and months, but she could feel one coming on now. She sucked deeply on the straw that she’d sank into the cool glass well of icy lemonade she held between her hands. With the straw still in her mouth, she looked over her nose at her sister.
“Don’t you think it’s strange that you’re not being hand-cuffed, guarded or even watched, Gerry? Give it a moment of thought, please?” Between clenched teeth, jaw so tight she thought her ears would fly off, she had to say, “You’re sitting here, Gerry, free as a bird. You could get up and leave. Disappear.” Edie flapped her arms like a bird for demonstration in case her sister required pictures.
“I m doing as I was told, Edie. Mr. Ralston said he would take care of things and I trust him. He’s a nice man. I know it. He had a nice voice. He didn’t yell at me. He didn’t make me feel stupid like you do,” Gerry said.
That did it. Edie snatched the forkful of pie from Gerry’s lips, forcing her to place the utensil on her plate. “We are going to talk to Conroy Davis right now. Get your purse.”
Folding her arms across her chest, Gerry puckered up. “No. I can’t”
“Because I’m supposed to wait here.”
“For how long, Gerry? An hour? Two hours? A day? Two days? How long ago did you leave the Lundendosky house? ”
Edie could see that Gerry didn’t know. She had her eyebrows pinched up over her little turned-up nose and her mouth had fallen open a little. When she put her fingers on her lips, Edie knew she had her—Gerry really didn’t know.
“Allow me to help you,” she said, being intentionally and, hopefully, irritatingly condescending. “You called me at three forty-seven. I hurried back to the ranch from the print shop on purpose to be back in time to see the Ellen DeGeneres show; her guest today was Harrison Ford. I really wanted to see that. I’d settled down in front of the TV in my little room with a bowl of cheese puffs and a seltzer when my cell phone went off. I knew it was you.
“This morning, before we left the ranch, you reminded me and Rocky that you were going over to Shelly’s after your hair appointment to pick up the crystal. Your appointment was for one-thirty. So, you were at the beauty parlor for an hour, hour-and-a-half, that would make it, let’s say, a little after three when you got to the Lundendosky house. You go inside…”
Gerry squirmed in her seat.
“Stay with me, Gerry. You go inside, you said no one answered the door but you could hear music. You go in, and you hear music coming from…where’s the music coming from, Gerry? Now, think Gerry. Where did you find the gun? I know you don’t own a gun, so where did you find it?”
“On the hall table.” Gerry bounced in her seat. “Yes, it was so little and cute sitting there in the most darling little black velvet box. I swear, Edie it looked like a toy, a little jewel, all shiny, with a silver and gold filigree design on the barrel and an inlaid pearl grip. I had to hold it.”
“Uh, huh, cute little gun in a black velvet box. You picked it up. Of course, you did. Gerry, what were you thinking?”
Gerry opened her mouth to answer. Edie cut her off with a shake of her head. “Never mind…so you went past the door to the entry level bathroom and family room. And you looked into the living room.”
“Well, no, actually I didn’t look into the livingroom. I was headed to the pool room, I thought the music was coming from there. You turn down the hall across from the living room, remember. The pool’s in the east wing. I was almost to the end of the hall. I could see the pool, then Ashton startled me and the little gun went off. He sort of came around the corner pillar at the entrance to the pool room, and the gun went off and he fell down dead.”
She choked, and her words, strangled by tears, got stuck in her throat. “I shot him, Edie. I shot him dead.”
Struck momentarily speechless, Edie sat there with her mouth open, her spit drying up like dew in the desert. Giving herself a mental shake, she drew herself up. “Okay, let’s say you shot Ashton around three-thirty or three-fifteen. You called me from here, right?”
Gerry nodded, her pinky finger in her mouth now, her brown eyes wide, unblinking.
Edie wrote everything down on the back of an old grocery list. She looked at her watch, it was almost four-thirty. “Let’s go. We can sort the rest of this out at Conroy’s office.”
Gerry had shut her eyes and sat shaking her head. “I can’t go to Conroy.”
“Gerry, I know he’s only a tax lawyer, but he’s all we’ve got. We’ve known him a long time. He’ll know what to do. We need help. You need help.”
“No, Mr. Ralston wants me to stay here.”
“Gerry, if this Ralston character is who he says he is, he won’t have any trouble finding you. Now, let’s go.”
Reluctantly, Gerry nodded. “Mr. Ralston was so sweet. He gave me a twenty-dollar bill to pay for the pie and coffee.
The kid at the cash register began to make change, then stopped. He picked up the twenty and held it up to the light, started to put it in the till, but he stopped again. Edie detected a moment of absolute jubilation on his face, then he quickly masked his delight and began to make change. Muttering something about not enough change in the drawer, he rushed to the back room with the twenty in his hand.
Edie didn’t like the look on the kid’s face. He’d left the till a little ajar. “C’mon, we got to get out of here.”
“But, I want the change. I need to give it to Mr. Ralston.”
Edie dragged her out to the street.
“There’s something funny about that twenty. Didn’t you see the kid’s face? C’mon, Gerry.”
“What? You think it was counterfeit?” Gerry asked as Edie rushed her down the street, dodging the oncoming pedestrians.
At any moment, Edie expected a squad car to come tearing down the street, sirens blaring, jumping the curb, pulling a Rockford in front of them. But nothing happened. They met a few curious faces but only in passing.
At the tax office, gossipy Karen Blasche wasn’t sitting at her receptionist desk, thank God, so they didn’t have to explain why they needed to see Conroy immediately.
Edie knocked on Conroy’s door a few times, and when he didn’t answer she simply called out his name, “Conroy, are you in? It’s Edna Bayless, Conroy?”
Opening the solid walnut door a little wider, she could see Conroy stretched out on his old, brown leather sofa.
One arm draped over his eyes, he afforded her an unnecessary view of the yellow sweat stains of the underarms of his white dress shirt. His short, stubby body didn’t stretch the full length of the six foot sofa. With his legs crossed at the ankles, and the cuffs of his gray slacks bunched up, they had a glimpse of his chalky-skinned, brown hairy shins and white crew socks.
He snored softly. Gerry clutched at Edie’s arm. “Let’s get out of here before he wakes up. I don’t want to talk to him.”
Stepping back a little into the reception room, Edie confronted Gerry. “Okay, why not? You think you killed somebody. You need help. We need help. Conroy is as close as we’ve got in town to a trial lawyer.”
“I know that,” Gerry said, twisting her body out of Edie’s grasp. “It’s just that…well…he called a few months ago and asked me out to dinner. I lied. I told him I no longer dated. Now I’m married to Rocky and well…well, I feel funny about it, that’s all.”
When the office door jerked open, Edie and Gerry were more or less dragged over the threshold and into the room. Looking tousled and bleary-eyed, Conroy Davis stopped them from going to the floor by blocking them with his sturdy body. With wispy tufts of sandy hair standing out from around his ears, his bow tie dangling from his opened collar button, and the top tab on his trousers undone, he didn’t appear at all pleased to see them.
Gerry stepped behind Edie as Conroy glanced out his office door to the reception desk. “I guess Karen went home.”
He came back into his office, stopped at the corner of his desk and eyed the two women with a critical gaze. “You two look as guilty as two teeny-boppers on Halloween. You been throwing rotten eggs at the mayor’s car? You tip over the garbage cans in the park? What?”
Edie waited, hoping Gerry would spill her guts, but she hovered behind her left shoulder, her head down, studying her fingernails. Edie cleared her throat, took out her grocery list, read it through very quickly, then gave Conroy a rundown of events.
During her litany, at some point he’d sat down behind his desk, his tie now straight, his hair finger-combed, his arms folded on the top of his desk. Edie looked up from her notes and met his inscrutable gaze.
Gerry had found a place to hide in a leather upholstered mission chair near his bookcase; he turned his hard gaze on her.
Edie felt her legs start to wobble and sat down in front of his desk in another of his big, old mission chairs.
“Where’s the gun now, Gerry?” he asked quietly. The question startled Gerry. Her head jerked up, she sat a little forward in her chair, her feet barely touching the floor, and she clutched the wooden armrests. Conroy repeated his question, using his lawyer voice this time.
“I…I guess Mr. Ralston has it.”
“When did this Mr. Ralston come into the picture?”
“Well, I don’t really know.”
“Oh, please, Gerry,” Edie said, “give us a break here. Snap out of it. You’re in a lot of trouble. Conroy is trying to help you.”
“I know,” she said. Her voice breaking up, she started to whimper, her chin wobbling, tears pooling in her big, puppy-dog, brown eyes.
She visibly pulled herself together, her shoulders squaring, her chin coming up, meeting Conroy’s unflinching gaze directly. “I’ll try to remember.” She closed her eyes. “I rang the doorbell. No one answered. I opened the door and I called out for Shelly. I heard music, sixties stuff—Listen to the Falling Rain.”
Edie snorted; her sister could remember the damn tune, but everything else was fuzzy.
Gerry gave her a dark look and returned her gaze to Conroy, who remained straight-faced and inscrutable. “Anyway, I wasn’t thinking of anything but the music. I know on warm days both Shelly and Ashton like to take a swim. With the music on so loud they probably didn’t hear the doorbell. Or it could be I didn’t hear them tell me to come on in; either way, I didn’t think anything of it. Living up on the hill, they hardly ever get anyone visiting that they don’t know. They leave the doors open and unlocked all the time. Rocky doesn’t lock up the ranch either. Anyway, The hall to the pool room isn’t very well lit. When Ashton appeared so suddenly from behind the pillar I think I screamed … and I must’ve pulled the trigger.”
Her face scrunched up with concentration. “You know he almost fell on top of me. And then the gun went off. I didn’t mean to shoot the gun, I didn’t. It was an accident, really, Conroy.”
“Did Ashton say anything?”
Gerry shook her head. “Say…anything…no. And…and I think his eyes were closed. He was in his swim trunks. He looked wet…but he wasn’t wet, you know what I mean? He didn’t get me wet when he fell on me.”
“Did he open his eyes when he saw you?” Edie asked, forgetting that Conroy was in charge of this interrogation.
Gerry turned towards her in her chair, coming to the very edge of it, her hands going to her lap. “Well, I don’t recall. It all happened pretty fast…the shot, then he fell forward and I jumped aside.
“Oh! Oh, I remember I dropped the gun. It should be on the floor near the pillar, unless Mr. Ralston picked it up. But I don’t think he did. I couldn’t move. I don’t know for how long. I heard footsteps behind me. I turned and it was Mr. Ralston. Frankly I was relieved to see someone. I remember, he said he was Mr. Ralston, FBI, and he motioned for me to step aside. I put my back to the wall and he crouched down in front of Ashton’s body.”
Again, Edie had to ask, “Weren’t you afraid? You didn’t know this guy. You hadn’t ever seen him before, had you? Gerry, here’s this stranger, coming down a not very well lit hall toward you and you aren’t scared. Why the hell not?”
Gerry shook her pretty, feather-brained head and pivoted to speak to Conroy. “I wasn’t afraid. I was glad to see him. He looked nice, you know, sympathetic, and he had a kind look on his face, not really a smile, but you know, nice. He was dressed nice too. He had on a dark blue suit, with a lovely burgundy and blue silk tie, very expensive I’m sure. And he was FBI, Edie….I was relieved to see him.”
“You noticed what the man was wearing?” Edie had to say to herself, although she said it aloud.
“Go on, Gerry,” Conroy said, giving her an encouraging nod. He sat back in his chair. His hand going to his chin, he rested his head, giving Gerry his full attention.
“Well, I would say he was tall, no, maybe average, about six feet, but not more than that; he looked tall with the light behind him. He had black hair. No, maybe sort-of brownish, the light wasn’t good. And a beard. No, a mustache, and glasses. I know he was wearing glasses…at least I think he was. Sun glasses, I couldn’t see his eyes.”
With his chin in his hand, Conroy asked, “How old would you make him out to be, Gerry?”
“Hmmm, maybe thirty or forty…forty-five; he wasn’t fifty, I don’t think.”
“What did he say, Conroy asked. Try to remember his exact words.”
“Say? He didn’t say much. He bent over Ashton, stood, then said he didn’t find a pulse. He did pick up the little gun with his kerchief, then he laid it back where he found it. He turned around to face me and took out his badge. He showed it to me.
“He said he wanted to talk to Ashton…no, he said, Mr. Lundendosky, he wanted to talk to Mr. Lundendosky about a drug trafficking case he was working on. He said the door was open, and he heard the shot and the music and came on in. He told me not to worry. He said something about the little pea-shooter. I didn’t know what he was talking about; I guess he meant the gun. Then he gave me twenty dollars out of his inside coat pocket and told me to go down to the Koffee Kup and wait from him. He ushered me to the front door and stood there as I got in the car and left the drive. I remember, because I looked in my review mirror and he was standing in the doorway leaning on the doorjamb.”
The room went very pregnant with silence. Conroy straightened, shoved his chair back and came to his feet. He paced back and forth a few times, then came to a standstill before Gerry, leaned down and planted his hands on the armrests to pin her in.
Gerry pulled back, her chin tucked, eyes going wide, unable to avoid his gaze. “Gerry Ann Spees-Williamson-Hardenburger, do you mean to sit there and tell me, you a grown woman, a woman I always thought had good sense deep down, that you believed this man, this perfect stranger? That you believed he was FBI? This guy who just so happened to show up at the right moment?”
Gerry nodded. “I…I wanted to believe him, Connie. I was scared. I couldn’t kill anyone. I’ve never wanted to kill anyone. I couldn’t believe what I’d done. Mr. Ralston gave me a way out. I took it.”
Conroy went back to his chair behind his desk, scooted forward, grabbed the phone and began to punch in numbers. “Police Chief Potts, please.”
Edie couldn’t stay to listen to the conversation; she had to get to the bathroom now…right now.
Conroy’s posh, 1997 Lincoln Town Car climbed up the winding lane to the Lundendosky mansion. Chief Potts found Gerry’s story a bit hard to swallow, but he agreed to go to the Lundendosky home to have a look around. He was off duty now, so he could do what he wanted, but he wasn’t going to take a squad car on a wild-goose chase.
Warren Potts took up most of the room in the front seat. He stood six feet tall, barrel-chested, an intimidating man even out of uniform. Because of his long torso and narrow hips, he continually had to hitch up his trousers, even though he wore suspenders.
The huge car dwarfed poor Conroy. He sat behind the big, white steering wheel propped up on an air cushion under and behind him.
Gerry and Edie sat in the big back seat like two small children, peering out the side portholes, their heads barely reaching the top of the upholstery on the doors, their feet dangling down into the luxuriously carpeted floor.
On the way up the lane, Conroy asked Gerry, “Where did you park when you were here?”
“Right in front of the doors. I had to pick up the crystal. It’s heavy, I didn’t want to carry it very far.”
Gerry had scooted up, leaning over the front seat. Conroy asked her, “Were there any other cars?”
“Ashton’s old touring car was parked in the portico, his black Bentley beside it, and his new Dodge pickup. They were all right where they are now,” she said as they came up the circular drive before the house. “That’s Shelly’s new convertible; it wasn’t here before.”
The Lincoln hadn’t come to a stop before the big, ornately carved double doors of the house opened and Shelly Lundendosky stumbled out of the house, waving her arms in the air, yelling, “911, call 911! Help me, 911!”
Edie had always envied Shelly her statuesque height, her slender figure, her flamboyant style. Today she wore an ensemble that truly gave Shelly the appearance of a statue come to life, dressed in gold silk blouse, gold Capris, gold slippers, and a gold headband holding her short cropped curls back from her face.
At the moment, self-composure had abandoned her. She stumbled out the door, colliding into Warren. For a few moments, he had his hands full of flailing, hysterical female.
“Ashton…! Ashton, call 911. I can’t, I can’t, I tried but my fingers…call 911!”
Warren kept her propped up in the folds of his long arms, to guide her back into the house.
She planted her long legs, and Warren had to, more or less, drag her back inside. “No, don’t go in there. He’s in there. Call 911.”
Edie glanced at her watch—five thirty-eight. She hated her watch, she hated that she checked it all the time. When this was over, she vowed to throw it away.
Warren had gotten Shelly back in the house. Conroy held the door open and Edie and Gerry went inside. Warren wasted no time in relinquishing Shelly to Edie’s care. With Gerry’s help, they kept Shelly on her feet. She kept repeating that they needed to call 911 as they trooped father into the house.
Ahead of them, Warren tugged up his trousers and straightened his shirt. Conroy waved Edie to an upholstered bench to the side of the entrance. Edie could hear Warren’s voice, but couldn’t understand what he’d said. Then she heard Conroy say something. With Shelly’s head on her shoulder, Edie turned to see Conroy coming back up the hall and sat up straighter. On the other side of Shelly, Gerry’s complexion had drained of blood; she looked a hundred years old.
“He’s dead, but there’s not much blood. Warren’s called the coroner and the forensic boys. This will take awhile.” He tugged Shelly to her feet. Edie had her arm around the woman’s waist.
Taking Gerry by the elbow, Conroy said, “Let’s go in here,” guiding them into the next opened door.
Edie had known Conroy Davis for years. She and Gerry had gone to school with him, but Edie had never seen him this masterful.
The room they entered appeared to be an Orangery, with plants all over, above their heads swinging from baskets, growing in pots, as well as placed around the ornamental pool and fountain in the middle of the room and before a large expanse of multi-paned windows to the east. This room, and the entire house, Gerry had told her, was kept at an even seventy-two degrees. In no time, the hot, sweaty, sick feeling left her and Edie felt very comfortable.
Shelly had revived but wouldn’t sit down. She wanted to talk. Conroy gently pushed her back down. “You’ve had a shock, Shelly. Stay quiet for a bit, take some deep breaths. Warren will want to talk to you.”
Conroy went to the door and stood staring down the hall.
Gerry put her arm around Shelly’s waist. Shelly finally focused and asked her, “How did you get here? I mean…why?”
“I came earlier, but you weren’t here.”
Shelly nodded. “You came for the crystal. I’m sorry. I meant to be here. I was late getting out of the mall. Then my car wouldn’t start. I was out of gas. I had to call the auto club. I didn’t even think about needing gas. Ashton takes care of that.”
Shelly whimpered and started to weep quietly into her hands. “Where’s Daddy? He should be here.”
Gerry gave Shelly a hug. “Yes, of course. I’ll call him.”
“Gerry?” Edie said, “I could call him.”
“No, I’ll call him.”
Edie didn’t want to know what Gerry was going to say, how she could explain this, and sat with Shelly, her ears closed to all conversations around her.
“He’s coming, Shelly,” Gerry said, taking her place at Shelly’s side.
Edie opened her eyes, her gaze locked with her sister’s. “What did you say?”
“I told him Ashton was dead here at the house. Shelly needed him.”
“What did he say to that?”
Gerry shook her head. “He didn’t say anything for a long time, then he simply said he was on his way.”
“He didn’t ask any questions?”
Gerry shook her head and closed her eyes, eyes that, when they closed, washed tears down her cheeks.
Edie looked up, to find Conroy. He nodded at her approvingly, and went back to his post in the doorway.
Before Rocky arrived, a troop of forensic people had swarmed over the house and the grounds. The coroner approached his job with ghoulish eagerness, Edie thought.
She glanced at her watch, they’d been here all of eighteen minutes; it seemed like days. Rocky arrived about three minutes later and Shelly ran into his arms.
They were the same height and coloring. Rocky’s hair had turned from bleached-blonde to snow white, the shade accentuating the deepness of his tan. There were no flies on Rocky Hardenburger—he had the lean, fit, muscular body of a twenty-five year old man, but today, his face showed all of his sixty-two years.
“Hey, Sugar Lump,” he said to Gerry over Shelly’s shoulder, “come here. You look pale as a ghost. Can’t have my girls looking so lost and scared. Rocky’s here, we’ll get to the bottom of this.”
Edie watched Gerry fall gratefully into his arms. She opened her eyes to exchange her unspoken fear with Edie. They both knew that any happiness Gerry had found in the last few weeks died today along with Ashton Lundendosky.
Edie, out of the corner of her eye, caught sight of Warren as he came into the room, his big body filling the doorway. He cleared his throat to get their attention as the gurney carrying Ashton’s covered body passed behind him, the attendants taking it out to the ambulance.
“Mrs. Lundendosky…ah, Shelly… your husband…ah, Ashton…the coroner believes, and he’ll have to do an autopsy to make it official, that it looks like he died of drowning.”
“What?” Gerry spun around, twisting out of Rocky’s embrace. “But…but I shot him.”
Shelly yanked Gerry around by the arm. “You shot him? You said you liked Ashton.”
“Shelly,” Warren said, “your husband died of drowning.”
Gerry couldn’t shut up. Edie groaned and squeezed her eyes shut.
“But…the gun…I fired it and he fell.”
Warren came into the room a little farther, his gaze going from Shelly to Gerry then to Rocky, who had remained perfectly quiet, his jaw clenched and shoulders back.
“I know,” Warren said to Gerry.
Conroy put his arm around Gerry’s waist to steady her.
Shelly turned to her father for comfort.
Warren went on to say, “The corner found the bullet in Ashton’s toe. There wasn’t a lot of blood, so he was probably dead when you shot him.”
Gerry couldn’t stand it, of course, and had to keep flapping her gums. “If he drowned, why did he jump out at me? How did he do that?”
“I don’t know, Gerry,” Warren said, scratching his balding head. “We’ll go over everything again and try to put it together step by step.”
Warren turned to Shelly and Rocky. “I know this is rough on you, Shelly, but we have to figure out what happened here.”
Warren started by setting up private interviews. He started with Gerry, taking her down the hall to a corner of the living room. Conroy refused to let her go alone, and Warren, after a bit of protest, gave in. When Gerry returned to the Orangery, looking pale and numb, Edie was next on Warren’s list. Her statement didn’t take long, as she had it all written down on her grocery list. Rocky went with Shelly next. They were gone a long time.
Rocky and Shelly returned to the room, Shelly weeping and Rocky doing his best to console her. Warren stood in the doorway, silent and ominous, his gaze going from one suspect to the next, and stopping to focus in on Shelly and Rocky.
Conroy patted Gerry’s hand and left her to speak to the chief.
Edie heard Rocky speaking to Shelly. “I’m sorry, Sweetie. I should’ve been here. I went over to Turner, car shopping for my bride.
“Gerry, honey,Sugar Lump is capitalized” Rocky held out his hand to her. Gerry took it, and he pulled her in to his side, “we’ll get through this. We’ve got nothing to worry about. I want you both to believe me, now.”
Edie sat impressed. The man had a way about him. Yes, sir, she could almost believe him.
She heard Warren and Conroy talking. Warren said, “So it comes down to this Ralston character.” Conroy opened his mouth, but the chief’s phone rang. The sound of the device sent a shock wave through the room, they all gave a start.
“Uh, huh, uh huh, okay. Uh huh, no, I’m not surprised either, uh huh, okay. So we wait.”
Warren hung up. All gazes turned his way. “I called into the Federal Bureau of Investigation to check out this Ralston guy. He’s with the bureau all right, but your description, Gerry, we can’t make it fit. It’s kind of hard to finger somebody unless there’s an absolute way to identify the person. It would help if you could give me a specific trait to go on, a mole, scar, or even rings or tan lines, something?”
Rocky gave Gerry a little jiggle, then took her by the hand and led her to a chair by a potted fern. He knelt down in front of her. “Close your pretty eyes, Sugar Lump.”
Edie wasn’t real familiar with Rocky Hardenburger, she’d only been in the same house with him for a week, and during that week she’d taken all of three meals with the man. And yet, she noticed something odd about him today. He came off as cool; all the time, the man didn’t sweat. But he was sweating today. He always dressed meticulously, today he wore a brown sport shirt and khaki shorts. True, it was ninety-eight degrees outside, but in this house, it was cool and very comfortable. She’d watched him play two games of tennis one afternoon, and the man didn’t sweat. But today his brown sport shirt was wet under the arms, and down the center of his back he had a wide wet stain of perspiration. Somehow, the fact of his discomfort gave Edie immense satisfaction.
“He wore glasses, I couldn’t see his eyes,” she said to Rocky, then up to Warren, who stood towering over the pair, looking down his nose at her.
“They were big glasses, like aviator glasses, tinted.”
“You said he had a beard or mustache, which? What kind? Small? Wide? What color?”
“Well, I guess it was pretty full; you know it covered up his mouth, I couldn’t see his lips. It was sort of sandy, I guess.”
“So, he had sandy colored hair? I thought you said he had light brown hair,” Warren said.
“No,” Gerry shook her head at him. “No, it was definitely on the sandy shade of brown.”
“Did you see any jewelry on his hands or anywhere?” Rocky asked, and came to his feet, his hand resting on her shoulder.
Edie thought Rocky was pretty good at this questioning thing. She added this to her list of things she was learning about Rocky Hardenburger.
“No, no jewelry. I would remember jewelry. He wore a nice suit, I told you that. But not even a tie pin. A pretty tie though, very expensive.”
Warren finally got in a question. “Were his hands brown? Were they white like Conroy’s?”
Poor Conroy stuffed his hands in the pockets of his trousers.
Gerry bounced in her seat. “He had on gloves. Nice ones. Black leather driving gloves. You have to order them online, none of the stores around here carry them.”
Warren harrhumped. “When you saw his badge did you see any numbers? Or a photo?”
“Numbers, no. I saw FBI. He said he’d take care of everything. He was a nice man.”
“Warren,” Conroy said, expelling his breath, his body language exuding impatience. “Are we going to be here awhile?”
“Maybe a couple of hours. I’m gonna wrap this up tonight one way or the other.”
Rocky put his hand under Gerry’s elbow to help her to her feet. “I think I should take Gerry, Edie and Shelly home with me. These girls need some peace and quiet and some food. I’ll come back if you need me. I don’t see what good it’ll do for all of us to hang around here all night.”
Warren puffed out his chest. “It’s a big house. We’ll all be fine right here. Conroy, you get some food up here. Shelly, is there a room where we could spread out, give ourselves some room?”
Edie heard Rocky ask Gerry, “Where’s your purse, Sugar Lump? Bet you lost it again.”
“I had it with me in the car.” Gerry looked around her, under the bench and under the chair. “It could be in Connie’s car, I guess.”
“I’ll go look,” Rocky offered.
Edie did wonder what was the big deal about Gerry’s purse. But then, this was a considerate man, a new groom, so she shrugged it off.
“Don’t trouble yourself, Rocky,” Warren said, handing Gerry her lacy little clutch purse. “It fell on the ground, I guess, when she got out of the car. One of my men picked it up. I tucked it in my shirt and forgot to give it back.”
Now Edie knew a lie when she heard it, and the chief had just told a whopper. And by the look on Rocky’s face he thought so too. Again, Edie didn’t understand what was the big deal about Gerry’s purse. Leave it to Gerry to have all the men looking out for her and her possessions.
Her sister thanked the nice man and opened her purse to find her compact. She retreated to a corner to check her makeup. Edie shook her head; it had been days since she’d checked her own makeup. As to that, she didn’t really do makeup, maybe lipstick and mascara. She wanted to go home, not to her sister’s home, but home to Mark and her kids. She wanted to be home cleaning up the supper dishes. She wanted to take a cool shower in her own bathroom, with her soap and her shampoo, her towels. She wanted to be anywhere but here in this mess.
Within the hour, Conroy had the Wild Goose Café staff setting up a feast in the Lundendosky’s game room. They set out roasted chicken breasts, basted honey ham, veggies and dip, platters of fresh fruit and baskets of warm, buttered bread.
The game room encompassed the lower level of the Lundendosky mansion, a cavernous room featuring a kitchenette, a fully equipped bathroom, five sofas, an assortment of easy chairs, a billiard table, a pool table, shuffle board, a dart board, four pinball machines and a long patio that ran the full length of the house that overlooked the valley below.
As hungry as Edie was, all she could manage was some ham and fruit. She noticed Gerry had the same. Rocky and Shelly put down sizeable portions of everything. Warren ate very little; he was spending most of his time pacing around the room looking at pictures. Edie noticed that Conroy followed him like a chubby puppy waiting for a crumb to drop.
Edie took her meager morsels off to the side where she found a squishy lazy-boy recliner, intending to close her eyes and snooze. From her vantage point, positioned on the sidelines, right on the fifty-yard line, she could observe the entire room.
She’d always had good hearing, her kids hated that. She could hear every word, or nearly every word, spoken between Warren and Conroy. By leaning the other way, she could hear the three-way conversation between Rocky, Gerry and Shelly at the wet bar. They weren’t exchanging many words at the moment, so Edie gave all of her attention to Warren and Conroy, who were making their way down to the other end of the room.
“Where do you suppose these were taken?” Warren asked, without looking in Conroy’s direction.
“Hmmm, I don’t know, maybe New Mexico or Arizona. Yeah, look, it says Nogales, Arizona.”
“That’s Rocky on the hang-glider, then? Looks like a damn fool thing to do,” Warren said.
“No. Not really, not if you know what you’re doing. I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard it’s exciting and pretty safe.”
“Rocky gets around. Nogales, that’s pretty close to Mexico, isn’t it?”
Conroy leaned in for a closer look at the photos. “Yeah, a few miles, I suppose.” He began to tour the gallery himself, studying all the pictures. Edie had already looked at the pictures. Edie had pointed out Rocky parasailing in the Caribbean, in Canada, in Florida, Rocky hang-gliding in Arizona, New Mexico, Baja and Acapulco. There were a few pictures of Shelly and Ashton in all of those places too, but for the most part the pictures were of scenery and Rocky Hardenburger.
The photo gallery turned Edie off. She kept thinking of all the homeless people that could be helped with a fraction of the money that had gone into this house, and on those fancy trips. By the sour expression on Conroy’s face, he wasn’t impressed either.
She closed her eyes, deciding to rest, when she heard Conroy ask, “So what’s going on, Warren?”
Opening her eyes to mere slits, and turning her head a little, she sighted down to the end of the room where Warren and Conroy stood facing one another.
“Well….I’m not sure,” Warren said. He titled his head to the side and, without looking at Conroy, said, “I’m waiting for a phone call, then I’ll know where to go from here.”
“But Gerry’s off the hook, right?”
Edie held her breath.
“Oh, sure, yeah. Never a doubt in my mind. Gerry couldn’t kill a flea. The coroner all but confirmed that. Ashton drowned. The bullet in his toe came from the little Browning automatic. Even if he hadn’t drowned, that wound to his toe wouldn’t have killed him. We found the gun on the floor right where she said. Her fingerprints were all over it, no one else’s.”
“You think this Ralston guy drowned Ashton?”
Warren dipped his head. “Ralston is our mystery man, all right. But who is he? I think it’s kinda strange he told Gerry specifically to wait for him at the Koffee Kup. Makes me think he knows his way around Middleton. Seems mighty strange he showed up here when he did. Then he vanishes. If there’s a dead body, the FBI boys like to take control, run the show.”
After hearing this, Edie allowed herself to drift off to sleep. Gerry was off the hook, that’s all she needed to know.
Rocky’s voice woke her up. Edie checked her watch, it was almost seven-thirty, the sun would be going down soon.
“I need some air, for God’s sake, Warren,” Rocky said. “I’m just going out on the patio. I won’t jump off the cliff.”
“Well, now, Rocky,” Warren said in his best police chief slow drawl, “I don’t know about that. I got the idea from these pictures, you’re pretty good at jumping off cliffs. I’d feel better if you’d have a seat there by Gerry and relax—shouldn’t be much longer now.”
Rocky headed off toward the bathroom in a huff.
Edie had to smirk. Rocky in a huff—she didn’t know he could get mad. It didn’t look right on him, it looked put-on.
Warren must’ve thought so too, he tipped his head to Conroy to ask, “Are there windows in the bathroom?”
“I don’t know, why?”
“Never mind, you go with him.”
Conroy shrugged his shoulders and hustled off to the rest room.
Edie leaned too far forward and the recliner bounced down into the chair position. No one else paid any attention to her, or to Rocky and Conroy. Gerry and Shelly stood checking their hair in the mirror behind the wet bar.
The door to the rest room was on the opposite side of the room from the patio doors, not far from where Edie sat.
She bent down, pretending to adjust the strap on her sandals and heard Rocky complain, “Hey, do you mind? I’d like a little privacy, please.”
She heard Conroy say, “Sorry, but nature calls. Too much ice tea. Mind if I go first?”
Edie snickered to herself, imagining the look on Rocky’s face. Conroy Davis—who knew he had so many facets?
Edie heard the toilet flush, then water running, and soon after, Conroy emerged, adjusting his trousers and tucking in his shirt. He made his way back over to the chief, they made eye contact, and Conroy shook his head.
Warren visibly relaxed. After hitching up his pants, he let his shoulders down and took a deep breath.
Then Warren’s phone rang.
Edie heard the toilet flush in the rest room, the water running in the sink, then out of the corner of her eye she saw Rocky come back out into the room. It didn’t register with her at the time that he’d changed his clothes. He started for the wet bar, at least Edie thought he did; she wanted to hear what Warren was saying on the phone and didn’t really pay attention to Rocky.
She heard the name Ralston on Warren’s lips. Then Shelly cried out, “Daddy,” not loud, but distressful. Edie looked where she’d last seen Shelly over by the wet bar. The woman looked to be pulling herself along, using the wet bar for support, headed toward the opened patio door.
She let go of the bar, screamed, “Daddy,” then fainted dead away and disappeared behind the bar.
Warren hollered, “Shit!”
Edie had come up out of her chair and stood a few feet from the opened patio door. A man, dressed in a beige jumpsuit, sprinted off to the left of the house. That direction led toward the rim of a canyon edge which was four or five hundred feet above the town of Middleton to the east. The Middleton airport was a little south and west, but close by as the crow flies. Edie saw the man leap over scrub sage and bitterbrush as gracefully as a buck mule deer. By the time Edie realized it was Rocky, he’d traveled well away from the house, moving fast.
Warren had started to pick Shelly up off the floor, but dropped her and slammed past Edie out the opened patio door, shouting orders to his men before he gave chase.
Rocky made it to the hang-glider hanger at the highest point on the canyon wall. Stuffed under and between two old, twisted, knotted juniper trees, protected from the sun and rain, was a small canvas backpack.
He smiled, pleased with himself. As soon as Gerry had driven off for the Koffee Kup, he stashed the silver certificates and coins out here in the little pack. No one would’ve ever seen it camouflaged against the dirt and sage. Very few people knew this hanger existed. Ashton knew, and Shelly, but he doubted Gerry would’ve ever discovered it—she didn’t like to venture beyond the patio.
This afternoon, he’d come up here to have it out with Ashton. Shelly wouldn’t be home to run interference. The boy was running amuck, spending money like water, causing all kinds of talk and getting the wrong kind of attention. He hadn’t meant to drown the shit-head, but damn, the kid had gotten way too big for his britches. He’d thought to drag Ashton’s body out to the cliff but he hadn’t had time—Gerry arrived to pick up the crystal.
He’d thought to give Gerry the little pistol for a wedding present. He knew she’d be fascinated. It’d been dumb luck that he’d left the little box open on the hall table. He wanted to show it to Shelly. Shelly liked guns of all kinds.
Shoving Ashton’s body at Gerry, that’d been genius and fun. That diversion had given him time to cover up his wet shirt and trouser front with his suit coat and tie, and go around front to make it look like he’d just arrived.
He had a change of clothes and disguises stashed all over this house, his ranch, all of his cars and trucks, everywhere. He liked changing his identity. That was part of the fun of being FBI.
It only took him a couple of minutes to become Mr. Ralston, FBI. Poor Gerry hadn’t moved from her place in the hall, standing over Ashton’s body. Like a good little girl, she did as she was told and left him to make his get-away.
But then, Gerry had called him, told him about Ashton; he had to return to the house, he couldn’t leave—if he didn’t go back to the house it would look suspicious. Besides, he wanted to see if Warren Potts could sort out the mystery. Surprisingly, it hadn’t taken Warren that long to get on to him.
He’d made a fatal mistake in telling Gerry to wait for him at the Koffee Kup and giving her that twenty. It’d been pure vanity to keep two of those silver certificates in his inside pocket. He liked giving Gerry money. She was such a child about it. He liked to hear her giggle and see her blush. He wanted to look into her purse to be sure she’d spent it. He didn’t need that silver certificate hanging around.
He’d stuck around too long, but all was not lost. He could be down to the airstrip and his plane in less than ten minutes. It would take the police at least fifteen minutes to figure out where he kept the plane. He wasn’t worried.
He quickly adjusted the little backpack on his back, then shrugged into the harness of the hang-glider. He heard Warren calling him. He heard the others headed his way but he knew better than to look up or look back.
The harness was on and he was in the process of clipping himself to the hang-glider itself when he heard the angry rattle at his neck.
He stood teetering precariously on the edge, not poised for flight, the wind wasn’t right yet. The sun was going down behind the mountains, all pink, blue and gold.
His neck and face were red and hot, soaked with salty perspiration. He felt the rattler strike from out of the confines of his backpack. The snake’s head, as it slammed its fangs into the side of his throat, felt as hard as a fist punch. The fangs penetrated deep, white-hot venom squirted into muscle. He screamed, and reacted by swatting the snake, angering it further.
When he lost his balance, he saw, in a wild instant of clarity, that he had nothing solid beneath his feet. The hang-glider lines had twisted, forcing the sheet to catch the wind in such a way as to flip it around and upside down. Eyes wide, he saw the side of the canyon coming at his face. He heard Warren shout over the edge, then a cold hard crack and a searing white-hot pain all down his side, then blackness.
The search and rescue people had a real challenge on their hands trying to get Rocky and his hang-glider off the face of the canyon wall. The snake had no intention of falling to his death and made a stand, ready to strike again if needed, nestled none too securely between Rocky’s limp body and the harness of the hang-glider.
The hang-glider hung there, with Rocky dangling from assorted harness, for nearly six hours. It took two helicopters, scores of rock climbers, and two snake handlers to finally get the job done. From the airport, Edie, Gerry, and with Conroy for support, waited. From where they stood, the hang-glider looked like a kid’s kite stuck on the rocks.
Even a month after Rocky took his last leap, Edie found herself still puzzled as to what the hell had happened. As near as she could grasp from what Warren Potts had told them, Rocky, alias Ralston, had been privately investigating his own son for drug trafficking for over four years. Then he went from investigating straight to plain trafficking. Ashton resented his father taking control of the business. Father and son had been on the outs for some time, but Shelly kept soothing their ruffled feathers.
On the day Gerry went to the Lundendosky house to pick up the crystal, Rocky had just returned from a very lucrative drug deal. He always wore a disguise for these deals, he liked to alter his personality. The cops found a stash of hair-pieces under the day bed in Rocky’s office.
For whatever reason, they’d gotten into an argument and Rocky drowned his son. Rocky held Ashton’s head under water in the Jacuzzi. The proof that Ashton had been drowned in the Jacuzzi came from the water in his lungs.
How Rocky meant to get away with murdering his son, Edie didn’t know. She suspected he meant to pin it on Gerry, make it look accidental. But Gerry couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn with a gun. She proved that, she shot Ashton in the toe, for God’s sake, hardly fatal. Rocky must’ve been very disappointed in her.
Edie figured he could’ve gotten clean away. But Gerry called him, and he came back. He came back to the scene of the crime. He shouldn’t have done that. Warren said Rocky probably came back for the silver certificates and coins. But Edie wanted to believe he came back for Gerry and Shelly.
The kid at the Koffee Kup had to turn in the silver certificate to the Department of the Treasury. But Shelly gave him a hundred dollars as a reward for being a good citizen.
The marriage between Gerry and Rocky wasn’t legit. The license proved a very convincing fake, and for a few days it looked like Gerry would end up with nothing but memories. To avoid getting tied up in court, Shelly transferred the title to the ranch to Gerry and told her to keep whatever else she found that was her father’s.
Shelly left town for Costa Rica before the week was over. The mansion sold in a month. Edie figured Shelly wanted to get out of town before Warren started asking her questions.
Edie knew for a fact that Warren was relieved not to have to ask her those questions, he had the FBI breathing down his neck as it was.
She was home now, back in her old rutty routine. Gerry called her this morning. She said she was having dinner again with Conroy Davis. He was handling all her legalities these days. She said she didn’t know how she’d ever gotten along without him. She said he’d lost ten pounds, and they were going shopping later. She’d talked him into getting a toupee.
Edie guessed that Gerry had found a new project. It wasn’t hang-gliding or parasailing, but it was something her sister knew how to do really well—she was really good at shopping.
IF YOU SEE THE WHITE FAWNS
An enchantment tale
Dorothy A. Bell
Dawn would break soon, a quiet anticipation hanging in the air, the only sound, a gentle drip, drip, as dew slid off tree bows and fern fronds to the forest floor. The Giant Cedar Forest held on to the midnight fog. Soon the vapor would thin, escape into the boughs, dissipate in the sunlight of a new day.
For two days the maid, Hummingbird, had entered the wood before dawn. For two mornings, she crouched at the base of the Great Grandfather of all the Cedar that lived here at the edge of the small, rippling creek. On this third morning, as on the two mornings before, she willed herself to become a large, russet colored mushroom.
Squatting down on her haunches, she pulled her robe of Elk hide close about her. Each morning she remembered to thank her father for giving her this fine cloak upon her last birthday, her sixteenth winter.
She tucked her feet, warm in moccasins lined with rabbit fur, close under her and wrapped her arms tight around her knees. Her black hair fell over her face, cascading down onto the mud at the edge of the stream. Clearing her mind, stilling her thoughts, she became a simple mushroom.
Allowing herself to open one eye, she observed the beautiful doe and her twin white fawns. She’d waited each morning for them to come down to graze and drink from the stream before sunrise, before any bird or squirrel disturbed the peace.
For two mornings she’d watched undetected as the doe and her rare, white offspring had come so quietly and gently down to the stream.
Upon the first morning, she couldn’t believe her attempt to become a mushroom would fool them. The doe had appeared suspicious. Hummingbird held her breath when the doe moved out of the wood, becoming still for several seconds, ears pivoting from side to side and back and forth, her large brown eyes searching the woods on all sides.
Eventually, the doe cautiously moved out into the water and lowered her head to drink, but still vigilant. Picking up her head, she flicked her white tail, giving her fawns the signal, telling them they would be safe here in this part of the wood.
On the second day, the doe and her fawns came slowly to the stream. They ate briefly, then moved on past the mushroom, disappearing back into the trees.
Hummingbird willed herself to breathe carefully and quietly, there must be no sound from her to give the doe and her fawns a start. How beautiful were the fawns, white, and now that Hummingbird could see them up close, among their white coat were even whiter spots. Their eyes were of the lightest blue, like crystal reflecting a summer sky. Their noses were perfectly pink with not a spot of dirt. This morning they moved out and down the stream, coming to stand directly before her.
Hummingbird waited to see what it all could mean, for she had heard many tales of all-white animals, and they always held great power. If anyone were fortunate enough to see one, just a glimpse of one, then their life would be changed. She was waiting to see what change her life would take. Surely, it would take a dramatic turn after seeing the fawns, watching them for three days. Surely, the message would become clear today, for all things were revealed upon the third day. It always happened that way in the tall tales told by the Old Ones.
The doe ambled over to an old, gnarled, cedar stump on the opposite bank and began to nibble at the base. With her big brown eyes half-closed, the doe nibbled daintily at the old, mossy roots of the stump, which stretched out into the little stream.
Watching, holding her breath, Hummingbird nearly lost her concentration and her mushroomness, detecting movement in one of the gnarly roots of the stump.
Yes! The roots were not roots but knobby toes, toes of an Old One. Hummingbird, fighting hard to stay the mushroom, looking through her hair, could make out muddy toes, knotted knees, and the buffalo robe that surrounded the wrinkled and well-weathered body of the Medicine Woman of her people, WalkingMoon.
Quickly, Hummingbird closed her eye, hoping the Medicine Woman’s black, all seeing orbs had not discovered her ruse. She stilled her heart and narrowed her breathing.
For two days that weathered, hallowed old stump had sat on the far side of the stream. Had the Medicine Woman seen her come down to the water’s edge? Why had she not laughed at her foolish attempt to become a mushroom? Why had the old woman not ordered her to leave? Why had she not sent her home, declare her unworthy of seeing the white fawns, a child too young, too silly, to understand their meaning? Why had the Old Medicine Woman allowed her to stay?
With her eyes closed, Hummingbird could feel the warmth of a creature coming near. She heard the delicate sounds of the narrow hooves of one of the fawns come to stand close to her. The fawn began to nibble at her elk robe, taking small delicate little bites.
She couldn’t move. She wanted to cry out in wonder. She had to see, she had to. Opening her eyes to mere slits, she looked through her veil of black hair. Across from her, WalkingMoon, her mouth wide, straight white teeth showing, sat smiling in her direction.
The doe continued to nibble at the old woman’s toes, oblivious to her humanness, recognizing her only as a wizened, old, mossy, tasty stump.
The other twin had gone on to forage on the tender leaves of a young willow, it’s branches dripping with dew, hanging over the water’s edge.
A vapor rose up out of the stream to surround the willow. As the fawn tugged off one leaf, then another, the tree came to life, its leaves quaking.
Hummingbird closed her eyes, hoping she hadn’t given herself away. Taking the chance, she peeked across the stream toward WalkingMoon. The old woman had her black-eyed gaze fixed straight ahead. She still wore that disturbing grin on her well-lined and sallow face. Hummingbird didn’t doubt for a moment that the old crone knew the secret of it all.
A movement downstream caught Hummingbird’s attention. The willow swayed and shuddered. The brown willow limbs twined together, becoming sinewy arms. At the end of these decidedly masculine arms grew outstretched fingers, where tender leaves nervously fluttered as the fawn consumed them one by one.
The willow trunk had become a pair of legs, feet bare, toes buried in the mud, and well-muscled calves encased in fine, soft leather. Brown legs joined together at narrow hips, covered with a handsomely decorated, leather loincloth. Adorning the lean chest of the Warrior, a shield of wolf ribs where once Hummingbird had seen willow bark.
The Warrior’s arms were dark and ringed with bands of beaded hide. Around the Warrior’s sinewy neck, he wore a necklace of shells and hematite. Upon his handsome, chiseled face, he wore the look of superiority.
Hummingbird knew well this young Warrior. He was QuietFox, the great grandson of WalkingMoon, the Medicine Woman. He’d gone away when the leaves of the oak began to turn and returned home at the end of the last snow a Warrior and a man. He’d brought back with him scores of pelts, baskets of obsidian and flint, enough for all. Everyone considered him a wealthy man now.
He no longer looked at mushrooms like lowly Hummingbird. She’d been a child when he’d left. He would never give a thought to her upon his return.
As QuietFox took on his human form, Hummingbird withdrew further into her mushroomness, until she heard the outright laughter of the old Medicine Woman. Startled, Hummingbird looked up through her long, black hair, eyes wide to see the Medicine Woman looking directly at her. Hummingbird’s gaze darted to QuietFox and found him smiling at her too.
All this time, all three mornings, had he been there? Was he there, that tall straight willow, yesterday and the day before? Had he seen her foolish attempt to become a mushroom?
The Medicine Woman knew the answers to all of Hummingbird’s questions, and yet she laughed at her.
The doe stood by the old Woman, her brown eyes wide, staring in Hummingbird’s direction. The two fawns, who now stood directly at Hummingbird’s side, gazed at her, their pretty heads tilted to the side with open curiosity. And Hummingbird knew she was no longer a mushroom, she was Hummingbird, plain Hummingbird.
With her hair falling down to her waist, Hummingbird stood tall, bringing her head up, defiantly challenging the old woman and the Warrior to persist in their mockery of her.
The old woman rose to her feet and stepped into the stream, her laughter replaced with a sly smile.
The little white fawns ambled back toward their mother, who gently nuzzled them and gave them each a lick.
The Medicine Woman, her buffalo robe floating out upon the rippling water, motioned for QuietFox and Hummingbird to join her.
As the first ray of sunlight filtered into the dark, damp cedar forest, the birds awoke and began to sing. The bees and bugs unfurled their wings and began to buzz.
WalkingMoon motioned for Quietfox and Hummingbird to kneel down into the bed of the stream. In a strong, forceful voice the Medicine woman declared, “This stream is as the symbol of the Greater Stream of life. See how the water moves around us, always moving, changing. We cannot stop it. We should not stop it.”
Quiet-Fox gazed into Hummingbird’s eyes as his grandmother spoke.
“Hummingbird is now a woman of power. I give her the responsibility of keeping order and serenity wherever she goes.”
The Medicine Woman, her claw-like hands resting upon her great grandson’s head, proclaimed, “QuietFox, you will know the humility of all peoples, and of all animals great and small.
“Hummingbird will be known by her people as a woman of strength and wisdom.”
Smiling wisely, the Medicine Woman took their hands and joined them. “Quiet Fox, Hummingbird, you will work side by side for all time.”
With the light of day, the doe and her fawns slipped back into the wood. The vapor escaped into the giant boughs of the strong, tall, cedar taking all secrets with it into the clouds above the forest.
Little Airstream Capsule of Love
a poem by
Dorothy A. Bell
In their little Airstream Capsule of love
Bride and groom indulged in all the pleasures of a honeymoon,
Exploring, tasting all the delights through June, July,
And the August heat.
But lovers have to eat.
The bride could boil water,
Handle a can opener with expertise,
She baked rolls of store bought cookie dough,
Turning them out golden brown.
Back then, love new and grand,
They cooked, all burners turned up on high
Encapsulated in their little silver paradise
The weeks melted by.
Too soon, the groom began to crave
More than love, and tuna with mayonnaise.
The bride, although very green
Had become an observant spouse,
Realized her mate was inordinately fond of pizza pie.
He also favored chili con carne
With lots of cheese, no onions please.
Fresh baked bread would win his praise.
Plotting and planning a recipe she began to formulate,
A recipe that would astound her mate.
Chili bean Pizza!
Is the banner she gave it.
Frozen bread dough thawed
And formed with her own lily-white hand.
Plenty of tomato paste, three cheeses and
a confetti of black olives, a dash of spice
and wah-lah supper in a pan.
A week drifted by,
happy bride, happy groom.
Then a haze most foul saturated their little paradise.
The stench threatened to turn their little capsule of love
Into nothing more than a stinky little can.
The power of the little red bean so terrific
the groom’s stamina was sorely put upon.
Her diligence to please her groom’s palate
Now had the bride hoist on her own petard.
They could find no breeze in summer’s heat
To sweep the blue vapor
From their little silver capsule of love.
Within, the heavy vapor clung to the sultry air.
The groom, in an attempt to give comfort to his bride,
Looked to find the humor in her inventive venture
Into cooking a-la-experimental.
The bride, taking insult, attacked with a punch to his arm.
The groom retaliated with fingers wiggling into her ribcage
No wonder a tickling match ensued.
Through their exertions,
Amid hoots, toots and squeals,
Toxic gasses escaped.
In the end, they agreed
Chili bean pizza would be reserved for special occasions,
Mother-in-law visitations, and days that carried a strong breeze.
With that settled,
The lovers resumed their pleasure seeking explorations
In their little silver Airstream capsule of love
And lived happily ever after. The End
The Legend of TangaTanga Toe and His Gorilla Band
By Dorothy A. Bell
In a Congo land there lived a king, a lion by the name of Miway Sam.
He stood four-foot-three at the shoulder and ruled with an iron hand. He loved his music though, said it soothed his inner beast. Without his music, he claimed, he couldn’t sleep and stayed up all night playing hide-and-seek. He had to have variety, he decried, and sent his servants far and wide scouting for the newest sound.
Deep in the jungle, at a place called the Swinging Vine, young musicians could take the stage, if they didn’t mind playing to a creepy, slithery, fractious crowd. The proprietor of this shady establishment went by the name of Eightfisted Pete, a tarantula of the wiliest kind. Eight never put out cash but you could have your fill of the swill he served, a disgusting drink of dead flies and overripe bananas floating in jungle juice.
TangaTanga Toe had formed an all gorilla band. His little band could play everything from war-dances, to rain-dances, to famine-breaks, to mating-dance blues, jungle-jives; and when called for, they could crank out a hop-poh-potamus waltz. His group came up with new stuff all the time.
Tanga had heard of the Swinging Vine, but it was a long way from his home in the Want-ta-be Mountains. He’d heard the Swinging Vine paid in dead flies and bananas floating in jungle juice, which suited the young, hungry-for-fame gorilla right down to the ground.
Half starved, soaked to the skin, Tanga and his four companions lugged their gear down the Want-ta-be Mountains and along the Gang-green River, arriving at the Swinging Vine late one Saturday night. They stood outside, the five young gorillas, their noses pressed against the slimy dirt wall, black eyes peering over the muddy barricade that surrounded the stage and the crowd that had gathered to listen to the wild, disjointed, jungle beat.
“It’s now or never, boys,” Tanga whispered, combing his fingers through his wet mane. “We got to walk in there like we own the place. Play like we’ve never played before. I feel it, this is it, it’s make-or-break time. If we don’t, we won’t get any bananas, and I think that python serving drinks behind the bar might have us for breakfast.”
With Tanga taking the lead, the gorillas weaved their way into the throng and took the stage without so much as a blink to the tarantula, Eightfisted Pete. Tanga set up the rhythm on his kettledrum, BaldyJo joined in on his bamboo flute, Wingears flashed his sticks across his Congo-xylophone, Tummyred strummed his coconut-yuke and Billyfly slapped his freshwater-shell tambourine on his hip.
In no time, they had the joint jumpin’ to their jive tunes. There were monkeys swinging from vine to vine, doing flips and double tumbles. Snakes coiled up in quads, hanging, grinning, swaying from the limbs. Lizards danced with toads, warthogs snugged in cheek-to-cheek with leopards—it was a swinging scene.
In the dark tree tops, above the stage, sat a weary soul, Shut-eye Snoreowitz, a sloth, and King Miway’s talent scout. He’d been half asleep, drunk on the fermented bananas floating in the jungle juice. With all the laughter and clatter, he came awake, his feet tapping, his fingers tickling the tree trunk. He took a long swig of his sticky jungle juice and wiped his lips dry with the back of his hairy hand.
Shut-eye sat for quite a while, listening as the gorillas played one new sound after the other. Unable to resist the beat, he slid out of the tree, grabbed a partner, a deer by the name of Camuleadeer O’sweet, who’d been giving him the come-hither eye.
As he twirled her around and around the floor, he knew at last he’d found the perfect group. He’d take them back to the palace and, with any kind of luck, never more would he be sent out a’scouting. Never more would he be forced to play hide and seek all night long…these kids were great.
Peace came to the kingdom in the Congo land of the lion, King Miway Sam. He settled down, no more restless nights, no more hide-and-seek now that he had music to sooth his savage beast. He even took a wife, and had some kits.
TangaTanga Toe and his gorilla band became famous. Every year they toured the jungle route, stopping in at the Swinging Vine to reminisce with Eightfisted Pete on their way to the Want-ta-be Mountains for the summer to visit their kin. They lived happily ever after in their Congo Land in the kingdom of Miway Sam.
THE BABE AND THE BLUE CAT
(An exercise in one-syllable words)
A cloak of dark hid the boy with hair of fire
As he flew close to the land.
The boy made a torch of the wood,
An eye to the rise, and the first ray of sun.
He saw the crone in her black cart.
“Dark will stay to hold the night,” the crone did chant.
“Sun be gone!
Fire burn, lift and chase the cloud!”
A pure, blonde babe woke,
He lay in his wee bed.
A far off voice he did hear.
He saw the wood.
The flame lit sky.
Where was the sun?
Day was here, but all was dark,
Not a star did he spy.
Fire was in his nose and hair,
Fire in the wood close to the land!
A shrill caw, caw…a noise full of dread
put ice in his pure heart.
A blue cat did step to his side,
a soft paw she put on his cheek.
A tear fell, warm with salt, on the nose of the cat.
“Purr,” the cat said,
“Purr, chert and stone, pearl and bone,” she said to the babe.
The babe did sniff to dry his eyes.
He gave an ear.
His lips did part,
a smile broke, and with a wink,
He sang to the cat, “Chert and stone, pearl and bone,
Sun, the birth of fire, warm the new day.
Evil gone, good, will out.
Stay the clouds of gray.
Rain down where sweet grass will grow.
Chert and stone, pearl and bone.
Caw, caw, be gone the crone!”
Sang the babe and the cat.
The crone did lie in her black cart to wail and pitch.
A slick of oil she left in her wake.
The boy with hair of fire was but a spit
Of rain to douse the flame on the land.
Birds flew on high, bugs leapt to taste the dew.
“Chert and stone, pearl and bone,” sang the babe.
As he sat on the floor with the blue cat,
A beam of gold from the sun to warm his blonde head.
“Purr, purr,” said the cat.
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Holiday Bus to Joseph
With the kids moved out and far away with families of their own, I decided that what I needed was something to kick off the holiday season—something to get me in the mood—Thanksgiving and Black Friday just weren’t enough.
My first adventure, a Christmas concert at Eastern Oregon University—it just so happened on the night of the concert, La Grande and northeast Oregon experienced one of the worst blizzards on record. The walk to the concert hall from the parking lot took on the challenges of an expedition to the Arctic—very memorable—very North Pole-like.
The following year, I thought it would be fun to take the Eagle Cap Excursion train along the scenic Minim River. The price was right—a few cans of food for the food bank. There was a hitch however; it was a Santa Clause train for the kids, so borrowed a couple of kids from a friend to make my presence seem legit. We had a great time—the winter scenery was spectacular, which included sightings of elk, deer, bald eagles and a coyote, but the ride was over too soon.
That year I learned you get what you pay for.
On the third year, I decided to cater to the altruistic, extravagant shopaholic in me and signed on for a Holiday Bus tour to the touristy, colorful, quaint and remote village of Joseph, Oregon for a full day of s-h-o-p-p-i-n-g!
Joseph, for those of you who don’t know, is way the heck out there in the far northeastern corner of Oregon at the gateway to the Hells Canyon.
It’s beautifully situated, nestled up against the Eagle Cap snow-covered peaks of the Wallowa Mountains—an area sometimes referred to as Little Switzerland.
I paid for the tour, which promised goodies, snacks on the bus, coupons for food, coupons for savings on merchandise from the merchants in Enterprise, as well as Joseph, and
drawings for special savings certificates; never suspecting for one second that I had signed on for a marathon.
First stop—Enterprise for the warm-up round of shopping, then on to Joseph for the major round, then on the return trip, back to Enterprise for the grand-finale, with a chili feed and Christmas parade.
It sounded great. I was chomping at the bit.
Saturday morning we gathered at the crack of dawn—raw recruits, and what I would soon categorize as experienced campaigners—in front of Albertson’s super market in Island City, a suburb of LaGrande. We all piled into the busses like sheep for the fleecing.
As a newbie, I took a seat up front, close to the driver and the exit door. The veteran soldiers-of-shopping headed for the back of the bus, Santa hats in place, twinkle-light necklaces denoting their rank, hooting and whooping like sailors setting off for their long-awaited shore leave.
We traveled along, passing through small villages, stopping for stragglers and innocent rookies who eagerly waved the bus down. We pressed on, all of us yakking, clacking, flapping our gums, confident, our wallets bulging with cash, our credit cards shined up and ready.
Naïve, I’d left home with a clear objective in mind: I wanted to find the one-of-a-kind gift, the unusual, the I just won’t be able to resist something you can’t find at Wal-Mart.
Perhaps I need to clarify here that La Grande has two primary places to shop and they are Wal-Mart and Bi-Mart. And during the winter, with a pass on both ends of town, you aren’t inclined to travel the seventy-five miles to the nearest mall.
We arrived in Enterprise for the warm-up round at nine-thirty a.m. The temperature hovered in the mid-twenties with a light breeze, an overcast sky, and a skiff of pristine white, crystalline snow on the ground—perfect—beautiful.
With the snow-capped Wallowa Mountains in the background, our buses pulled up in front of the old, stone-block Enterprise courthouse. Can you imagine how the local merchants
must’ve felt watching those buses unload? You can believe those merchants were ready, with feet braced, shelves fully stocked.
Set free, we spread out over the town—about four or maybe five square blocks—each of us with our quest for the perfect gift uppermost in our minds. I perused and assessed each shop and after careful deliberation made one purchase. That one purchase made it easier to make the next and the next. This practice round showed me that I needed to hone my shopping skills, keep my impulses in check. After all, I needed to spread my cash out sparingly, know when to use my credit card. I had a full day of shopping to do and couldn’t afford to lose my head—not this early in the game.
After nearly two hours of nonstop shopping, many of us had retreated to the bus. My feet hurt. Hungry, inexperienced, I had dressed expecting the cold to be my enemy. But as the morning passed, I realized if I had any hope of surviving, I would need to rid myself of several layers of insulation, namely my faux fur hat, faux fur muffler, my fleece vest, and my gloves. In other words, I was miserable, in pain, and sweating.
Remember, this was only the first round, and, it wasn’t even noon.
Laughing, singing, weaving in and out of the stores, the seasoned campaigners regrouped, the last to file back on the bus. I couldn’t believe it! Whooping victoriously, they skipped to the back of the bus with their bundles of booty, as fresh and as full of robust good cheer and camaraderie as they had at the outset.
The city limits of Joseph arrived too soon, but allowed me enough time to strip down to just the bare minimum of outer gear. However, there was nothing I could do to revive my feet, wiggling
my toes was about all I could do. As the bus pulled into a parking lot, I girded my resolve, determined to see the day through to a successful conclusion. To do that, I needed nourishment and a tall, cool glass of something containing lots of caffeine.
But first, I had to run the obstacle course of the Joseph Holiday Flea Market. The seasoned campaigners had decided this should be our first objective. I couldn’t allow them to see that I had already started to fade, so I put on my game face to do what had to be done.
It was beginner’s luck that I discovered a booth selling homemade fudge just inside the door. With a sugar boost, I made it through the flea market and down the street two blocks to where I found real food and caffeine.
Thoughtfully, I, and all my fellow bus-mates, were given a voucher for dollars off at the restaurant of our choice, thereby assuring we would all eat hearty. While I savored my roast beef sandwich, my head cleared a bit, and I reasoned I could do this if I could pace myself; after all, I had four-and-half hours of shopping to endure. I had a list of merchants in my coat pocket, and I withdrew the list to study it, deciding on a plan of attack.
I would work the stores from north to south on the east side of the street, cross over and return on the west side of the street to the parking lot and the bus. Along the way, I would take advantage of any place that offered a place to sit and rest. If I had too many parcels, I could leave them in the bus. Feeling more confident, I visited the restroom, adjusted my purse on my shoulder, and set out to conquer.
Three hours later, all my plotting having failed me, I limped into Mad Mary’s Soda Fountain and Emporium, lugging a very large bag of stuff, and plopped myself down at her counter.
What kind of stuff? you might ask. At this point, I couldn’t exactly remember. The day had become something of a blur. I was drunk from purchasing; staggering from one shop to the
next like a crazed fiend—choosing and buying—opening and closing my purse, stashing receipts in my pockets, sweating, thirsty, I was out of control.
With my hand under my chin to hold my head up, I glanced at the clock and groaned in agony. I still had an hour and thirty minutes to shop. I knew there were stores out there I had skipped. I would have to backtrack now.
Carolers entered the store to sing songs of praise. The battalion of seasoned campaigners were out there; I could hear them laughing, unfazed, undaunted. I had begun to despise them for their unflagging enthusiasm.
In my weakened condition, I guess I must’ve become slightly paranoid because, as I looked around at the other women sitting in groups and clusters at the tables, and along the counter, some in worse shape than myself, I had an epiphany, a crazy, wild moment of clarity. We had all signed up for this mission, willingly, eagerly. We’d signed on to shop our hearts out for one entire day. Like lambs to the slaughter, we’d accepted incentives and enticements, we were all aided and abetted into indulging in our vice for out-of-control spending. We’d been given permission to fall off the wagon of reason and into the abyss of shopaholic despair.
Suddenly I saw everything more clearly. This was a subversive plot! It was a cunning strategy of mass aversion therapy! And I….I was cured! I knew it right then—I was cured for all time. Those poor souls out there, those women in that battalion of jovial, veteran campaigners, they were the incurables—after all, therapy doesn’t work the same way for everyone.
I would see the day through, take my medicine like a good little soldier. I drank down my hot chocolate, picked up my shopping bag, squared my shoulders, and headed off to those shops I had not visited.
But now, I kept my head about me, and even rode the delightful horse-drawn wagon from one end of Joseph to the other, then back to where I started. I actually took the time to glean
some enjoyment out of what remained of the day, making it back to the bus moments before our departure time.
In my seat, with my parcels tucked in around my feet, I closed my eyes. Ashamed and full of remorse, I knew I had gone way over budget, I had blisters on my feet, my knees screamed with fatigue, and my shoulders ached. I was battle-weary but alive, and that was enough.
By now, the sun had slipped down behind the mountains. Our balmy twenty-five degrees at midday had fallen off into the teens, with a light snow falling at dusk.
While wishing I myself at home soaking in a warm bath, the bus driver took us away from beautiful downtown Joseph and back to Enterprise where he parked on a side street near the end of the parade route. Once again, we disembarked in mass and marched two blocks to enjoy the feast of a homemade chili the townspeople of Enterprise had made for all of us who came to enjoy the Christmas parade.
With my belly full, I trudged back to the bus, barely acknowledging the diehard veteran shoppers still laughing, still weaving in and out of the shops, still merry and seemingly still full of fight, their Santa hats and twinkle-light necklaces flashing in the dark, making them appear in my eyes, as extraterrestrial beings…inhuman.
Feeling defeated, I surrendered to the fact that I would never have the stamina of the seasoned veteran shopaholics that rode the Holiday Bus to Joseph. I would never make the grade—earn the right to wear a twinkle-light necklace. It wasn’t in me.
Accepting that I was a wimp and a pansy, I watched the parade from the warmth of the bus. Melancholy, I longed for my slippers and my warm jammies.
As we left the Christmas lights and all the good people of Enterprise behind, the diehard veteran shoppers at the back of the bus began to sing Christmas carols. I tried to sing along, but I had trouble keeping my eyes open long enough to hold a tune.
After twelve and a half hours of shopping, walking, eating and talking we rolled into La Grande, right on schedule at seven-thirty P.M. We wished one another a merry Christmas and left the bus.
Lugging all my booty, I limped to my car and asked myself, would I do it again?
No, was my first response.
Well, maybe, I thought, once I was home and able to sort through all my purchases. By the time I lay in my bed, all snug and warm, I had decided to wait and see. Perhaps doing the Holiday Bus tour to Joseph was like giving birth, perhaps it would take time for my memory of the pain and the stress to fade, but in all likelihood, I would probably have to try it again.
Merry Christmas to all the hearty souls who brave the Holiday Bus to Joseph and to those who are wise and stay home—Happy New Year.
Picture it, a little girl, eleven years old starting the 6th grade, she’s got curly, long brown hair, big brown eyes and she doesn’t know a single soul. Picture it, a boy: eleven years old, black hair, crew-cut, wearing huge black rimmed glasses that magnify his big blue eyes, who really, really likes the girl with the curly, long brown hair. He is inspired to try to get her out behind the play-shed where he can steal a kiss whenever possible. The little girl considers him a weird genius, sticks him in her geek category, and tries to avoid him for the next six years.
She plays hard to get until one fall evening at a Halloween party at the skating rink, she lets him partner her around the floor. He tries to hold her too close, but it’s kind of fun to keep pushing him away. At sixteen the girl decides that it’s not so bad to have a boy want to kiss you, get close to you. She thinks the boy is still weird and a geek, but he’s kind of cute.
A couple of days later the geeky boy calls the girl and asks her if she wants to go for a scooter ride up into the coast range. It’s drizzly cold, about forty-five degrees, but sure, hey, why not, this girl’s got nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon.
Best day of her life—working as a team, they push the low-powered scooter up the mountain. In the deep woods, with tall, dripping fir trees and fern all around, the boy builds her a shelter out of fir tree boughs. Because they stowed their lunches in a little compartment next to the scooter motor, for lunch they eat melted candy bars, half cooked bananas and squishy peanut butter sandwiches. They talk about what they want to do after high school. He wants to go to Alaska, she doesn’t know what she wants, but she likes it that he knows what he wants.
The boy can quote Henry David Thoreau, which impresses the heck out of her. In a few weeks, she’ll discover he can play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata all the way through. And the kiss’s they share are sweet and gentle, not at all grasping or forced like the other boys this little girl has dated. The silences they share are comfortable, neither feeling the need to speak. Being together, holding hands is all the communication they need.
Fifty years later, metaphorically speaking, that girl and that boy still have to push their scooter up that mountain, but together they will do it.
There’s a little kid inside of me that cannot resist donning a disguise of some sort when Halloween comes around. When my children were small, I dressed up with them and went door to door. Then I had grandchildren, and I dressed up and went door to door. Then the grandkids grew up and no longer wanted to go out with grandma. But I found a way to dress up—celebrate. Not only get in disguise, I inspired others to follow suit.
Caption: I will not forget this. Someday I will get even, Grandma.
My aquatic aerobic class participants from La Grande, Oregon—ah, my lovely water lilies. I’m the one in the middle with the purple, pink and green jelly thingies encircling the crown of my head and the white stuff around my eyes. And of course, my mouth is open. I loved instructing those ladies. We also donned fancy, decorative Easter Bonnets at Easter, and made firecracker hats for The Fourth of July. Back then, three years ago, I weighed a hefty two hundred and four pounds. I’ve since lost eighty-five pounds and stopped coloring my hair. I go to the pool here in Central Oregon every day and Halloween is coming up. I’ve started looking around for inspiration.
Wildchild Publishing/Freya’s Bower Autumn Blog Train
Josephine, off to School
By Dorothy A. Bell
“Wait…my trunk…somebody, my trunk. Stop the train. Stop!” Yelling, waving her arms did no good. Who could hear over the train’s whistle blasting, echoing, up the side of the mountains? Leaning out over the rail at the rear of the train, Josephine waved frantically and shouted at the boy who ran out of the ticket office. He waved back at her. Jo had no idea what that meant. She held a faint hope that it meant he recognized the problem. But she suspected him of humoring the silly girl hanging off the end of the train.
The ties that stretched back to the station began to blur as the train started to pick up speed. The late September breeze snatched at her new bonnet. She’d paid two dollars for this hat, the rusty orange velvet complimented her burnt-sugar locks to perfection, the silver, fox-hair brush on the side matched the color of her eyes. Jo had thought it a hat for a mature career-minded woman, a confident woman, a woman of purpose. Besides, it might be the last bonnet she could afford for a while. A schoolmarm wouldn’t have a lot of money to purchase bonnets and frippery things. Jo would have to economize, watch her pennies. She straightened. The car careened. She lost her balance and her hands went immediately to her precious hat. When two strong arms encircled her waist she squealed, and the hat flew off her head. She watched it take flight, doing somersaults in the air before disappearing in the sagebrush to the side of the tracks.
“Whoa now, better to lose a bonnet than break your neck, little lady.” The voice held laughter. Jo had two brothers, so it came as no surprise to turn and find the man’s brown eyes sparkled with amusement.
“I wouldn’t have fallen over, I assure you. I just bought that hat. That hat is the last new hat I will have for a good long while. I do not thank you for frightening me nearly to death and causing me to lose my hat.”
The man had his arms around her waist. He hadn’t released her. As a matter of fact, he had his leg up against her thigh, pinning her to the rail. His face, she could see every black whisker on his closely-shaved jaw. Feeling threatened, she pulled back, her drawstring bag clutched to her bosom. He needed to move away. She couldn’t breathe. “You may release me, Sir.”
He grinned at her and winked—the masher. By the look of him, Jo sized him up as a gambler, dressed in a black suit coat, black string tie and fancy white shirt with a ruffle down the front and at the wrists. He wore his black hat down low over his wide forehead, casting his laughing eyes and swarthy complexion in shadow.
“Sorry,” he said, and swept her a bow. “I heard you yelling, thought I’d come out and see if I could be of assistance.”
She didn’t like this man. He’d taken his time removing his hands from her waist. Jo poked the lock of hair tugged loose by her hatpins back behind her ear. Her fine hair didn’t want to stay in the thick, long braid she’d fashioned. She had hoped her new hat would control her silly hair. She had to spend the whole day on this train to Cherry Grove; a braid, she’d thought, would be tidy.
“I yelled because my trunk didn’t make it on the train. I know it was silly of me to yell for the train to stop. I’ll have to wire back to Baker City and tell them to put it on the next train north.”
“Ah, so you travel alone a lot, do you? You’re used to handling such occurrences on your own?”
She pulled in her chin. She didn’t care for his sarcastic tone, nor did she want him guessing and making assumptions about her traveling experiences. The best policy, give nothing, no information one way or the other. “I can take care of myself. Now, if you would excuse me, I believe I’ll take my seat inside. It has become a bit chilly out here.”
Before she opened the door to the coach car, she heard him say, “It certainly has.”
Once inside, Jo put aside the encounter, having to use all of her concentration to stay upright. The car pitched from side to side. Every seat appeared occupied. All the way back, on the right, she spied two vacant seats and started moving towards them. A porter stopped her before she could settle in. “Sorry Miss, but these seats are reserved.”
“Reserved? That’s ridiculous. Where are the occupants then? I see no one. Obviously, now that the train is moving, the person or persons that reserved the seats missed the train. And speaking of missing, I’m missing my traveling trunk. It’s back there on the loading dock. I tipped a man a quarter to get it on the train.”
The Porter shook his head at her, his blue cap sliding from side to side over his bald head. “We had a full load in the baggage car what with extra supplies and travelers—could be there wasn’t room for one more thing. The gentleman that reserved these seats stepped outside for a few seconds, but he gave me a dollar to hold’em.
“I sure am sorry about your trunk. You give me your name, and your destination, I’ll see to it a wire is sent back to Baker City.”
“I accept your offer of assistance with my trunk. My name is Josephine Buxton, and I’m on my way to Cherry Grove. Now, I’m going to sit down in one of these seats. And this absentee gentleman will simply have to share. He can’t have two seats all to himself.”
Huffing, Jo made herself comfortable in the seat nearest the window. Before the porter moved away she asked, “Why is this train so crowded today? It’s Thursday, for Heaven’s sake. Not a holiday that I know of, September twentieth.”
“Everyone’s going to the Fall Cherry Festival in Cherry Grove. A lot of these folks come from Boise. They make the trek every fall. It starts tomorrow. All kinds of competition: pies, syrups, cakes, cookies, jams, jellies, even BBQ, all made with some kind of cherry something or other. Cherry Grove is famous for its cherries.”
“I hadn’t heard about the festival. I knew about the orchards of course, but I didn’t realize Cherry Grove had claim to such notoriety. I’m on my way to Cherry Grove too.”
“Ah, what a happy circumstance,” came the voice of the gambler over the rattle and rumble of the train. “I too am bound for Cherry Grove.
“Thank you, Oscar, for saving my seat,” the gambler said with a grin and a nod to the porter.
“I tried to tell her these seats were taken, but she wouldn’t have none of it.”
“Quite alright, Oscar, I couldn’t have ordered a more delightful traveling companion, than Miss….Miss?”
Oh, for Heaven’s sake…now she had to give him her name or appear churlish. “Miss Josephine Buxton.”
“Ah, Miss Buxton. Happy to make your acquaintance. Ryder McAdam. It’s a pleasure to be able to offer you one of my seats.”
Jo pressed her lips together and put her nose in the air. She waited for the porter to move away, out of hearing distance. “This is a public car. These seats are for paying passengers. I, Sir, am one of those paying passengers. You do not have sole ownership of these seats. As a matter of fact, I wish you would find another seat.”
With lips twitching and a twinkle in his eyes he said, “I fear that’s not possible; as you can see it is a full load today, not a vacant seat to be had.”
“You could trade with someone.”
“Ah, yes, I could do that. Who would you suggest I trade with? That matron there, two rows down, with the slobbering babe on her ample shoulder and the toddler on her well-padded lap? Her spouse wouldn’t miss her, he’s asleep. Or maybe that one, the corpulent gentleman chewing on the smoldering stogie four seats up. He looks the type who would enjoy the company of a pretty young thing such as yourself. He appears to be traveling alone, too. He is having a lively conversation with the salesman next to him—talking politics I would hazard to guess. I saw both of them ogle you when you walked by. I’m sure either one of them would trade places with me in a snap.
“No, no, I have it, the perfect traveling companion for you; that pinched face old tabby hugging the window on your side, down three rows. She looks a little green about the gills to me. Motion sickness, I would hazard to guess. Oh no, look, look, she wants the porter to open her window. That’s a bad idea. Oh, dear, watch now. Wait, I think you’ll hear her protest shortly.”
The second the porter lowered the window black soot and smoke filled the crowded car. Everyone gave protest, especially the woman who had made the request. Jo, however, squeezed her eyes and mouth shut to avoid the grit. For a few moments, children screamed and cried, and the adults among the passengers expressed their displeasure to the porter. After closing the window, the porter wisely moved on down the row of passengers and disappeared into the baggage car.
Jo pursed her lips and shook her head. “Oh, very well, I’m convinced. You may keep your seat. But do keep your hands and your thoughts to yourself. I do not approve of gamblers, Mr. McAdam. And you made me lose my new hat. I will not forgive you for that.”
At first, he appeared stunned, mouth open, eyes blinking. Then his lips started to twitch. Then his broad shoulders began to shake, and he burst out laughing, tears actually seeping out the corners of his brown eyes.
“Will you shush, everyone is looking at us. Stop it, I say, stop right this minute, you’re embarrassing me.”
He started to speak, but sputtered and chuckled. After drawing in a big breath through his nose he sat up straighter in his seat and sniffed back the tears from his eyes. “What makes you think I’m a gambler, Miss Buxton?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, I don’t wish to play games, Mr. McAdam. This is exactly the kind of nonsense I wish to avoid. I would like to enjoy the ride, watch the beautiful scenery pass by—look at the river and the fall colors on the trees reflecting in the water. Do we have to talk? You’re obviously out to make a pest of yourself. Go pester someone else. If you won’t do that, then I would appreciate it if you would sit quietly, or better yet, forget I’m here, take a nap. In your line of business you probably don’t get a lot of sleep.”
“I don’t think I’m going to fall asleep very soon, Miss Buxton, I’m far too intrigued. No, I will not rest until I find out what it is about me that says gambler. I’m eaten up with curiosity now, I have to know.”
Heaving a big sigh, Jo huffed. “Alright,” she said, pinning him down with one of her practiced glares—practiced in anticipation of subduing recalcitrant pupils, not boorish bounders.
For a moment, she forgot the subject. He had wonderful eyes, dark brown, almost black, black like savory coffee. He’d removed his hat. He had a tanned face, a straight nose, a strong chin and black hair tied back in a queue with a leather thong. The color of his complexion brought to mind warm cinnamon rolls. Or he could be part Indian. That thought gave her a jolt, and not a pleasant one. With a shake of her head, she came back to her senses. “You’re wearing a white shirt with ruffles at the cuffs and down the front…and a string tie.”
His black brows arched, and his lips twisted to the side. “I see, do go on. This is fascinating.”
“You’re wearing an expensive black suit, your hands are clean, fingernails trimmed and your boots have a nice shine. And…your hat, it looks new.”
Narrowing his eyes at her, he said, “All right, now it’s my turn to play this game. You’re sixteen, trying to look and sound twenty. Your dress is too short—I can see your ankles. You’re still growing. Wearing your hair in a braid, and those freckles across the bridge of your nose gives you away, Miss Buxton. You’ve never been away from home before, or ridden a train by yourself or you would’ve known how to get your traveling trunk on board. I don’t know if you’re running away or on your way to visit a relative, but you need someone to look after you, Miss Buxton.”
She couldn’t speak. Sixteen—outrageous. “Sixteen.” Her screech caused heads to turn. She lowered her tone, her jaw tight and teeth clenched she fought to contain her ire. “I am twenty. I am traveling to Cherry Grove where I will be teaching mathematics and geography at the Cherry Grove Ascension School For Young Ladies. I have traveled by train to Portland twice. I have never lost a piece of luggage before. That is until today. And technically, I did not lose my traveling trunk. I know exactly where it is, and I know why it did not get put in the luggage car. The porter said there wasn’t enough room what with all the travelers and shipping crates. Furthermore, I know better than to wear good clothes on a train, because of the soot and ashes, and one gets all rumpled. True, I have not traveled alone before. But I assure you, I am very capable of taking care of myself. As for falling overboard, you scared me and threw your person at me. I have very good balance. I would not have fallen overboard. If it weren’t for you, I would not have lost my new hat. I ask you again—please leave me alone. Do not talk to me. I do not wish to know anything about you. We have nothing in common, nothing.”
“Oh, but you are wrong, Miss Buxton. We have a great deal in common. Perhaps you’re right, I am a gambler of sorts. I gamble on education verses ignorance and prejudice. Allow me to introduce myself to you, Miss Buxton, Mr. Ryder McAdam, schoolteacher, subjects: science, history, literature and composition. I made the trip to San Francisco in part for a holiday, but mostly on behalf of the Ascension School for Young Ladies in Cherry Grove. You see, I retrieved much needed supplies for the school from a cargo ship while in San Francisco. My mission is nearly complete. I’ll reach my destination of Cherry Grove this evening with supplies, all of them intact. Hence, I fear I am responsible, not only for the loss of your very attractive hat, but for your traveling trunk being left behind. I truly am sorry for the loss of your new hat, it was very becoming. Perhaps if you would allow me, I could replace it.”
“That would be most unseemly, Mr. McAdam. I could not allow you to buy me such a personal item.”
He put two fingers on her lips, and Jo’s heart nearly lept out of her chest. “I’m not done, Miss Buxton. Before you say another word, I would like to defend my shirt. I happen to like ruffles. I don’t often get a chance to wear them in my profession, but a fellow on holiday will indulge in the odd whim or two. I can see now it was a mistake to succumb to vanity. I too purchased a new hat. And I know what you mean by not being able to afford a new one. I really did need a new hat. When I left my hotel this morning, I thought I looked rakish, granted a bit dangerous, but I rather liked it. But then I had no idea how dangerous. You’ve certainly opened my eyes, Miss Buxton. Yes, indeed, you certainly have taught me a lesson I won’t forget.”
He started to laugh again, loudly. All heads turned their direction. Jo tried to make herself small, but she had never been small—she took after her father.
Telt had warned Wren to stay away from the front window, told her he didn’t want to risk anyone seeing her. He didn’t understand that from the hallway she couldn’t see anything going on next door. She’d given Eula a list of all that needed to be done before the mercantile would be ready to open. It didn’t feel right to let others do what she could do best. “I am going over there—I have to see what’s going on.”
He looked so damned relaxed, sitting there at his desk. If he told her to sit down, stay out of sight, one more time she’d strangle him.
With her eyes straining to see out the window from the end of the hall, Wren saw Pammy Deeds rush by with a broom and some sheets. Telt got up from his desk and stood in front of her, blocking her view with his big shoulders. “I know this is hard, Wren, but give it another day?”
Placing her hands firmly on his chest, she gave him a shove. “No! I’ve been cooped up in this place for five days,” and managed to get as far as his desk. “I’m going out that door.” Telt sprinted over to the door to block her.
His hands on her shoulders holding her back, he corrected her, “It’s four-and-half days. How many times do I have to tell you?”
Feigning surrender, she hung her head. “I know, I know.” She closed her eyes and changed her tactic. Looking up at him through her lashes, she put her hands on his chest, sliding them up to his neck, then to his jaw. Her fingers began to fool with his ear lobes; she knew he couldn’t resist that. Appling her wheedling voice, she reasoned, “I’m only going next door to visit my property. I have to, Telt. My store has to open tomorrow. I have no more time to waste.”
Removing her hands from his ears and clasping them tightly within his grasp, he heaved a weighty sigh, closed his eyes then opened them again, his gaze steady, his jaw set. “Okay, I didn’t say anything ‘cause I didn’t want to get your hopes up, but I think Judge Crookshank might be on his way here. He could get here today…for certain, tomorrow.”
One bounce, the news put springs on her feet. “Yes! I knew he would come! I knew it,” she shouted, and began to jump all around his office, clapping her hands, giggling, then stopped dead and grabbed him by his shirtfront, breathless. “How do you know? Did you get a reply from him?”
He looked to the ceiling, pressed his lips together, then brought his gaze down to meet hers. “To be honest, no.”
That didn’t sound at all hopeful, and Wren went limp with despair.
Telt gave her a little shake. “But, I got a reply from his clerk. The poor man sent wire after wire for me: one to Hood River, one to The Dalles, to Boardman, then Umatilla Station. The last one he sent went to Pendleton. Each telegram arrived too late to catch the judge. But the clerk assured me the judge, and a Mr. Clarkston, whoever he is, are on their way here.”
Once again filled with renewed hope, she squealed, “Here? They’re both coming here? Yes. Oh, yes. Howard T. Buttrum, you better look to your laurels. Your day is coming.”
* * * *
Wren began to dance around the room like a prizefighter, her fists jabbing the air. She stopped in front of him, breathless, to ask, “Telt! Do you know what this means?”
He considered taking a stab at it, but didn’t figure she’d hear anything he had to say. Out of breath from watching her, he flopped down at his desk and folded his hands behind his head to enjoy the show. She picked up the dance where she’d left off, her cheeks pink, eyes bright with anticipation, curls bouncing—God he loved the woman.
As she circled the room, she went over the judge’s illusive itinerary. “The last telegram went to Pendleton and arrived too late, right?” he nodded, but she didn’t wait for his response before leaping to her next question. “When was that?”
“Monday,” he answered.
Whirling around, she practically leapt over his desk. “Yesterday? Telt, they could be here today!”
“I think I said that,” he reminded her, with a laugh.
She bounced around the desk and jumped onto his lap. Instantly growing quiet in his arms, she curled up, her arms going around his neck. “Yes, you did say that,” she murmured before she kissed him firmly on the lips.
Coming up for air, he warned her, “You better get back in your cell before somebody sees us.”
Her brown eyes dancing with mischievous sparks, she suggested, “Why don’t you come join me,” her fingers combing his hair, her lips close to his ear. Her bottom stroked his rock hard erection as she slid slowly off his lap and came to her feet. With her hands on his upper thigh, very close but not touching his balls, she leaned down and tugged the waistband of his trousers, a sly look in her brown eyes.
“Oh, no you don’t, you hussy,” he grumbled, and with a good deal of regret, he took her by the shoulders to get her away from him. “I’ve got sheriffin’ to do.” Feeling guilty, he glanced out his big window. Across the street, he saw Shorty sweeping the steps of the telegraph office, his dog Peanut putting up a fight with the broom. Percy had gone back to his job running the telegraph and delivering the mail. He refused to send or deliver telegrams for Howard, though. And Eula picked up the family mail. Howard had fired the man, but the home office hadn’t sent a replacement and advised Howard to keep Percy on until a replacement could be found. An impasse had been met.
Their hot spell had finally broken. Laura Creek had gotten a frost overnight, and today the temperature sat at a comfortable sixty-eight degrees. With all the hustle and bustle going on, the whole town seemed in good spirits, with the exception of Howard Buttrum, that is.
Telt saw Shorty wave at someone. “You better get back in your cage, woman. Grandma Tatom is coming with your lunch.”
Wren stuck her tongue out at him before turning and skipping down the hall to her cell. She’d just closed the cell door when Grandma Tatom stepped inside his office.
“I brought enough for two,” Grandma said with a wink. “No sense your prisoner getting better vittles than you. I reckon you been taking your share anyways. We all been handin’ out pretty good helpings.
“Tell Miss O’Bannon we’re dressing the front window. We got them pots and pans displayed just like she said. And we draped a bolt of real pretty calico over a wooden crate. We put up the signs she wanted, and got most everything marked and priced. Tomorrow’s gonna be a big day. Yes, sir, a big day around here.”
One thing about Grandma Tatom, a body didn’t need to say much to keep the conversation going; she managed very well all by herself. All Telt had to do was stand there and smile and nod.
“I got almost ten dollars I’m gonna spend right off. I’ve been needing some needles and thread for some time now. We all been talking about what we’re gonna get. We been having a good time.”
Wren yelled from the back of the jail, “Thank you, Mrs. Tatom. Thank you all. God bless you.”
Grandma Tatom winked at him, grinned, and shook her head. His conscience pinching a bit, he suspected the old woman knew what was going on between him and Wren, probably everybody did. They weren’t fooling anyone.
* * * *
Wren received progress reports from Shorty all afternoon. She almost had Telt convinced he could sneak her over there after dark and let her have a look around when Shorty stuck his curly red-head in the opened office door, on the fly to announce, “There’s a buggy coming. Looks like Judge Crookshank, but he’s got two other fellas with him.”
“You hear that, Wren?” Telt called out to her, making his way to the door.
He heard her come down the hall and out into his office. When he turned back, he couldn’t read what she was thinking. Before, animated and bouncing off the walls, he’d understood that. But now, with her hair pulled up on the sides away from her face, wearing her russet skirt and cream-colored, ruffled blouse, the one he liked…the one she’d been wearing the first day she arrived in Laura Creek, she looked composed, pulled together. Too calm, like the calm before a storm; she’d gathered her power and now waited for the right moment to burst open and raise holy hell.
“Shorty, go get Mr. Buttrum,” Telt ordered without take his gaze from Wren’s determined aspect. “I think we’ll want him here. Don’t you, Wren?”
“Oh, yes. Most assuredly we’ll need Mr. Buttrum,” she said, her voice quiet and controlled. Telt half expected to see a lightning bolt shoot from her eyes.
* * * *
Lottie, on her way to inform Miss O’Bannon they were almost through for the day, felt proud of all they’d accomplished today. They’d done something for the town…and Miss O’Bannon today.
She looked forward to getting home and getting out of her old red and white gingham skirt and red blouse. She wanted to wash her hair. She hadn’t bothered to put it up today; instead she had tied it behind her ears with a navy blue bandana. She felt grimy and disheveled, her face flushed with exertion.
When she set eyes on the third man sitting behind the judge, her heart leapt into her throat. Cast in alt, uncertain what to do, run home and tidy herself, or run and throw herself at the man, instinct won out and she chose the latter.
* * * *
Wesley Potter felt rather unkempt himself, as one would who had spent seven days crossing this God-forsaken country by train from Chicago all the way to Boise, Idaho, then from Boise by stage for six dusty days to Baker City, Oregon. From there he had been fortunate to find a freight wagon to haul him for two more days to La Grande, Oregon. Yesterday, he started walking west and hailed a ride on a freight wagon headed for Pendleton.
Born and raised in Chicago, he’d never crossed the Mississippi, let alone wide-open plains, awe-inspiring mountains, and open wastelands.
His once-upon-a-time white shirt, now brown with dust, as were his brown dress trousers and his brown bowler hat, made him itchy all over. The sun had scorched him, and the dust had stiffened his sandy hair, as well as his waxed, handlebar mustache. His wire-rimmed spectacles sat crooked on his nose, bent, streaked with dust and perspiration. He’d told Miss Bledsoe he would swim the ocean to reach her. Swimming the ocean might have been the easier route.
Judge Crookshank—with whom Wesley had only recently become acquainted—hollered over his shoulder to him above the rumble of the carriage wheels, “We were well met, back there at the head of the trail. You might still be wandering about.”
Leaning forward, Wesley agreed. “Yes, indeed, I am very much obliged to you. Oh, there she is, dear Miss Bledsoe.” About to call out to her, trying to stand in the still-moving buggy, his salutation became a cry of alarm when the carriage swayed precariously and he fell ungracefully back into his seat.
“Ah, yes,” said the judge, giving Wesley’s plight little regard as Lottie rushed towards them, her hands waving and calling Wesley’s name. “It appears you were expected.”
* * * *
Telt made his way out to meet the judge but came to a sudden standstill. Lottie Bledsoe wrapped herself around a rather short, stout, bespectacled young man. Telt started to move and almost tripped over his own feet when the couple kissed, full on the lips, right there in the middle of the street.
He got close enough to hear Lottie, out of breath and giggling, gush the name, “Wesley.” Standing on her tip-toes, she’d wrapped her arms around the fellow. Telt didn’t think that Lottie, almost the same height as the fella, didn’t need to stand on her toes. Laughing and crying, she dashed the tears running down her rosy cheeks with her knuckles. The man came to his senses first and pushed her a little away. Lottie then became aware of Telt standing nearby, observing. She held out her hand to him to draw him in. “Wesley, meet our sheriff, Telt Longtree.”
Telt held out his hand to the young man. Wesley’s hands were soft. Telt held back the urge to wipe his hand on his trousers to remove the creepy feeling. “Good to meet you,” he managed to say.
“This is my Wesley,” Lottie gushed, “I mean, this is Wesley Potter, my…my fiancé,” she said, her face turning a glowing pink.
And well she should blush, Telt thought to himself. The woman had never looked so animated. “Fiancé? Well, hell.” He muttered, “Since when?”
In what he thought a remarkably reasonable tone under the circumstances, he said, “Congratulations,” and again, offered to shake the man’s soft-as-a-child’s hand. This would take some time to get used to, Lottie Bledsoe with a fiancé.
He stood there feeling like a fish out of water, gaping as Lottie politely excused herself and her fiancé, taking the young man by the arm, leading him away. He snapped his mouth shut when it registered on him that Lottie was taking the fella straight to her cottage behind the bank. The implications left him blinking in utter astonishment.
“Sheriff Longtree,” the judge called, taking his attention away from Lottie Bledsoe’s retreating backside, “this gentleman is Miss O’Bannon’s lawyer, Louis Clarkston,” the judge said as Telt helped Mr. Clarkston from the buggy.
“Glad to meet you, Mr. Clarkston,” he managed to say, remembering to hold out his hand to shake. Turning back to the judge, Telt said, “I’m very glad you’re here, Judge Crookshank. Miss O’Bannon is in jail.”
“Jail?” the judge asked as Telt helped him down from the carriage.
“Yes, sir,” he answered. “She’s been in my custody since last Friday. There’s a wanted poster out for her arrest for stealing six mules and two freight wagons.”
“Preposterous!” declared the judge.
“Yes, sir,” he agreed.
“Who put up the poster?” asked Mr. Clarkston. Telt stood aside to usher the gentlemen into his office.
Wren had heard that question. She answered before Telt found his voice, “My uncle, Stanley O’Bannon.”
“Miss O’Bannon.” said Mr. Clarkston, taking her hand to shake. Turning, he asked Telt, “May I see the poster?”
Telt had the poster right on top of his desk, and happily handed it over once the judge got comfortable in his desk chair.
“I don’t understand, Miss O’Bannon. You have receipts and invoices to disprove these allegations,” reasoned Mr. Clarkston.
“I do have all manner of proof, Mr. Clarkston, in my satchel. I’ve been traveling a great deal, no permanent address. I used my satchel as my portable office, if you will.”
“Someone stole the satchel,” Telt interrupted, sensing Wren’s bitterness; her sarcasm might get in the way of expediency.
For his trouble, she glared at him. He nodded and offered her a smirky smile. A bossy little thing, used to taking charge, Wren still had a lot to learn about how he worked. This was his office, and he could handle this.
“Stolen, you say!” declared the judge. “Now this is interesting. In a small, remote little village, something quite important is suspected of being stolen. Surely the culprit should be easy to spot.”
“Oh, yeah, well, as to that,” Telt grumbled, his hands going deep into his pockets, rocking back on his heels, “we’re pretty sure who did the stealing, and why. We just don’t have any proof.”
“I can’t find him, Sheriff,” shouted Shorty as he burst into the office with no regard for those gathered.
“You look over at the bank?” Telt asked.
“Yeah,” Shorty said, nodding his red head, his gaze taking in the presence of strangers. “I asked if they’d seen him, and his teller said he hadn’t seen Uncle Howard since lunch time. So I went over to his house. I knocked on the front door and the back door, but no one answered. Then I ran over to the mercantile, ‘cause I seen Aunt Eula there. She hadn’t set eyes on him since breakfast. I went down to the stable, and he wasn’t there. He’s gone!”
“Who? Who are we looking for?” asked the judge.
“Allow me, Sheriff?” Wren requested. Telt crossed the room and leaned his large frame up against the wall close to the stove to give her the floor. “Your good friend Mr. Buttrum, Judge Crookshank, is not pleased at having a female owner of the mercantile. At every turn he has done his best to sabotage my opening the store.
“I have a black book with dates and a list of materials used and hours of time spent on making the property I purchased fit to be occupied. In stealing my satchel, I believe he thought to put a period to all progress. His wife Eula foiled his plans. The store is ready to open tomorrow with or without me. Mrs. Buttrum organized the citizens, and they’ve been working very hard.”
Telt noticed when her outward façade of self-control cracked a bit, her voice faltered and her chin began to quiver. He also saw tears threatening to swamp her pretty, brown eyes, and had to stop himself from going to her and putting his arms around her. “I would be sunk if it hadn’t been for the lovely people of this town,” she managed to get out before the tears spilled over and ran down her cheeks.
The judge cleared his throat, “I’ll want details, of course. First, we’d better find the satchel and Buttrum.”
Shorty approached the desk. Percy had followed his son to the sheriff’s office, and Telt gave the man a nod. Percy stood close to the door. Telt heard him take in a sharp breath when Shorty piped in to say, “I think I might know where that satchel is.”
“Ulysses Homer Terrel!” Percy growled, stepping forward into the room and yanking his son around to face him. “You know where that satchel is? How long have you known about this?”
Eyes wide, Shorty wailed in his defense, “I didn’t know I know’d until just now. I just remembered somethin’, Pa.”
“Young man,” barked the judge, “tell us right this minute what you think you know, and we’ll decide if it’s relevant.”
“Yes, sir,” Shorty said. Turning about, Shorty put his back to his father. Percy kept his hands on his son’s shoulders. Telt thought those hands were to remind the boy to tell the truth. “Last week right after Miss O’Bannon and the sheriff got back from Pendleton, the sheriff hauled Miss O’Bannon off to jail. I stood out there lookin’ in the window,” Shorty said, pointing to the office window. “Uncle Howard looked in too.
“I knew he’d found the wanted poster while the sheriff and Miss O’Bannon was gone; I saw him in here sittin’ at your desk, Sheriff, goin’ through your papers on your desk. When you put Miss O’Bannon in jail I got mad at Uncle Howard ‘cause he got her in trouble. I thought Miss O’Bannon would be all right, ‘cause I heard her say she had papers to show she owned the mules and the wagons. I know Uncle Howard heard her too, ‘cause that’s when he gave me a real dirty look and took off for the stable. I high-tailed it to the mercantile to find Pa and tell him the sheriff had gone and put Miss O’Bannon in jail.
“Pa didn’t say much, he just told me to go close up the storeroom. It was gettin’ dark, but I seen my uncle come around the corner of the sheriff’s office kind of sneaky like. He hurried by me. I was closin’ the door, so he didn’t see me. He was lookin’ kind’a fat, you know, his coat stickin’ out, and his face all sweaty.”
Judge muttered his impatience. Telt knew better. Shorty could tell a story. He was very thorough and good at his job, a true reporter. “Come, come, boy, what did you see?” the judge ordered.
“I saw him put somethin’ down on the step at the back door of the bank, then unlock the door. He picked up the dark thing and went inside. It might’a been a bag.”
“You did fine, son,” said Percy, laying his hands down over the boy’s shoulders to his chest and pulling him back against his torso.
Wren had pulled herself together, also impatient with Shorty’s rendition of events. “As soon as Mr. Buttrum gave the sheriff that wanted poster, the sheriff impounded my wagons and mules and they were taken to the stable. Telt, the sheriff, had stowed my satchel in the dash compartment before we left Pendleton. As he went about his duty to incarcerate me, I think we can assume Mr. Buttrum went to the stable to look for my satchel and my records.” Pleased with herself that she’d been the one to fill in the blanks before he could even open his mouth, Wren offered Telt a self-satisfied little smile.
“Supposition, circumstantial,” muttered the judge. “But it does sound like something Rum-butt would do.”
“Rum-butt?” mouthed Mr. Clarkston.
“Did I say Rum-butt?” the judge asked. He looked to the sheriff, then to Miss O’Bannon; they nodded. “We went to Harvard together…everybody called him Rum-butt. I won’t tell you the moniker they slapped on me; it is too cruel to utter,” he assured them with a disgusted shudder.
The afternoon light had started to fade into deep shadows by the time Eula closed the door of the mercantile. The ladies were gathered outside, all of them tired to the bone but reluctant to leave. It had been a good day, a satisfying day. Eula, pleased with the results, adjusted her bonnet and straightened her skirt. She knew she’d asked this before, but she would ask it again, “You’re all sure you put your time down? Miss O’Bannon made that clear. She needs a record of the work we’ve done.”
Grandma Tatom and her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Brandtmeyer, and her daughters, Mrs. Meirs and Mrs. Claussen, and the other ladies, nodded their heads. “Well, I think we’ve done a marvelous job, considering the circumstances. I’m sure Miss O’Bannon will be pleased. I do wish Lottie had returned. I don’t understand where she could have gone to.
“Isn’t it wonderful that the judge is here for our little opening?” All the ladies agreed with her, and were still talking about it when Eula bid them good evening and set off for the sheriff’s office. She wanted to offer the comforts of her home to the judge for the duration of his visit, as she always did. She admired the judge very much. He was an old acquaintance from her Portland days. Once upon a time she’d considered the judge husband material. Then the judge introduced her to Howard and all bets were off.
She recalled how she’d fallen for Howard T. Buttrum the moment she set eyes on him, so powerful looking, with an attitude to match. She just knew he was a man of substance. His being a friend of the judge also carried weight with her parents. Howard T. Buttrum flattered her, made much over her pies, and praised her looks and professional manner. He’d given her a royal courting, with flowers, dinners, concerts, candy…the works. In less than a month, she became his bride and found herself on the way to the backend of nowhere…Laura Creek.
As it turned out, that essence of power she’d found so irresistible was, unfortunately, Howard’s need to control all aspects of his life, including everyone around him. For the most part, Eula worked around this foible, or just plain ignored it, or countered it with her own threats. These last couple of weeks, for some reason, Howard, beyond overbearing, had become a one-man crusade, determined to oppress Miss Wren O’Bannon.
Eula realized at the outset Miss O’Bannon would never allow herself to be controlled by any man. She was a woman of parts. To Eula’s mind, Wren O’Bannon was redoubtable, and not even Howard T. Buttrum could stop her from her objective. With that in mind, Eula did understand why Howard was behaving like an ogre. He wouldn’t understand anyone with more ambition than he had, especially a woman.
Matters at home had boiled to a head this morning. Howard had no sooner opened his eyes and set his feet on the floor than he started to shout at her, forbidding her to lift one finger to help Miss O’Bannon open her mercantile. He couldn’t stop the other ladies, but he sure-as-hell could do something about his own wife.
This morning she’d had enough, and let him have the full force of her outrage for presuming he could forbid her from doing anything, especially helping to get Laura Creek’s mercantile ready to open. Raising her voice, she had put her foot down, and about time.
“I want that store. I need that store, and by God, I will have…MY…store! I will do whatever it takes, Howard!” she had screamed in his red face. “I will not allow your threats to stand in my way. Do you hear me? You can go to blazes!” she’d told him as she stomped down the stairs to fix his breakfast.
Over their morning oatmeal, the conversation picked up where it’d left off. The upshot of the conversation, his threats made her tired, most especially his threats where Miss O’Bannon was concerned.
“If you do not desist in this boorish behavior, right now, today, Howard, I will pack my bags and move in with Lottie. I will not stay here and be your doormat. I won’t.” With that, she’d left the house. She’d not set eyes on her husband since.
Her thoughts scattered, Eula spent the better part of the day thinking of little else but the conversation with her husband, and what to do, if anything, about it. She’d vacillated from one moment to the next, feeling that perhaps she’d been too harsh, then turning right around and believing, without a doubt, she’d been absolutely right. He’d deserved every word.
She purposely avoided going home at lunchtime. She knew it to be a waste of her time to argue with him. She’d said all she had to say on the matter, and he could take it or leave it. She tried to tell herself she didn’t care if her husband had lunch or not, but it worried her. She liked to cook for Howard. He loved her cooking. He loved her. She knew it in her heart. Howard T. Buttrum was a romantic man.
Almost suppertime now, he would be hungry if he hadn’t had any lunch. Perhaps he’d gone home, she thought on her way to the sheriff’s office. or perhaps to the sheriff’s office with the judge. She picked up her pace and headed in that direction, in hopes of finding her husband, and finding he’d come to his senses.
“Ah, now here’s another beautiful woman. This town is full of them,” the judge declared, coming to his feet as she entered the sheriff’s office.
Eula nodded to her brother Percy and her nephew, who were just inside the opened door. She smiled to Wren and the gentleman beside her—with whom Eula was not familiar. Then she glanced toward the sheriff, standing next to the little potbellied stove, nodded and gave him a smile. Then she made straight for the judge and his open arms. She needed this today. She needed to be consoled and reassured. Ever since Miss O’Bannon had hit town and Howard had become a one-man crusade, Eula felt as if her world had begun to swerve out of orbit.
She stood on her tiptoes and kissed the judge’s bewhiskered cheek. “It is so good to see you, Francis. Unexpected,” she said with a valiant smile, even though she felt herself on the verge of tears. “You’re early for your regular visit, aren’t you?” she asked, pulling back and looking up into his merry, grey eyes.
“I am,” he said, “and a good thing it is, too. Seems all is at sixes and sevens around here,” patting her on the shoulder. “I’d like you to meet Louis Clarkston, Miss O’Bannon’s lawyer. He traveled with me.”
Staying at the judge’s side, Eula stretched out her hand to Mr. Clarkston, impressed with his distinguished appearance. Sizing the man up, Eula decided Mr. Clarkston had presence. She found him attractive in a rather severe and aristocratic way.
She said to the judge, her eyes including Mr. Clarkston, “I hope you know we expect both of you to make your home with us during your stay. We have plenty of room, as you know, Francis.”
The judge assured Mr. Clarkston by saying, “Cooks like an angel, softest beds in the whole damn state. Makes a man sorry to leave, this little woman does,” declared the judge with his arm around her shoulder.
Embarrassed, Eula attempted a smile and said, “I thought I might find Howard here. I haven’t seen him since this morning.”
“I was just about to ask you if you knew where we could find the rascal,” the judge said.
“Eula,” Wren said, stepping forward, coming closer to the edge of the desk, “do you think Mr. Buttrum could have taken my satchel? Has he said anything to you about it?”
Eula felt her empty stomach do a flip-flop. That damned satchel. Howard, what have you done?
“No,” she said, suddenly becoming weak in the knees. “I’m sorry I don’t know if he has the satchel or if he doesn’t.” Right now, though, she needed to be frank—the judge was her friend as well as Howard’s. Taking a deep breath, and making up her mind, she told them, “Howard is guilty of something. He’s been shouting at me and everyone around him for over a week now. The last few days have been the worst. I’ve never seen him so out of control. I told him this morning I’d had enough. Probably why I haven’t seen him all day…he’s avoiding me, and everyone else.”
“We have reason to believe Miss O’Bannon’s satchel may be in the bank,” Telt said, coming to stand behind Wren. Eula noticed he put his hand to her waist. So it’s like that, she thought to herself. They were a couple now. The sheriff went on to say, “We’d like to have a look. Did Howard say anything about going out of town?”
“Oh, no,” she answered with a certain shake of her head. “I’m sure he would’ve said something to me if he’d planned a trip. I thought he might’ve gone home.”
“Shorty, here,” the sheriff said, pulling the boy out from behind his father, “went over to your house not long ago and no one answered the door, front or back. He asked at the bank if they’d seen him, and his clerk said he hadn’t seen Howard since noon. Shorty checked the stables, too, and Punk hadn’t seen him either”
She felt sick. It was her fault…all her fault Howard was in trouble, somewhere out there in trouble…in very, very deep trouble. “If he isn’t home, and not in his office…oh, Howard,” she cried. The judge pulled her close to his side and began to pat her on the back.
“Come on, son, call your dog. We need to get home,” Eula heard Percy say as he took Shorty by the shoulders to lead him out of the sheriff’s office. “Let me know if I can help…if we need to get up a search party. I’m going to take Shorty home and get him some supper.”
All of them heard it; it was hard not to. It sounded like a wounded coyote or someone singing or trying to sing. Singing but off-key, a big voice, one that carried. Howard?
“You-hoo-U-Eulaaa-U-U-Eulaaa, you-hoo-Eulaaa,” went the revised tune to the old fight song of ‘Boola, Boola’. “So sorry, U-U-Eula, darling Eulaaa,” Howard sang at the top of his lungs.
Telt’s office emptied into the street. The street began to fill with the citizens of Laura Creek as Howard T. Buttrum, Eula’s sweet Howard, staggered down the street. The judge propped her up, his arm around her waist. She stood in shock, her hand to her mouth, tears flowing freely down her face.
Mac, Queenie, and Peanut, right behind them, took exception to the offensive racket and bounded down the street to confront the source.
Eula watched her husband stumble. He cursed the nasty beasts. He didn’t look like himself. He looked like the worst kind of bum. His shirttails were hanging out, his fancy vest gaped unbuttoned, and his suit coat had slipped to the side, falling off his shoulders. His white shirtfront and the front of his trousers were all muddy, as were his hands and face.
Holding a bottle of brandy in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other, high above his head, Howard danced for the barking dogs. Batting the dogs aside, Howard stopped spinning and found his direction, heading towards her.
“I’m so blue-la-blue-la—blue-la, pretty Eula-U-U-Eulaaa. I—been a fool-la-fool-la-fool-la-U-U-Eulaaaa.” Coming up to her, teetering forward and back, his breath strong enough to evaporate solid rock, he sang the last verse of his song in heartfelt, round tones, “I love you true-laaa, true-laaa-true-la-U-U-Eulaaa-sweet U-Eulaaaaa!”
While the whole town watched in horror, Howard put the bottle of brandy to his lips and took a long, deep draw. With a grin, and a bow to his audience, he turned his head and took a long, deep draw from the whiskey bottle he held in his other hand.
“Do something,” Eula heard Wren plead. “He’s going to kill himself if he keeps drinking at this pace.”
Forced into action, Telt stepped forward, but Eula put out her arm and stopped him. “Howard,” she said, trying for calm, praying for reason.
“Howard, we’ve been wondering where you were,” she said, hoping for a sober response.
“Eulaaa, Eulaaa, darling Eulaaa,” he sang as he stumbled backward. She caught him by his lapels and brought him up to less of an angle. Telt moved behind him, and a good thing, too. Howard practically threw himself at her, almost knocking her to the ground.
While struggling to maintain his balance, Telt removed the whiskey bottle from Howard’s hand and passed it off to the judge, who, Eula noticed, looked on with a scowl of disapproval on his face. Getting the bottle out of Howard’s hand was as easy as taking candy from a baby. Howard began to cry. The fumes made all of them dizzy. Telt managed to get one of Howard’s arms around his shoulder.
While Howard bemoaned the loss of his whiskey, Percy put his shoulder under Howard’s other arm. While Howard’s arm hung limp around Percy’s shoulder, the brandy bottle dangling from his grasp beneath Percy’s nose, Wren plucked the bottle of poison from Howard’s chubby fingers and handed it off to Mr. Clarkston. Mr. Clarkston took the bottle and held it as if it were a snake, two fingers under the lip.
“Don’t leave me, Eulaaaa! I’ve been bad. I’m a bad-bad-man. Somebody should lock me up!” he shouted.
“Going to jail!” he announced to one and all as Telt and Percy began to lead him into the office.
“Got to pay!” he shouted and reared back. His eyes found the judge’s face. Eula could tell he was having trouble focusing. “Crooked-Fanny!” Howard shouted and began to giggle.
“Franny, Franny Cockshrunk!” Howard chortled, putting Eula to the blush. “Francis…you old goat, come for my wife, didn’t yah?”
Howard lurched away from his supporters and lunged for the judge. “You can’t have her. She’s mine…loves me…I’m her big-ol’-jackass-of-a-husband.” Howard bellowed, and then went flat on his face in the dust a few feet from the sheriff’s office door, much to Eula’s horror.
Telt stood there for a second, trying to decide what to do. He couldn’t leave the man lying in the dust on the street, although he found the idea tempting. He looked up and realized Percy, everyone, stood waiting for him to do something. At last, bending his knees and putting his back into it, he picked up the heavy end and Percy took the legs. Between them they wrestled Howard into his office and back to the jail cell. Before they plopped Howard’s inert body onto the bed, Wren skipped around to grab Mrs. Claussen’s pretty quilt off the cot.
“Some coffee might help. If we could get it down him,” Percy said, out of breath. Eula had squeezed in behind them. She went about setting the rocking chair closer to the cot.
“Punk makes good coffee,” Telt grumbled, his hands on his hips, standing back to give Eula room.
“You think he’d make a pot for Howard?” asked Percy.
Telt had to think about that. He cocked his head. “I don’t know. He might. Then again, he might lace it with strychnine,” he muttered. Eula afforded them both a dirty look, then went back to soothing her husband’s brow.
“Shorty and I’ll go see if Punk’ll fix us up a pot. We’ll stay and kind of supervise,” Percy volunteered.
“Right,” Telt said with a nod.
Telt asked Eula, “What do you need here, water, towel, maybe a pan or bucket? ‘Cause I think he’s gonna be sicker than a dog.” Without meeting his eyes, Eula simply nodded.
Wren, he noticed, had turned to go back to the front office. He and Percy backed out of the cell, leaving Eula to watch over her husband.
As Telt and Percy rounded the corner and started down the hall, they overheard Mr. Clarkston talking to the judge. “I was under the impression Laura Creek was a dry town,” he remarked.
“Liquor is not to be sold to the public in Laura Creek. No law against a man imbibing his own stores,” explained the judge, his cheeks puffing out, causing his whiskers to wag. “I’ve seen Buttrum’s cellar, harrumph…very well stocked, it is,” testified the judge, giving the ends of his mustache a twirl with his fingers.
“Then you think he got into this condition from his own cellar?” Mr. Clarkston seemed to realize he’d put forth a stupid question, but once out he couldn’t very well take it back.
Percy emerged from the hallway into the office and, seeing Shorty sitting on the floor petting the sheriff’s dog, motioned to the boy. “Let’s go son.” They left together with a simple wave goodbye to the judge and Mr. Clarkston.
Telt came to a standstill at the end of the hall to study Wren; still holding the quilt, she’d taken up a position at the window. Her face, now in shadow, the fading light of the day casting golden highlights to her curls and setting her curvaceous body in silhouette, he could almost read her mind. She wanted her satchel back. Howard knew where it was, but he lay back there too drunk to be of any use.
* * * *
As her eyes looked out to the mountains to the west, Wren thought how serene it all appeared. A slight breeze blowing down the street stirred up little dust devils that twirled their way past her, headed toward the stable. Mac came to sit at her feet, leaning his body into her leg. She reached down and scratched his ear, hardly conscious of it. Queenie came up on her other side and pawed her skirt. She smiled down at the lovely golden retriever and gave her velvety ears equal time.
She knew Telt was watching her, could feel his eyes on her. When she turned around, her gaze locked with his and, for a moment, there was no one else in the room. His eyes spoke to her, urging her to hold on, just for a little longer. Everything would be all right…today. It would all get straightened out…today.
She tried to give him her patient face and a forced smile, but it wasn’t easy. She had to do something, make herself useful or go mad just standing around waiting for Howard Buttrum to sober.
She folded Mrs. Claussen’s quilt and laid it on Telt’s desk. “I’m going to go get some water and a bucket for Mr. Buttrum,” she announced to the room, dragging her eyes away from Telt’s concerned aspect.
“Yes, I would bet the liquor came from his own cellar. Buttrum’s not against liquor, he’s against saloons and drunkenness. Ironic isn’t it?” the judge said to Mr. Clarkston, his eyes following Wren out the door.
Telt went to the window, trying to figure out where Wren had gone, but he couldn’t see her.
“It’s for certain Howard didn’t purchase that brandy or whiskey here in Laura Creek,” the judge said to Mr. Clarkston, becoming impatient with the man. “Miss O’Bannon is aware Laura Creek is a dry town. It was a selling point for her. Hers is the only mercantile within a day’s ride, and she isn’t even open for business yet.”
Mr. Clarkston paced the room, then stopped next to Telt and looked out the window. He stood there looking thoughtful before saying, “If we could get the keys to the bank from Mr. Buttrum, we might be able to get this matter of Miss O’Bannon’s guilt settled before sundown. Her jail cell has just become a bit overcrowded. Judge, do you think you could give us the authority to go do a search?”
“Yes, yes, good idea, Clarkston.”
The judge addressed Telt, “Sheriff, what say you? I suppose by now all of the clerks have gone home. We’ll need the keys to the bank, possibly the combination to the safe.”
* * * *
Wren walked back into the office in time to hear the end of this conversation and thought at last…a step forward. Her spirits perked up considerably.
Telt gave her an encouraging nod before he headed back to the jail cell. He knew she followed close on his heels.
Telt asked Eula, “Can you check to see if he’s got the keys to the bank on him, Mrs. Buttrum? We’re gonna go over and make a search of his office. Is there a chance you know the combination to the safe? If you don’t, would his clerk or the manager know the combination?”
Wren tried to get around him. Telt hadn’t noticed, but she had a pan of water and a towel over her arm, and a small, galvanized bucket dangling from her fingers. He realized she must have gone out back to the well behind her store. He stepped aside to allow her into the cell.
Eula dipped the towel in the water and pressed the cloth to his head. Howard came to in a bleary-eyed sort of way, “Can’t stop the tide. Tide’s turned on me…,” he said, his words slurred together, and a line of drool escaped from the corner of his mouth.
Wren had just set the bucket on the floor at Eula’s feet when Howard warned, “Gonna puke now!” Eula tried to lift his big head. Wren held the bucket under his chin and most of the eruption made it into the container. The fumes were incredible; the women coughed, and Telt almost gagged.
Howard groaned. “Better,” he claimed and fell back on the down pillow Grandma Tatom had loaned to Wren’s jail cell. Telt saw Wren cringe; at least she’d saved the quilt.
Wren took the bucket and set it aside. Eula fished out the keys to her husband’s bank from his vest pocket and handed them over to Telt without even looking at him. Wren took the towel, dipped it into the cool water, and wrung it out before handing it to Eula, who immediately started to wash her husband’s face and neck.
“Ask him about the safe before he passes out again,” Telt urged. Wren gave him a look he couldn’t quite read. If she disapproved, he meant to ignore her and anyone else who might object to bothering Howard T. Buttrum or his wife during their time of trouble and sickness. After all, the man had brought it on himself.
Damn it all! Telt meant for Buttrum to give over that combination one way or another. He hoped they could do it the easy way. They were too close to getting this mess cleared up. If he had to turn Howard upside down and shake the combination out of him, then he would do it, and to hell with what anyone, even Wren, thought.
Eula blinked back her tears, “I’ll try to get him to tell me,” she sniffed. “Howard,” she whispered. Then putting more steam behind it, she shouted in her husband’s ear, “Howard!” and gave him a shake for good measure. “Howard!”
That’s more like it! Telt was impressed.
“Don’t.” Howard pleaded, “Rocking the boat,” he groaned and belched.
“Howard,” Eula persisted, “what is the combination to the safe at the bank, Howard?”
“Best day of my life,” Howard said, on the verge of tears, his face shattering into a study in drunken misery.
Eula, to her credit, ignored his suffering, no mean feat, and once again tried to rouse him, “The safe, Howard, at the bank. What is the com-bin-na-tion?”
Howard winced and turned his head away. “Luckiest day of my life,” he blubbered. “Married you. Smarter then. Ssso dumb now. Lost you. Lost everything. Drunk, too. Awful, feel awful,” he managed to admit before he passed out.
“Howard!” Eula cried and gave him a good shake. Howard made not even a groan of protest. “I don’t know…,” Eula said, and wept, swiping away the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand. “Maybe he’s trying to tell us the combination is the date of our anniversary? We were married September twelfth, eighteen seventy-five, so that would be 9-12-18-75, and I think he always turned the dial to zero first. You could try it, I guess,” she said, her eyes big and red-rimmed, looking up to Telt.
There didn’t seem to be any more they could do, so Telt guided Wren, his hand on the small of her back, out of the cell and down the narrow hall, leaving Eula behind to tend to her husband.
Wren glanced over her shoulder as they rounded the corner. Telt could almost feel sorry for the man. Howard T. Buttrum would be hung over for days after a binge like today. “I’m going with you,” Wren announced, her chin up and jaw set, braced for an argument.
“Yeah, I didn’t think I could get you to stay behind. I wasn’t going to try,” he said with a lopsided grin. The look of disappointment that crossed her face, just a brief second before she relaxed her jaw, made him chuckle. The woman did love a good battle of wills.
* * * *
Judge Crookshank and Mr. Clarkston were not about to be left behind either. Telt used the keys to open the bank and Howard’s office door. The safe, a large six-foot by six-foot square, steel-plated iron box, sat in the far corner of Howard’s office. It was a beautiful thing, painted forest green with gold lettering. The correct combination, and a turn of the big, brass captain’s wheel, would open the thick iron door.
Before approaching the safe, they searched the room thoroughly. It was a small room, but opulently appointed with a large, ornately carved, oak desk and an oak swivel chair to match. A large oak bookcase stood opposite the wall from the safe. Leather-bound tomes, silver-plated trophies and framed certificates sat upon the highly polished shelves. The brief search brought them up empty handed.
“Do we all agree we must try the combination to the safe?” asked Mr. Clarkston, primarily speaking to the judge. Wren and Telt could hardly stand this ridiculous moment of hesitation. Telt stood ready to blow the damn thing up, certain Wren would light the fuse if necessary. But he’d wait and try the combination first. He couldn’t speak for Wren, as she looked to be about to jump out of her skin with impatience.
“I believe we must,” the judge concurred.
Telt heard Wren give a huge sigh and almost grinned at her, but he controlled himself. He got down into a squat before the safe and gave the big brass dial a spin. He turned it to 0 then 9, 12, 18, 75 and nothing, not even a click.
“Try 0, 9, 12, 18, 7 then 5,” Wren whispered to him, leaning over his shoulder. He didn’t know why she’d whispered; it wasn’t like they were doing anything illegal, although it did seem sneaky, somehow.
Telt spun the dial and turned to zero, 9, 12, 18, 7, 5, everyone held their breaths, nothing, again.
* * * *
“May I try?” Wren asked, her hands fidgeting with the material of her skirt and her eyes going to the judge. Telt stood and moved out of her way. The judge gave her the nod to go ahead.
She put her ear close to the safe door, bending down, her hair falling around her face and shoulders. She spun the dial, left to zero, around to 9, right to 12, left to 18, right to 7, left to 5 and click. Telt turned the big brass wheel and the vault opened with a creaking shudder.
Stacked inside, on steel shelves, they found documents, currency, bags of coins and some closed metal boxes, but no satchel. They all stood there looking into the safe with unbelieving eyes.
Wren swung around, marched over and kicked Buttrum’s desk. “Blast the man! What could he have done with it? Could he have taken it home and stuck it somewhere without Eula noticing?”
“Not much gets past Eula,” Telt muttered as he closed the safe and gave the wheel a spin, then turned the dial around a couple of times. “I guess he could’ve destroyed it,” he mumbled.
“All I have left of my mother and my grandmother, the jewelry and pictures, everything was in that bag.” Her chest ached; she wanted to cry so badly, but if she allowed herself that luxury she’d go mad. “Surely, he wouldn’t have destroyed it. I can’t believe this.” On a sob of despair, she left the room. She knew if she stayed and looked into Telt’s eyes she would break down. She didn’t want to do that.
Going out of Buttrum’s office, she looked around and found herself about five feet away from the rear of one teller cage. On her other side, there were two desks. To her right, a short hall led to the back door of the bank. Inserted into the hallway, she saw a door and assumed it to be a closet. She went down to take a closer look and tried the knob, finding the door locked. “Telt!” she called out, her heart suddenly pounding. She knew before they opened the door her satchel was here, in this closet, up on the top shelf, tucked in the back corner—it called to her.
* * * *
The sun had set. Telt sat at his desk with a cup of Punk’s legendary coffee in his hand. He closed his eyes and savored the taste.
Wren’s satchel sat on his desk before him. Her papers proved she’d stolen nothing. The judge would send out a wire to his clerk in the morning ordering him to rescind all wanted posters for Wren in each county.
She’d taken an inventory of the contents of her satchel and signed a paper stating nothing was missing, nothing tampered with. Seated at his desk, Telt could hear Wren and Eula speaking back in the jail cell, but couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Then he heard Howard retching. The man had the dry-heaves. Telt squeezed his eyes shut; he hated those. The judge and Mr. Clarkston had gone to the Buttrum house. Eula had said she would be along shortly.
“I’ll be back in an hour,” Eula said as she and Wren emerged from the back. “You’re welcome to stay at our house, Wren, until you can move into your quarters above the mercantile.”
Telt saw Wren hesitate to explain. Eula intercepted the look that passed between them. “Perhaps it isn’t necessary,” she said and tried to hide her knowing smile. “There has been some speculation. Who am I to judge, my husband being a thief and a liar.”
“Eula,” Wren whispered, “your husband is not a thief, not really. He just got lost for a time. He’s suffering for his crime. I am not pressing any charges against him.”
“Thank you,” Eula said to Wren and gave her a hug.
“Telt, you better not be playing with this girl’s affections,” Eula warned him. “The ladies of this town will make your life a misery, if you are.”
Telt held up his hands, “Already asked the lady for her hand and heart. She has consented to be my bride. I’ll make an honest woman of her as soon as the judge can draw up a license, and Percy can say the vows.”
Eula laughed and hugged Wren some more, then Telt. “I‘m so very happy for you both,” she said, wiping the tears from her cheeks. “I’m also happy this day is turning out so well. There for a while I thought it all a terrible nightmare. It just seemed to go on forever.”
Lottie and Wesley walked into the office just then, both rather pink-cheeked and looking starry-eyed. “Aunt Eula, we were at the house when Judge Crookshank and Mr. Clarkston came to tell us what has happened to Uncle Howard. And, Miss O’Bannon, you have your satchel again. You don’t have to stay in that terrible little jail cell.”
Eula giggled and muttered, “I don’t believe Miss O’Bannon has suffered too greatly for her time spent in her jail cell, thanks to the sheriff.”
Lottie shrugged this off and eagerly introduced her aunt to Wesley, then informed everyone that she and Wesley wanted to be married right away, before the judge left Laura Creek.
* * * *
By the sad expression in Eula’s eyes, Wren could see that Lottie’s intentions would not be easy for Eula to accept. After the day she’d endured, it must come as the final blow. But the woman took it with good grace as she ushered Lottie and Wesley out of the sheriff’s office. Over her shoulder, Eula vowed to return, prepared to stay the night by her husband’s side.
“Who is Wesley Potter?” Wren wanted to know, going to the opened door, her eyes following the trio as they crossed the street and then disappeared around the corner of the telegraph office.
“I have not a clue,” Telt declared. “This Potter fella arrived with the judge. I gather the judge gave him a ride into town. Lottie introduced him to me as her fiancé. She stood out there…in the street…and kissed the man, without shame or hesitation. She used to chide me for trying to hold her hand. I nearly dropped my teeth, I can tell yah.”
“Poor Telt,” Wren cooed as she came and sat on his lap, her arms going around his neck, “callously set aside…replaced. It must be a terrible blow to your tender ego.”
“Well, damn, it does seem pretty sudden, don’t you think? One week she’s jealous as a cat, and the next week she’s all over some stranger, some other fella’…and gonna get married!”
Wren snickered and kissed his cheek, then nibbled his earlobe, “And what about you?” she challenged between bites. “One week you’re sort of courting the girl, then the next day you’re taking my virtue, you dog.”
Telt pulled her around to plant a very thorough kiss on her lips. The hand on her thigh inched up under her skirt, slowly, achingly sliding up and around, seeking her pleasure button. With lips pressed together, they shared a giggle when they heard Howard moan, then burp and start to snore loud enough to wake the dead.
Telt and Wren were up with the pale, cool dawn, ready for the big day. Last night, as a surprise for Wren, Telt hauled her traveling trunk up to the cabin, so this morning she felt particularly well put together in one of her favorite dresses. The dress was of soft, rich, olive green Jersey wool. It fit snuggly at the waist, with gathers under the bodice, cream lace around the heart-shaped neck, and a lace edging on the bell-sleeves. She wore her hair pulled back into a French-braid, tied with a cream-colored, satin ribbon and her mother’s pearl earrings and necklace.
She hadn’t felt this feminine in a long while. She looked into her mirror and hardly recognized herself. The face she saw looked younger somehow, with optimism shining in her eyes, and a bloom on her cheeks that gave her a softer appearance. She had to giggle. Telt was taking responsibility by claiming that her shining eyes and blooming cheeks were due to the good loving she was getting.
The smell of wood-smoke hung low to the ground this morning as they walked down the hill to the mercantile. A sweeping, golden arch crested on the horizon, and a low mist clung to the meadow. The birds were starting to stir, chirping and fussing. It was a paradise.
Wren’s steps were lighter this morning; she felt as if she were floating, toes barely touching the ground. There was something in the air. Gravity wasn’t quite as strong here in Laura Creek, at least, not this morning. Queenie and Mac raced off to chase a squirrel around the corner of the mercantile as they entered her store.
She rubbed her hands together. The place smelled familiar; it was like coming home. She took a deep breath, catching a whiff of spice, leather, wood and tobacco, all mingled together into a beautiful perfume.
There were bolts of cloth on the shelves behind the counter, along with notions: pins, needles, scissors, thread and skeins of yarn in all hues of the rainbow. Down the center of the room were bins full of flour, sugar, beans, rice, crackers, barrels of pickles, and salted fish. Tins of peaches, pears, cherries, plums, jars of molasses…were all around the store.
Every shelf was stocked, full to bursting with all manner of goods. Jars of candy, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, jerky and smoked meat sat upon the counter.
In the glass case, below the counter, the ladies had displayed the pocket knives, hunting knives, skinning knives, pipes, pistols, hair-combs and hat-pins. They’d arranged everything just as she would have done.
She put her hand over her mouth and wanted to cry. It was all so wonderful. She stood there in the middle of the store and simply turned around and around, taking it all in. Telt stood at her side, silent, but she could feel his warmth, feel the pressure of his hand on her waist. She leaned into his chest, grateful for his solid, steady presence.
With her arms wrapped around his waist, she said up to his face, “I want Grandmother Tatom to have her mattress. And the others, Mr. Brandtmeyer, Percy and Shorty, Mr. Meirs and Mr. Claussen, everyone, must have what they requested, right away. They made all of this possible. They’ve worked so hard. Look at it, Telt, it’s beautiful.”
She felt his lips pressing to the top of her head, then he said, “Punk brought your wagons up last night. They’re around back. Everything we picked up at your warehouse is still in the wagons, just like it was when we left Pendleton. You can let folks know today. I’m sure everyone will come in. Folks have been looking forward to this day for a good long while. This place is going to be jumping with customers, and I’d say it’ll be an all-day celebration.”
Queenie and Mac came loping in the front door. Mac barked, and she saw that Punk and Percy were outside with a big wooden plaque.
“We’ve got a little surprise for you,” Telt said and turned her around by her shoulders, the better to look out her front door. Percy and Punk held up their handiwork. Written in big, bold, black script, burnt into the wood, were the words: O’BANNON MERCANTILE, Laura Creek, Oregon.
The men were properly pleased with her response when she squealed with delight, hiked up her skirts and rushed outside to direct the placement of the sign below the peak of the roof just above the door.
Telt scaled the ladder to help adjust the sign, as it wanted to list to the right. “down on the left corner just a tad more,” she told him. Satisfied, her sign now level, she let him pound it into place with what seemed to her an inordinate number of nails.
During this exercise, she turned to find, to her surprise and delight, her first customers, Judge Crookshank and Mr. Clarkston.
“Good morning,” she said, and meant it. This was truly the best of mornings, the best morning she’d ever had.
Telt made his way down the ladder in time to be next to her when the judge told her, “We need to talk with you, my dear. We really should have spoken to you yesterday, but it just didn’t seem to be the right time.”
“Certainly,” she said, not the least bit concerned, for what could go wrong on such a glorious morning. “Come inside and look at all that’s been done. Everyone has worked so hard. The store is a bit small, not exactly as I had imagined when I made the purchase, but I think for the size of the population, it will do nicely.”
Punk put his head in the door, “I thought I’d bring over a pot of coffee.”
“Yes,” Wren turned and gave him a big smile, “that would be lovely. Thank you, Mr. Baker. Thank you for the sign, too, and for keeping my mules and the wagons. Thank you for so many things,” she said. Then walked up to the man and stood on her tiptoes to plant a kiss on his round, brown cheek. “You’re a very good friend, Mr. Baker,” she said quietly, intending her remark for his ears only.
It pleased her to see the big burly smithy blush. He touched his cheek, then walked away toward the stable. Wren didn’t bother to hide her giggle, she wanted to skip, she felt so good. She breathed deeply of the morning air. The day was beautiful. Nothing could go wrong today. It was perfect.
She saw Percy still outside, picking up his hammer and stowing away the nails in an old coffee can, and called out to him, “You come back with Shorty and pick out some clothes for yourselves, and some shoes; they’re right there in the back corner.”
“Will do,” Percy said with a wave before he started to walk away.
“Wait, wait just a minute,” she called out, and she did, she skipped up to him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Wouldn’t want you to feel left out,” she said, and giggled, because Percy could blush like no other human on earth. He blushed from the roots of his red hair to his toes.
Standing just inside the doorway, and seeing the judge, Mr. Clarkston and Telt gathered before her counter she swept her arm out and asked, “So, what do you think, Judge? Isn’t it just the most beautiful little store you’ve ever seen? Everyone has done so much. I had everyone keep track of their time and the materials used in my black book. It has become a habit over the years. There were no shelves or storeroom, and the roof wasn’t finished when first I arrived. I was determined to open right on time, no matter what the obstacles Mr. Buttrum threw at me. Then I ended up in jail, and I have to say, I didn’t see how this store could ever open. I certainly couldn’t have done it without the good people of Laura Creek.”
“Everything looks splendid, my dear, just splendid. If you will make an accounting from your black book, I think we can make a case against Mr. Buttrum,” said Mr. Clarkston, “at least make him repay cost of time and labor.”
“You haven’t asked why Mr. Clarkston and I made this trip to Laura Creek several weeks in advance of my original planned visitation,” said the judge with a wily gleam in his all-knowing eyes.
She felt silly, but a flutter of unease had began to stir right there in the pit of her stomach. Wren chalked it up to excitement. Nothing could spoil this day, nothing.
She smiled and came farther into the store, “No, I guess I just assumed you wanted to see how I was coming along. And I have to say your timing is nothing short of miraculous.”
She leaned against Telt, of a sudden feeling the need of his solid body beside her. He put his arm around her shoulder. The sound of his voice, strong and deep, sent a vibration through her, right down to her toes.
“Wren and I are going to need a marriage license,” he said. She knew he was grinning; she blushed. She couldn’t stop the giggle of guilt. After all, they’d been living together, for all intents and purposes, for nearly a week.
“Ah, a rash of wedlock fever seems to have struck Laura Creek,” the judge declared, his laugh big as he took Telt by the hand and began pumping his arm. “I’m very pleased, very pleased,” he said.
To Wren he said, “I’m certain your late father would approve, Wren, which brings us to our purpose here in Laura Creek.”
“I don’t understand,” she said, a glimmer of a dark cloud looming on the horizon taking shape in her mind.
“A little over two weeks ago a Mrs. Tabatha Schilling paid me a visit,” Mr. Clarkston began.
“Tabby?” Wren interrupted.
“Yes. I understand she kept house for you the past fifteen years.”
“That’s right. When last I saw Tabby, she was about to leave for Gladstone to live with her niece to help with a new baby. Is she all right? I mean…she’s not in trouble, is she? I didn’t tell her what I was going to do. I meant to write a long letter to her once everything here was all settled down.”
She was babbling. She knew it. Telt gave her shoulder a reassuring little shake. “I think if you’ll give the man a chance you might get your answers,” he told her, his voice gentle but amused all the same.
“Oh, yes, of course, excuse me. I’m sorry, Mr. Clarkston, please go on.”
After a nod from the judge, Mr. Clarkston cleared his throat and proceeded; “Well, as I was saying, Mrs. Schilling came to me only a few days after you left town. Quite agitated, she apologized profusely. It seems your father made arrangements with his attorney to transfer his half of the O’Bannon Brothers Enterprises partnership to you, his only heir, well over two years ago. He instructed his attorney not to disclose the fact of the transfer of partnership until after his death.
“Mrs. Schilling remembered witnessing the document along with the Reverend John Patterson. She said she saw it duly notarized by your father’s personal accountant and old friend, Mr. Daniel Jackson.”
Wren started to interrupt, but Telt pinched her arm, and she clamped her lips together.
“Your father had his accountant take care of recording and finalizing the document, and unfortunately the document didn’t get delivered to the house until the day after your father’s funeral and the reading of the will, due to Mr. Jackson being indisposed with the influenza at the time of your father’s demise.
“It is a very good thing your uncle never got hold of this paper I have here in my coat pocket,” Mr. Clarkston said, removing a thick blue envelope from the inside of his suit coat. “I think we can all make a pretty good guess as to what he would have done with it. Mrs. Schilling said she’d completely forgotten all about the document.”
They all shared a look that spoke volumes. “I’m sure Uncle Stanley would have burned it if he’d known.”
Continuing, Mr. Clarkston said, “As you may or may not know, your uncle dismissed Mrs. Schilling two days after the funeral. Her dismissal came not as a surprise to the woman, as she’d already decided to leave anyway. Your uncle’s tone, however, upset her. He became very churlish and rude, from what I understand. She had only to pack a valise, but in her rush she neglected to latch it closed.
“She said your uncle yelled and cursed, not at her, but at you, from what I gather. The long and the short of the story is, she dropped the contents of her valise right in front of the entryway door and knocked the silver charger off the entryway table. She quickly stuffed her belongings into her bag, replaced the charger plate to its place on the console table, and made a rather hasty exit from the house.”
Wren had started to shake, she remembered very well how her uncle could rant and rave and browbeat a person. She felt sorry for poor Tabby, how upset she must’ve been. Wren leaned back against Telt, grateful to find him there to hold her up.
“It took a day to get to her niece’s and a day or two to unpack,” Mr. Clarkston explained, for some reason sounding apologetic. Wren was having trouble hearing; a roaring sound rushed through her head. She squinted, trying to concentrate.
“By then you had disappeared, as far as Mrs. Schilling knew. The will had been read, and she didn’t know where to turn when she discovered she had a very important document, addressed to you from Mr. Jackson, stuffed in with her own belongings.
“Her brother advised her to come and see me. Once she told me the identity of her employer, I knew I must locate you, Miss O’Bannon. I contacted Judge Crookshank, as Mrs. Shilling informed me that he most likely knew of your exact destination.
“Somehow, in all of this, your uncle learned that his brother, your father, had transferred his half of the partnership to you. Judge Crookshank and I suspect it was through the still ailing accountant. I think we can presume that’s when Stanley O’Bannon, your uncle, came up with the plan to send out a wanted poster on you.
“When we arrived yesterday we knew your uncle intended to cause trouble. We came up here to warn you, and of course to give you news of the changes to your circumstances.”
Wren felt herself losing her battle to stay conscious, she had never fainted, never in her whole life. She put her hand to her forehead, “I have to sit down,” she said. Telt pulled up an empty packing crate, upending it for her to sit on.
“You see, my dear,” said the judge, bending down and taking her hand, “this changes everything. Actually, it brings up a rather tangled legal knot. Your father’s will states he leaves his brother all of his worldly goods. It says nothing, specifically, what those worldly goods are. Naturally, your uncle assumed it meant he owned all of the assets contained within the partnership, as anyone would, reading the will.
“With the transfer of the partnership having taken place well before your father’s death, there is very little for your uncle to inherit. Your father had legally turned everything, the mercantile, the warehouses, even your home, over to you within the partnership stipulations and agreements.
“Years ago, your uncle Stanley purposefully inserted a stipulation into the partnership agreement enabling him to divide his half of the partnership with his sons whenever he chose, without approval or permission from your father. Little did he realize, your father was free to do likewise.”
Mr. Clarkston held out the blue envelope to her. Wren took it from him with trembling fingers. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she read quickly through the legalese, then opened the personal note included in the packet.
In her father’s scrawling hand she read, My dear Wren, you have represented O’Bannon Brothers Enterprises as a full partner since your twenty-third birthday. I hope you will forgive me for not telling you.
By keeping this from you, I did what I thought best to save you from Stanley’s machinations. If you are reading this, then I am gone to my maker. You do what you want with the partnership; all I ask is, do not cave in to Stanley and hand it over to him. Let him buy you out, or sell it to someone who will make it thrive, as you have.
I have watched you immerse yourself in the business, and I have felt tremendous pride on the one hand and deep sorrow on the other. If, God willing, you find love and the opportunity to have a home and children of your own, take it. You are a warm, desirable young woman. Believe that with all your heart. Remember me with fondness, your loving father, Gregory W. O’Bannon.
With tears rolling down her cheeks, it began to sink in. Her home still belonged to her. The stores were hers, the warehouses, the properties, all hers. Her father had outwitted, out-smarted, out-maneuvered her conniving shyster of an uncle. She could almost hear her father’s chuckle.
Then she realized she was in partnership with her uncle, legally…had been for a couple of years. Good heavens! She’d managed everything for years, since she was sixteen years old, but she’d never thought she would ever be made a partner. Her father had never spoken to her about the possibility.
When she looked up, she saw the potential in the judge’s eyes. She turned her head up to look at Telt. She needed him. She felt as if she were standing on the deck of a ship in a very heavy gale. The gray clouds were lifting. She could see land, a beautiful island and a lovely oasis, but she needed Telt to keep her from crashing onto the rocks, and coming to ground on the shoals.
Telt withdrew his hand from her shoulder, and a strange look came over his face. His voice sounded flat when he spoke, “I guess I’ll go over to the jail and see how the Buttrums are doing. See if Eula needs any help. You’ve got a lot to think over. Pretty soon you’re gonna have customers. I’ll get out of your way.”
“Telt! No. I mean, I understand you need to go and see to Eula and Howard, but come back. I want you here with me.”
“I’ll be around,” he said without touching her, without meeting her gaze.
She came slowly to her feet, feeling weak and a bit lost as to how she should go on. He walked out the door and Queenie got up from her place in the corner by the woodstove where she’d been lying at Mac’s side. The retriever hesitated, then, as if she’d been scolded, with head and tail down she followed Telt out into the street.
“Your sheriff is right, my dear,” the judge said from somewhere behind her. Of a sudden the store seemed empty, like a cavern…all the light had gone out of it. Wren folded her arms across her chest and turned around, determined to put a brave smile on her face.
“You need to think this through,” the judge told her. “I would guess your uncle is on his way. I understand Mr. Buttrum sent him a wire notifying him of your imminent incarceration. It won’t take long for Stanley to get here. He’ll be on horseback and able to travel faster. I shouldn’t be surprised to see him arrive today.”
She nodded. “Yes, I certainly do have a lot to think about.” However, Telt’s long face and his cryptic parting words ‘I’ll be around’ derailed any real, productive reasoning.
* * * *
“Well, shit. That’s all I’ve got to say,” Telt growled, unchecked tears streaming down his tanned cheeks as he kicked at the dirt behind his office.
Queenie stood at his side, always a faithful ear when he needed to talk things through. He swiped his arm across his face, using his sleeve to dry his nose and wipe his face. “She can just go to hell, for all I care!”
Queenie cocked her head to one side in an attempt to make sense of his ramblings.
“It’s for damned sure I‘m not going to Oregon City. I’d end up being…Mr. O’Bannon for sure. She’d probably have me sweeping out the store, filling up the barrels, and stocking shelves. I’m no storekeeper. Don’t want to be a storekeeper. I can’t be married to a rich woman. So that pretty much puts a cog in the works, I’d say.”
He pulled himself together, and when he and Queenie came around the corner, they met Eula and Howard leaving his office.
“We’re on our way home,” Eula said, her arm around her husband’s waist, but only propping him up just a little. “Howard is feeling much better.”
“She says I stink,” Howard grumbled. “My head feels like somebody used it for a kick-ball, and my stomach is raw as an uncooked goose egg. Other than that I’m just dandy.”
Telt offered him a sympathetic grin. “You’ll live, I reckon,” he prophesied.
“I suppose I will,” Howard managed to say.
Eula started to leave. Howard had no choice but to go with her. “I need to get home, Howard,” Telt heard her say. “I need to help Lottie. Mrs. Claussen is going to make some of her delicious ice cream, and Lottie wants me to help her make a chocolate cake to go with it.”
“Hush, woman, can’t even think of cake,” Telt heard Howard mutter miserably as he and Eula took off for home.
* * * *
The interior of his jail smelled like the inside of a distillery. Queenie went in, turned right around and went back out again to lie to the side of the doorway. Telt went back to the jail cell, retrieved the puke bucket and took it outside to rinse it out. He also hung the pillow and the mattress from the cot outside on the hitching rail to air out. He swept the place, and after an hour with the door open, it didn’t smell quite so bad. On the plus side of all this housekeeping, he didn’t have time to dwell on Wren. He did notice a line of wagons forming in front of the mercantile.
Soon enough, Eula and Lottie came trotting around the corner, laden down with a couple of baskets full of food. They greeted him with smiles and laughter and urged him to put his broom down and come on down to the mercantile.
That was just about the last place he wanted to go. He wasn’t sure what he would do with himself. He couldn’t very well just sit here and watch everyone go by. He had to do something. He left the door to the office open, and he and Queenie headed for the stable.
The sight of Punk Baker all gussied up in regular black trousers and a white shirt made him wonder what the world was coming to. The Wren O’Bannon effect, sooner or later, infected everybody. She could get folks to do crazy things, things they wouldn’t ever imagine doing. God bless the woman.
“Where’s the funeral?” he asked Punk, coming within earshot of the smithy.
“Ha, ha. Ain’t you the funny man. I’m takin’ the day off. Goin’ over to the mercantile. How come you aren’t in there celebratin’ with your woman?”
“Never cared much for crowds. Thought I might take Roonie out for a little ride. It might be kind of nice to get on a horse and just ride out with no destination in mind.”
Punk eyed him suspiciously, his tongue in his cheek. “Do what you want. Roonie’s out back in the corral.”
* * * *
Wren waylaid Punk by commenting, “I saw Telt go by. Is he coming over soon?”
Punk looked longingly at the table at the back of the store, loaded down with pastries and coffee, before answering, “Ah, no, ma’am. He said he was goin’ ridin’.”
“You’re joking,” she said, her head tilted to one side and a weak smile pasted on her lips.
“Nope, said he was gonna take Roonie out. Said he’d just ride out with no destination in mind.”
She stood there, stupefied. She stammered, “Thank you…Mister….Mister Baker.” She waited for him to nod and move off to the refreshment table, but he stood there looking at her, reading her mind. Feeling like her feet were nailed to the floor, unable to move, she clenched her fists. “I see, well that’s fine. Good day for a ride.”
Finally she thought of something else to say, something to get him to move on and stop staring at her. “Please, help yourself to the coffee and cake, Mister Baker,” forcing a smile to her lips. “You help yourself to the hard candy too. And the tobacco,” she said, feeling of a sudden generous, foolhardy, over-exuberant, and on the verge of losing control, very near hysteria.
Making her way to the backroom, managing to smile and nod as she weaved her way in and out of the crowd, she rushed to find a place where she could be alone. She wanted to scream.
“Going riding…of all the asinine things. Telt Longtree. I’m going to kill you. What the hell has gotten into you?” she hissed, finding a space in a far corner of the storage room where she could take about two steps, turn, take two steps, and turn again. Mac stood out of her way to watch her march back and forth, his blue, opaque eyes alert.
Gathering herself together, she ironed down the folds of her dress with her palms, squared her shoulders. “This is…my day…Mac. Telt Longtree can just go hang himself, for all I care.” she said to the dog. Mac followed faithfully behind her as she marched herself back out to greet her friends and neighbors.
It wasn’t long before Howard Buttrum showed himself at her door. A silence fell heavily on those gathered inside the mercantile as she made her way over to greet him. She sensed Eula hovered somewhere close at hand.
“Mr. Buttrum, I’m very pleased to see you,” she said, taking note that he smelled of bay rum and soap. “Your wife and the other ladies have done a beautiful job with the store. Come in and have a look for yourself. You could probably use a cup of coffee. There’s a cup waiting for you back there,” she said, taking Howard by the arm and guiding him into the midst of the Laura Creek inhabitants gathered in her store.
* * * *
Howard felt like a prize pig at the fair being paraded before the judges. He’d made a damned fool of himself, and he couldn’t even blame it on Miss O’Bannon. He and Eula had talked a good deal in the wee hours between midnight and dawn. He’d come to terms with the fact that a woman…was and would be…the owner of the mercantile.
He also understood that Eula intended to be a large part of the mercantile. She wanted to sell her pies, maybe even open a little restaurant someday.
He had no idea of Eula’s ambitions. It made him proud of her, and ashamed of himself. Somehow he had to face these people, find a way to walk among them and earn back their respect.
“I…I…ah, I’m very sorry for the way I’ve behaved. I’ve been unfair to you, I know, Miss O’Bannon. I’m very sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused. Thank you for not pressing charges against me. I intend to make good on the time, supplies and labor costs. I wish you every success,” he managed to say.
He heard a collective sigh pass around the room. He even managed to look Joe Brandtmeyer, his wife, and all their kids in the eye. The Tatom boys, Mr. and Mrs. Meirs, Mr. and Mrs. Claussen, all had the grace to smile at him.
It was probably pity, he thought. Howard T. Buttrum…Rum-butt. More like Dumb butt. I’m a stupid son-of-a-bitch, and don’t even know when I’ve got a good thing. Well, he promised himself, I won’t take anything for granted again, at least not for a good long while. Eula came to him and looped her arm in his to lead him off for a cup of hot coffee. He knew himself for a lucky man. He needed to remember that.
* * * *
Wren didn’t quite trust that Howard T. Buttrum had reformed. His new persona made her rather uncomfortable. She could see that some of the others present weren’t quite sure of him yet, either. Howard began to make conversation with his neighbors and customers, with Eula’s help. It seemed to Wren everyone began to relax as they became used to the idea Mr. Buttrum would not yell at anyone today.
Grandmother Tatom arrived with her daughter-in-law, Margret, and Margret’s daughter, Elizabeth. There were several new faces. The new faces had brought their children with them, and soon Wren’s little store was bursting at the seams.
Percy and Punk had the barbeque going and chicken halves were grilling out front in the street. Mr. Claussen and Mr. Meirs were taking turns churning the ice cream. Howard had started to help Eula, Lottie, and the other ladies set up tables for the food, and tables and chairs where everyone could sit and eat al-fresco.
If Telt had been there, it would have been a perfect day. Wren heard the judge and Mr. Clarkston speaking to Mr. Brandtmeyer about setting up a horseshoe-pit and getting up a game after they ate. Telt Longtree was missing it all. Drat the man, anyway.
Everyone was eating, enjoying the day. The children were running around playing hide-and-seek and tag. Mac lolled in the shade to the side of the store. He came to his feet as three riders came galloping down the street, dust rising around the horses’ hooves and sifting into the food.
Wren recognized the three men immediately as her uncle Stanley, and her cousins, Quinn and Royce. They looked ridiculous as they charged up to the mercantile and leapt off their horses.
Her uncle, usually dressed in a dark coat and trousers, was all decked out today in a brown leather jacket with long fringe at the sleeves and across the shoulders. Her uncle and her cousins were wearing black hats and cowboy boots, of all things.
It was all she could do not to burst out laughing. Mac didn’t care for the looks of the intruders at all and set up a din of protest.
Her uncle didn’t like dogs and began to shout at Mac to shut the hell up, which, of course, had the opposite effect. In Wren’s eyes, it was better than a circus, that is, if it hadn’t been so dreadful they were ruining a perfectly beautiful day.
She was still laughing when her uncle, his face ruddy and piggy-eyes full of fire, charged through the crowd, grabbed her by her arm and began to drag her down off the mercantile steps. The other two men, her cousins, held the crowd back.
“Let me go! Let me go!” she screamed, kicking her uncle in the shins, her free arm pounding his thick head as he led her toward three very lathered horses. Mac had her uncle by the leg. Stanley staggered…and that’s when Mr. Buttrum shoved his way past her cousins, Royce and Quinn.
* * * *
Telt had ridden to the top of the ridge behind the town, following the creek down to the far edge of the meadow. He could smell the barbeque pit and hear the children playing. He had started to head to the back of the mercantile when he heard ladies screaming and men shouting, and definitely Mac, snarling and barking.
Queenie took off at a run to see what the fracas was about. Telt and Roonie followed her around the corner. They arrived in time to see Howard Buttrum draw back his right arm and slam his fist into the nose of a gentleman in a fringed, brown leather coat.
Telt sat there and watched the man hit the ground. Mac had attached himself to the man’s leg, his teeth shredding the fabric of his trousers. Two young bucks grabbed Howard Buttrum and tried to hold him back, but Howard, instead of swinging his arms back to shake them off, brought his arms forward and managed to crash his captor’s heads together. A rousing cheer went up from all gathered. And right in the middle of it all stood Wren O’Bannon…of course.
“What the hell is going on!” he shouted as he dismounted and tied Roonie off to the hitching post. “Has this town gone plumb loco? Call your damn dog off!” he ordered Wren. “It’s you, you know,” he hollered, his gaze zeroing in on her, taking long strides toward her.
Wren pulled Mac off her uncle; even though Mac clearly disagreed. Queenie had come up beside Mac and they both sat down at Wren’s feet, their eyes looking up at him expectantly, which irritated Telt even more.
“You just bring trouble along with you wherever you go!” he hollered at Wren, shaking his finger in her nose. “Why don’t you just get along, go on back where you belong?”
Telt heard the gasp of the shocked onlookers, but he didn’t care. He had to shake free of her. If he didn’t shake her loose right now she would leave him and rip a hole in his heart, and he couldn’t stand that. He might bleed to death.
“Now, wait just a minute, Sheriff!” Howard said, putting himself in front of Wren, shielding her from his wrath. “None of this is Miss O’Bannon’s doing. These men came riding in here, and that one, lying on the ground there in the fringed coat, grabbed her…tried to abduct her, in fact.”
“That’s my uncle Stanley,” Wren said, pointing over Howard’s shoulder to the prone, somewhat corpulent body wearing the fringed coat, and trousers shredded up to the knees.
“That’s my cousin Quinn,” she said, pointing to the young man lying face down on the ground with black hair and wearing a red and blue-checkered shirt.
“And that’s my cousin Royce,” she said, pointing to the young man with the sandy hair, wearing a brown shirt, who at the moment was attempting to get to his knees and failing.
“Uncle Stanley, it seems, would like to hold me hostage. I believe he would like me to sign over my half of the partnership to him.”
“Howard was wonderful!” Eula piped in, putting herself at her husband’s side. She put her arms around him and laid her pretty head against his chest. “You were magnificent, darling. Truly magnificent. You punched his clock.”
Eula turned her eyes up to her husband’s sweating countenance, her gaze dreamy and full of wonder, and said, “I had no idea you could do that. And that thing you did, butting their heads together, wherever did you learn to do that?”
In the background, they all heard the judge laugh. “Old college trick!” he shouted over the tops of everyone’s head.
“I think I might’ve broken my hand,” Howard grumbled, shaking his hand, now that he had time to think about it. Eula, all over him, oohing and aahing, led him away to have a look at his wound.
“Punk, Percy, you want to get them out of here?” Telt said, indicating the men laid out before him. “Take them to the jail, and put them in the cell. They’ll find it to be quite comfortable, won’t they, Miss O’Bannon?”
* * * *
“More comfortable than the hard ground, I should think,” she said, wondering what kind of burr had crawled into his drawers. Why all the hostility? she wondered, and decided to wade in and find out.
“Why don’t you just get to it, Sheriff? What’s got you so steamed?” she asked, her hands going to her hips, sticking her chin out a mile, narrowing her eyes, prepared to go head to head.
Telt swaggered forward, coming within inches of her and peered down at her, sighting her in with his nose, “I used to be bored to death. Being sheriff in this one-horse town is a joke. But all that changed the day you rolled in. Now, every damn day there’s a show. You’ve got everyone all turned upside-down. Even Howard there, who held out longer than anyone, finally caved in. I guess I’m wondering what we’re going to do for entertainment once you leave town.”
* * * *
A collective gasp went up among those who gathered. Telt knew the folks were shifting over to stand behind Wren, but they didn’t know what she was up to. They didn’t understand what she was planning to do. Neither did he, for sure, but he could guess.
Wren held up her hand and held the people back from taking him down to the ground and beating him to a pulp.
“It sounds like the sheriff might be asking me to leave. Is that right, Sheriff? You want me to leave because I’m a bad influence on these good people…I cause trouble?”
“Oh, you’re a model of good behavior,” he said with a smirk on his face. “You inspire those around you to come to your defense.
“I know better than anyone. There’s something about you; you have invisible strings attached. You’re like a spider. We all got tangled up in your web. Once you cast your web over a town, it can never return to its former, peaceful state again. But, we’ll sure as hell try. We’ll be just fine without you here to keep us all stirred up and off balance. Heck, we might even enjoy being bored again!”
He spoke only for himself now, he knew that, but shit, it didn’t matter. Let her deny it. Let her try to deny she intended to leave, go back to her stores and properties and big house. She could do it right here, right in front of everybody.
* * * *
Wren had taken about all the bull she could stand. She thought she knew what had set him off. But she sure as hell wasn’t going to stand here and let him ride over the top of her.
“For your information, Sheriff,” she snarled, coming up on her toes ever so slightly, her jaw tight and teeth clenched, “I’m not going anywhere. So sorry you find my presence so upsetting. I know it might interfere with your naptime. I’ve found good friends here. Yes, there have been some conflicts. All that’s past us now. This is…My…mercantile!” she proclaimed, waving her arm out and almost connecting with his nose, “I intend to stay on and run it. If you don’t like it, I guess you’ll have to get on your horse and ride. You do enjoy a good ride, I understand.”
* * * *
He let her words sink in, leaned down, getting his face in hers. She didn’t budge or blink. He loved that about Wren O’Bannon and had to suppress a grin.
“I think I’ll adjust,” he said without expression. Everyone around them seemed to get it before she did.
Everyone burst out laughing. Wren looked totally bumfuzzled. Oh, yes, that was good. Telt liked that very, very much.
“I hate being bored,” he added with a straight face, then burst out laughing right in her face. He picked her up and swung her around. Mac and Queenie jumped up and danced around at their feet.
Wren pounded his shoulders. “You scared the hell out of me!” she cried, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Lowering her to eye level, his arms tight around her, he whispered, “You scared me, too.” Then he kissed her.
Soon their friends, laughing and joking, surrounded them. Once the crowd had backed off a little, he asked, “Why aren’t you going to go back to Oregon City to your home and stores, and take up your rightful inheritance?”
Wren laid her head on his shoulder, “Because it’s not mine, it was my father’s. I don’t want it. This is my home. This is where…you…are.”
I too sit and stare into space and soon I’m in my story with all my characters. I become them one by one. In my mind, I begin to speak as they would, act and respond as they would. Soon the scene unfolds and I know where to begin.
Sitting and going into my story is not a waste of time, it is the beginning. I transfer what is in my head to paper, or my computer. I Organize it later. I allow my story to unfold, wrinkles and all.
CHAPTER Twenty One
Sunday morning, before church, Percy headed down to the stables to talk Punk into relinquishing his six bottles of ill-gotten hooch into the sheriff’s custody. Anticipating Punk would put up an argument against this exercise in good citizenship, Percy rehearsed his rebuttal as he went along.
Twenty minutes later, emerging from the stables, Punk grumbled and stomped alongside him like a school boy, making up excuses to justify his bad behavior. “I say it’s finders keepers. I don’t see no reason for us to turn this stuff over to the sheriff. Nobody’s said nothin’ about it. Nobody’s laid claim to it. Hell, I don’t think I’ve heard one word about it from anybody. And a lot of folks saw it in that window. But nobody’s said nothin’ to me. I don’t see why we can’t keep it.”
“It’s not up to you and me, Punk; how many times do I have to say it?” Punk, toting the wooden box under his arm, argued, whined and protested all the way down the street. They argued their way right into Telt’s office.
* * * *
Seated at his desk, with his office door slightly ajar to allow the fresh air to flow back to the jail cell, Telt heard them before they reached his office window. He turned to warn Wren to get out of sight, but she’d already scurried down the hall. Out of sight, at the corner down the hall, she could hear every word. He could feel her, knew exactly where she was, how she looked…he almost smiled, then reined himself in.
Somehow, he had to make himself forget about the nights, at least here in this office. For the past couple of days, for all intents and purposes as his prisoner, Wren was entitled to one meal a day and water upon request, nothing more and nothing less. They shared a lot more than that, of course, and there lay the problem, how to put up a smoke screen for the sake of her reputation? He couldn’t keep the satisfied grin off his face. Telt figured it wouldn’t be long before everybody in town would know what was really going on.
By the time he turned to face the door, Percy and Punk had barged into his office. Punk took one giant step into the room and dropped a wooden box of booze on his desk. “What the hell is this?” Telt demanded, coming to his feet, taking one of the whiskey bottles out of the box.
* * * *
Percy figured he’d do the explaining, but Punk got ahead of him. “Open yer eyes, man, this is a box of really fine whiskey. We found it the morning after you left for Pendleton. Sittin’ right there in the front window of the mercantile, sittin’ there just like it sprouted right up out of the floor. We don’t know who it belongs to; we don’t know how it got there. And I don’t see no good reason for us not to make good use of it.”
Percy groaned, and grabbed Punk by his thick forearm. “Punk, somebody put it there. You know that. It does belong to someone; get that through your head.”
Using his elbow to give Punk a sharp dig in the ribs, Percy moved Punk over and came to stand in front of Telt’s desk. “We,” Percy began with a quick nod to Punk who stood breathing down his neck behind him, “Punk and I, thought it best to get it out of the mercantile. We didn’t know what to do with it, so we thought we’d bring it over here to you and let you decide.” Telt hadn’t moved, didn’t even look like he was breathing, just sat staring at the box. Percy shifted on his feet, glanced back over his shoulder to Punk. “So here we are,” Percy added to prod the sheriff into a response.
Percy ignored Punk’s growl of impatience.
Telt examined the label on the bottle he held in his hand. “Well, I sure as hell don’t know what to do with this stuff. Looks like the brand Buttrum favors,” he grumbled and placed the bottle back in the wooden box.
“I…know what to do with good whiskey,” Punk muttered, shoving Percy aside and laying a big hand on the side of the box, hovering over the contents like a mother cat over her kittens.
A floorboard squeaked down at the end of the hall. Percy glanced back that way and raised his eyebrows. Narrowing his gaze, he turned to study Telt’s inscrutable expression and detected a tinge of pink blossoming there on his strong cheeks.
Punk folded his arms across his massive chest and winked down at Percy. They had discussed the impropriety of detaining a female here at the jail. Percy had heard the talk, and knew he and Punk weren’t the only ones speculating about what was really going on between the sheriff and his lady prisoner.
Percy broke the heavy silence in the room by offering, “I could make an announcement in church this morning. I could explain how we found’em. Explain that Miss O’Bannon didn’t put them there, ‘cause she’d already left town.” Glancing from Telt to Punk for the go-ahead, he added, “We need to do something. Take action. We can’t stand here and stare at this darned box of bottles for much longer. Maybe you could take the stuff into custody until someone claims them or reports them missing.”
“No!” squeaked Lottie from the doorway.” All eyes turned in her direction. “No, please, Cousin Percy, don’t make any kind of announcement regarding that…those…that whiskey!”
* * * *
Wren hugged the wall and leaned out just enough so she could see out into the front office. Mac tried to get past her; she held him back by his collar. Queenie, however, pranced right on down the hall and up to Telt’s desk. Wren closed her eyes and sucked in her breath between her teeth. With her body pressed against the wall and her head tipped to the side, she peeked around the corner to bring Lottie and Telt into her line of sight.
“Good morning, Miss Bledsoe,” she heard Telt and Punk say almost in chorus; she stifled a giggle. Miss Bledsoe, she noted with a good deal of disgust, looked particularly fetching today in a gown of lace over lavender satin. Upon her head she sported a silly, entirely ridiculous white bonnet trimmed in the same lace and satin, and to match, upon her wrist dangled the most darling little drawstring bag. Jealousy immediately consumed Wren, her lips pulled back and her jaw clenched so tight her teeth ached. This morning, the pale Miss Bledsoe appeared as a beaming ray of summer sunshine personified, beautiful and feminine.
Wren knew she could never wear anything so frilly and feminine, but she wished she could. It would be like putting lace on a pig, she’d look ridiculous. Besides, that shade of lavender would make her look sick.
“I…I am sorry to intrude,” said the demure Miss Bledsoe, stepping farther into the room, placing herself before Telt at his desk. “This…box, Sheriff Longtree…I need to explain,” Lottie stammered, her eyes going to the bottles of whiskey, then to the sheriff, her fingers fidgeting with the satin tie on her delicate little handbag.
“You know something about this, Miss Bledsoe?” Telt asked. He shifted his weight, and Wren knew he’d spied her peeking around the corner. She pulled back a little. She couldn’t stand it; she had to see. Inch by inch, she peered around the corner again to look down the hall.
Lottie had moved ever so slightly, and now stood in clear view. Wren could see the girl’s wide eyes, beseeching Telt and the two other men in the room with her irresistible, pathetic gaze. “If…if you found this whiskey in the mercantile, then…yes, I know where it came from and how it got there.”
Then Lottie half turned and stammered her appeal to Percy, whom Wren couldn’t see. “I beg you, Cousin Percy, whatever you do, please do not mention this box of whiskey to your congregation…to anyone.”
Telt cleared his throat and shook his head. His eyes flashed in Wren’s direction. He scratched his head. Wren knew he did that when he was confused. She smiled. She loved the man, more’s the pity.
* * * *
“Miss Bledsoe, you’ll have to explain.” Telt said, his brows coming together and an uneasy feeling gnawing his gut. He could feel the tension emanating from the woman down the hall. He prayed she’d be able to contain herself and stay out of sight.
“Of course,” Lottie said, drawing herself up and pulling her shoulders back like a soldier standing before the firing squad. “I…I put the whiskey in the mercantile window one night after everyone had gone home. I took it from my Uncle Howard’s cellar.”
A collective gasp emanated from Percy and Punk. Telt tried to remain objective, but found it difficult. It wasn’t his job to judge. Lottie’s snow-white complexion flushed crimson with embarrassment. He hoped she wouldn’t bust out bawling, he didn’t think he could stand that. Expecting to see tears in her limped blue eyes, he found instead she’d closed her eyes, all color had drained from her face, and she looked a little green around the gills. He feared she would throw up.
“I wasn’t thinking clearly at the time,” she rushed to explain with a little shake of her head. Opening her eyes, she directed her gaze at Telt, “I’ve come to my senses, you see.”
With her lips quivering and tears about to spill down her cheeks, Lottie bravely stumbled on to explain the unexplainable. “I know now that…that…,” she faltered, her gaze flitting first to Punk then to Percy, the town’s minister, then back to him. Painfully aware of Wren down the hall, her ears wide open, hanging on Lottie’s every word, Telt heaved a weighty sigh of impatience to have this over with.
Clearly mortified, Lottie looked uncomfortable, sweaty and pale as a ghost. He had to hand it to her though; she fought on to explain herself. “I know now I was being overly dramatic. I…misinterpreted someone’s regard, you see,” she said to Telt. He blanched, unprepared to find himself partly responsible for giving Lottie false hope and subsequently, inspiring her to attempt her foolish revenge.
He had to concentrate to hear her out; his mind had filled with all manner of recriminations upon himself and his behavior towards this poor young woman.
“I made of this person’s attentions more than they were. I quite see now that the…the…the person, and I, would never suit.” At this point, Lottie pinned her watery blue gaze to his, her lips trembling, fingers tugging at the strings of her little bag.
She seemed to have come to the end of a difficult passage. Telt felt relieved. He waited, as did Percy and Punk, while she gathered up her composure by dabbing at her eyes and taking a few sniffs into her hanky.
She looked into his eyes and said, “I…I am very grateful these…these…bottles are in your custody, Sheriff Longtree. The day my uncle returned home I…I intended to retrieve the bottles, but they disappeared. I had no way of finding out where they’d gone. I…I came here, this morning, to confess what I’d done. I had hoped you would help me find them and return them to Uncle Howard’s cellar.”
Telt sat back in his chair. It creaked. He centered himself, not wanting the chair to shatter into splinters. He told himself he really did need to get another chair. Maybe Wren could help him out with that. That is if she would speak to him after this.
To his right he heard a little echo of a curse drift up from the hallway, an echo from back in the direction of the jail cell. He hoped no one else had heard anything.
Punk had his big hands around the box of whiskey, caressing it. Telt could see the man didn’t want to let go. So he figured Punk hadn’t heard anything; he was lost in his own personal sorrow.
By the look of shock on Percy’s face, he wasn’t paying any attention to anything at the moment. He looked confused…bewildered. Telt commiserated with the man; women could do that to a fella. Realizing he had to make a decision, he put his palms on his desk and cleared his throat. He could feel Wren’s eyes on him, waiting to hear what he had to say to all of this. “You’ve done the right thing in coming here this morning to give us an explanation. No harm done that I can see, Miss Lottie.” With those words said, he hoped to exonerate himself as well. “I believe now, the problem is how do we return this stuff without your uncle finding out? I think we can all agree we don’t need to bring this matter to your uncle’s attention, or anyone else’s.”
Lottie vigorously nodded her complete compliance. Once again tearing up she put her hanky to her nose, sniffed, then dabbed her eyes. She started to blow her nose, hesitated, her gaze darting from face to face, and opted to give her nose a vigorous swipe back and forth, then up and down.
After a moment of tense silence, Percy announced, “I have to get to the church.”
“I never go to church,” Punk stated as a bald fact. “So, I guess I could get this stuff back in that cellar. Do I need a key or anything to get in?” he asked Miss Bledsoe.
Lottie, her voice thick with unshed tears, replied, “Yes, the key is beneath the pot of geraniums beside the cellar steps. If you go toward the back of the house by way of the stone path, you’ll see the cellar entrance. One thing…the bottles weren’t in that box when I brought them to the mercantile,” she said, her eyes wide to sweep them all in.
Telt then noticed the box, the Big O’ Corporation stamp on each end. He looked to Punk and Percy, and at last the motive became crystal-clear.
“There won’t be anyone home,” Lottie told them, her voice practically gone, her hardly-there chin quivering. She looked like a kicked dog. And he had to acknowledge, she wouldn’t have tried such a trick if he’d nipped her hopes in the bud at the outset.
“Sheriff Longtree, would you please tell Miss O’Bannon I’m very sorry. I…I am ashamed of myself for trying to cause her trouble. I shall never be able to make it up to her.”
Telt came to his feet. He glanced down the hall. Wren had moved out of sight. He turned his head to look into Lottie’s kicked-kitten eyes and said, “No harm done, Miss Lottie. Don’t you worry any more about this. We’ll take care of it. No one needs to know anything about it. You have our word none of us will ever mention this to anyone.”
“Bless you,” Lottie whispered before she turned to leave the office.
The three men stood there looking out the window to watch her scurry across the dusty street, her frilly lavender skirts fluttering in the breeze as she headed toward the church. Percy went to the door and hesitated. Thinking aloud, he said to them, “I wonder if I have time to change the theme of my sermon from the golden rule, of do unto others, to the sin of jealously and the pitfalls therein.” He went out the door to follow Lottie to the church.
Apparently in no big hurry to take his leave, Punk sat down on one of the barrels by the stove, his hands on his knees, his arms propping up his big shoulders. “I’ve been wonderin’ what that rich son-of-a-bitch’s got stored down in that cellar of his. I guess I’m gonna get to see.”
Punk slapped his knee and let loose a big gust of laughter. “Well, I guess we know one thing for sure; Miss Lottie is over you, Sheriff.”
Chagrined, Telt sat there feeling like an idiot, a cad and a bounder, with his humiliation surely written on his face. The result, Punk laughed and pointed his finger at him. In truth, Telt couldn’t quite reconcile himself to the fact Lottie, meek, mild, little Lottie Bledsoe, the schoolmarm, had actually thought up and executed a plot to ruin Wren, and dash any hopes of opening her mercantile.
“I’ll come back in a little while.” Punk slowly got up and stretched out his arms. He came over and put a hand over the bottles, looking down at them with love and tenderness. “I’ll wait a bit. When I hear the folks start to sing at the church, I can get this whiskey tucked away right and tight and no one the wiser.”
He chuckled his way toward the door and stood there for a moment with his big thumbs hooked into his suspenders. “Funny, isn’t it, what some folks take a notion to do? Miss Lottie, who would have thought…stealing booze from her uncle.”
Punk’s big, loud laugh followed him out into the street. Telt walked back to the jail cell. Queenie followed him, her tail wagging as she and Mac sniffed one another, and then went into the cell to lie down on Mac’s rug. Telt leaned up against the open cell door. Wren sat on the bench with her knees pulled up to her chin, her skirt over her knees.
“Lottie was upset, Wren,” he finally offered by way of an excuse. “I did sort of let her believe we were…well, I guess the whole town figured we’d make a go of it eventually. I never said anything to her, though. I never asked her and I never once said I cared for her, other than the usual trifle a man says to a woman. You know what I mean? I probably mentioned she looked pretty from time to time. I might’a told her I admired her. I do. It can’t be an easy job standing in front of a bunch of kids day in and day out, trying to get them to read and write.”
* * * *
“Oh, you don’t have to explain. I believe you. I believe you when you say you never said anything to her about how you felt. No, that’s not your style, is it, Sheriff?” Wren muttered, tears blurring her vision. At the moment, she didn’t see her hopes were any different from what Lottie’s had been.
She wanted Telt Longtree. She’d asked him to marry her, he’d said nothing about it, one way or the other. At the time, he’d joked his way out of giving her an answer. But Wren hadn’t forgotten she’d asked. Right now, judging by the hound-dog look in his blue eyes, he knew very well to what she referred, but he wasn’t ready to tell her what he thought.
She gave a little shrug of her shoulders and dropped the subject to take up another train of thought that bothered her almost as much. “I just don’t understand why anyone would want to keep the store from opening…for whatever reason—especially Lottie. I offered to sell her dresses, purses, hats, what-have-you, in my mercantile. I thought she would be pleased. No, I thought she, of all people, would be excited at the prospect.”
She moved over to allow Telt to sit down beside her. With her knees bent up in front of her and feet resting on the edge of the bed, she put her chin on one knee. “The ad in The Oregonian made it sound as if the people of Laura Creek needed someone who would help them grow and prosper. I can do that, Telt. Why won’t they let me?” She needed an answer. By his continued silence, it became obvious Telt didn’t have one. She drew back to ask, “Why didn’t Lottie try to hurt you? Why did she go after me?”
He put his arm around her and pulled her close. She pulled back, unwilling to be coddled and placated. “Damn it! I’m mad, and I’m going to stay mad for a while. I don’t need your sympathy, Telt Longtree. I’ll bust out bawling, and that is the last thing I want to do.”
Breaking away from him, she came to her feet and started to pace the perimeter of her cage. “Sitting here, doing nothing all day, is driving me crazy! I’ve never been any good at being lazy, especially when there’s work to do. I could just scream! I’ve always felt it shouldn’t matter, man or woman, commerce is commerce. But, you know,” she said as she came up to his big face, “my being a woman in business does bring out the worst in folks sometimes.”
He reached out for her and she stepped back. Looking crushed, he uttered a curse. “Ah, Wren, no, that’s not at all how I see it.”
Two steps and she came back to stand before him, her hands on her hips, to tell him what was what. “I’m not giving up. I’m going to bring these people their mercantile whether they want it or not. I just wish we would hear from the judge. It seems strange we haven’t heard from him at all. Someone must know where he is.”
“We’ll try again tomorrow,” he assured her. He caught her by the waist and brought her down, wiggling and squirming, to sit on his lap. “Hold still. Let me hold you for just a second or two. I promise not to give you any sympathy. I have to get over to the church. I don’t want anyone to get wind of what’s been going on between us, at least not until we can get you out of jail.”
“I know you want to do or say something to assure me everything is going to turn out all right. But the truth is, Telt, you have no more idea than I do how all of this is going to get resolved. Standing up, he cradled her in his arms, and she put her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes, feeling his lips press against her forehead.
He set her on her feet and put his finger beneath her chin. She opened her eyes as his head came down and he pressed his lips to hers. When the kiss ended, he whispered, “You behave yourself,” before he left her there alone, with the cell door open and his darn dog lying on the rug next to Mac.
Speaking to herself she murmured, “No, we wouldn’t want anyone to find out about what’s been going on between us.” With her hands wrapped around her cell bars, she said, “I, however, would love to know, what is going on? Where are we going, Telt Longtree?”
Mac came over to her, his big, hairy, slobbery chin getting her skirt all wet, looking up at her with his blue, opaque eyes, as if to say, You’ll always have me, then the traitor turned right around and went back over to lie with Queenie.
CHAPTER Twenty Two
Telt wandered down to the stable after church to make sure Punk had successfully returned Buttrum’s liquor.
“I sure did,” Punk told him. “You should’a seen it. Three walls, floor to ceiling: wine, brandy, whiskey, a couple kegs of rum. I never seen nothin’ like it. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Then it came to me, none of it was mine. So, I knew I was still in hell. I locked the door behind me and left. Empty-handed, I might add.”
“You remember to bring back the box?” Telt asked.
“Oh, yeah, right here,” Punk said, pointing to the wooden box sitting on the bench by the door. “I’ll get it back in the storeroom in the morning.”
“Right,” Telt replied. “I don’t s’pose you happened to see a satchel anywhere in that cellar?”
“I looked,” Punk said. “I looked good, ‘cause I thought of that too, on my way over there. But, no, I didn’t find Miss O’Bannon’s satchel. I sure wish I had, I really do. Nothin’ would please me more than to nail that grasping money-changer to the wall. I surely would like to be the one to make it happen.”
Punk’s gaze looked past him, out the stable door. “Look at that.” Telt looked and saw a gaggle of ladies headed for his office. “What you s’pose they’re up to?” Punk muttered and scratched his baldhead.
One look and Telt took off like a shot. Giving out a shout of, “What the hell?” he galloped down the street.
* * * *
The cave, as Wren had begun to think of her jail cell, grew stuffy as the late August sun rolled overhead and she fell asleep on the hard cot in the cell. She came awake with a start, hearing loud voices out in the street. Mac came to his feet and moved into the hall. With his ears pulled back, his head down, eyes trained on the door out front, he growled. Queenie came up behind him, her tail down and ears back.
With a crick in her neck and her back sore from the hard bench, Wren grimaced, stood up, and went past Mac so she could see down the hall. Out the front window, she saw what looked like a horde of people, all women, all chattering and gesturing.
“My God! They are coming to hang me! Worse, tar-and-feather me, ride me out of town on a rail.” Wren sprinted back into her cell and wished she had a key to lock herself in.
“Good, it doesn’t look like the sheriff is here,” Wren heard Eula say to her comrades. “Do we have everything?” The ladies called out an inventory of pillows, quilts, rugs, a cot with a mattress, a rocking chair, some rope, nails, and a couple of hammers.
Pillows with feathers, rope to tie her onto the rail, nails to pound into her palms like Christ on the cross. Oh, God!
Telt arrived just as the ladies were about to proceed to the nether regions of the jail. Wren, with one hand on her cell door, cautiously moved out to peer around the corner of the hall. The dogs scurried around her, headed for the opened door of the office. She saw Telt nimbly step aside to let them pass.
“Ladies,” she heard him call out, weaving among them like a sheepdog moving through the flock, to put himself between them and the hallway to her jail cell. “May I help you?” he asked.
“Stand aside, Sheriff!” Wren heard Eula demand. “We’ve come to Miss O’Bannon’s aid, and high-time! You may incarcerate her, but there’s no law preventing us from making her more comfortable. You surely realize Miss O’Bannon has been served an injustice. She has done nothing to deserve such ill treatment!”
Looking at his back, unable to see his face, she saw Telt stand there, her only protection against the mob. Eula continued, “I realize you must do your job, but we ladies are appalled to think of a lady such as Miss O’Bannon having to suffer such degrading accommodations. Let us pass, Sheriff,” she ordered, with her arm out to shove him out of her way, “or be prepared to be mowed down!” A great cheer went up from the flock of do-gooders.
Given no recourse but to move over or be trampled underfoot, he stepped aside, and the ladies flooded the narrow hallway. Wren caught sight of the grin on his big face, and she wanted to kill him. She backed into the corner nearest the cell door and prayed she could escape. She’d heard some of the conversation. But when the cheer from the women went up, she could still see herself, in her mind’s eye, being hauled out into the street to be tarred and feathered.
The ladies rushed past her, tucking her farther back out of the way. Shoulder to shoulder, they milled around her jail cell clucking and exclaiming over the abominable conditions.
Wren stood with her back against the wall as the ladies shoved the narrow wooden bench into the hall and replaced it with a sturdy cot and mattress. The bucket in the corner vanished in no time, hidden behind a lovely patchwork quilt hung upon a rope secured to the walls by nails. This had required considerable pounding and squealing, as it had involved smashed fingers. Wren hadn’t realized she was smiling and giggling along with everyone else until Miss Bledsoe made her way over to stand next to her, a smile on her face.
Suddenly Wren became aware of her old, blue denim skirt and chambray shirt. She had other clothes, for goodness sake. They were in a traveling trunk over at the store. She hadn’t even thought about them until now, as she stood, plain as a post, next to Miss Bledsoe, who appeared fresh and clean in her stylish lavender gown.
“You have lovely hair,” Miss Bledsoe said in her quiet, breathy voice. “I thought maybe you would like some of my soap. I make it myself,” she said, handing Wren a pint jar of creamy, thick soap. “I scented it with oil of chamomile and rosewater.” She gave Wren another container, a little silver tin. “I also make hand cream from lanolin and my oils.”
Wren opened the little tin of cream and dabbed some on her wrist. “This smells heavenly, patchouli I believe, and orange oil. You’re a young woman of many talents. We must have some of this in our store. Thank you, Lottie,” Wren said, all hostilities put aside.
“Thank all of you,” Wren said a little louder, to be heard. “You must stop though,” she told the ladies. “I wouldn’t want to become too comfortable in here. I might not want to leave.”
The ladies laughed at that. Wren could remember the names of a few of them: Grandmother Tatom with her daughter-in-law, Margret; Mrs. Brandtmeyer and two of her young daughters; Mrs. Meirs, who sold eggs, Wren had discovered; Mrs. Olhouser and her daughter, Pammy; and Mrs. Claussen, the master quilter of the group.
“We don’t want you to worry about your store, either,” Eula said, coming forward, her blonde hair curling around her ears, her cheeks in high color.
Wren smiled at the lovely woman. She still couldn’t quite understand how this beauty had come to marry Howard T. Buttrum. “We’ll get that store up and running for you,” Eula assured her, and the ladies backed her up with shouts of encouragement.
“We’re going to pray very hard, of course, that you won’t be in here very many more days. But, if it should happen you’re unable to open the store yourself, we don’t want you to worry. If you’ll tell us what must be done before you can open, we’ll do it.”
Wren stared at them. She blinked and a tear rolled down her cheek unchecked. She wanted to speak, but no sound came out. “I…” she choked, “I don’t know what to say. You can’t know what this means to me. I…had lost hope, you see,” she said, then swallowed down the hard lump of tears that had formed in her throat, “you have renewed my faith. Thank you, ladies. Thank you so much for all you’ve done today. I’ll start right away to make a list of things that should be done before the store opens.”
“Very good,” Eula said and gave Wren a hug. “Now, I’m going home to make Sunday dinner. I’ll send Lottie over with a plate for you.”
“I’ll do your lunch tomorrow,” piped in Mrs. Brandtmeyer.
“We’ve got corned beef aplenty,” said Grandmother Tatom. “We can provide your meal the next day. And we’ll be sure to give you a big enough portions so you can have some for supper and breakfast. Right ladies?”
Before they left, the ladies had it all lined out. “Not too much food, please. I’ll start gaining weight in here with nothing to do and all of you feeding me.”
* * * *
The evening meal at Polly Moran’s Boarding House proved lively, with Judge Francis Crookshank as her guest. Polly, found herself delighted to not only have the honor of entertaining the judge at her table, but his friend Louis Clarkston, a lawyer, as well. Mr. Clarkston presented a dashing figure, with wavy silver hair at his temples, a lean, angular face and a lovely salt-and-pepper mustache that fascinated her.
As soon as Polly discovered the man was unattached, she’d struck up a flirtation. She also discovered he was Miss O’Bannon’s attorney. Polly and her two gentlemen guests sat at her table with the chandelier blazing overhead, its prisms casting a multitude of rainbows upon the walls. She knew very well her black velvet gown, sprinkled artfully with diamante around the low décolletage, sparkled in the candlelight.
“You’re on your way to Laura Creek, then?” Polly asked while she dished up her chocolate mousse.
“Yes,” the judge responded, taking his portion from her. “I had intended to journey there in a month or so. I decided to make the journey now because Mr. Clarkston contacted me concerning a young woman of my acquaintance by the name of Miss Wren O’Bannon. She is now residing in Laura Creek and is the new owner of the Mercantile there. In June of this year, her father, Gregory O’Bannon, a long time friend of mine, passed away. Mr. Clarkston brought to my attention a possible complication concerning her father’s will. You might have met Gregory O’Bannon; he often came this way to trade with the Cayuse.”
“Yes,” Polly offered cheerfully, “and I’ve met Miss O’Bannon. Not long ago, she arrived in Pendleton to retrieve goods from her warehouse, and she stayed here with me. The sheriff of Laura Creek escorted her. At the time, I learned of her father’s recent demise. I was sorry to hear it.”
The judge nodded and went on to say, “We believe, Mr. Clarkston and I,” the judge indicating his friend to Polly with a tip of his head, “Miss O’Bannon should be made aware her uncle will be trying to locate her in regards to her inheritance.
“I’ve come to believe Stanley O’Bannon is a scoundrel. Mr. Clarkston and I strongly suspect he has perpetrated a fraud. I’m not quite clear on the facts of the matter, but I do feel Miss O’Bannon is in danger. Her uncle is a desperate man. Mr. Clarkston and I have every confidence we’ll be able to forestall a confrontation.”
“Confrontation? I’ve never met Gregory’s brother. But I’ve heard stories about him.” Polly pressed her lips together to stop herself from saying more. From what she’d heard about the other O’Bannon, she suspected fraud the least of his sins.
To confirm her opinion, the judge expounded, “Miss O’Bannon’s uncle is a greedy son-of-a…harrumph…a greedy man. From what Mr. Clarkston and I have been able to put together, we now understand he’s coveted his brother Gregory’s holdings for years and years.
“During her father’s time of illness, Miss O’Bannon ran her father’s half of the partnership—with a good deal of success—I might add. I recently learned her uncle has not seen the growth or the profits his brother, under Miss O’Bannon’s management, accomplished. In other words, I don’t trust the man. And I’m certain Miss O’Bannon didn’t trust him either, which explains why she struck out on her own to make her way.”
“Ah…” Polly said, smiling at Mr. Clarkston, “would you care for some more wine, Mr. Clarkston?” She leaned forward to give Mr. Clarkston a better view of her ample bosom and took note he couldn’t take his lovely, hazel eyes off of her round globes of creamy white flesh. As a matter of fact it would appear he could hardly make a reply, his fascination so great. Needless to say, Polly saw to it he had more wine.
“Well, I didn’t know what to make of Miss O’Bannon at first,” declared Polly, passing Mr. Clarkston his glass of wine with a smile on her lips. “Telt Longtree, the sheriff of Laura Creek, brought her in here. I couldn’t tell what she was, covered in dust from her slouchy, old felt hat to her long, brown duster that went down to her ankles. She looked like a kid, but, then again, Telt…the sheriff, seemed to think she was a woman.
“She carried a beat up old satchel in one hand, and under her other arm she gripped a mean-looking carbine. Then she opened her mouth and out came the sweetest voice I ever heard.”
The judge laughed at Polly’s description and shook his head. “That sounds like Wren O’Bannon all over.”
Polly continued with her story. “By the time Miss O’Bannon had cleaned up for supper, she’d transformed into a proper looking young woman. I liked her right off; looked to me like the sheriff liked her too.”
“I’ve met Sheriff Longtree upon three or four occasions,” the judge said. “There isn’t much opportunity for lawlessness in a little hamlet like Laura Creek,” he said for the benefit of Mr. Clarkston. “The town elected him sheriff about four years ago, I think. Once he was in place, I decided to include Laura Creek on my regular visits to Baker City, my sister’s home.
“I usually stay in Laura Creek with an old school chum of mine, Howard Buttrum. His wife, Eula, is a lovely woman. I’ve known her for some time. She was a waitress and dessert cook when I first met her, working at one of my favorite restaurants in Portland. That’s before Buttrum stole her, then hid her away in Laura Creek. The woman bakes pies that would tempt the gods,” he said, taking two cigars out of his inside coat pocket and offering one to Mr. Clarkston. “What’s your opinion of Sheriff Longtree, Polly?”
Polly conjured up Telt Longtree in her mind’s eye and had to smile. He held a soft spot in her heart. “Ah, Telt Longtree…he’s a good man. The kind of man you don’t want to underestimate,” she warned. “He’s slow to rile. If he likes you, you’ll be a friend for life, and he’ll defend you to the end. He’s good to his horse, his dog and silly old women like me. I’ve been about half in love with the man ever since I set eyes on him. He comes to Pendleton every once in a while to kick up his heels. But he gets tired of it quick, so he comes here and stays a couple days to sleep and sober up.”
* * * *
Telt lay in bed, snoring peacefully; Wren envied him. For Wren, sleep eluded her. She sat out on the front porch with a blanket wrapped around her bare body, soaking up the moonlight and the soft warm breeze.
She’d gotten a surprise today. She’d learned a lesson. Laura Creek wanted her, and her store. Only one person didn’t want her, Howard T. Buttrum. Her satchel was somewhere down there, in town, probably in the bank. She wondered if she could break in and get her property back without getting caught.
“Wren,” Telt said, coming up behind her, “can’t you sleep?”
She gave him a derisive laugh. “I’m too busy plotting to sleep. I want my property back. I wonder…if I broke into the bank down there, would you arrest me?”
Telt tugged the blanket from her and sat down on the wooden step next to her, his arm around her and his half of the blanket pulled over his naked body.
“Be careful,” she warned, “Splinters.”
He chuckled and pulled her closer. “I already arrested you. You’re in my custody, woman, don’t you forget it.” She giggled, and he kissed her. They cuddled for a little while, and he finally said, “It’s a nice night…warm…big ol’ moon. We won’t have very many more nights like this. Usually the first week of September the weather turns to fall up here.
* * * *
Wren went quiet beside him. She’d been quiet and down-in-the-mouth the last couple of days. Today was good for her. The ladies had done her a world of good. Her jail cell looked downright homey. It was still a jail cell, nonetheless.
Telt knew she still brooded about something and he didn’t think it had anything to do with her satchel. He wanted to think her mind was on the fix she was in, but he knew different. He hadn’t taken her proposal gracefully. He knew he had to do something. It had taken two days to come up with the obvious.
“I should have said this when we were in Pendleton,” he muttered and cleared his throat, “I don’t know why I didn’t, except I was having a good time. I didn’t think I needed to put words to my feelings.”
* * * *
Wren’s heartbeat took off at a gallop. She could feel the tears beginning to gather behind her eyes, her throat constricting. She sure was doing a lot of crying lately. She swallowed hard. Telt took her hand and began to massage her palm with his thumb.
“I’ve never known very much about…love,” he said, and she could tell it made him uncomfortable just saying the word. She kept still, not about to interrupt him.
“I never thought anybody would…love me. I sure-as-hell never thought I’d find anyone I cared about more than my dog,” he admitted, lifting his gaze to meet hers. She knew he was nervous; that was a silly thing to say, and so sweet. She thought he was shaking, then thought maybe he was just cold.
What he said next made her tremble, and she certainly wasn’t cold. “Well, Wren O’Bannon, not only do I love you more than my dog, but I love you more than my arm, or my eyes, or my legs. My love for you is bigger than the sky. I can’t even come close to explaining how I feel about you.
“It doesn’t even matter to me if you don’t love me like I love you, I don’t care. All I know is, I can’t go a day without you. I don’t want to, and I’ll be damned if I will. I don’t know about marriage. I don’t know much about it. But if that’s what I got to do to keep you with me, then yes, Wren O’Bannon, I’ll marry you.”
A sob tore up and out of her chest. She threw her arms around him, the blanket falling away from her body.
* * * *
Her skin appeared blue in the moonlight, her hair raven black. Telt could hardly catch his breath. His arms were full of warm, soft moonlight.
“I love you just as big,” he heard her whimper into the crook of his neck.
click here to go to last chapters Laura Creek Mercantile
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.”
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
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.
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