K chap 21 and 22

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

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J chaps 19 and 20

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

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

click here to see chapters 21 and 22

I Chap 17 and 18

CHAPTER seventeen

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It sure does.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

“You should put me down,” Wren whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER Seventeen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

click chapters 19 and 20

H chapters 15 and 16

CHAPTER fifteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was?” Polly repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER sixteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

Click here to read chapters 17 and 18

G chap 13 and 14

CHAPTER 13

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER 14

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You son-of-a-bitch!” Punk roared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

click here to go chapters 15 and 16

One Arm Tied Behind My Back

One Arm Tied Behind My Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poem by DABell, “A Pimp to Prose”

MY LAMENT TO THE PIMP OF PROSE

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

For examination, only to have the brightest stripped,

Disemboweled by the hard-hearted,

Laser-eye of The Pimp of Prose.

I wonder what am I doing.

Why do I spend my days seeking,

striving to draw the attention of the unseen face,

The Pimp of Prose?

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

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

hoping to one day delight the demi-God,

The Pimp of Prose.

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

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

My heart shrivels with each rejection.

I weep, my shame exposed.

Over, and over I crawl on bended knee,

 Place my words written with my blood,

Before that elusive, mocking crown.

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

I endure the snorts of disdain:

Not good enough.

The wrong shape.

The wrong color.

Don’t need another one of these.

And I wonder what makes me think I could ever please

THE PIMP OF PROSE?

By Dorothy A. Bell

Free read Laura Creek chaps 11 and 12

Laura Creek Mercantile

Post Jan 20, 2013

CHAPTER 11

Wren put her lead mules, Bonnie and Bob, to harness and drove one empty wagon over to the well behind the mercantile. While Mr. Meirs and Mr. Claussen, busy picking up their tools and scraps of lumber, she filled her drinking-water barrel and the barrel she used for bathing and watering the animals.  Her hope, to get the chore done without being caught.

She expected Telt to arrive at her camp soon; he said he’d come by. She didn’t want him to question why she needed water, since she now had access to a well and the creek. She feared if he questioned her, she’d have to think of a lie, and for sure he’d call her on it. It would be a long haul to Pendleton, steep and rough; she and her mules would need water.

By the time the sun had gone down behind the trees, she had her water barrels full and her mules back on their tether line where they could graze on the meadow grass downstream from her fire-pit. She had cornbread cooking in the Dutch oven over a bed of red-hot coals and a pot of beans bubbling away off to the side of the fire. As she laid bacon in a cast-iron fry pan, Queenie loped into camp. The retriever pranced by her, wading into the creek to join Mac.

Telt came up beside her. “Good evenin’,” he said with a grin on face his. Nodding, he shifted his gaze to the dogs, who had started to jump over and around each other, cavorting, riling up the water at the edge of the creek. “Aren’t they something, though?”

“Good evening,” she said in turn, her hands going to her hips, “I can’t get over it. I’ve never seen Mac act so silly. He’s always been a serious kind of fella, even as a pup. He’s my bodyguard. He’s not supposed to behave like a…a…big goof.”

Telt shook his head. “I handpicked Queenie ‘cause she was the quietest and most docile pup of the litter. I wouldn’t know what to do with a dog that constantly pestered for attention.”

Wren looked down at the heavy iron skillet and the uncooked bacon and knew she should put it back on the fire, but she didn’t want to move, didn’t want to end this moment. The top of her head came right to his shoulder. It would be so easy to lean against him. She wondered what he’d do? Would he put his arm around her, would he pull her closer…? He looked nice, his hair combed, wearing a clean blue shirt. Her nose nearly touching his shirtsleeve, she inhaled his scent. He smelled fresh, like the air after a rain.

She should’ve done more to fix herself up a bit. Her hair, it hung loose, falling forward when she leaned over the campfire. Next to him, she felt dowdy and squat. Instead of fetching water, she should’ve at least brushed her hair and put it up in combs. At least she’d changed her dirty white blouse for a clean shirt. It didn’t fit; it had belonged to her father.

Impatient with herself, and her feelings of inadequacy, she pulled away from him. What did she care how she looked. Her appearance had never mattered to her before. Besides, she didn’t want to get involved with Telt Longtree. Maybe someday, after she’d opened her mercantile, after she’d settled in, it might be fun to pursue a flirtation with the man. Going back to work, she stirred the beans and finished laying bacon in the fry pan.

He didn’t move, she felt him there—behind her—could feel his eyes on her. She hoped if she ignored him, he’d go away. It stood to reason, a good looking, virile man like the sheriff would have something more entertaining to do than standing around watching a grubby old maid lay bacon in a pan. She waited to hear his hasty excuse to leave, and prepared to dismiss him with a smile and a wave.

When she heard him mutter aloud, “You’re something too,” she discounted the comment as he’d said something similar about the dogs. She glanced up, expecting to see a teasing grin on his face, instead met a dead serious, intense—could it be lascivious—steady gaze.

Nervous, she deliberately chose to shunt aside both his innuendo and his gaze, full of unspoken meaning. “Oh, well, yes, you don’t have to say it; I know I look a fright. I can’t remember the last time I combed my hair or looked in the mirror. I haven’t had time. We made real progress today, though.” Looking up at him through her lashes, expecting to find the gleam in his eyes nothing more than a figment of her imagination, she met that same, unmistakeable, appreciative gaze and stammered, “I hope you’re hungry. It’s not much, just bacon and beans. I did manage some cornbread in the Dutch oven.”

“It smells good,” he said, moving in on her. Uneasy with his nearness, she stepped to the side, and wondered what in the world he was doing? It sure wasn’t her beauty that drew him; that was for damn sure. A woman on her own, maybe he thought her easy prey. She needed to understand what he saw in her. It occurred to her that his fascination with her could be simple curiosity, or more likely, a pathetic attempt to scare the heck out of her.

She’d had a lot of time this afternoon to think about Telt Longtree. She really didn’t know him at all. If this thing between them should happen, and she knew it would, because she couldn’t stop thinking about him and melting every time she looked into his eyes—then they should get to know one another a little better. They’d become too intimate too fast. She went around him to get the tin plates off the log where she’d laid out a blanket to make a place for them to sit.

“Please, sit down,” she pleaded, finding him right beside her as she turned back to the fire. She made the mistake of looking up to his face and meeting that penetrating gaze of his, and couldn’t look away.

He held her with his eyes. She didn’t understand what she saw, the intensity of his gaze made him appear wistful, needy. His eyes begged her for something, something she didn’t know how to give. She’d never had a man interested in her before, not like this. She didn’t know what to do…how to act…what to say. His hand reached out, and he took the plates from her, his fingers brushing her own. She blinked and broke the spell. He took a deep shuddering breath, dropped his hands to his sides and sat down on the log.

Feeling out of her element and self-conscious, Wren stopped short of telling him to go home, leave her alone. She couldn’t do this, she wasn’t any good at it, she didn’t want to waste his time.

“Your name, Sheriff, Telt, that’s an unusual name,” she heard herself say. With fumbling fingers, she dished out some beans onto a plate and scooped up some of the cornbread from the Dutch-oven, only to lose it in the fire. Trying again, she managed to get a good-sized chunk on the plate. Carefully, she picked out a couple pieces of the bacon and laid them across the beans. Holding the plate with both hands, her knees quaking, feeling like she had a belly full of grasshoppers, she passed him his supper.

While she made a plate of food for herself, she hardened her fluttering heart and decided if he wanted to stay around then what better time than the present to find out a little more about this man—the man she couldn’t resist. The man destined to be her ruin, if she wasn’t careful.

Being polite, he waited for her to come and sit down beside him, which added to her feelings of inferiority. She didn’t think she would ever get used to this, having a man, a good looking man, wanting to spend time with her. There had to be something wrong with him, there just had to be another reason, other than attraction, why he’d come to see her this evening, why he would spend time with her.

Telton was my mother’s maiden name. Telt for short,” he told her as he held out his hand, taking her plate so that she could settle herself next to him. His fingers, warm and rough, gliding across hers startled her, rattled her so much that she didn’t remember asking him about his name. And for a second, she didn’t understand his answer. Goodness, she had to get her nerves under control.

With her cheeks burning, she sat close to him, her hip touching his. He didn’t move away. When he handed her back her plate, he winked at her; and she giggled like a silly ninny. Tucking in her chin, she told herself to behave and squared her shoulders, vowing to act her age, not like a thirteen-year old school-girl. “Is your mother still living?” she asked, proud to have regained her composure.

She had to wait for his reply as he sunk his teeth into a forkful of hot cornbread. Butter dripped off his strong, suntanned fingers. He closed his eyes and ran his tongue over his lips, and she thought she would swoon. He shook his head and swallowed, and she swallowed too, her mouth dry as dust.

“Didn’t know my mother or my father,” he told her. “The folks who took me in, the Newbergs, they told me my folks drowned crossing the Snake River near Fort Boise on their way to the Willamette Valley back in ‘52. They knew my folks. Mrs. Newberg knew my mother before she married. I was just a sprout of four months when my folks drowned. I lived with the Newbergs until I got old enough to fend for myself.”

Fascinated, she forgot to be nervous and asked an impertinent question, “Were you happy?” He shrugged his shoulders and, for a moment, thought he would withhold his answer. Then he put down his fork and turned his head to look her in the eye.

“They made me feel wanted, if that’s what you’re asking. The Newbergs didn’t have much, but they always kept me fed and clothed. They had five of their own kids, me, and two other children who’d lost their folks on the way west for one reason or another. I don’t suppose it was easy for them. Walt and Mother Sharon liked kids, I guess.”

“Do you ever see them, visit them?”

“No,” he said as he scooped up forkful of beans and bacon. “Walt and Mother Sharon picked up, lock, stock, and barrel, and moved down to the Sacramento area about five years ago to be closer to their youngest daughter and to get away from the Indian trouble. I never kept in touch with any of the kids. We all scattered once we were old enough to leave the nest. I joined the army. I get a letter from Mother Sharon now and then. I let her know where I finally settled. I’ve written to her a couple of times.”

Wren, with the soothing sounds of the gurgling creek nearby to sooth her, finally relaxed enough to eat. The smell of the earth surrounded them. Beneath the shade of the cottonwoods, the air felt deliciously cool, wonderful, after the hot day. The dogs lay in the grass behind them nearer the meadow, dozing, and another question popped into her mind. “You said you came to Laura Creek about four years ago. What brought you here, of all places?”

He chuckled, his mouth full of cornbread. “I’d been in the army ten years, stationed at Fort Walla Walla fighting Indians. I’d had a bellyful. I’d made it to Lieutenant without getting killed, and my hitch was up. The time had come to move on.”

He paused for a second, his head cocked to one side, a lopsided grin on his face. “I rode into Laura Creek looking for a cool beer. I recall Howard had a big crowd gathered around right in front of the bank. He was up on the step pontificating, so I pulled up and sat there on my horse waiting to hear a speech. He pointed at me and I remember what he said. He said, That’s the kind of man we need. We need a soldier, a man of discipline and courage. A man who will wear this badge…and Howard held up the tin star and waved in front of everyone. I sat there on my horse like a fool, unsuspecting, entertained listening to the blowhard on the steps spout. Then before the cat could lick his whiskers, I had that badge on my chest. Howard had me swearing on a stack of bibles to uphold the law and folks were cheering. Looking back I see my mistake, I hadn’t bothered to change out of my uniform. I didn’t have any civilian clothes, the army had dressed and fed me for ten years. Once Howard set his sights on me and found out I’d just mustered out of the military, he had me as good as roped and tied. I became the prime candidate for the town’s first sheriff.”

The way he told the story had Wren laughing and gasping for breath, her eyes watering as he did his imitation of Howard T. Buttrum. Wren had no idea she could laugh so hard. It felt good, delicious and carefree. She didn’t know why she’d been so nervous, this was easy; this felt natural…right.

* * * *

She was so danged beautiful and she didn’t even know it. Sitting here, talking with her, Telt began to suspect that this woman, for all of her ambition and spunk, didn’t think much of herself. She really didn’t know the power she had over him. When he’d come around that wagon and saw her standing there, her hair pulled over one shoulder, laying down across her chest to her waist, her cheeks rosy, her eyes bright, she’d taken his breath away. She looked like a gypsy. She didn’t look real, she was a vision right out of his dreams.

He had to tell himself to take it easy, hold back. For a little while there, when she’d stood there next to him, he’d thought to hell with food. I don’t care if I ever eat again. I bet if I laid you down here, on the grass, you wouldn’t care if you ever ate again. I’m thinkin’ you wouldn’t mind one bit if I kiss you.

The way she’d laughed just now, all out, unembarrassed, not simpering or shy, had him wondering if Wren O’Bannon did everything all out. Feeling the blood begin to pool down low in his belly, he licked his lips in anticipation. The time wasn’t right, not yet, but soon. He didn’t think he could wait much longer. What he really found interesting, if he read the vibrations he’d been getting, he didn’t think she could wait much longer, either.

* * * *

Lottie Bledsoe lived in a little cottage beside the church. The echo of laughter coming from the direction of the creek had caught her attention as she removed her petticoats from her clothesline. Standing on her back porch with tears staining her pale cheeks, she watched the breeze blow the dark clouds up from the southeast. She could smell the smoke and see the small dot of orange from the flames of Miss O’Bannon’s campfire. Although she couldn’t make out the people, she recognized the sheriff’s sweet, brown-as-molasses laughter. She heard it in her dreams. Now she would also hear Miss O’Bannon’s lilting, rich giggle in her nightmares.

* * * *

It had been hard, the temptation great, but Wren had said not one word to the sheriff about leaving before dawn for Pendleton. She’d considered telling him and wondered what he would say. She asked herself what she would do if he insisted on coming with her. She told herself she didn’t want that. She had to go to Pendleton. She needed to get away from him for a couple of days to slow down this overwhelming need to feel his arms around her.

Before she turned down her lantern, she tore out a page from her black book and wrote out a note letting Telt, and everyone, know where she was going and why. With Mac at her side, she crossed the meadow and slipped the note into the message box at the telegraph office. Mr. Terrel would find it. Yes, that would be the best.

She slept fitfully, her dreams full of lust and rejection. When she awoke to the sound of the wind blowing in the grass an hour or so before dawn, she decided to get up and get the mules harnessed. They’d had a good rest and their bellies were full of fresh hay. They were cooperative and eager to step into the traces.

Proceeding as quietly as possible, Wren urged her team out of town, with Mac looping ahead of the leaders, Bonnie and Bob. With the meadow grass muffling the sounds of the wagon wheels, she drove the wagons behind Miss Bledsoe’s house. After going around the church, she swung to the right and onto the road that led out of town.

* * * *

“Sheriff…Sheriff.” Telt heard Shorty yell from the other side of his cabin door and he instinctively sprang to his feet. The boy banged on the door a couple more times and yelled again. “You got to get up. She’s gone.”

Telt jerked the door open and stood there in his doorway, half-asleep, bleary-eyed, looking right and left, then up to the swaying treetops. A stiff, warm breeze washed over him and he folded his arms across his bare chest. “Damn, Shorty, it’s still dark. And there’s a storm comin’, feel that wind. Everybody in town is still asleep. I don’t smell smoke, so there ain’t a fire. Go home, Shorty. Go back to bed.”

Instead of turning around and going home, Shorty gave him a little shove. “You gotta wake up, Sheriff.”

His eyes gritty and full of sleep, his brain still in a fog of lust-filled dreams, Telt growled, “Why?”

“She’s gone, Sheriff. Miss O’Bannon, sSir, her wagons are gone. Pa said to come get you.”

“Well hell, why didn’t you say so.” Telt scrubbed his full head of hair with both hands, hoping to bring back some circulation and some clearer thinking. “What time is it?” he yelled over his shoulder on his way to his trousers, shirt and boots.

“Must be almost 6:30,” Shorty offered. “I done what you said, Sheriff, I went out there to the meadow to check on the wagons and the stuff in the lean-to. I was expectin’ that dog of hers to eat me. Then I seen the wagons was gone. All the stuff is still in the lean-to. She didn’t take anything out. It’s all there.”

Telt nodded while he pulled his socks on. “What are you doin’ up so early?”

“Pa got up to tie down the tarp we have over the wood box ‘cause he heard the wind a howlin’. I heard him cussin’. Pa says we’re in for some thunder and lightning.”

“Yep, I reckon he’s right,” Telt said as he grabbed his hat and his duster. Leaning down, he pulled an old saddlebag out from under his bed, then stuffed a set of extra clothes into it. After that, he went to his larder to grab some cheese and half a loaf of bread to put in the other side of the saddlebag. Next, he got his rifle and some cartridges.

“You goin’ after her, Sheriff?” Shorty asked as they headed out the door.

“Yep,” Telt said, closing the cabin door behind him. Queenie and Peanut had left them, racing headed, their ears pulled back and tongues hanging out.

Telt found Punk in the stable, pitching hay into Roonie’s stall and the stalls of a couple of Percherons, which were there to get shod. “Punk, I’m taking Roonie out of retirement.”

“Oh, yeah?” Punk hollered back, over the whistle of the wind in the rafters. “I reckon he could use a little exercise.” Punk stopped what he was doing, pitchfork at rest. “Where you off to?”

“Don’t know exactly,” Telt said as he started to set the saddle on Roonie’s mottled, rusty-red and gray back. The horse sidled. Telt patted his neck. “Whoa, there, boy, been too long since you had a saddle on your back. We’re both a little soft, I’m thinkin’.”

* * * *

As Telt rode out of the stable-yard, heading down the street with Queenie keeping up alongside, Punk asked Shorty, “You know where he’s goin’?”

“That O’Bannon woman lit out. She took the wagons and lit out sometime, probably before dawn. He’s goin’ after her,” Shorty said, his hands stuffed down deep into his pockets.

Punk whistled a low whistle, his bushy eyebrows raised in speculation. “I’d give a monkey to be there when he catches up with that mule-drivin’ little gal. I surely would. All I got to say is, he better be careful. That Miss O’Bannon is a tough little nut. Sweet, but tough,” he muttered, shaking his head, the wind beginning to rattle the shingles on his roof.

CHAPTER 12

The storm came from the southwest, although the wind blew from all directions, swirling, tossing, and snapping whatever happened to be loose, fragile, or bendable. Wren almost lost her hat a couple of times, but retrieved it before it took flight. Now using her bandana, she had it tied on, the knot snug under her chin.

A spike of lightning rent the dark, bruised clouds to the east, the Grande Ronde Valley its target. A clap of thunder followed. The threat of a forest fire had her stomach clenched in a cold knot of fear.

Heat lightning hurried the mules up the mountain and over the summit. Unable to see exactly where the sun was in the sky, she wondered at the time, and guessed it to be nine or ten, still morning. The air whipped around her, thick with gray and brown dust. Indulging in a bit of wishful thinking, she prayed she’d find better weather on the west side of the crest, even though she’d heard about the fierce dust storms out on the rolling plains in and around Pendleton.

Rain, she’d been told, was not your friend in a dust storm. Rain and dust made mud. If she could keep the mules from running away with her and the wagons, she hoped to find grass, water, and some shelter in between the folds of the mountains at Deadman Pass, where she could wait out the storm and hope for better weather tomorrow.

The warehouseman she’d hired to keep an eye on her warehouse in Pendleton told her about the campsite when she’d laid over on her way to Laura Creek. She’d thought that traveling to Deadman Pass from Laura Creek under blue skies an easy day. Right now, she wasn’t so sure she could make it that far. In her gut, Wren knew she should’ve turned back at the first rumble of thunder, but the thought of the people of Laura Creek counting on her had kept her moving forward.

She thought of Telt and wished she’d given herself to him last night. What did it matter what anyone thought? She was up here all alone, and at any moment the wagons could tip over, or her team of six could take off through the mountains. A person could be struck by lightning, or find themselves in the midst of a forest fire. Any one of these occurrences would surely leave her dead, or very close to it, with no hope of rescue. Maybe if she’d allowed herself to be held, to trust someone, she might have broken down and told him she needed to get to her warehouse. Maybe he would be here beside her. Maybe she might have a chance in hell of living through this.

Her entire body burned with fatigue. Her shoulders, back and thighs trembled with the tension and strain of maintaining control of her team. Mac had stayed in front of the mules, barking, turning, shifting back and forth, forcing Bonnie and Bob to keep their minds on the road, not the lightning, not the wind, not the dust.

Half standing, one foot braced against the footboard, she called out encouragement to the team and to Mac, “Easy, Bonnie, easy, Bob. Atta boy, Mac.” Each time she opened her mouth a good peppering of grit coated her teeth, mixing with her saliva.

To her right, a dark figure on a red roan came alongside the wagon at an easy gait, like a ghostly apparition. She hadn’t heard him. The wind and thunder overrode the sounds of a horse’s hoof-beats. Wren saw him out of the corner of her eye, and at first thought it to be the shadow of a tree or just a very dark cloud. There couldn’t be anyone up here today except her. She was the only one dumb enough, ignorant enough, to try.

With eyes smarting with dust and tears flowing unchecked down her cheeks, she shifted her concentration from her team and the road ahead to the dark form drifting alongside the wagon. It was a man, a very large man, not her imagination.

Dressed in a black duster, his brown hat pulled low over his face, a face she couldn’t see because of the dusty bandana that covered his nose and mouth, his red rimmed, almost opaque-eyed gaze turned on her. A scream came into her throat. The wind blew dust down her gullet, putting her in a stranglehold, smothering the sound.

The rider took advantage of her condition and shifted his body from his horse to the wagon seat, making it look as easy as sliding into bed. His gloved hands snatched the reins from her and his elbow dug into her side, forcing her to give up the fight. Before Wren could regain her breath, he pulled the wagons to a standstill and set the brake.

Her body shaking, Wren instinctively went for the revolver in her duster pocket. She pulled back the hammer without withdrawing it and jammed the deadly barrel into the ribcage of her abductor.

* * * *

It had been a long time since Telt had known the feeling that death was only a hair-trigger away. He thought it a good thing he’d set the brake, he instinctively jerked on the reins and stiffened. The leaders of the team reared off their front legs, but the wagon hardly moved an inch. “Well hell,” he hissed and cursed himself for a fool. He’d completely forgotten about her damned arsenal.

Without thinking, he put up his hands. Holding the reins in one hand, slowly lowering the other, he pulled the bandana down from his nose and mouth. He turned his head to meet her wide-open, bloodthirsty gaze. He saw fear there in her big brown eyes. But more importantly, he saw her desperation. Her face was brown with dust. Muddy streaks trailed down her pale cheeks from the tears brought on by the sting of the wind and grit. His need to protect her, to win her trust, became more than just a challenge. Now, he made it a quest.

He didn’t dare move his hands. He could see by the expression on her face that shock kept her from comprehending his identity. “If you would let the hammer down, nice and easy, on that revolver of yours, Wren, I’d put my hands down,” he said, keeping his voice low and even, feeling his grin spread across his big face, his skin cracking, caked with dust.

“Telt!” His name came with a huge release of air. She slumped forward, squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them and blinked.

He couldn’t blame her, he probably did look pretty sinister in his long black duster and his face covered with a bandana. He thought she might cry. He allowed himself to breathe again when she withdrew her revolver from his ribs, pointed it out over the side of the wagon, and carefully lowered the hammer. He made note that she put it back in her duster pocket and gave it a pat to assure it’s nearness.

He lowered his arms, not taking his eyes off her face, and asked, “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

She pulled back and blinked like a little kid who’d been caught playing hooky. Then she turned mutinous; he could see it on her face: her jaw clenched and her chin went up.

A rumble of thunder rolled over from the west. She ducked and burrowed her head into his chest. Yeah, she was scared spitless. He gave her a good shake. “Talk to me, Wren. Where are you going?”

* * * *

“Let me go,” she ordered, her dignity overriding her fear. With a shake of her shoulders, she tried to free herself of his hands, but he didn’t let go.

“Not until you answer my question,” he snarled. “I should’a guessed you were up to something. I sat there at your fire last night, answering your questions, and all the while you were plotting in that pretty little head of yours, how you were going to sneak out of town come morning. Well, the joke is on me. I should’a been the one asking the questions, I guess.”

Wren didn’t like his tone. “Who do you think you’re talking to? I do not plot, nor do I have to sneak, Sheriff. This is a necessary trip,” she said, using her authoritative voice, knowing herself for a bald-faced liar.

By the hard look in his eyes and the grim set of his jaw, she assumed he was neither impressed, nor did he believe her. Exasperated, she explained, “I am on my way to Pendleton, to my warehouse. I’ve bargained for a lot of merchandise in trade for labor and materials.”

* * * *

He had her by the shoulders, torn between smothering her against his chest and choking her. Telt couldn’t decide, so he thrust her away, afraid he’d kill her either way. The wind blew a cloud of dust from behind. It swirled around, then danced back into their faces. He spit over the side of the wagon. He was beginning to understand how Miss O’Bannon’s mind worked; that frightened him too. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me last night what you had in mind?” he asked her, his eyes down to the rumps of the wheelers.

* * * *

She knew this would happen. He hated her now; she recognized the signs of disgust. He also looked wounded, that she couldn’t understand. Well, she didn’t have to waste answering stupid questions. She huffed impatiently and, in her defense, explained, “I left word with Mr. Terrel. I put a note for you, for…everyone, explaining my disappearance, in the message box at the telegraph office last evening.”

His head came up, and he shifted his weight, the better to look her in the eye, “Well, ain’t that sweet,” he said, before he flapped his arms in despair.

“You sit right there.” he commanded her, his finger a fraction of an inch from her nose. His words and the look he gave her dared her to defy his order. She folded her arms across her chest and inwardly she railed against his authority—treating her as if she were a runaway child—the nerve of the man. She assumed he’d gone to tie his horse to the back of the wagon. She told herself she should take off, right now, and leave him and his horse in the dust.

* * * *

After tying Roonie to the empty wagon, Telt picked Queenie up and put her in the back. She was exhausted, her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth. Mac stood beside him, appearing to approve of the arrangement, then followed him back to the front of the wagon, where he left him to take his place up front with the leaders. Telt no sooner got up on the board seat than Wren jumped to the ground.

“You get back here!” he yelled.

“I’m getting your dog some water.” she yelled back and went to the side of wagon to dip out some water into a pan for the dogs.

Telt wanted to order her back onto the seat, but damn it, she was right. Queenie needed a drink and badly. Impatiently, he waited while Queenie and Mac refreshed themselves.

He waited for her to tie the lid to her water barrel back down. Completely ignoring his outstretched hand, she climbed back up onto the wagon under her own steam.

“I suppose you’re headed for Deadman Pass for the night?” he asked as he released the brake and set the team into motion.

“I believe it to be a good place to stop over, with a corral and grass,” she said, the challenge in her voice daring him to disagree.

“Oh, no argument here,” he nodded. “You know how it got the name, Deadman Pass?”

Wren shook her head. Telt grinned. She looked stubborn as a mule. He flicked the reins and shouted to the team.

They started out, the storm gathering up all around them. After a good rumble of thunder to the east, he spoke. “Four or five years back a band of Bannock Indians went on a rampage and attacked four freight haulers who were making a run with four wagons from La Grande to Pendleton. Slaughtered ‘em, right there in that little dip in the ground just as you head down into the plains above Pendleton.”

She had her eyes on the trail and her jaw set. He didn’t really expect her to give him the satisfaction of a response, so he continued his tale. “Before that, back when the settlers started movin’ in, the Indians warned the white man they didn’t want him using this trail. Of course, being the arrogant sons-a-bitches that we are, we didn’t pay any mind to that. We were going to use any damn trail we wanted, and no Indian could stop us. Besides, this trail across the Blues is the shortest route into the Columbia Basin. The Indians put up a ‘keep-out sign’, so to speak, to discourage travelers. They found themselves a poor old fur trapper and tied the poor old bugger up over the trail, stretching him out between two trees and left him there to dry in the sun. That’s when it became known as Deadman pass. But that didn’t stop us either, ‘cause here we are…here you are, just as arrogant as all those other folks that went before us.”

He knew that got her. She flashed those eyes at him. Her hands gripped the seat and she turned to face him before she let him have it. “Arrogant I may be, but I am not ignorant of the dangers or easily frightened, Sheriff Longtree. The Umatilla Indians helped to round up those renegades that slaughtered those freight haulers, I believe. And for their trouble a large portion of their lands were confiscated. They have been peacefully residing on what is left of their reservation for quite a while now.

“Which is neither here nor there—as you are aware, I am prepared, at all times, to protect myself—I am perfectly capable of driving these wagons by myself. I drove them all by myself from Oregon City to Laura Creek. I most certainly can make it to Pendleton and back to Laura Creek without your help. I don’t need you or anyone else. As I have told you before, I can take care of myself!” she shouted over the sounds of the storm, working very hard, he reckoned, not to cry.

* * * *

He had that look, that wounded confused look that she didn’t understand, nor did she believe. He looked hurt. Whatever it meant, that look made her heart pound and sent tingling sensations down deep into her nether regions.

Above the sounds of the wind and thunder and jangle and clunk of the wagons, she heard him say, “You don’t have to,” his voice full of tenderness. His eyes held concern…concern for her. She didn’t know if she could believe him. And she certainly didn’t know how to respond. She wasn’t used to concern; it made her uneasy.

He looked away, his eyes to the trail. She sat beside him, studying his profile, trying to see into his head. Was it an illusion or did this man really care what happened to her?

He answered her unspoken question when he turned back and looked her straight in the eye, deadly serious, to say, “Not anymore, you’re not alone. That’s what I’m trying to say here. It isn’t just you, anymore, Wren. Now it’s you…and me.”

He flicked the reins and called out to the mules to get-up. Mac barked out his recommendations as Bonnie, Bob, and the rest of the team put their backs into it, heading up the next incline.

“You’ve got me, now!” Telt hollered over the wind and thunder. “It’s us. You hear me.” he asked, turning to look into her dirty upturned face. “It’s us, you and me,” he repeated to dispel her disbelief.

Disarmed and deflated from fatigue, she sagged in surrender, ready to accept what he was telling her. She wasn’t sure if he meant that for today he was with her, or if he meant he would stay with her for just this trip. Whatever he meant, she was grateful to him. A knot of tears came into her throat. She started to cry. She couldn’t stop herself. She began to sob. Years and years worth of loneliness came pouring up and out of her like a gusher. He put one arm around her shaking shoulders and pulled her closer.

“Well hell,” she heard him grumble down to the top of her head. “I think I’m beginning to understand why your daddy drank.” And they both burst out laughing.

CLICK HERE TO GO TO CHAPTER 13 AND 14

Free Read Laura Creek chaps 9-10

CHAPTER 9

Mac set up the alarm, barking and growling. Behind her wagon, Wren fumbled with the buttons on her dirty, old, chambray shirt and tucked it into her waistband. She heard the sheriff calling Mac off and hoped her dog would respect the sheriff’s authority.

“You’re a stupid, silly, undisciplined piece of free-market-ware, my girl,” she spit out between her tight lips, her voice barely a whisper. “One kiss and you forget where you are, and who you are. God help you, if anyone saw what you were doing out there, you’ll never be able to look any of these people in the eye, ever again.”

Starting to wind her hair up into a knot on top of her head, Wren realized she’d lost her hat…and her hair-combs. Having to hold her hair in place while she searched for some hairpins, she cursed her trembling fingers. Furious, she kept up her scold. “You’ve opened Pandora’s box, that’s what you’ve done. That man’s going to be after you. There was nothing honorable about that kiss. Ohhh, no, he’ll be looking for a quick tumble now. Remember your cousins, how they talked about girls who gave away their kisses. That’s you, now. You’re one of…those…girls. You gave the sheriff the impression you’re more than ready. You’re prime for the picking, my girl. Ripe, overripe.” Sputtering and fuming, she moaned with shame while her body trembled, ached for more.

Discovering two hair-combs behind her jar of bag balm, she stuck them into the coil of hair on the crown of her head. The combs dug into her scalp. It hurt. Wren considered the self-inflicted pain her punishment for her scandalous lack of discretion and self-control. Rechecking the buttons on her blouse to be sure she hadn’t missed one, or worse, buttoned herself up incorrectly, she then tugged at her skirt and smoothed it down over her hips. Squaring her shoulders, she put up her chin, prepared to face the good people of Laura Creek, and…the sheriff.

*****

Telt waved to the seven men as they approached the freight wagons. “Jack, Archie, surprised to see you in town. Sorry to hear Grandma Tatom isn’t well,” he said after calling Mac off and ordering him to sit with Queenie under the wagon.

The Tatom boys lived on a big ranch about two miles outside of Laura Creek in a narrow little valley where they raised cattle and hay. Jack, the elder, maybe nineteen, and Archie, a couple of years younger, were the sole providers for their aging grandmother, their mother and little sister. Telt didn’t think they were the sharpest knives in the drawer, but they worked hard.

“Grandma told us to go to church and pray, so we did,” Jack said as he spread his thin lips into a wide smile, revealing a blank space where two front teeth should be. The two boys had on their Sunday best: boiled white shirts, gray wool suit coats, and trousers, both boys sweating profusely. As they approached, the smell of hot bodies encased in dusty wet wool hung heavy in the air.

“Hey, Sheriff,” said Jim Brandtmeyer, “we came out to talk to that O’Bannon woman about work. My missus said I’d better get over here. She wants a new cook-stove. I tried to tell her we can’t afford it, but she thought it’d be worth a try to work something out.”

The Tatom boys piped in, “Archie and me, we’d like to see if we could get Grandma a new mattress. We’ve been stuffin’ her old one with moss, but it’s all hard and it stinks. We both think she’d be better in no time if she could get some real sleep on a down mattress. We could work a week to pay for it, before we have to get in the second crop of hay.”

Telt nodded his understanding. Jim Brandtmeyer came forward with his hat in hand. He was middle-aged with six kids to feed. Jim owned the lumber and shake mill a few miles east of town. He had with him his two oldest boys. Both took after their father, built short, square and sturdy. Telt didn’t know any of the kids by name, ; Jim Brandtmeyer had too many offspring, even Jim had trouble remembering all their names. The two boys stood behind their father with unenthusiastic, blank expressions on their pimply faces.

Telt nodded to Percy and Punk, who’d filed in behind Jim. Punk spoke for them all, “Well, where is she? We ain’t got all day.”

Telt shook his head and laughed, but before he could respond, Miss O’Bannon came out from behind her wagon. “Gentleman,” she said, ignoring Telt and pushing past him under full sail. He winked and grinned at her.

They had changed their course back there, during that kiss. Telt knew they couldn’t turn back and they couldn’t ignore it. She could try to pretend nothing happened, but he wasn’t about to allow that.

“Gentlemen, I assume you’re here because of my announcement in church this morning,” she said, shading her eyes from the noonday sun with her little black book and lead pencil. Telt tapped her on the shoulder and passed her hat to her. He noticed her hair combs were stuck in the felt fabric inside the brim. He watched her face turn bright pink, and winked at her again. She slapped the hat on her head, winced, then groaned. Those damn combs. He could feel her pain. Her big brown eyes flew open, filling to the brim with unshed tears.

Looking to the faces of the men, Telt didn’t think any of them had noticed anything amiss. Stepping back, he leaned his hips against one of the wagons, folded his arms and crossed his ankles, ready to be entertained. Miss O’Bannon took her cue, now that he had moved out of her way.

She bartered with Jim Brandtmeyer for lumber for shelves and posts for a fence around her acreage. Punk offered to install a stove for her; that is, if she could get her hands on a stove. In addition, he’d keep her mules until she could get her pasture ready, all for some harness and a new anvil. Percy offered his and Shorty’s time to unload her wagons and stock her shelves, when they were installed, for new shoes and clothing.

“You’ll be wantin’ to talk to Lyle Claussen and Otto Meirs. They built the store. Otto’s a crackerjack carpenter and stone mason,” Jack told her. “I know they didn’t get to finish the job the way they wanted.”

“That’s true,” Jim said. “They put out cash money for lumber. Buttrum went all tight-fisted when they got the roof up. Buttrum told’em, ‘Good enough’.”

Telt saw her write everything down, her pencil moving, filling the pages in her black book. When she looked up, her eyes narrowed and her jaw set before she asked Jim, “I’ll want to speak to them. Are they in town today?”

“No, Ma’am, but I could send one of my boys out to let them know you want to speak to them. They’d like to break even on the lumber, I know.”

“Oh, I think they can do better than just break even. In time, I’m sure of it,” she said and gave all of them, with the exception of Telt, the benefit of her smile.

Feeling jealous as hell, he wondered, what did she mean…? They can do better than break even? And what the hell did she mean by “in time”? Feeling unsettled and edgy, Telt realized he hadn’t had a dull moment since Miss Wren O’Bannon pulled into town. She sure had a way of making things happen. Miss O’Bannon had marched into town and taken over like a general carrying out a campaign. No wonder Howard felt threatened.

Yes, sir, that kiss, that too felt like a threat, an exciting threat, but a threat no less. He had to grin. Just thinking about it gave his manhood a lift. Once the woman started something, she wasn’t one to quit; that he’d learned. A man better watch his step, or he could end up in over his head. Telt figured he better be sure he wanted to start something, before he…started something.

*****

By the end of the day, Wren had laid out all of the repairs and storage problems before the good people of Laura Creek. Her store now buzzed and hummed with folks planning and plotting the possibilities. Even those who hadn’t attended church knew, via the grapevine, they could find opportunity for employment and gain at the new mercantile. All kinds of folks were in and out of the store all afternoon, everyone except the one person Wren wanted to see the most, the one person she dreaded and longed to see, Sheriff Telt Longtree.

One problem arose. She didn’t mention it to anyone, but as she began to tally up all of the merchandise she had promised to deliver, it became clear she would need to make a trip to her warehouse in Pendleton. If she could get away the day after tomorrow, with any luck she would be back by the end of the week. By then she might have shelves. If she had a storeroom, she could stock the shelves and prepare to open for business. And by then, surely, she would be over this fever for the sheriff that had taken over her mind and body.

She smiled a sly smile. She would open her store, possibly before the deadline. She didn’t think Mr. Buttrum would be pleased; on the contrary, he counted on her to fail. However, he obviously had not reckoned on the good souls of his community.

With her pencil suspended over a blank page in her little black book, her thoughts took her back in time to a day she would never forget.

****

While cleaning her father’s room, changing his bedding she discovered her father’s will hidden beneath his mattress. Curious, she slipped away to her room to read it and discovered he’d written her completely out of his will. She would have nothing, no home, no place in the family business, everything went to her Uncle Stanley.

She couldn’t believe it—she assumed that because of her father’s illness, his incapacity, and that she single-handedly ran her father’s half of O’Bannon Brother’s Enterprises, she was by all rights a full partner. She consulted with her father to keep him apprised of her progress, successes, and problems. Her father knew how much she loved her work—it was her entire life. The cold reality of his will struck her hard, pierced her heart like a knife.

Once the shock of betrayal began to subside, she made the decision to strike out on her own and cashed out a modest bank account, which she had received as an inheritance from her maternal grandfather. Hurt and angry, believing she had no one who would care, she proceeded to incorporate herself into the Big O’ Corporation.

The lawyer that helped her form her corporation helped her find a warehouse far away from Oregon City and the prying eyes of her Uncle Stanley. The lawyer wasn’t the family lawyer; she knew better than to trust the family lawyer to keep her dealings confidential. To add to that, the family lawyer would ask too many questions—where had she found the money—why form a corporation—why a warehouse in Pendleton, of all places?

At the time, she chose the Pendleton location, believing it far enough away from the eyes and ears of her uncle and cousins that she could keep her activities a secret. As it turned out, the location made sense. The cargo vessels working the Columbia River could carry her inventory directly from the port of Portland up the Columbia to Umatilla Station, and from there, overland to Pendleton. Wren had no plan of how to proceed or where she would go, she just started buying and storing merchandise for her warehouse in Pendleton under the name of The Big O’ Corporation.

She searched for bargains, bid on inventory from businesses that were moving or going under. She became obsessed with the challenge of getting the best deal.

One day while searching The Oregonian for the next bargain, she spotted an intriguing ad. “Come join our friendly, growing community. Newly built mercantile for sale in Laura Creek, Oregon, ready and waiting for the right owner”.

After speaking to Judge Crookshank, and finding out that he knew the mayor of the town, she decided to make the purchase. It seemed serendipitous at the time.

*****

Retreat, Telt had once read, was the better part of valor, or something like that. It felt more like cowardice. With no excuse, other than to spy on her, he didn’t feel like hanging around the mercantile like some useless clod. She was right over there, just a few steps from his door. If he got close enough to her to look into her eyes, he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep his hands off her. He burned to get her in his arms again. Wren O’Bannon wasn’t more than a spit in the wind; short and firm, warm and supple, a woman who didn’t wear corsets, bustles or stays… damn, she was all woman.

Besides, he needed to fix his chair. It would keep his mind occupied for the afternoon.

All afternoon there came a stream of high traffic up and down Main Street, folks in wagons and folks on foot heading for the mercantile. Telt didn’t need to be right there in the doorway watching her every move. Wren O’Bannon had set forth a movement towards getting that store up and running, and he had to let her do it. In his mind, he could see her, with that black book and her pencil in hand, bargaining and dealing like an auctioneer on sale day—in her element.

With the new leg for his chair blocked and nailed to the underside of the seat, he discovered the darn thing rocked and wobbled from side to side. He’d tried sanding all the legs down without much success. While scratching his head thinking about what to try next, the door to his office opened and Miss Bledsoe, carrying a dinner plate beneath a linen napkin, entered.

Seeing the hopeful gleam of adoration shining in her cornflower-blue eyes, and the sweet smile on her lips, he felt guilty as hell. The woman would not easily give up her pursuit. Two days ago, that had seemed to be an okay deal. But today, Telt figured he better try to discourage Miss Bledsoe from her infatuation. Even if he wasn’t sure in which direction his heart would take him, he now knew that no woman would erase from his memory Miss O’Bannon’s unbridled passion in his arms.

Furthermore, he wasn’t interested in anything less than all-out heat when it came to kisses. Lottie Bledsoe didn’t have it in her. He compared the situation to his experience with some of the horses and dogs he’d met and had owned over the years—some had spark and others didn’t. Funny, but two days ago he hadn’t known what it was that was missing in his relationship with Miss Beldsoe. He shook his head. Because of one kiss, he’d become as fickle as his dog.

“I’m pleased to find you in your office,” Lottie said, a sweet smile on her thin lips. “Uncle Howard said you were probably at the mercantile, but I told him you wouldn’t want to be over there. It’s so crowded. Whatever can that woman be doing?” Lottie set the plate on his desk and pulled the napkin off to reveal fried chicken, potatoes covered with chicken gravy, and green beans, all still hot.

When Telt took his eyes off the plate of savory food and looked up into Miss Bledsoe’s limpid pools of blue, he thought of Miss O’Bannon. He would bet his best pair of boots she hadn’t eaten all day.

*****

During the afternoon Wren bargained with Mr. Baker for a sign for the mercantile. She wanted a sign much like the one he had over his stable entry. While standing there in the doorway of the mercantile, Wren glimpsed Lottie Bledsoe entering the sheriff’s office, balancing a plate of goodies between her lace-gloved hands. The harder Wren tried to focus on Mr. Baker and his ideas for her sign, the more distracted she became.

Thinking of Lottie Bledsoe soured her stomach, and try as she might, Wren couldn’t get the woman out of her mind. The fact of the matter, she was jealous of the girl’s pretty clothes, her willowy body, her fair complexion, her blue eyes, and in general, the way she exuded frail femininity. Jealousy came as a new and unwelcome emotion to Wren.

For the rest of the afternoon she could hardly think straight. She scolded herself, telling herself she had no time for such foolishness. The desire to march over to the sheriff’s office and strangle the woman threatened to override her good sense. At the very least, she wanted to squish Miss Bledsoe’s homey offering of food down her scrawny neck. Then, in a futile attempt to be reasonable, she reminded herself that she didn’t want the sheriff—Miss Bledsoe could have him.

Besides, he hadn’t bothered to set eyes on her all afternoon—so much for her kisses meaning anything to the man.

That kiss was a tease, a wicked experiment. Men!

Disgusted with herself for being disappointed that the flirtatious sheriff had not flashed his winking blue eyes or his big white-toothed, teasing grin at her all afternoon, she marched her sorry-self out across the meadow to her lonely wagons.

The sheriff could go straight to perdition; she did not care one way or the other if she ever set eyes on him again…ever. She was glad he hadn’t shown his face all afternoon. Very, very glad.

The sun, low in the sky, slipping over the side of the mountains, provided a splendid show of coral, violet and silver hues. She had a headache, no doubt caused by the lack of food, finding no time to return to her wagon for lunch. With her throat raw from talking all afternoon, and feeling hot and sticky, she wondered what she could fix for herself that would be satisfying and quick for her evening meal.

A soft, warm breeze ruffled her skirt as she crossed the meadow. She removed her hat and the combs from her hair. Instantly her headache receded to a dull throb at her temples, as opposed to the battering-ram that had been slamming at her forehead just a few moments ago. Closing her eyes, she rolled her shoulders and took a deep breath; and congratulated herself on a very productive afternoon. She had hope. She might be able to do all that she had promised.

As she drew closer to her campsite, she saw the sheriff’s dog lying there under the wagon with Mac. This would never do. The sheriff had to take responsibility for his own dratted dog.

In the twilight, she could see the glow of a lantern shining between and coming from beneath her wagons. She had company. She knew of only one person who might think he could just come into her camp and make himself at home—just one person who might think he would be welcome. Oh, how she wished she had her pistol with her. She would give him a welcome, all right. Maybe a rock? Yes, she would knock him in the head with a big rock. Probably wouldn’t even put a dent in that thick skull of his.

“Good evening, Miss O’Bannon,” greeted the sheriff with a congenial grin on his big face as he stepped in front of her, coming from between her wagons and affording her no time to find her weapon of choice.

“Eeek!” she squealed, in the foolish way that women often responded when taken by surprise, which she found exceedingly irksome. He’d managed to scare her even though she knew of his presence. She could just cry. Of all the nerve, the gall, and now to get all goosish and fluttery…even thrilled to see him…it didn’t seem fair, not fair at all.

“I made a pot of my venison stew,” he said, his big blue eyes full of uncertainty, looking like a big silly, sorrowful hound. She could almost imagine his tail going between his legs. “I figured you hadn’t bothered or had time to eat today.”

Wren stood there a second, hat in hand, her headache pulling her brows together over her nose, preparing in her head the set-down he had coming. The offer of food never entered her mind; she’d assumed he’d come for something else entirely…just one thing…her surrender…and maybe he had, but he had food. He’d thought of her. He’d stayed away, but he’d thought of her. Oh, dear, she could feel her resolve melting away.

“You’re hungry, you gotta be hungry?” he probed, looking confused and endearing, his eyes full of hope and nothing but good intentions.

Wren expelled her breath and with it went all of her fight. Oh, hell, she couldn’t resist. “You know darn-good and well I’m starving.” Her half-hearted acceptance brought his grin back. She flopped down on the warm grass, and he handed her a plate full of stew, a big slice of bread with butter, and a tin cup of cool water. Oh, she despised him for leading her into temptation. And she despised herself for not bashing him over the head with a rock like she wanted: maybe then he’d go away and leave her alone.

CHAPTER 10

At the cabin, lying in his bed, Telt couldn’t get Wren O’Bannon out of his mind. Beside the fact that he wanted desperately to explore every inch of her luscious little body, it worried him that he’d had to leave her out there alone in the meadow, vulnerable to the elements and predators. He couldn’t forget that she’d told him she wasn’t used to anyone looking out for her.

How had it come about that a bright, attractive, strong woman had no one to care where she slept or how she lived—if she had food?

Well, Telt mused, old Howard wasn’t the only one who thought it strange Wren O’Bannon didn’t appear to have any strings attached. She answered to only one person, herself. If she were a man, he wouldn’t find that strange at all, but somebody should be looking out for that young woman.

****

Wren, lying with Mac stretched out beside her, threw her arm across his furry chest, watching the dark clouds gather overhead, catching now and then a glimpse of the stars. A tear rolled down her cheek. She’d lost the battle, she couldn’t fight the attraction she felt for Telt Longtree. She couldn’t resist a man who cooked for her. As she suspected, he had intelligence, ethics, a strong sense of humor, all in all a good man. Somehow, he’d gotten her to talk about her plans, whom she’d bargained with, and for what.

She wanted him. She’d had crushes before, and she’d made a fool of herself a time or two, but Wren had never gone so far as to give herself, body and soul, to any man. Telt Longtree, if she let him, would take all she had to give; she knew it. By nature, she gave her all to everything she tried or wanted. Passion, she didn’t suppose, would be any different. She suspected that’s why she’d kept her virginity all these years. She knew once she made up her mind to give in to desire, she wouldn’t be able to stop. Finding someone who could accept that kind of dedication for the long term, she knew, wasn’t likely.

He didn’t push for her all-out surrender tonight. That gave her pause. Lying here, looking back over the evening, replaying their conversation, she could see that he had wooed her, coaxed her into relaxing, gentled her with his presence as he would a horse he wanted to bring to harness. She wanted to laugh, admitting to herself that it hadn’t bothered her at all; she’d found his way of talking and joking endearing, and of all things, sensitive.

Groaning in despair and shame, she whispered in the dark, “Telt Longtree, sensitive. Oh, my God. No man is sensitive. Calculating, yes. Don’t be an idiot. Sensitive. That man wants something. Of course he didn’t rush you tonight. He worked on you, broke down your defenses. He’s got you mooning after him, lying here in the dark talking to yourself.” She rolled her head back and forth, then took a deep breath. “Oh, you would’ve given in tonight. You wanted to, you even hoped he’d try, but he didn’t, he didn’t have to, he knows it’s just a matter of time.

“Hell, Telt Longtree might be the only offer I’ll ever get. Uncle Stanley says I’m destined to be an old maid. Do I want to be an old maid who’s never been kissed? That is the question.”

A conversation she had with her uncle right after her father’s funeral came to mind. Gloating that he’d inherited all of O’Bannon Brother’s Enterprises, which included all the properties, warehouses as well as the house she’d lived in her whole life, her uncle had made her a half-hearted offer to keep a roof over her spinster’s-head if she would agree to running the house, cooking and cleaning up after her uncle and his sons.

No, Wren told herself, at age twenty-six, if Telt Longtree offered her the opportunity to experience the pleasures of the flesh, she wouldn’t refuse on the grounds that she needed to preserve her virginity. After all, getting a little long in the tooth, with no prospects, no hope of finding a mate, a partner, a lover, keeping her virtue didn’t seem very important. Most men found her too strong-minded, determined and, some added, cold and pushy to the list of faults. So why should she save herself? She knew better than to think a prince would come to her rescue. No, she didn’t believe in fairytales.

Enough of that, she scolded, tugging the quilt up around her ears. Tomorrow couldn’t’ come soon enough. She closed her eyes to pray the coming day would pass quickly. She had a lot to do, a lot to keep her mind from going astray. Work would keep her from fantasizing about Telt Longtree and his broad shoulders, black wavy hair, and his blue, blue eyes, eyes that made her knees go weak when they smiled at her.

“I need to get out of town,” she said to Mac, who resented her restlessness and jerked his hind leg in protest. “I know, we just got here, but we need to get out of town. We’ll go to Pendleton to the warehouse. The sooner I put some distance between temptation and myself the better. This thing I’ve got for the sheriff came on way too sudden. It’s like a bad cold. I need time away from the source of my affliction, maybe build up some immunity. If nothing else, I’ll slow down the inevitable.”

Wren, unable to drift off to sleep, sighed, remembering the way his eyes lit up when he smiled. How he’d taken his handkerchief and tidied her up after she’d dribbled stew down the front of her blouse, cleaning her up as if she were a two-year-old. She couldn’t remember anyone ever doing such a thing for her. With a sense of doom, she considered they could very well become friends once their lust had cooled.

Of course there would be consequences if she followed through, had an affair with the sheriff. Everyone in town would know. Branded a harlot, she would suffer for the foolishness of her actions. The sheriff, she knew, wouldn’t suffer at all. She doubted it would do much damage to her business. Laura Creek needed her mercantile. She wouldn’t have a social life, of course. Mrs. Buttrum and the other ladies of the town might shun her. She wouldn’t be invited to teas and socials.

Well, she wasn’t a social climber anyway, but…she had hoped her life would be different here. She wanted to belong, be part of the community. Her whole life she’d lived alone, with no real, true friends, certainly no women friends. Once she started working in her father’s business, she’d no time for friends. She liked working. She never really thought much about what she’d missed, that is until now. The welcome she received upon her arrival in Laura Creek gave her a glimpse of what could be. With these disturbing thoughts on her mind, Wren drifted off into a deep sleep.

When she awoke, before she crawled out of her bedroll, she ordered herself to stop fantasizing about Telt Longtree. Feeling in control and resolute, she vowed to stick to business today, and dressed accordingly; first came black thigh-high stockings held in place by plain black garters. Her pantaloons and chemise of course, three white under-slips, adding a modest bustle tied at her waist with a satin ribbon. Over it all, she donned a plain black skirt and tucked in her highly starched white blouse into the waistband, then fastened a black satin stomacher at her waist for good measure. She wore her sensible black walking shoes, freshly polished, naturally. With her hair pulled up all neat and tidy, held in place by her tortoiseshell combs beneath her straw hat and wearing white gloves, she put up her chin and headed off across the meadow to the telegraph office to send a wire to Judge Crookshank.

She composed her wire, keeping it brief and to the point. Arrived safe: stop No loss of life or supplies: stop People accommodating: stop.

She omitted most of the details, of course. Now wasn’t the time to complain that her mercantile, the mercantile she’d purchased sight unseen, needed a lot of work or that it had been left, deliberately, unfinished. Or that the judge’s friend, Mr. Buttrum, insisted on giving her grief. The store would be ready to open on time. Mr. Buttrum, eventually, would have to account for his actions, and the judge, she knew, would see to it that he paid for his deceptions, all in good time.

Out of the corner of her eye, Wren sensed a shadow pass before the office window. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed her sense of foreboding. Her nemesis, Mr. Buttrum, had run her to ground. He stood watching through the window, waiting for her to leave, no doubt to take this opportunity to intimidate her.

Mr. Terrel became very nervous, asking her if she needed a reply, would she like a receipt, and so forth. Wren gave him a reassuring smile, a thank you, and started for the door, to find Mr. Buttrum had moved. She could still see him. Oh, not all of him, just his shoulder; he had positioned himself to the side of the door, waiting to ambush her. Wren squared her shoulders, prepared herself for a confrontation, determined to make it as brief and painless as possible.

She deliberately lowered her eyes, seemingly fiddling with her reticule while opening the door. Accidently on purpose, she slammed into Mr. Buttrum’s chest, giving him a shove with her hands. Thrown off balance, he stumbled back, his hand flying out to grasp her forearm, his fingers digging into her flesh.

“My goodness, Miss O’Bannon, what is your hurry?” he said with a nasty sneer on his lips, not bothering to tip his hat to her as any other gentleman would most certainly do. “You’re about early. Always busy, aren’t you? Always up to something. Most women have a home, but not you. At this hour most young women your age are busy seeing to their families, taking care of their men.”

With her head held high, Wren met his sarcastic sneer and, with a cool smile on her lips, said, “I beg your pardon, Mr. Buttrum. I didn’t see you lurking in the doorway; don’t you have a bank to run?”

After looking up and down the almost deserted street, she turned her gaze back to Mr. Buttrum and said to his face, “Yes, I am very busy. I have a lot to do, thanks to you and your unethical business practices. As to what I am up to, I am trying to meet my promises, unlike you, Mr. Buttrum. Yes, I am a busy woman, too busy to loiter about in front of the telegraph office, as some are wont to do. Good day,” she said, and stepped around him without saying another word. Fuming, with her back to him, she crossed the street to the mercantile, declaring the mayor the rudest man she’d ever met.

From inside the mercantile she watched Mr. Buttrum enter the telegraph office and shivered as a sense of dread and impending disaster washed over her. The mayor’s disapproval went farther than mere prejudice against women owning a business. The man had become obsessed with her downfall. He could learn nothing from the telegram she’d sent to the judge—could he? She didn’t doubt for a moment that he would do all in his power to keep her from opening the mercantile. The why of it didn’t make any sense to her, but she knew the man wouldn’t give up until he’d pulled every dirty, underhanded trick in the book.

When Mr. Claussen and Mr. Meirs, the builders, arrived shortly after her confrontation with Mr. Buttrum, bringing with them a wagonload of lumber, Wren forget all about the mayor and his wicked machinations.

Both Mr. Meirs and Mr. Claussen were well past fifty, and yet they juggled lumber and hammers, and went up and down ladders, as agile as men half their age. It wasn’t even close to noon, and she felt confident everything would get done, her storeroom, the shelves, everything, because of these two very experienced and energetic carpenters.

Punk Baker showed up shortly after Mr. Meirs and Mr. Claussen to install her woodstove in the back corner of the store. She’d hauled the wood stove in her second wagon, along with the farm implements. Using it now in the mercantile made one less thing she had to worry about storing in the lean-to in the pasture. She’d brought the stove for an example of what she had in her warehouse. She also had small replicas of the different styles and sizes of stoves, pie-safes, wardrobes, furniture of all kinds, and farm implements for her customers to choose from.

When Queenie came prancing through the open door of the mercantile, she knew the sheriff couldn’t be far behind. Mac got up from his blanket in the back of the store to greet them both.

Telt Longtree sauntered into the empty store, filling it up with his broad shoulders and big smile. Looking around, he said, “Good morning. This town hasn’t seen such a flurry of activity since, well, since I came to town a little over four years ago.” He picked his hat off his head with two fingers at the point, nodded in her direction and put his hat to his chest. “I thought I caused quite a stir, but nothing like this.”

Just hearing his voice made her feel warm all over. She fought the urge to walk over to him and plant a kiss on his big jaw. With a mischievous smile on her lips, she volleyed her response, “But I’ve got something you, no doubt, didn’t have, Sheriff.”

He grinned back, “Oh, I am of aware several things you’ve got that I didn’t have. But do tell, what is it, do you think, that draws people in?”

“Why, merchandise, of course,” she said.

“Oh, uh, I was thinking along another line altogether,” he said with a silly smirk on his face.

“Yes, I’m sure you were.” Feeling particularly bold, she put her head to one side to say in all seriousness, “The citizens of Laura Creek are anxious to spend their money, and they’re willing to put in some time and effort to make it happen. I don’t think anyone is going to complain about a little flurry of activity if the gain is to the good of the community.”

He nodded and agreed, “No, I don’t suppose we’ll hear any complaints. Maybe Buttrum will spout a few. But in this case, I think almost everyone will agree to ignore him.” The hammering up on the side of the building made it almost impossible to hold a conversation.

He chuckled, a throaty rumbling sound that gave her goose-bumps. “Yup, you’ve got everybody jumping around. You like that, don’t you?”

Wren giggled. Oh, yes, she liked it. She liked stirring up the whole town. She liked stirring him up too. Grinning at her like that, she knew he was enjoying himself too. They were standing there smiling at one another when Eula Buttrum crossed over the threshold.

Sashaying around the sheriff with a swish of her skirt, Wren greeted the mayor’s wife, “Good morning, Mrs. Buttrum.” Having to raise her voice to be heard over the sounds of construction, she felt her cheeks grow very hot. “I’ve been hoping you would come by. I want to talk to you about your pies.” Taking the woman by the elbow, she guided her to the back of the store where it wasn’t quite so noisy, and managed to slow the pace of her racing heart. “You make delicious pies. Your huckleberry is heavenly. Would you be able to bake some to sell here at the store? I thought a half-dozen to start. We could work out a trade, say, fabric, lace, a bonnet or gloves, perhaps?”

Eula put her gloved hand to the lace at her throat, appearing surprised by the offer.

If she had to guess, Wren would say Mrs. Buttrum had come over to look her over, and look over the mercantile. Her expressive gray eyes kept sliding toward the sheriff, then back to Wren.

Wren did understand. Lottie was Mrs. Buttrum’s niece, of course she would be watching, wondering, looking for signs that the sheriff had wiggled off Lottie’s hook. Wren watched the play of emotions flicker across the woman’s face, but held fast to her composure. If she meant to accept the inevitable, then she had to start now to set the tone for herself and her relationship with Telt Longtree. All would be revealed, her dirty laundry, her low morals, her lack of decorum, soon enough the whole town would have a lot to talk about.

“That’s a lovely dress you have on this morning,” she noted, her voice sincere, but counting on the subject to distract Eula from her speculations.

The dress, an unusual shade of smoky lavender, complimented Eula’s fair complexion. A delicate row of pale cream lace enhanced Eula’s swan-like neck, with the same lace trimming the cuffs and sleeves of the dress. “Do you sew?” Wren probed, before Eula could catch her breath from the first proposal.

“No, oh, no,” laughed Mrs. Buttrum. “Lottie is the seamstress.”

“Wonderful,” exclaimed Wren, and clapped her hands with real joy, “perhaps I could work out something with Miss Bledsoe also.”

This opened the conversation to current fashions, interests and dislikes. In no time, Eula assured her she would give the proposition of supplying the mercantile with her pies careful thought. And she thought her niece would jump at the opportunity to work up some dresses, blouses, and maybe some bonnets as well, in the fine fabrics Wren had in her inventory. It would give the dear girl some extra pin money, Eula had declared with enthusiasm.

As soon as Eula walked out the door, Wren turned to Telt, a self-satisfied smile firmly in place, feeling decidedly triumphant. As she flounced past him, where he’d been propped up against her back wall, she told him, “I’ve made sandwiches for lunch. I thought you might come by, so I made an extra one for you. I’ve got a couple of apples, too. We could go out back. There’s a bench next to the building…it’s in the shade.”

He grinned and obediently followed her out the back door. The dogs, Mac and Queenie, shouldered their way around them to get outside. The rough wooden bench sat at the back of the mercantile, in the shade. They had the bench and the shade to themselves. The pounding had stopped. Wren assumed Mr. Claussen and Mr. Meirs were enjoying their lunch in the shade of their wagon to the side of the mercantile.

After a short silence between them, Telt nodded his head and made the comment, “Looks like everything is going to work out for you here.”

“It certainly looks that way,” she said. “Everyone is very friendly.” She sat down on the bench and, when she looked up, he was smirking. Blushing, it took her a minute to regain her composure, then, feeling saucy, she added, “Some more friendly than others.”

He burst out laughing. She held her skirt aside, making room for him to sit beside her on the bench.

“I wish you didn’t have to sleep out there on the ground,” he said, taking his seat, his face losing its smile.

She turned to look into his eyes. They were warm with concern. She shrugged, uncomfortable to think he cared. “I’ll put my bedroll in the wagon as soon as I’ve unloaded the goods,” she said offhandedly, making it sound like a vast improvement in her situation. “It will only be for another week or so.”

“Still, I don’t like it,” he grumbled while she made a lot of work out of unwrapping his sandwich from its brown paper and handing it to him.

“I don’t know what else to do,” she said, then took a bite of her ham sandwich to keep herself from saying more. He sat there staring at her. Growing more uncomfortable by the minute, Wren found it hard to swallow. “If I stay in the wagon I can keep an eye on the goods in the lean-to, which to me, is a matter of common sense.”

“I can keep an eye on that lean-to for you.” She watched him open his mouth, and in two bites, he had his sandwich half eaten. “I suppose you have a close inventory of what’s out there?” he asked, his eyes going out to the meadow and her lean-to.

“I certainly do, Sheriff.”

He smiled and nodded before he bit into his apple. “There’s something else I want to talk to you about.” For a moment, he chewed as she polished her apple on her skirt to avoid looking into his eyes. “You know Laura Creek is a dry town, no liquor, Miss O’Bannon?”

She set her apple aside and turned her body towards him to meet his gaze. “Yes, I do know. Judge Crookshank informed me, and it was one of the conditions of the sale. To tell you the truth, it had a lot to do with my decision to buy the store and settle here. My father drank, Sheriff. I should say, my father, my uncle, my cousins were…are fond of their whiskey. It did nothing for their dispositions or for their health. I am happy to be far away from them.”

“I see,” he mumbled after he took his time to swallow. “Some folks get mean when full of drink.

She folded her hands in her lap and looked to the mountains and the peaceful meadow. She sat there a moment, trying to decide if she should take a chance and reveal something of her former life. She took a deep breath before she spoke, “My father wasn’t mean,” shuddering, she looked down to her hands, “He was just sad, very, very sad.”

Telt studied her, she didn’t dare look up, or she would burst into tears. Drawing herself up, she took a deep breath, set her spine and pulled herself together. “My uncle, he’s a mean drunk. I didn’t have much to do with him; maybe twice a year he would impose his presence upon us. He owned the mercantiles in Salem and Corvallis. He lived in Salem most of the time. That is, he did, until he inherited my father’s half of the business; now he lives in my old home in Oregon City, and he owns all of O’Bannon Brother’s Enterprises. He does travel a good deal up and down the Willamette Valley. As for my cousins, they like to fool around. Unfortunately, I’ve always been their prime target and often the butt of their tomfoolery. In my opinion they’re simply ignorant pawns of their father.”

He nodded, but Wren sensed he still had a lot of questions. She didn’t want him to pry any deeper. “I have to get back to work, Sheriff,” she said, and pushed up off the bench.

“Yeah, I have things to do, too.” Taking her hand and looking into her eyes, he said, “Maybe I’ll drop by your wagon later?” His fingers traced the calluses on her palms. She tried to pull her hand away, her cheeks growing hot under his gaze.

His dark brows drew together. The look he gave her made her cringe. She didn’t need his pity. He brought her hand to his lips and pressed a lingering kiss to her palm, his eyes holding her gaze. In that second, Wren knew she wouldn’t say no to him, and she knew he wasn’t going to leave her alone until he got what he wanted.

CLICK HERE TO GO TO CHAPTER 11 AND 12

Free read Laura Creek chaps 7-8

CHAPTER 7

Coming in late, heads turned when Telt entered the church. He wouldn’t have been late, but he’d gone home to change his clothes because his one and only white shirt was covered with grime, and he’d torn his good trousers. Now he had on a pair of work dungarees and a clean, blue plaid shirt. It didn’t feel right wearing-work day clothes to church. Damn-it-all, anyway.

The consequences of getting involved in Miss O’Bannon’s struggles were expensive; he needed to keep that in mind. When he came within an arm’s length of the woman, he noticed, he had a tendency to lose perspective. It was a physical thing. She stirred his blood—he wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

But the roof of the mercantile was done, now leak-proof. With Percy’s help, the three of them had made short work of the job. Wren O’Bannon did her share and then some, and without a peep of complaint.

As his eyes adjusted from the bright morning sunlight to the softer light inside the little church, he noticed a lot of people were in attendance today. He didn’t think for one minute they were here to listen to Percy give one of his mind-numbing sermons. No, indeed, they were here to get a look at the new owner of the mercantile and to observe, first-hand, the ongoing feud between Miss O’Bannon and the mayor Howard Buttrum. Telt muttered a curse on the man, then felt ashamed of himself for cursing on the Sabbath.

He searched the congregation and found Miss O’Bannon seated on the aisle, three rows down. She’d changed into that frilly, cream-colored blouse. He liked how it accentuated her nice full bosom. But he didn’t much care for that straw hat she had on her head, it hid all that glorious hair. She turned around for a quick glance as he took his place at the back of the room. She looked down right away, avoiding eye contact.

Telt spotted the back of Howards’s square head and the back of Eula’s best bonnet in the pew at the front of the church, and Lottie sitting next to Eula.

Lottie. No woman had bonnets like the ones Lottie wore. She made them herself. They were one of a kind frippery things, all lace, ribbons and bows. She sneaked a peek over her shoulder to the back of the room and gave him a shy, dimpled smile and a nod before turning back to rise to her feet for the opening hymn.

****

     Mr. Terrel’s commanding presence before his congregation impressed Wren. To her, Mr. Terrel, Percy, gave the impression of being shy, tongue-tied, but up in his pulpit he appeared confident, almost eloquent, when he spoke. She smiled up at him when he looked out over his flock, his tenor voice raised in song. His complexion turned bright pink by her doing so, and she almost giggled.

He cleared his throat at the end of the song, announcing, “We would like to take this time to welcome to our community Miss Wren O’Bannon, the new owner of the Laura Creek Mercantile.” As he looked in her direction, Wren suspected him of looking at her hat to avoid her eyes…that tickled her.

Everyone turned in her direction. She nodded and smiled. He went on with a few other announcements: a new birth, and a coming potluck after the Wednesday night choir practice. He led the congregation in a prayer for Grandma Tatom, too ill to attend church services today. He also led the congregation in a prayer for four-year old Pauly Brandtmeyer, who had stayed home with the mumps.

While up on the roof this morning, she’d gleaned from Percy some interesting information regarding Mr. Buttrum, his wife, and their relationship with Judge Crookshank. Once Percy opened up, she didn’t have to do much prodding. He told her Howard Buttrum, born and raised in Chicago, attended Harvard with the then Mr. Francis Crookshank, now Judge Crookshank. Good friends then, and good friends now. He told her all about himself, about his wife leaving him and Shorty. The man simply unloaded a raft of history without her even asking.

Wren thought about trying to get the sheriff to cough up some information about himself, but didn’t even try. Working together up on the roof without speaking, anticipating each other’s moves and needs, felt very intimate…a bonding took place. She found it disconcerting to work in tandem with someone. She’d always worked alone, expecting no one to help her, or work with her. It was a lovely feeling, a heart-warming feeling. She shouldn’t be feeling anything—there was no future in it.

****

     Telt couldn’t take his eyes off her. Even the back of her head kept his attention. He sure would like to know what she was thinking. If he could see into her eyes, maybe he could read her mind. This morning, up there on that roof working with her, they’d done just that, read each other’s minds. He’d never been able to do that with anyone before. No words spoken, no words needed, they worked in harness together…a team.

“Before I deliver our sermon for the day, are there any announcements anyone would like to make?” Percy asked to bring everyone’s attention to the business portion of the service.

A silence came over the room. Telt blinked and watched her come to her feet. Instantly a knot of dread formed in his gut. The pew creaked as she rose, the sound reverberating throughout the room. She stood there with a hymnal clutched to her waist, one hand on the back of the pew in front of her.

He pushed himself off the wall he’d been leaning against, alert now. Who could guess what the woman was up to? He figured Miss O’Bannon had a purpose to every move she made. He wouldn’t be at all surprised if she instigated a riot. Telt shifted his gaze to where Howard sat. He saw the man lurch forward, shift his body to glare at the woman. Telt hoped he wouldn’t have to intervene; he’d left his pistol at the office.

Miss O’Bannon turned Telt’s way and looked right at him, then ducked her head. In that brief second of eye contact, she’d revealed her vulnerability, but only to him. He wanted very much to go to her, stand at her side, give her his support, but he held himself back, stayed rooted to his post at the back of the church.

“Miss O’Bannon,” Percy said, by way of acknowledging her, “do you have something you wish to say?”

To Telt it looked like she hesitated, maybe having second thoughts. When she dipped down, he thought she would sit down, but she laid the hymnal on the seat behind her. As her eyes scanned the congregation, he caught the tentative smile on her lips before she pulled herself up, preparing to speak.

She no sooner cleared her throat than Howard shot to his feet, no doubt intending to stop her. Telt held back the urge to holler at him to sit down and shut up. However, Eula knew how to control her husband. She grabbed the man by the seat of his pants and pulled him back down onto the hard bench. As a result, a loud thud echoed throughout the church. There ensued a moment or two of snickers and whispers as every eye followed the byplay. Heads swiveled back and forth, to Miss O’Bannon, to Howard, then back to settle on Miss O’Bannon. Under normal circumstances, Telt would’ve thought it funny too, but he didn’t like the tension in the room.

“I would like to thank you all for the warm welcome,” Miss O’Bannon said. Telt thought she sounded a little nervous, shaky. He saw her grip the pew in front of her, probably to steady herself.

****

     Wren had a complicated proposal to make, although she’d broken it down and put it in the form of a simple request. Her idea had to work. It could very well be the only way she would get done what needed to be done. She took a deep breath to steady herself and screw up her courage before saying, “There are several things that need to be done at the mercantile before I can open for business, most of them well beyond my capabilities. I have a list. What I would like to do is offer merchandise in exchange for skilled labor…or building materials.

“If any of you would be interested in an exchange, I will be at the store this afternoon, and we can discuss, in detail, the possibilities. In the coming weeks I hope I’ll have an opportunity to meet all of you. I look forward to our becoming good friends and neighbors.” She smiled her best smile and reclaimed her seat. The buzz of excitement that ensued pleased her, but she had to sit down, her legs felt as if they were made of jelly.

As the sermon followed her announcement, the little church grew stuffy with the noonday sun. With more singing than sermon, the service was blessedly brief. Wren stood outside the church afterward, visiting with a group of ladies who bombarded her with questions about what kinds of wares she intended to stock in her store.

As they stood there talking, she tried to memorize their names.  There was Mary Brandtmeyer, a very plain but sturdy woman, who had a toddler attached to her hip. Mary’s husband owned the sawmill. The husbands of Mrs. Edna Claussen and Mrs. Meirs owned the rock quarry.  Wren could remember Mrs. Claussen because she spoke with a thick German accent and Mrs. Meirs was the only colored woman among Laura Creek’s population. The widow Margret Tatom, she discovered to be the daughter-in-law of the absent Grandma Tatom for whom they had prayed. Susan Hobart didn’t have any front teeth, and her husband Ned worked at the mill. An elderly lady by the name of LuLu Olhouser, ninety if she was a day and almost deaf, lived in town with her daughter Pammy Deeds, who translated for her in a combination of inventive sign language and short-speak. Pammy’s husband, George, worked at the mill.

Wren received several invitations for Sunday dinner, including one from Eula Buttrum, but she turned them all down. Truly, she had a lot to do. She didn’t have time to socialize.

She could feel the sheriff watching her. She wanted to deny herself the pleasure of looking into his all-too-penetrating gaze. But couldn’t resist. Everything about Telt Longtree pleasured her: the way he worked, moved, talked. Common sense warned her if she allowed her heart to have its way, her life would become very complicated and very painful very quickly.

Lottie Bledsoe had the sheriff by the arm. Miss Bledsoe wore a sunny yellow dress of gauze over a white satin underdress. She’d artistically woven sky-blue ribbons into the puffy sleeves and around the lace at her throat. She had upon her hair of gold a straw bonnet, tied with a blue ribbon beneath her almost-chin. The couple stood in Wren’s peripheral view, Lottie doing most of the talking. Wren could hear Miss Bledsoe clearly and suspected the woman spoke every word for her benefit.

“We’re going to have fried chicken for our Sunday dinner, your favorite,” Lottie said to the sheriff, who, Wren noticed, stood as stiff as a wooden post, his shoulders back and chin tucked in. “Aunt Eula has baked your favorite lemon pie. I thought, after we eat, we could take a walk along the creek. It would be lovely and cool. Maybe we could take a blanket and sit awhile. I have a new book of sonnets.  We could read aloud to one another.”

Wren didn’t wait to hear the sheriff’s response to all of Miss Bledsoe’s plans. It simply was none of her business. Besides, she had to get away, or she would explode into a giggling fit.

Setting off towards her camp, she muttered to herself, “Sonnets, indeed.” To her mind, the sheriff wasn’t the sort who would appreciate sonnets, but then you just never knew; but Wren couldn’t picture it.

She told herself she must fight against the urge to save him from Miss Lottie’s clutches; she should let him suffer, the big oaf. If he couldn’t see Miss Lottie was all wrong for him, then she certainly didn’t want him.

No, she had to stay out of it. He was spoken for or as good as.  More to the point, he presented a complication she didn’t need. She had to live here. She had to work here and make her way. There could never be anything between them. Lottie, Wren was certain, would see to that.

****

     Telt followed Miss O’Bannon’s retreat with his eyes, no longer listening to Lottie plan his day. If Miss O’Bannon thought she could glide away without explaining herself, she had another think coming. That woman was plotting some kind of retribution…keeping notes in a little black book. Not only that, she’d stopped arguing with Howard; had just let him blow. That wasn’t right.

Women, it had been Telt’s experience, loved to argue, especially if they were right. Miss O’Bannon had something up her sleeve.

As for Lottie Bledsoe, Telt didn’t like her planning his every minute. He sure as hell didn’t intend to sit in the shade and read sonnets to her. Never. She’d been getting awfully pushy lately. Miss Bledsoe made it sound like it was a done deal, she had him all hobbled and hog-tied.

While Telt mulled over his predicament, the banker and his wife joined them.

“That woman is up to something,” Howard said, echoing Telt’s thoughts exactly, but for different reasons. They both watched Miss O’Bannon pick her way across the meadow with her skirts held up as she waded through the tall, dry grass, headed toward her wagons. “After our Sunday dinner, you get down to that store and keep an eye on her.”

“We were going for a walk after dinner down by the creek, Uncle Howard,” complained Lottie, her mouth forming a pout. She looked like a pouting child, a child who was about to stomp her foot in protest. It came as something of a surprise to Telt to know the woman could express that much disappointment.

“The sheriff won’t have time for that kind of falderal today. A sheriff is on duty seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, Lottie.  Better get used to that right now,” said Howard.

For a moment there, Telt thought Lottie might stick her tongue out at her uncle. To her credit, she didn’t. She prudently looked down at her feet and bit back whatever she wanted to say in rebuttal.

Telt didn’t care much for the sound of any of this. Damn, they did: Buttrum, Mrs. Buttrum, Lottie, probably the whole damned town, had him all wrapped up. This situation reminded him of the day they’d stuck him with the damn job of being sheriff in this one-horse town.  He’d been labeled the prize package then, and now they’d tagged him as the chump to wed the schoolmarm. Well, damn. Everybody, the whole damn town, had another think comin’ if they thought he’d stand around and let them serve him up like…like a Christmas ham.

“It’s Sunday, Howard, such a lovely day. Surely the sheriff and Lottie can have the afternoon to enjoy themselves,” she said with a sweet smile directed to Lottie and a smile and a wink to Telt.

Telt could see by the unreceptive curl of his lips that Howard wanted to put his wife in her place, but Telt forestalled him. He had to take back his life, and right now. “Well, Ma’am, your husband is right,” he said to Mrs. Buttrum, which caused Howard to nod with satisfaction and Eula to purse her pretty lips in forbearance.

“I am on duty every day,” he confirmed, turning to face Lottie, hoping to discourage her desire to form a union. “I’m on duty twenty-four hours a day. Sunday’s are no different from any other day, so I’ll have to give a pass on that fried chicken, Miss Lottie. You sure do make a good fried chicken. Nobody can argue that. But I’ve got some things I need to take care of right away.”

To get Howard off his back he said, “I’ll be sure to drop in at the mercantile this afternoon.” With that said, he tipped his hat to the ladies, backed up, then spun around, and taking big strides, he started after Miss O’Bannon.

Muttering to himself, he started out across the meadow, “I’ll keep my eye on the O’Bannon woman, all right.” He hadn’t seen Queenie since this morning when he spied her from up there on the roof of the mercantile, cavorting with Miss O’Bannon’s mutt. He suspected he’d find her out in the meadow with that damned mongrel. “And…I’m gonna get my darn dog back,” he vowed.

CHAPTER 8

     “Uncle Howard, why did you send him away?” Lottie whined with tears of frustration trickling down her pale cheeks. “Now he’s not even going to have dinner with us. He’s going after that…that woman.”

Lottie couldn’t believe it, it was happening again. She knew it, another suitor slipping through her fingers; she could see it happening all over again. She wanted to lie down on the ground, tear her hair out and pitch a fit. No one cared about her needs, her dreams they came as a distant second to everyone else’s agenda.

Two years ago, living in Chicago with her parents, she’d fallen madly in love with a young man by the name of Wesley Potter. Before she and Wesley could set a wedding date, her parents shipped her off to the wilds of Oregon to live with her aunt and uncle. With no regard for her feelings in the matter, they arranged for her to make use of her college education to become Laura Creek’s new schoolteacher.  Everyone assumed she would forget Wesley Potter. And she had, almost, because of her interest in Telt Longtree. Miserable, she began to sob with despair.

“Now see what you’ve done, Howard?” her Aunt Eula hissed.  “You’ve upset Lottie. Honestly, Howard, sometimes you can be so thick-headed.” Her aunt wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “Surely the sheriff could have one day? Sunday, Howard. Surely the sheriff could have Sunday to devote to courting our dear Lottie?”

Lottie clasped her lace handkerchief to her bosom, her voice swamped with tears. “You’ve as good as pushed him into that woman’s arms, I just know it. He watches her, Uncle Howard.”

Her uncle waved away Lottie’s fear as if he waved away a pesky gnat. His callousness reminded Lottie of her father; he hadn’t sympathized with her dilemma either. Her Uncle Howard would never understand.

As proof, he declared, “Hogwash! I say to the both of you. Of course he’s watching the woman. The whole town thinks she’s a nuisance. She broke the peace and quiet of the Sabbath this morning up on that roof pounding away, showing her limbs to God and the world.  Then she made a spectacle of herself…pleading for help in church, of all places. And besides, she’s a fraud. I hope the good people of this town have enough sense not to be drawn into her brazen, shifty dealings.” Her uncle went on to expand on his theme as if she and her aunt were dull-witted. “Longtree’s got better sense than to get tangled up with a conniving, she-devil like the O’Bannon female. A woman like that is nothing but trouble from the get-go. No, sir, the sheriff is watching her because he knows what I know. She isn’t what she says she is.”

Lottie could only stare at him; apparently he too thought Miss O’Bannon a calculating, crafty little witch. Uncle Howard didn’t like being made a fool. And Miss O’Bannon had managed to do that by purchasing the mercantile without him knowing she was a female. All he had to do was swallow his pride, accept the fact that he’d been outsmarted by a woman.

His whole life wasn’t on the line. He wasn’t the one whose heart would get crushed by a conniving, ambitious, intrepid baggage.

Howard took Lottie by the arm, put his other arm around his wife and led them away from church, headed toward home. As they passed between the bank and the mercantile, he said, “There’s something fishy about Miss O’Bannon. There’s something fishy about this whole thing. A woman on her own like that, it isn’t right. How is it she has enough money to set herself up in a mercantile? Tomorrow I’m going to start investigating. I want to talk to her family.”

Lottie sniveled and dabbed at her eyes with her lace kerchief, her lower lip trembling. She caught her aunt Eula’s eye. They exchanged glances. Tight lipped, Eula appeared angry and upset. Uncle Howard didn’t help the situation by reminding them both that he expected his Sunday dinner on the table in half an hour.

Lottie suspected her uncle knew very well how unhappy they were with the situation. He quickly changed his tone, offering Lottie a few well-chosen, condescending words meant to salve her disappointment.  “We have to let the sheriff do his job, sweetheart. Don’t you fret, Lottie dear,” he said and pinched her cheek. “The sheriff is yours for the taking. I’ll have a little talk with Longtree. Once he sees the advantages of latching on to a fine little woman like you, why, he’ll want to get you to the altar before the-cat-can-lick-his-whiskers.”

****

“Sheriff Longtree, I haven’t time to chat just now,” Wren said, exasperated with herself for being unable to control her racing pulse after turning and finding the sheriff to be only a few paces behind her.

Mac and Queenie lay together in the shade beneath the first wagon. At the sound of her voice, Mac crawled out to bid her welcome with some investigative sniffing of her skirt. Queenie followed and butt-wagged over to lick the sheriff’s hand. Wren watched, and forgot to be impatient as the man gently loved-up his dog. She caught herself just before she started to sigh.

“Hello, there, Old Girl,” the sheriff said to his dog, kneeling down to give her a good rub. “Ever since that big lug came to town, you’re kind of fickle, you know,” he said, shaking her head and ruffling her ears.

Silently assuring herself she had herself in complete control of her emotions—and the situation—Wren stated, in her best no-nonsense tone, “I have work to do, Sheriff,” then removed her hat. “I need to change my clothes.”

“You go ahead, I can wait,” he said, still kneeling and petting his dog.

Wren narrowed her eyes and gave him a withering glance meant to send him about-face. He needed to leave and leave now. She put her hands on her hips and huffed, before reasoning, “Surely whatever we have to discuss can wait until later. I’ll be at the store in an hour or so.” She started to go around the side of her wagon to change her clothes.

“I’ll leave as soon as you tell me why you’re making entries in that little black book of yours.” When she turned to look into his eyes, she could see he was pleased to have stopped her in her tracks.

She purposefully retraced her steps, coming within a few feet of him, eyes direct and chin up. “Nothing illegal, Sheriff, I assure you.”

He didn’t blink, didn’t nod, didn’t look at all convinced. “You don’t seem like the type of female to play games,” he said, his eyes looking deep into her own. “But I’ve had enough experience to know some folks like to bend the truth to suit their own agenda. That can be kinda cute in a female, but sometimes it’s just plain infuriatin’.”

She almost snickered. She tried very hard not to give any tells. This was a poker game with high stakes. She had to play it close to the vest. “I don’t play games, Sheriff. I don’t have time. Recordkeeping is part of being in business.”

“In that case you won’t mind telling me what it’s all about. Why are you keeping track of my time and Percy’s time and your time? What are you up to, Miss O’Bannon?”

She took a moment to ask herself why all the questions? Then it occurred to her—his line of questioning had the smell of Howard T. Buttrum all over it.

“Oh, I see,” she murmured, narrowing her eyes, zeroing in on him. “Mr. Buttrum wants to know, doesn’t he? He sent you out here to sniff around, didn’t he? He wants to know about the little black book. Well, you tell Mr. Buttrum he’ll have to wait until the end of September, when the judge returns to Laura Creek, to find out what I’m about.”

She could see she’d hit a sore spot. He winced. “I’m not a sneaky spy,” he growled, on the defensive. “What the hell? Why does everybody assume I’m Howard Buttrum’s tool? I’m my own man, damn it! Buttrum doesn’t know anything about your little black book, and he won’t, because I have no intention of telling him,” he said, his jaw working and his blue eyes snapping with outrage.

She let her shoulders relax and unclenched her fists as she weighed his words, trying to decide if he was lying. No, she thought he was telling the truth. She’d personally witnessed the man go toe-to-toe with Mr. Buttrum. The sheriff didn’t impress her as a boot-licker. A man with eyes as clear blue as a mountain pool couldn’t…wouldn’t be a good liar.

She had to relent, at least a little. “Don’t worry about my black book, Sheriff,” she said over her shoulder as she started around the end of her wagon again, then stopped to add, “Believe me when I say it’s necessary, and no one will be hurt by it. As a matter of fact, it may well turn out to be a very good thing. But none of that matters at the moment.

“I have a lot to do before I can get to the store today. So you really must go,” she told him, “I have to change into my work clothes.”

“Like I said, go ahead. I’ve seen you in your underclothes. I didn’t mind a bit,” he said, a playful gleam in his eyes that did little to settle her nerves. “I won’t soon forget, either. You’re a very handsome woman, Miss O’Bannon.”

Now why is he resorting to false flattery? Wren felt her cheeks flame with outrage. Why is he deliberately provoking me, baiting me?  Well, she would not go down that road. No, sir.

Gathering all of her dignity about her, she took a stab at his pride. “Shouldn’t you be attending Miss Bledsoe? I thought I heard her say something about you and she going down to the creek to read sonnets or something.” The second the words came out of her mouth she knew her mistake. Yes, she’d been eavesdropping on their conversation. But the sheriff’s initial response was satisfying, nonetheless. He physically blanched, blinked several times, and his jaw clenched up.

****

Telt stood there, impotent, grinding his teeth. Women! They had bigger ears than a jackrabbit. Oh, she looked pleased with herself, her lips turned up in a cute little smirk. She’d made a direct hit, all right. It took a second or two longer than he would have liked, but he finally untied his tongue. “Don’t much care for poetry, Ma’am. I’m more of a hands-on kind of man,” he said, and moved in on her. Now it was her turn to squirm. “Besides, I’d rather be here with you,” he added for good measure, his voice smooth and compelling.

She shook her head at him, but he kept moving in on her.

“I…I expect you to be a gentleman,” she stammered. “You…need to leave me to change my clothes…in private,” she said, her voice trembling. She was probably hoping to discourage him by turning her back on him.

Telt grinned at her dismissal. Oh, this lady had a lot to learn if she thought he could be gotten rid of that easily.

“It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon,” he said, turning his face to the crystal-clear, blue sky. “You worked hard this morning. What work do you have to do that’s so urgent you have to get it done on a Sunday afternoon? Surely, whatever it is can wait until tomorrow.”

She hustled around the end of her wagon, and he burst out laughing.

****

 Drat the man, he was laughing at her…again…giving her that grin. She couldn’t look at him for more than a second without melting, and he knew it, the devil. She scolded herself as she slipped behind her wagon, well out of his view.

Her work clothes were hanging on a nail on the side of her wagon.  As she slipped out of her russet skirt and blouse and donned her work clothes, Wren wondered why he’d singled her out. She was nothing out of the common way. No man had ever taken the least bit of interest in her. There had to be some way of making herself impervious to his slow way of breaking down her defenses.

Her fingers went to work in a flutter of precision as she wound her hair up into a bun on top of her head and stuck a couple of combs in it to hold her curls in place. She found her old felt hat up on the wagon seat and smashed it on her head, knowing full-well it was awful and made her look like an old hag.

Speaking up so that he could hear, she told him, “Nothing to do? On the contrary, Sheriff, I have a lot to do. I’ve no time to while away the afternoon in your company or the company of anyone,” she said, coming around the wagon to face him.

She forced herself to look him squarely in the eye. “I have a considerable number of very urgent matters that need to be taken care of right away. I need to get them done before I go over to the store. You have to leave, Sheriff, now,” she ordered.

“Not until you tell me what’s so all-fired urgent you haven’t got time to talk a minute,” he said, moving in on her like a wolf for the kill, his tone suddenly impatient and deadly serious.

Wren took a step back and found the wagon pressed against her shoulders. She couldn’t look away. He had her pinned. Of a sudden she found it hard to breathe. There wasn’t enough air. This wasn’t fear; this was something else. His eyes were devouring her. Wren had never swooned in her life, but she could respect those ladies who had done so. Now she understood.

“I…I need to unload my wagons,” she said, her voice failing her, coming out in more of a squeak than a steady, confident tone. She moved to duck under his arm. He stopped her with a light touch of his hand on her shoulder. His head tilted just slightly, the better to maintain eye contact.

Wren attempted to pull herself together. She felt ridiculous. It was exactly as she had feared. She had become a simpering ninny just by his proximity. She had to stop it, and stop it right now.

She squared her shoulders and tipped her face up to meet his eyes and hoped she sounded more confident than she felt. “I only have so much time to figure out how I’m going to store everything. I have to unload these wagons, Sheriff,” she said, her hands flying out in all directions as her frustration level mounted, eroding her control.

“I’d thought to have a store where I could put all the goods I brought with me. I thought I had a store with a storeroom. Now I shall have to put some things in the old lean-to out here in the meadow. I really don’t want to do that, because anyone who cares to can come along and help themselves. The dry-goods and perishables, I’ll have to put upstairs in what was to be my living quarters, because there are no shelves on which to display them. That means I will be living out here until display shelves can be found.”

Wren felt the tears well up into her throat. She cursed her vulnerability. It was unfair she lose control in front of this man, unfair he could make her feel so weak-minded and vulnerable. Why did she have to break down now, in front of this man, of all people?

****

Telt looked into her eyes. The bravado, the façade, was but a thin veil, a disguise to hide her uncertainty. He realized it for an act of self-preservation. Miss O’Bannon presented herself in such a way that gave people the impression she knew exactly what she was doing at all times. But her eyes gave her away; she was just going at it one thing at a time and hoping it would all work out. Telt couldn’t help himself; he had to touch her, try to sooth away her fears and all the uncertainty.

He ran his finger along her stubborn little chin and let it roam up the side of her jaw to her cheek. He couldn’t stop; those big, brown eyes and dark lashes, moist with unshed tears, drew him in like a moth to a flame. Before he knew it, his lips were on hers. At first, the kiss was light.

He gave her a minute to decide if she liked it or not. He figured the slap would be coming any minute if she decided the latter.

With his eyes open, braced for the smack, he watched as her eyelids fluttered closed, her dark, moist lashes brushing her soft cheek. Her hat fell off the back of her head, and the combs that were holding her luxurious hair went with it. Her curls, set free, cascaded down around her face and down her back. Instead of a slap in the face, he heard her sigh in surrender. Her hands slid up his chest to his neck, then to the sides of his face to pull him down. Her body begged him to deepen the kiss and gave him permission to explore at will. Telt gathered her in closer. She came willingly.

Her lips parted, accepting his tongue. His body responded to her whimper of need. With one hand on her waist, he used the other hand to fondle and tease one of her firm, round breasts through the fabric of her blouse. He felt her buck with shock at his intimate touch.

Then her tongue was taking over his mouth. He slid his hand down to grasp one rounded half of her beautiful backside and pressed her hips closer against his. His desire was apparent. Of her own volition, she moved her hips over his, grinding against his straining erection.

Telt found himself in the position of being the one to hold on to a shred of control. He pulled back. She was on her tiptoes, her eyes still closed, her lips parted; every inch of her begging for more.

They were standing out in the open meadow in plain view of the whole town. Telt glanced over his shoulder toward the church and saw a small herd of men starting out across the meadow, coming in their direction. His voice hoarse with desire, he said to her upturned face, “You got company comin’.”

He knew she didn’t understand why he’d stopped.

“What?” she asked, her voice a whisper.

“You got company comin’,” he said, finding his voice, and moved aside so she could see for herself.

“Oh, good heavens! I need a minute,” she cried, eyes flying open.  One hand going to her throat and the other to her tumbling hair, she fled behind the wagon. Telt took a deep breath. At some point, he’d lost his hat. He spotted it there under the wagon. By the time he retrieved it and had it in place on his head, once again the blood flowed, no longer pooling in his groin.

CLICK HERE TO GO TO CHAPTERS 9 AND 10

Free read Laura Creek chapters 5 and 6

CHAPTER 5

     It was lovely, cool and peaceful along the creek. Wren returned to camp, washed her hair and gave herself a thorough, all-over wash. Angry, she had to wash away all the grim and grit, then try to find a way through this predicament.

Weary, worn down, depressed and defeated, she blessed Mrs. Buttrum’s timely interruption. The woman had saved her from having to attempt a rebuttal to the mayor’s challenge. Being prejudiced, it didn’t matter the circumstances that had brought her to Laura Creek; Mr. Buttrum, she knew, would never accept her or her motives.

With her wagons end-to-end, her bedroll laid out between and her back to the end of a wagon, she had an excellent view of town to the east. Dressed in a clean chemise and a pair of clean drawers, she’d thought to feel better; but instead, the old feelings of loneliness, frustration and betrayal overshadowed any good that she could find at the end of this long, hard day.

The emptiness she felt gave room for the memories of all that had gone on in the months before she left Oregon City. They settled around her heart and mind like a dark shroud. Never would she believe her father had meant to write her out of his will…entirely, but he had. Everything belonged to her Uncle Stanley now. It was wrong.

She’d poured her heart into her father’s half of the O’Bannon Brothers Enterprises. She’d dedicated her life to building it up, nearly singlehandedly, into a thriving, profitable business.

Of course, after her mother’s death, when the depression began to overpower her father’s will and mind, she naturally assumed more and more of the mantle of the business. He’d allowed her to do so; encouraged her to do so.

He had no justification, none whatsoever, for writing her completely out of his will. Every time she thought about it, examined the final outcome, bitter resentment gnawed at her gut and squeezed her heart until she thought she might die of the pain.

Plumping the feather pillows behind her head, she stretched out on the quilt she’d laid down over the bedroll and tried to convince herself that she’d done the right thing—taken the only option she’d been given. She’d struck out on her own to make her own way. The offer she’d received from her uncle to work for him as clerk in the Oregon City Mercantile, stripped her of all authority. Magnanimously, he’d said she could keep her room in the house she’d lived in all her life. But her uncle cautioned that he and her cousins would be moving in immediately to take possession. Making it sound like a joke, he’d hinted that perhaps she’d get a better night’s sleep if she found her own accommodations rather than live under the same roof with a house full of randy bachelors.

Swiping away the hot salty tears on her cheeks with the back of her hand, she shook her head; she’d made the right decision by purchasing her own mercantile. There was no life for her in Oregon City. It was the right thing to do, coming to Laura Creek—the only thing she could do. But, this new venture wasn’t going to be easy, thanks to Mr. Buttrum.

Wide awake, gazing up at the stars, she weighed her problems against her blessings. The warm welcome she’d received, that was a blessing. Although gratifying, it had delayed the inspection of her property. With the prospect of a mercantile in their near future Mrs. Buttrum and the other ladies hadn’t bothered to contain their curiosity or their enthusiasm. That was the good news for the day. But the sun had gone down behind the hill before she’d seen the inside of her store.

The delay in taking possession of her property suited Mr. Buttrum. She had not missed the sly gleam of satisfaction in his eyes as she surveyed her property. The mercantile, the building, was a sore disappointment; small, devoid of any kind of storage, no shelves and no counters. Above the store, in what would be her living space, conditions were rough, stark, uninhabitable. She could see daylight coming through the roof along the peak. There wasn’t a proper floor in the attic, and no staircase, just bare beams, boards, and a pull-down ladder. In a few short weeks fall would come, and her store would be as cold as an icehouse. She wasn’t so green that she didn’t realize, in the mountains, fall and winter could come on quickly with bitter cold.

Of course she’d pointed out these shortcomings to Mr. Buttrum.  She’d told him, with no bark on it, he’d failed to meet the promises made in their sales contract. She’d demanded he make repairs immediately.

It was futile to expect satisfaction or fairness from the Howard T. Buttrums and the Uncle Stanleys of this world. Mr. Buttrum rebutted true to form with the standard ‘if you were a man you’d see this as a challenge, an opportunity to make it your own’.

Little did he realize she was accustomed to this form of reasoning. Mr. Buttrum thought to discourage her. He would soon learn Wren O’Bannon would not surrender—she would get what she wanted. It would require extra labor, planning, and a good deal of patience, but she intended to win. She didn’t have a choice; she’d burnt all her bridges, and there was no going back.

Mr. Buttrum, unfortunately, had inadvertently touched upon her Achilles heel. Her family, what was left of it, had no idea where she was or what she was up to. With any luck, it would be a very long, long time before they found her, not that her uncle was looking for her or would miss her. Why should he, he had it all now. Hopefully the mayor would be distracted from making inquires as she pushed forward to take possession of her mercantile, with or without his cooperation.

However, along with the problem of what to do about her store, there was the problem of her attraction to the sheriff. A blind woman could see that the wispy little schoolmarm had him as good as hooked and reeled in. The poor man didn’t even realize the danger. Wren didn’t either, at first, but she quickly saw past Lottie Bledsoe’s simpering demeanor. Beneath her fluttery, breathless act lurked an expert angler with a determined mind. Wren was the target of her “I wish you’d drop dead” glares all afternoon.

And who could blame the woman, Telt Longtree was a lot of man. He was clean-shaven, something Wren found particularly attractive in this day and age of mustaches and beards. He had a dazzling smile that took her breath away. His laughter came from deep down, a full, a rich baritone. He liked to laugh and visit with people.

He loved his dog. The retriever didn’t leave his side the whole afternoon. However, the man was probably as poor as a church mouse, he fit in with everyone else in town.

The mayor, and owner of the bank, Howard Buttrum, however, had plenty of money to spread around. He’d built the church, lavishly furnished it with a stained glass window, gilding on the altar, even Roman pedestals for flower arrangements. All of this, Wren had learned from a woman by the name of Margret Tatom and her mother-in-law known to everyone as Grandma Tatom. The two ladies had nothing but good things to say about Mr. Buttrum and his largess.

Over the course of the afternoon, Wren learned a rock quarry and sawmill provided incomes for many of the residents, but they were seasonal industries.

If and when she actually managed to open her mercantile, these people might not always have cash money. The mercantile would have to accommodate a large portion of business that came in the form of trade. This would require some careful planning. She would have to revise her bookkeeping somewhat, tighten her belt.

“Ah, Mac,” she sighed as she braided her still-damp hair in the soft gloaming of the summer eve, “we’ve got our work cut out for us here.”

Taking up a little black book and a stubby little pencil, she started to make notes. First things first, “number one”, she said aloud to the dog as she continued to write in her book, “We need a place to sleep other than the hard ground.

“I haven’t complained, and I know you don’t mind, but it would be nice to get away from the flies and mosquitoes. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at that roof on our new mercantile and see what can be done. I think I saw some shakes behind the store.” Mac lay next to her; he grumbled and shifted his weight onto his hindquarters. She rubbed his chest, “I know, sounds like hard labor, doesn’t it, old boy.”

She closed her eyes and inhaled the fresh warm air, listening to the crickets chirp and the frogs croak. She turned on her side, opened her eyes and watched as a flock of swallows flew low over the meadow, dipping and diving, gathering bugs. A slight haze of dust had settled over the tall grass, lending an air of ethereal beauty to the landscape, making her think of fairies. She sighed and congratulated herself on her accomplishment, to have arrived safe and sound.

The mules were content, asleep on their feet, tethered along the creek. She’d made a deal with Punk Baker, the tobacco-spitting, barrel-bellied man with a complexion the color of tanned leather. He owned the stable and ran the town smithy. She’d traded him a pound of hard candy and three pouches of chewing tobacco for six bales of his hay. Therefore, her mules were well fed and fine right where they were, for now.

It was time to get practical, no more stargazing or feeling sorry for herself. To start with, her mules would need a fence or some kind of enclosure in the not too distant future. Jotting down the details, she wrote: number two, a fence for the mules, number 3, shelves for the store; but first a place warm and dry to sleep

As she made her list, it became clear her problems were beyond her talents, time consuming and labor intensive. She’d not anticipated these difficulties. They definitely upset her agenda.

Giving her feather pillow a good punch and fluff, she consoled herself with the fact that she didn’t have to rise before dawn and harness up the team to start out over some rutted, boulder-infested road in the morning. When she started out from Oregon City, she’d had her doubts about driving a team of mules, period. Let alone haul freight through unfamiliar territory. So now, she reasoned, she would learn how to fix a roof, make shelves and survive a winter with no source of heat. Simply a matter of new and different challenges, that’s all.

“Tomorrow we get started on our store and our new home,” she told Mac, tucking her black book and pencil under her pillow. She stretched and yawned, thinking she might be able to sleep now.

Mac came to attention, his all-seeing eyes drawn to the meadow that lying between their campsite and the town. Wren made out a few orange glowing lights shining in the windows of the houses between the buildings of the town. Twilight was fading to indigo, and it was hard to make out any definite shapes or human figures.

She didn’t mind the deer and elk, they were expected company in a meadow like this. Varmints, such as mountain lion and bear, were not welcome. Along the way, she’d had her share of camp invasions of porcupine and skunk. Then there were the skunks of the human kind, and those Wren feared the most. So when Mac put up his ears and growled his serious growl, she paid attention.

She hadn’t bothered with a campfire. She didn’t need to cook; she was full as a tick from having eaten well of the spread the ladies had laid out. And she certainly wasn’t cold. Besides, the grass in the meadow was tinder dry. A fire would be unwise. She had her camp lantern hung above her head on the rear gate of the forward wagon. The freight wagon at her back gave her some protection from the night air.

She had personal protection with Mac serving as her bodyguard. For backup, she had a carbine in her wagon, a small derringer she kept beneath her pillow at night, and a revolver tucked away in her duster pocket.

Mac came to his feet, his head down, shoulders hunched, lips pulled back to reveal his sharp canine teeth. Alarmed, Wren pulled out the derringer from under her pillow. She got to her feet, eyes and ears open for movement. She didn’t cock the pistol. She prayed she wouldn’t have to. The derringer wasn’t much of a weapon. If she could get the varmint into her circle of light, at close range, the derringer could sure-as-hell shatter a kneecap, buying her time to make a better defense.

Mac’s growl lowered to a snarl, becoming more intense. He lunged out beyond the lamp light. Wren cried out, “Mac! Come back here.”

Staying close to the forward wagon, she moved toward the front to peer around it into the darkness. With her little derringer in one hand, she stepped up on the tongue of the wagon, her hand going up and over the edge of the dashboard, searching for her loaded carbine. To the dog’s credit, Mac returned to her side, his head down and ears pulled back.

****

 Telt heard the dog growl. Halfway across the meadow, he remembered the dog. He’d just come from walking Lottie to her cottage. She’d offered to make him a cup of coffee. Somehow the invitation, accompanied by a sweet, coiling smile and a warm touch of her hand on his sleeve, made him think of an invitation from a spider to a fly.

She’d been as sticky as pine tar all afternoon, and wide-eyed and twittery. She’d clung to him like a Virginia creeper…he’d never seen her like that before. She’d made him nervous, giving him cause to reconsider settling down with her.

After making good his escape, he felt the need to walk awhile. Thoughts of a certain brown-haired female filled his mind. He’d walked around, checking doorways and looking between buildings, for what…he wasn’t sure. All he’d come across were some cats who were either sparking or about to tear one another apart; it was hard to tell. Without thinking; he turned and started across the meadow, his reason being, he, as sheriff, should check in on the newest resident of the community.

That mongrel was still snarling. He could hear him. He sure hoped Miss O’Bannon really could control the beast. Coming to a standstill, he quietly called his retriever, Queenie, to heel.

“Miss…Miss O’Bannon? It’s Sheriff Longtree,” he announced to the camp. He spotted the bedroll on the ground laid out between the wagons, and the lantern hanging from the tailgate, but he couldn’t see anyone about. He figured if the dog was here, and hadn’t come at his throat yet, then the woman was nearby.

The air crackled with anticipation; he felt decidedly exposed. He wouldn’t put it past the feisty little woman to have a gun aimed right at his heart.

The hair on the back of his neck stood straight up. He told himself he was a damn fool to come out here. He had no business out here accosting a woman on her own.

He shook his head. Well…accosting, no, he wasn’t going to accost her. He revised his thinking. He just wanted to see for himself that she was all right out here, see if she needed anything.

No. That was a bald-faced lie! Oh, hell and damn it! He wanted to see her. He wanted to see her face, and that hair, and to see if she was as fascinating as he thought. He wanted to talk with her alone. He wanted to look into her warm, brown eyes and hear her soft, lilting voice. He wanted her all to himself. That’s what he really wanted.

***

At the sound of the sheriff’s voice Mac gave out a series of barks. His ears straight up and tail wagging, the bark was a warning, not a threat. Wren allowed herself to relax…somewhat. She moved her hand away from the carbine on the storage box.

She stepped out, staying close to the shadow of her wagon, to where her duster hung by a hook to the side of her bedroll. She felt better knowing her revolver was close at hand.

Mac loped away just as it occurred to her she was darn near naked. Her duster stank, but she was clean and the thought of putting it on was abhorrent. Completely forgetting she had a quilt on the ground behind her, she went for the blankets that were somewhere in the wagon beside her.

***

The big dog bounded right up to him and began sniffing his pant leg, then his crotch. Telt scratched the brute behind his ears.

Queenie, to Telt’s amazement, circled around, and the two dogs began to sniff each other, getting to know each other as only dogs can.

Telt moved into the lantern’s light and spotted her. Scantily dressed in her white chemise and pantaloons, she had her head stuck under the tarp of her wagon. With a blanket in her hand, she sprang off the wagon tongue and quickly wrapped it around her bare shoulders. Wispy curls fanned around her forehead and neck. She looked deliciously disheveled.

He sympathized, but he couldn’t help but grin. This idea of his to come out here, was turning out to be one of his better notions. In the glow of the lantern’s light she looked like a young girl. Her hair, done up in a loose braid, hung down over one creamy-white shoulder, almost to her waist. Her lips were plump, the color of ripe strawberries. Her round, high cheeks pink with embarrassment, or more likely, outrage gave her an elfin quality. Her big, brown eyes glistened with wary intelligence. Her skin glowed soft and golden in the lantern light, giving the impression of warmth and suppleness. All in all he found her utterly irresistible.

He knew she was cold, standing there in her thin chemise and drawers. He could see each round breast, nipples raised and hard, begging to be fondled and warmed by a masculine hand. A cool breeze always blew across the meadow, especially in the evenings and early morning.

He blessed the meadow breeze.

He could plainly see she was a curvaceous little thing. Her hips were round, her bottom firm, and her arms, almost plump. He suspected what he was seeing was muscle. She would have to have muscles to handle a team of six. There was nothing fragile-looking about her. She looked strong and extremely feminine at once. It was an irresistible combination.

Out of respect for her predicament, he stopped short of her bedroll and half-turned his back. “I’m…sorry, ma’am,” he stammered. “I just came out to make sure all was well,” he said, but not before getting an eyeful.

Mac and Queenie had decided to lie down on the bedroll together.  Telt envied them their ease with one another. Miss O’Bannon was looking at the dogs too, glaring at them in fact.

He could understand if she found her dog’s lack of concern a mite traitorous. There she stood defenseless, half undressed, and there her dog was, lollygagging with a blonde retriever bitch.

He saw what he thought might be a derringer in her hand as she arranged the army blanket around her shoulders.

“I guess they’ve taken a shine to one another,” he said, only to have that glare pointed in his direction. “I can’t say I’m sorry to find that animal of yours in a forgiving mood. For a second back there, I thought I’d have to defend myself, at the very least sacrifice an arm bone. You sure do have some dog there, ma’am.”

He caught the sneer on her pretty mouth when she gave her dog a disgusted glance. She huffed and tugged the blanket up as if it were a shield against his intrusion and a prop to her dignity. “Well, yes,” he heard her say. “At least, I always thought he was my champion.” He saw her little chin lift slightly, and her lips purse in disapproval. “I see now he does have his weaknesses. I’ve never seen him act like that before.” Queenie licked the brute’s ear. Telt couldn’t miss the disdain written on Miss O’Bannon’s face. He had to press his lips together to keep from laughing.

“I can only give as his excuse…he’s tired, I guess,” she said with a shake of her head that sent ripples along her thick braid, the length of it moving over a bared shoulder to come to rest between her breasts.

“You must be pretty tired yourself,” he managed to remark, having to swallow hard before he spoke. Without thinking, he moved into the light of her lantern.

Backing away, her brown eyes widened when she came up against her wagon. Her voice unsteady, “You needn’t have bothered to come out here to check on us, Sheriff.” She swept her arm out and he spotted the derringer. She quickly pulled her arm in. He didn’t know if it was because she didn’t have much on, or if she didn’t want him to see she had a gun.

Her nose went up. She rearranged the blanket about her and made a haughty little sniff before assuring him, “As you can see, Mac and I are quite comfortable and accustomed to camp life.”

To hide his grin Telt looked around, then up at the night sky to the multitude of stars. “Yup, it can be romantic,” he said with a smirk on his face. “But,” sobering, his eyes once again locking with her gaze, “I reckon you’re anxious to get settled into your new home. “I see you have one of those little peashooters.”

Her eyes went wide, the blanket dropped down to her waist, and she stood there looking at her hand, the hand holding the shiny little weapon. She looked like she’d forgotten she had it. Her cheeks grew crimson and her eyes shut tight.

The problem was, now the snub-nosed barrel was pointing right at his crotch.

“Is it loaded, ma’am?” he inquired, half reaching out to take it from her.

“Good heavens,” she hissed, her eyes flying open, realizing her target.

He wanted to laugh aloud, but pulled his lips to the side to hide his grin. Fascinated, he watched her take the weapon between her thumb and forefinger, bend over and place it beneath her pillow, the blanket falling off her body and slipping to the ground. Hell, he could see her skin, glowing pink right there on her rump beneath the fabric of her drawers.

She huffed, gathering up the blanket as she straightened. “Of course it’s loaded,” she vollied, “it wouldn’t do me much good without bullets. It wasn’t cocked. I don’t shoot what I can’t see, Sheriff.”

He knew he was cocked; damn if he wasn’t randy as hell. He knew he was smirking, but couldn’t help it. He saw the sparks leap into her eyes and knew he’d pissed her off. She proceeded to give him an earful. He reckoned he had it coming.

“After all, a pistol is just a chunk of metal without bullets,” she explained. He was glad she’d put the gun down, or she might have taken a shot at him or maybe chucked it at his head.

She waved her arm out to the expanse of the wide-open meadow, once again forgetting about her state of undress, and the blanket slid down to her waist…again. Impatient, she jerked it back up around one shoulder.

“I’ve been out here for almost a month on my own,” she told him, her jaw tight, clearly on the defensive. “There have been vermin of all kinds lurking about,” she told him, her eyes swimming in unshed tears, her chin quivering. He could see she was fighting against her weakness as she squared her shoulders and sniffed back the tears. “I also have a military carbine and a Colt revolver,” she informed him, her head high and chin out in a challenge.

He took that as a serious warning, but he was still enjoying himself. She was a sight when she was in a snit, her cheeks flushed, her bosom heaving, taking short little breaths.

“My little…’peashooter’ as you so disparagingly called it, is for close range. My cousins taught me how to shoot. My derringer won’t kill, but it sure-as-hell will maim and give me time to get one of my other weapons. It would be foolish of me not to have a revolver handy. And before you say another word, yes, I know how to use the derringer, despite my stupidity of just a moment ago.”

Torn, he wanted to laugh at her outburst, but more than that, he wanted to fold her into his arms and assure her he would allow no harm to ever come to her.

Danged if she wasn’t prickly. But at the same time she was hard to resist.

He stood there, feeling like a dumb-ass, shifting from one foot to the other for a few seconds before coming up with something to say.  “Well, good,” he finally muttered. “I’m relieved to hear it,” he said, his voice holding a little more authority.

He saw her nod, as if to say ‘so, there, you big chuckle-head’ and knew his grin was back. She had him dancing around, all unsure of himself, all tongue-tied. Just a little bit of a thing, a woman, and yet he she’d kept him off balance.

“You need anything out here tonight, you fire a shot from one of them weapons you got in that arsenal of yours,” he said, struggling to maintain a straight face. “I’ll hear it, or Queenie will, and we’ll be out here on the run,” he assured her, hoping to sound powerful and manly. He tipped his hat and said, “Good night, ma’am. We’ll get out of here and let you get some shut-eye.”

“Come on, Queenie. Say good-night,” he told the dog. Reluctantly, Queenie got up from the bedroll, leaving her newfound companion, to take her place at Telt’s side.

Behind him, he heard Miss O’Bannon call to him, “Sheriff. Thank you for looking in on me. I…I’m not used to someone…to anyone…thinking I might need looking after.”

He glanced over his shoulder, tipped his hat, then winked at her, his grin in place. She’d just given away a secret. He put it in a safe place in his mind to take out and study later. He had to wonder…who in the hell was the real Wren O’Bannon? She might not be what she pretended to be, at least not altogether.

***

That wink and that grin said it all; he was laughing at her again. And why not. She’d almost cried, for heaven’s sake. She’d allowed him to get her on the defensive, a strategic mistake in any confrontation. Wren wished she’d kept her mouth shut. Why hadn’t she?  She’d shown him her weak underbelly…figuratively speaking. She blushed. Oh, Lord, he’d caught her in her underclothes. Little wonder she’d gone all defensive, a sure sign of insecurity, she knew.

“Just doing my job,” she heard him say before he disappeared into the darkness. With the blanket pulled closer about her, she shivered, feeling like a lost child instead of a self-reliant woman of property.

Mac, the traitor, followed the retriever out into the pasture. Wren went out to the edge of the lantern’s light to call him. He ambled back to her side. They stood on the rim of light as the night absorbed the sheriff and his dog.

The dark, lonely night closed in around them, leaving her bereft and abandoned. Mac shuddered and let out a whimpering sigh, at odds with his powerful body.

She put her hand on his big head and whispered, “I know,” and swallowed down the hard lump of tears that threatened to overwhelm her. “We both must be very tired,” she said by way of giving them both an excuse to indulge in such cold, lonesome melancholy.

CHAPTER 6

Wren awoke with the potent smell of game in her nostrils. Elk and deer, she’d learned after being on the trail awhile, had a particularly musky scent about them. They smelled like a combination of urine with a dash of skunk.

Still dark, a sliver of gray lined the rim of the mountains to the east. The stars were still out and the air crisp but still. Mac groaned and hunkered down, curling into a tight ball. She was grateful that he knew better than to go chasing a herd of big, antlered elk.

Wren thought there were maybe fifty head of elk in the meadow, all snorting and snuffling as they foraged the meadow grass. They pawed around close to the wagons as they made their way to the creek for a drink of water.

She lay on her stomach for a while, watching them until the dawn began to change from charcoal gray to pink. A new day, her melancholy of the evening before had distilled down into a concentrated sense of stubborn perseverance. Not Mr. Buttrum, not her unfinished store nor living quarters would stop her from taking hold of her enterprise and opening on time.

When the elk moved away from the wagon, she dressed quickly and gave herself a breakfast of cold chicken saved from the feast yesterday and a piece of Eula’s delicious huckleberry pie. She washed her meal down with a cup of cool water from her water barrel, then pulled her tool-caddy out from the back of the wagon. She intended to get to that roof before the heat of the day beat down on her full-bore.

***

     Telt awoke from the throes of an erotic dream. Naked in the dream, he rolled in tall, fragrant meadow grass with an equally naked, sloe-eyed vixen with long, curly brown hair, their bodies writhing, enjoying wild, aggressive sex. Not making love, they were engaged in sex. He lay breathing hard, sorry the dream had come to an unsatisfactory end. Someone was pounding on something. It echoed all around the meadow and the mountains.

He figured it was Punk at the stable. It wasn’t like Punk to be up this early on a Sunday morning and going hard at it. Like almost everyone in Laura Creek, Punk took the Lord’s Day seriously. Unlike almost everyone else, Punk didn’t attend church, but he sure took the day of rest.

Queenie scratched at the door to get out. Telt reluctantly got up from his warm bunk and padded barefoot, wearing nothing but his under-drawers, to open the door for her.

His cabin was a ways up a dirt trail that took off from behind the stable. He’d cleared off a flat spot and erected his home on the side of the hill across the creek. From his front porch, he could look through the pines and see right down Main Street of Laura Creek.

He’d lived at the jail for the first year, a dismal year. He couldn’t say why he’d stayed, but something about Laura Creek and the people made it feel like home. Once he’d decided to stay, he wanted a place of his own.

Instead of going to Buttrum and taking out a loan at his bank to buy a chunk of land, he’d gone to Punk. After some tough negotiating, he’d acquired ten acres in the timber above the stable. He negotiated not with cash but with his brawn, working as Punk’s slave. For a year he constructed outside corrals, inside cribs, and an extra lean-to for hay storage at the stable.

Every blister and gouge of flesh was worth it. He earned enough to build himself a two-room cabin. The rooms were big. A mammoth fireplace took up one end of the room to keep him warm throughout the winter. During the winter months, over the past few years, he added furniture to his home, making a table, a couple of benches, a settle which he’d placed before the fire, and counters in the kitchen area with a hand-pump at the freestanding sink.

He’d thought about adding a loft to accommodate a wife and maybe a couple of kids. He couldn’t picture Lottie Bledsoe being comfortable here. She liked her cottage, with its curtains, china-hutch, and mullioned windows. Telt didn’t figure his cabin would be frilly enough to suit her, and he sure as hell wouldn’t stand for that kind of decoration in his cabin.

Then he wondered, what would Miss O’Bannon think of his home?

He dressed, taking extra care to brush his hair and shave. He found a freshly laundered white shirt and a pair of hardly-worn dark trousers in his military trunk. He made time to put a little shine on his well-worn boots; not that today was any different from any other Sunday, of course.

He poured himself a second cup of coffee and shoveled in some scrambled eggs as he dressed. The hammering hadn’t stopped, not completely. It stopped now and then, only to resume with a steady, even rhythm. Curiosity had him wondering what Punk was up to, and why it needed to be done on a Sunday morning.

Queenie hadn’t come back yet from her morning rounds. He did wonder about that. She was pretty regular about getting her breakfast.  About to call her in, there came a knock on his door.

“Hey, Shorty,” Telt said, greeting the boy who stood on his porch. Shorty, in his Sunday-best, gray tweed trousers, which were too short, and white shirt, frayed at the collar and cuffs, looked excited, red in the face, a little sweaty.

“We got another sit-chee-a-shion,” Shorty said, no panic in his voice, just a big grin on his freckled face.

Telt squatted down to give Peanut a good rub behind the ears. As he rose he took a guess, “Our mayor again?”

“Uh, huh, and that mule-drivin’ lady,” said Shorty as he stood aside to let the sheriff pass before him out the door.

***

Telt came down the hill from his cabin, to see the mayor standing in the middle of the street in front of the mercantile. Drawing closer, it looked like Howard had dressed in a hurry. With his thinning hair all rumpled, white and blue pajamas poking out beneath his suit coat and pant legs, Howard looked like an unmade bed. The sight was nearly Telt’s undoing. Then he heard Howard shouting to someone on the roof, and any amusement Telt might have enjoyed drained from his mind like sand between the fingers.

“Miss O’Bannon!” Howard shouted to the person scaling the roof of the mercantile. The person was all business, hammer in hand; equipped with a tool-belt slung low on the hips. “We observe the Lord’s Day in Laura Creek. We do not labor on the Lord’s Day. You will desist in that racket immediately.”

In reply, the person slapped down a cedar shake from the pile of shakes on the roof, then proceeded to pound down three nails with an accuracy Telt would have thought only a professional could accomplish.

“Come down from there right now, Miss O’Bannon! I’ve sent for the sheriff, Miss O’Bannon.”

The roofer hammered in a couple more shakes before removing the nails from between her lips to shout down to him. “If you’d seen to it that this roof was properly shingled in the first place, I wouldn’t be up here on the Lord’s Day doing the job myself, Mr. Buttrum. I intend to be open for business in less than two weeks. Unlike you, Mr. Buttrum, I keep my promises,” the roofer yelled in a voice that Telt had come to know well—he’d heard it in his dreams.

His heart in his throat, he saw her, Wren O’Bannon, wearing a man’s blue work shirt and a denim skirt pulled up between her legs and tucked into her waist like a Turk, straddling the peak of the roof. She had her glorious hair pulled up under an old sweaty hat. Telt couldn’t see her face, but, he took note, her ankles and calves were exposed, although unattractively encased in brown stockings. The shapeliness of her ankles and calves, however, he could not dismiss.

The peak of the roof was at least twenty feet from the ground and the pitch was steep. He had to hand it to her; she knew enough to attach a couple of two-by-fours the length of the roof as a cleat for a toehold.

He closed his eyes and a horrible vision arose in his mind’s eye.  There lay beautiful Miss O’Bannon on the ground, her pretty neck broken, her body shattered and that hair of hers all bloody from her cracked skull. He shuddered to erase the image.

How the hell she’d managed to get those bundles of shakes up there on that roof, on her own, he didn’t want to know.

The banker’s shouts weren’t helping matters. He was just causing a dangerous distraction. Damn the man. Telt felt utterly helpless standing there with his mouth open, watching her expertly lay shakes on the roof of the mercantile. It would’ve been more fascinating if she weren’t in imminent peril of falling and breaking her pig-headed, fool neck.

Howard, red in the face as usual, swung around and flew in his face. “Good, you’re here. I want that woman to stop that racket. Order her off that roof. Arrest her, Sheriff. Damn female woke me up out of a sound sleep. Woke the whole damn town up with her banging. I left my bed, came down here half-dressed, and what do I find? A mad-woman up on a roof doing God only knows what. There must be an ordinance against causing a disturbance on the Sabbath. The woman is a menace. She’s godless, and I want her stopped. I’ll break the contract. By God I will. I’ll see her, and that damned Judge, Crooked Crookshank, behind bars for defrauding me…and all the good people of Laura Creek.”

Telt held back the overwhelming urge to put his fist down the mayor’s throat and managed to say in a controlled voice, “Howard…”.  Howard ignored him, and threw a few more useless threats up to the rooftop.

Telt barked, “Howard!” to get the man’s attention. “Shut the hell up, Howard.” That did the trick. “If I’m going to arrest anyone for disturbing the peace, it’ll be you. Now go home.”

Howard puffed out his cheeks, the veins on his forehead and in his neck ready to pop. Telt braced for the explosion, standing like a mountain against Howard’s furry. “You…you have the audacity to threaten…me…with arrest? You, who have arrested not more than a half dozen miscreants in all of your four years of office. Ha! You’re fired, Longtree. Turn in your badge.”

***

     Wren stopped her work and shuffled her feet along the peak of the roof to get closer to the edge, where she had a better view of the sheriff and Mr. Buttrum. Perfectly able to hear every word, she waited to see how the sheriff would take Howard Buttrum’s latest punch.

To her everlasting delight, the sheriff actually chuckled. She couldn’t see his face, but he laid a big hand on the mayor’s shoulder. She saw him lean down and put his big face within inches of the mayor’s red nose.

The sound of the sheriff’s deep voice rose up to her ears. “The people elected me to this thankless job, Howard. At least I think they did. I remember standing there, minding my own business, then you were there pinning this badge on me, remember? Two months ago, I got reelected. If you recall, you nominated me. I have two years to serve. Now, if you, and the good folks of this town, want to take a vote and recall me, I’ll go. Until then I’m the keeper of law and order. You, Howard, are creating a disturbance.”

She watched him poke the mayor repeatedly in the chest. “Go home or go to jail,” Wren heard him say before he gave the banker one more push with that finger of his, just enough of a push to throw the mayor off balance.

She wanted to cheer and crow from the rooftop, her estimation of the sheriff now elevated to the moon and beyond.

***

     Telt heard Howard release the pent-up head of steam he’d been storing in his chest. He sounded like a steam locomotive hissing and blowing, idling at the station.

Consequently, what Howard said next didn’t have much potency behind it. “You get her to stop that infernal pounding. I don’t care how you do it.”

Telt didn’t move as Howard fished out his pocket watch from his trousers. He flipped it open, read the hour, then snapped it shut. “You have, by my watch, two and a half hours before church begins. Take care of it, Sheriff. I’m filing a verbal complaint, as a citizen of this community, and I will have satisfaction.”

“Like I said, go home,” Telt repeated, working hard to keep his mounting impatience under control. He looked up to the peak of the roof, over the entrance of the store, and saw her, squatted down, probably listening to every word. She tipped her hat to him and nodded, then went back to work. Oh, he was right, the very first time he’d set eyes on her, he knew this woman had brass, a lot of brass.

Muttering to himself, Howard left the field and headed toward home. Squaring his shoulders, and with a groan of resignation, Telt set his hat more firmly on his head. “Shorty,” he called, knowing Shorty Terrel was close by, an interested bystander.

“Yes, sir,” Shorty replied, Peanut at his side, coming out from the shadows of the bank next door.

“Go see if your pa can come help us get this roof fixed.” Shorty didn’t waste time with words; he took off for home with his dog at his heels.

“Sheriff,” Telt heard Miss O’Bannon call down to him, “If you plan on coming up here to lend a hand, would you please mark the time and sign your name in my black book. You’ll find it there in my tool-caddy, just under the ladder. There’s a pencil inside the binding.”

The woman has a damned tool-caddy. Telt muttered to himself. All I got is a bucket for my tools. I do fine. Continuing to grumble, he rifled through the tools in the box and found a hammer and the black book. Curiosity overcame him. He flipped through the pages. It was a diary of her journey. He wished he had more time to read it. In the last couple of pages, she’d written notes in regard to the condition of her newly acquired property.

He heard her up there pounding away and knew he didn’t have time to waste. He guessed the hour to be about half-past seven. He saw she’d started at half-past six. Her first step, she’d written, Roofing manual suggests: ‘set toe-cleat on either side of the ridge of the roof to safely make repairs’. Found a stack of two-by-fours in the lean-to. The roof is weak at the ridge point. Found plenty of shakes behind the store. Question? Why were they not affixed to the roof? After these notations, she’d signed her name with a flourish and dated it.

“Sheriff,” she called down, “would you, in your own words, make a brief note of your confrontation with Mr. Buttrum, and sign and date it?”

He wanted to ask why? After a second of hesitation, Telt decided…why not? and shrugged away his doubts.

He was surprised how easily his thoughts translated into script. He didn’t write much, and thought maybe he should do it more often; he was good at it. “Howard Buttrum demanded I remove Miss O’Bannon and incarcerate her for disturbing the peace. Request denied. I asked him to go home. Threats were made, a verbal citizens complaint. Mr. Buttrum continues hostility toward Miss O’Bannon. Cause unknown and not understood.” Telt nodded with satisfaction.

He hoped Miss O’Bannon had a good reason for making these notes. He wasn’t used to clever people. He knew he wasn’t a clever man, but he knew enough to guess she wasn’t doing all of this recordkeeping for the pure folly of it. With her stubby little pencil, he signed and dated his statement.

He picked up a hammer from the tool-caddy. He was just starting up the ladder when Percy showed his freckled face around the corner of the building. “There’s a black book there and a pencil, Percy. Sign your name and put in the date and time under my notes. Then take up a hammer and follow me.”

As he started up the ladder, Telt glanced down. He could see that Percy was uncertain as to why he needed to sign in. “Shake a leg, Percy.” He yelled down, “We need to get this done before church starts.”

Telt tumbled a bundle of shakes up the steep roof end-over-end toward the peak. Three rows of roofing were single layer only. Miss O’Bannon was right. The roof would leak like a sieve if not repaired.

Off toward the meadow he heard Queenie barking. He crouched on the edge of the roof to watch Mac and his dog chase and jump around in the tall meadow grass like a pair of pups.

“They’ve been out there for over an hour,” she told him as she passed him the nail bucket.

“That mutt of yours,” Telt grumbled, his eyes still on the cavorting dogs, “Uh…he hasn’t been castrated, I s’pose?”

“No, he hasn’t, Sheriff,” she replied, not meeting his eyes as she set to pounding in shakes.

“Uh, huh.” He mumbled, “That’s what I need…a litter of ugly, mongrel pups.” He set a shake and pounded it down. “That’ll be just dandy. That’s all I need is a batch of ugly pups.”

CLICK HERE TO GO TO CHAPTERS 7 AND 8

A Merry Christmas Story, “The Holiday Bus To Joseph” By Dorothy Bell

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.

Three years ago, it was a Christmas concert at Eastern Oregon University. It just so happened that year, 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 I had to borrow 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—the area is 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

Holiday Bus to Joseph, page 2

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, which is just 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’tfind 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 snowcapped Wallowa Mountains in the background, our busses pulled up in front of the old, stone-block Enterprise courthouse. Can you imagine how the local merchants

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must’ve felt watching those buses unload? Those merchants were ready, with feet braced, shelves fully stocked—you can bet on it.

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. I was 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

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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 was already starting 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

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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 was beginning to despise 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 vowed to 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

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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 was 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 was 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.

Holiday Bus to Joseph, page 7

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.

A thriller of a short story “Aloha Sweetheart” by Dorothy Bell

ALOHA, SWEETHEART

Hunkered forward, eyes peering through a narrowing arch of windshield into the blizzard, nerves frayed, Fain MacKay sang to herself , skipping words, then humming the tune “over the river and through the woods”.  She’d turned off the radio, refusing to listen to the ominous weather report and impending road closures. In her headlights, the highway, what she could see of it, was a fluffy blanket of white—like driving through cornstarch. No center-line, no fog line, all white on the roadway and in the air—she was in a snow globe—a true, honest to God white out.  Creeping along, her foot barely on the gas, she feared she’d missed the turn.

Her dear husband was off somewhere, the fool, the idiot. No doubt somewhere swank and expensive—off with his sexy, bubble-headed secretary. “Probably gone to Hawaii”, she grumbled to herself. “Wish I was in Hawaii. But no, Cory says we can’t afford it, can’t take the time off, can’t leave the business.  Promised me we’d go for our twentieth anniversary. Yeah, right, if promises were horses beggars would ride. One more year, just one more year, twenty years putting up with Cory McKay and I might’ve gotten my wish, I could go to Hawaii. Nineteen years, nineteen years of married life down the tubes. Maybe, I’ll take myself to Hawaii, that is if I don’t die out here in this blizzard.

“Thanksgiving—have to go to the old cabin on Lake Lea, it’s a MacKay tradition. Pam should’ve come up here with me, but no, she wants to spend the holiday with her buds on campus, not her sad-sack, wreck of a mother.

“Well Pam probably blames me for screwing up the marriage, tearing our family apart. So, this is my punishment; dying  in a blizzard—alone.  Never mind that it’s Cory, the dirty, rotten lecherous fool, who’s to blame for screwing up this marriage.

“I might be on the downhill side of forty two, but I’m far from being an old hag. Damn it, I’m in darn good shape—better than fair looking—holding  up nicely.  It’s my philandering husband who’s having the mid-life crisis; trying to reach back in time to hold on to his youth. I’m very comfortable with my age and my life, thank you. That is, until Cory took off on this flyer, then my life took a sharp downward turn, a nosedive right into the ditch.

Her rear wheels spun out, fishtailed, letting up on the gas she concentrated, trying not to over correct. It worked. Still moving forward, not sideways, not backwards or stopped dead against a tree.

“Ditch—I’ll end up in one, buried under three feet of snow!

“I’m  a masochist, that’s what I am. I should have my head examined. What was I thinking, coming up here alone on Thanksgiving, crawling off into the woods like some wounded critter to lick my wounds, nurse my bruised heart?

“Answer: I needed to get away from the lawyers…Cory’s lawyer—my lawyer, the bribes, the threats: sign now with 3.5 million and keep the house, don’t sign, and forfeit the business, the cabin—my mind!”

The snow, coming down in big, feathery flakes, stacked up on the wiper blades. Her fingers cramping on the steering wheel, eyes wide, Fain searched for the turnoff to the lake. She had to be close—she’d just passed the sign that pointed down to hot spring.

Spotting the snow-shrouded wooden sign to the MacKay Cabin, she hung on tight to the steering wheel and plowed through the middle of a three-foot deep barricade of snow. When the poof of snow cleared, she was on the narrow lane that lead down to the cabin. With her headlights on low beam, she thought she saw footprints going down the middle of the road, but they disappeared at the bridge that crossed Salt Creek. Probably a deer, maybe a bobcat; the night wasn’t fit for man nor beast.

The cabin stood dark and deserted in her headlights. She turned off the ignition, put the keys in her coat pocket and leaned back to watch the snow slide down the still warm windshield. Stupid little memories spilled across her mind in a kaleidoscope of colors, smearing together, the happy hues ruined by murky browns and grays. Like Cory’s obsession for murder thrillers, and his pranks. That New Year’s Eve, the temperature hovering at zero, when he’d poured water on the outhouse seat. “My version of a hot foot,” he’d gleefully explained as he’d dribbled hot water down her backside to unstick her poor bottom from the privy bench—funny, and yet cruel at the same time—that was Cory.

Resting her head on the steering wheel, she wept; she’d been crying for days.  Stopping herself, refusing to cry anymore, she screamed into the silent night, “God, I hate Cory MacKay’s guts!” then sobbed, “God, I miss the son-of-a-bitch.”

A gust of wind rocked the car. The windshield cleared. The cabin lit up. “Like a prairie shit-house!” Cory would’ve said.

Cory?

Cory! He’d come to his senses. Ditched his pubescent secretary!

Heart in her throat, tears streaming down her face, Fain raced to the cabin and burst through the front door, expecting wine, candles and Cory.

Even with the lantern on the fireplace mantel lit, and the fire in the fireplace crackling away, the pale yellow light couldn’t reach into the shadow filled corners of the sparsely furnished, one room cabin. A swirl of snow rushed in behind her. The wind grabbed the door, slapped it shut, then flung it wide, letting it smack back against the log wall. Fain squeaked, jumped and spun around. The gust blew out the lantern light and a flop of snow doused the fire in the grate, sending a cloud of smoke into the room.

Feeling her way to the stone hearth, she walked her fingers along the rough mantel to the box of matches. Striking a match, she faced her pale visage in the lamp’s glass chimney, and hardly recognized the hollow-eyed, owlish face looking back at her. She looked like a mad-woman.

She was mad, mad as a hatter, thinking Cory was here, waiting for her.  Stupid.  But there was a fire in the fireplace, and the lamp, someone had lit the lamp. Someone was here, or had been here.

A whisper of air, a sigh glanced her cheek and snuffed the match. Startled, sensing a presence, expecting to see Cory and his big smart-ass grin right behind her, she turned and chucked the box of matches across the room. The box hit the slate floor and burst into flame. For a few brief seconds the room was full of a hellish orange light. Pivoting, her eyes scanned all four corners. Catching sight of her reflection in the window, she screamed, her heart jumped, took off like a diesel engine. Shaking, teeth chattering, clutching her chest, the burst of flame extinguished as quickly as it flared, leaving her breathless, in the dark, the smell of sulfur and smoke in her nose.

“Get a grip, Cory isn’t here. No one’s here. All that snow… the weather’s got you imaging things, Fain MacKay. The Forest Ranger, what’s his name, Terry…he lit the fire, and the lamp. He’s a good guy. Expecting us, like usual. We’re here every Thanksgiving, come hell or high water. This year it’s hell, but I’m here. I didn’t see any lights when I drove in. The snow, all that snow on the windshield blocked my view, that’s all. Just the weather. ”

Backing away from the window, she found the spare matches in the drawer with the dishtowels, and despite her trembling fingers, and after fumbling around a bit, she relit the lamp. Holding it up, she made her way to the still-opened door—it wouldn’t close. Desperate, teeth clenched, eyes squeezed shut, she put her back to it. Without warning, the door shut with a slap. Her wet boots slid out from under her. In slow motion, her back against the door she descended to the floor, concentrating on holding the lantern steady to prevent it from smashing and setting the entire cabin on fire.

The slate floor beneath her bottom, cold and hard as a sheet of ice, she reasoned, it’s the storm. Giggling in spite of herself, working hard not to become hysterical, she realized she was being ridiculous. Cory would love this. The wind, the snow… and me scared out of my wits. Sleep deprivation, that’s it. It’s been weeks, maybe months, since I’ve slept through the night. I’m hungry. My nerves, shot to hell. Tea, there’s tea in the cupboard.

After getting up off the floor, she shed her coat then pumped water from the pump at the sink into the teakettle. Kneeling down before the hearth, she shoved aside the wet coals and laid a fire.

As the fire came to life memories of cozy nights spent before the hearth, wrapped in Cory’s arms, filled her head. Her throat tightened with unshed tears.

Practical. She needed to stay focused and practical. There was food in the car. She had two bags full of deli food out there—she was hungry, that’s all, hungry and tired. She needed her overnight bag, her fuzzy robe and slippers, a big chicken breast and a lovely cinnamon roll smothered with frosting, and maybe some popcorn—after that, she’d be right as rain, or maybe have a belly ache. Either way, she’d feel better than she did at the moment.

Giving a glance out the window, noting the snow blowing down from the roof, she opened the door, ducked her head and made a dash for the car, delivering a curse as the snow sifted down her neck, “Cory MacKay, I hope you burn in hell!”

Swiping away the snow from the door handle, she discovered the car door wouldn’t open. She hadn’t locked it. She didn’t even remember closing it. Maybe it had frozen shut. Behind her, the cabin door slammed and the lights went out inside.

Taking two steps toward the porch, the food and her overnight bag forgotten, Fain watched a small gold light pass before the big window. Someone was in there.

Pulse hammering, perspiration mingling with the snow on her upper lip, she prayed, “God help me.”

Looking back to the car, she deliberated, smash the window? Wouldn’t do you any good, no keys! she remembered. Walk back to the road? I’d freeze.

It was Cory. It had to be. He was in there. Oh, yeah, he was playing with her. There was a hatchet on the porch. Making up her mind, she was through playing games. Like hell she’d give up the business. She wasn’t going to give up anything! Not for 3.5 mil…not for a trillion! She’d teach Cory MacKay a lesson, and about time. Game time was over!

***

            The dawn came crisp with a clear blue sky. Terry Bottger, the forest ranger who stayed down at the hot spring year round, packed his snowmobile with a gas can, a chain saw and his rifle. After a storm, he made the rounds to check the roads for downed trees and property damage.

Pulling up to the MacKay place, he spied Mrs. MacKay’s blue BMW buried under a mound of new snow. The MacKays usually came up for Thanksgiving.  But, he’d heard about the split and wasn’t sure he’d see either one of them up here this year. As usual, his mind went on a lightning-fast fantasy ride with the beautiful Fain Mackay as his leading lady, then he noticed the cabin door hanging by a single hinge.

With rifle at the ready, he approached the cabin. Inside, the furniture looked more like kindling. Bloodied stuffing from the daybed was everywhere. Broken glass from the window crunched under his boots. There were lines of dried blood on the floor, the walls and the fireplace.

Lying in a mangled heap near the fireplace lay Fain MacKay…beautiful, luscious Fain.  In her lifeless hand, she held a bloody hatchet. Her face gray, she was covered with cuts and dried blood. A large splinter of glass poked out from the cornea of her left eye.

Shaking, Terry backed out of the room. Air, he needed fresh air. Using his cell phone, he dialed 911.

***

            As the EMTs  hefted Fain MacKay’s body into the ambulance a black Hummer drove in. Terry groaned, it was Cory MacKay. Terry didn’t have much use for the man, he hadn’t deserved a woman like Fain.

Looking like a model out of Winter-fest’s best-dressed ski bum catalog in a black and glow-in-the-dark chartreuse snow jacket, and pants with black and green ski boots to match, Cory, the arrogant bastard, demanded to know, “What’s going on? What’s happened?”of the ambulance attendants, slamming the door of the Hummer behind him.

Terry stepped back to allow the sheriff, who had responded to the 911 call, apprise Mr. MacKay of the situation, “Looks like she just went berserk—went on some kind of wild rampage, busting up the place,” the sheriff answered. “It snowed all night, so there’s no way to tell if there was anyone else up here or not; everything is buried in at least three feet of new snow. But I’d say no one else was up here, other than Mrs. MacKay. If there had been anyone else in that cabin with her, they’d be all cut up.  But there are no fingerprints, other than your wife’s in there, on the door and the lamp. Could be she had a stroke.  Emotions running high—you know that kind of thing sometimes happens.”

“No! ”  Covering his face with his gloved hands, Cory slumped into a heap on the steps. “I called Pammy, our daughter. She told me Fain had come up here. Said her mother sounded desperate and upset. Going through a divorce, all that crap of sorting it out brought me to my senses. I tried to get up here last night but the damn weather stopped me. The highway closed.” Cory gulped and swallowed down a sob. Eyes brimming with tears he raised his head to the sheriff, “I came up here to beg Fain to take me back.  I’m an ass. My fault…put her through hell, my fault. Start over…tickets to Maui in my pocket. Second honeymoon.  Fain, oh, Fain, God no…”

***

            The ambulance headed down the road with the forest ranger leading the way. With his back to the sheriff’s car, Cory struggled to his feet and tried not to wince, reminded of the cuts on his back and shoulders.  His bandaged hand in his coat pocket, he clutched the envelope that contained the two airline tickets to Maui. A smile twisted his lips into a sneer, and he whispered, “Aloha, Sweetheart,” then remembered he was the grieving husband and squeezed a tear out to let it slide down his cold cheek.

Free read, Laura Creek chaps 3 and 4 by Dorothy A. Bell

Chapter 3

Wren let the mules take their head as they crossed the meadow, going straight for the creek. Twenty acres of this meadow went with the purchase of the mercantile. She took note of the meadow grass. It was tall and brittle dry, not worth much as forage, at least in late August. But along the creek, under the shade of the cottonwoods, it still grew green and lush.

Staking out a line between the trees near the creek, she followed the routine she’d set for herself and her mules, removing harness and unfastening traces before tethering her team of six to a line of rope.

Now off duty, Mac waded into the creek. Stretched out on his belly, he began to lap up the cool mountain water. After tying off the last mule, she stood for a moment with her hands on her hips to watch. She envied him.

After seeing to her ablutions, she downed some bacon on a day-old biscuit dripping with honey, followed by two large cups of water. At last it was time to remove a couple layers of trail dust from her face, neck and arms.

She shed her trail duster, chambray shirt, and denim skirt, closed her eyes and went about scrubbing the vision of the sheriff’s big, tan, open face—such a nice face—out of her head. Everyone stood back for him, not out of fear, she didn’t think, but out of respect. He was an imposing presence—he would be in any crowd. She stood there in her shift and petticoat, water dripping down her face, and sighed, remembering his clear blue eyes.

“Foolish woman!” she chided, and splashed cold water in her eyes.  The water dripped off her chin to fall between her bosoms. “What the hell’s gotten into me?”

A fresh wave of humiliation washed over her. With a shudder, she squeezed her eyes tightly shut. That smile on his face wasn’t a smile of admiration. She was entertainment, an oddity. And who could blame him…who could blame any of them? Was it any wonder Mr. Buttrum hadn’t take me seriously? I believe it was dear Uncle Stanley who pointed out my lack of basic womanly instincts. He’d predicted I was doomed to a life of spinsterhood. Not that I care…right? 

Marriage wasn’t anything she’d ever dreamed of or longed for.  Marriage meant being under the thumb of some man…a man like her uncle Stanley or a man like one of her drunken, whoring cousins. No, Wren didn’t mind the thought of being a spinster. She could do as she pleased, eat when she wanted to, sleep in a bed she had all to herself and be in charge of her own life. Children, well, she did sort of regret that she would never have any, but they would just get in the way of her ambitions. If she kept busy she wouldn’t miss them at all.

I believe my dear uncle also pronounced me plain. No, he categorized me as…a…‘hermaphrodite, a freak of nature, neither man nor woman’. Yes, I believe those were his exact words.

She did feel that having lost her mother when she was a young girl of twelve had a great deal to do with her lack of interest in the finer points of her gender. By the age of twelve she was already working in her father’s mercantile. At that age her appearance didn’t matter; she and her father were in mourning and, for the next fourteen years, she wore black. It became her uniform, her armor against unwanted advances, her official badge of authority.

With a shake of her head, Wren pushed her evil critic down a dark hole in her mind, way down in with all the rest of her unhappy thoughts.

Having to sniff back a couple of tears, she could admit she hadn’t made a very good first impression today. She had to wonder—why it never entered her mind to clean up before coming into town?

The answer came quickly; all she had in mind was her property, and that was as it should be.

If she were a man, she reasoned, no one would have thought anything about the dirt, grime, or the sweat. No, they would’ve congratulated that man for bringing supplies to their remote little outpost. They would’ve welcomed him as the new proprietor of the mercantile with open arms.

It wasn’t fair, but that was the way of the world.

And on top of it all, she’d allowed the sheriff to throw her off her stride. Who would have thought there’d be a man up here in this remote backwoods, or anywhere for that matter, who would catch her fancy like that and run away with her good sense? One look at him and she’d forgotten all about everything. Even with Mr. Buttrum growling in her face.

Occupied for a few minutes, having to rifle around in her traveling trunk behind the wagon seat, she dug out her good russet-brown skirt and her good cream-colored blouse with the lace ruffles down the front. Seated upon the wagon bench, she slipped into her skirt, still shaking her head for losing sight of her goal.

She had miscalculated, that was unlike her. She should’ve given more care to her appearance. Although she didn’t put much stock in that sort of nonsense, she needed to pay more attention, now that she was out from under the protective umbrella of her late father’s and her uncle’s family business.

It was imperative to get herself under control. She’d allowed a man to distract her, although just for a few brief moments. She couldn’t afford to waver from her purpose, not if she wanted this venture to succeed; there was far too much at stake, and too much work to do. And certainly, she couldn’t spare a second to indulge in silly fantasies.

Truthfully, she didn’t see why being a female would be a problem. Oh, Wren knew there was bound to be skepticism and prejudice, she was used to that. To her mind, her qualifications and experience overruled the fact of her gender. Mr. Buttrum didn’t worry her in the least, she could handle him. He wasn’t nearly as vile as her uncle; the proof of that lay with his lovely wife. If Wren was any judge, she would guess that the mayor was controllable—his lovely wife knew how to handle him. With persistence and determination, Wren could win this battle—although maybe not the war.

“You will steer clear of the sheriff, my girl,” she told herself as she buttoned her blouse. “He brings out the worst in you. You know very well men muddle the brain.” 

He made her feel giddy, and she told herself she didn’t like feeling giddy. But it was a very small town, and she was bound to run into the man. She would not go all weak in the knees if he spoke to her or glanced in her direction. She would not! Besides, she didn’t have time for it. A man like the sheriff was bound to tangle up the female mind faster than a spool of barbed wire.

Barbed wire could be very painful.

Maybe he was married to that fragile little bird-like woman beside him. Yes, she hoped that was the case. Then, she could enjoy the fluttery feeling she got in the pit of her stomach by just thinking about him, but keep her heart under lock and key.

Giving herself a mental shake and climbing down from her wagon, she put aside her frivolous, flighty thoughts about the sheriff.

To sober herself, she brought forth the image of the banker and his magenta face. Yes, the banker…now, there was a big bag-of-wind if ever she’d seen one, and she knew what she had to do. She had just the needle to prick his balloon and she was going to take great pleasure in deflating the pompous windbag.

Critically, she examined her reflection in the dirty little mirror she had hanging on a nail on the side of her wagon. The bag-balm she’d used on her blistered, calloused hands was added to her poor, cracked lips. To rub it in, she pressed her lips together and rolled her lips between her front teeth. With a nod of approval and an encouraging little smile, she decided she looked almost respectable.  With efficient, ruthless strokes, she brushed the dust from her hair and drew the sides up with a pair of tortoiseshell combs, thinking to control her abundant locks in her usual bun on top of her head. But, after a little consideration, she opted to allow her coffee-brown tresses to fall in waves down her back. No use letting her best feature go to waste, she reasoned. She tried to convince herself that it was a strategic maneuver to gain sympathy and power, but she knew she wanted the sheriff to see her hair. Men were partial to long hair, and she had long hair, lots of it, always had. It might be to her advantage to make use of all her assets, even if the effort was a little late in coming. From here on out she vowed to try harder to put forth the proper image.

Face scrubbed clean, cheeks pink and glowing beneath her tanned complexion, satisfied she no longer looked like a scruffy vagabond—she smelled a heck of a lot better. Her eyes, even though bloodshot from the dust and sun, were bright with anticipation of the forthcoming battle.

Tucking her blouse into the waistband of her skirt, she was pleased to note the waist wasn’t as tight as it had been a week ago.  Prone to plumpness, she wanted to do a little dance of glee, for it would seem she’d melted off a pound or two over the miles. She slipped on the brown silk weskit over her blouse and fussed a moment or two with the lace to get it to lay just right at her throat and across her ample bosom. She cast aside her work boots, replacing them with a pair of black, high-button shoes. After slipping her calloused hands into a pair of cream-colored kid gloves, she fixed her best straw hat on her dark-brown hair with a long, ebony hatpin as the final touch.

Having done all she could with her appearance, it was time to get to the business at hand. Grabbing hold of the side of the wagon, she hoisted herself up with one foot going to the wheel axle. On the inside of the wagon, beneath the dash, was an enclosed wooden box. She lifted the wooden lid to retrieve her father’s old satchel. With her satchel in hand, she jumped down, adjusted the black reticule on her wrist, then squared her shoulders.

She was ready.

“Mac, guard the camp,” she ordered, and was satisfied when Mac responded with a bark of obedience, plunking himself down next to the wagon, head up and alert.

***

Telt looked out his office doorway as Eula Buttrum directed her troops. She had the women of the town scurrying about like ants on an anthill, dragging in sawhorses and old doors to construct makeshift tables. It would appear the ladies had decided to welcome the potential owner of the mercantile even if the mayor had yet to put his stamp of approval on the deal. To Telt, women were strange creatures. Anytime more than a couple of them gathered in, there had to be food and drink. Lottie Bledsoe was out there placing bowls of food on the table, filling cups with cider. She was hustling around like all the rest. He watched her until she started to squeal and hop around, swatting at the yellow jackets with her lace hanky. He had to look away, afraid he was going to burst out laughing.

The kids had started a game of tag, dust billowing up from their running feet, forming a cloud that sifted over the town. Telt heard Shorty shout, “You’re it!” Peanut, and about a half-dozen other mutts, chased after the kids, barking and yipping, creating as much chaos as possible and loving it.

So Shorty was back from his mission, whatever that was. He’d bet a nickel Shorty was responsible for spreading the word to the men at the quarry and the mill. They’d started to trickle into town about a half-an-hour ago, settling in out front of his office to swap stories, once in a while breaking out into all-out laughter. The sour smell of tobacco smoke from their pipes and stogies drifted into the office. Even Percy was there in the middle of them, putting in his two cents worth. Telt hoped the smoke would help to discourage the spiral of flies circling inside the doorway.

From his vantage point, it would appear everyone in town had dropped what they were doing. Howard had closed the bank. Percy had abandoned the telegraph. Everyone waited on Miss Whoever-she-was to find out what, exactly, was the ‘sit-chee-a-shion’.

“Howard,” Telt grumbled for about the twelfth time, turning around with a cup of fresh cider in his hand, unsure as to how it had gotten there, “I don’t see how I can arrest the woman. She hasn’t broken any laws that I know of. Maybe if you could give me something to go on, other than her mules were shittin’ in the street, I could help. Why don’t you tell me what’s really going on here?”

Slumped down in Telt’s chair, Howard sat hunched forward, his head in his hands. They’d been here almost an hour, and Howard had yet to say anything…well, anything coherent. All he could do was grumble a lot of drivel about females posing as muleskinners, lookin’ like boys.

Leaning back, Howard twisted the ends of his handlebar mustache with thumb and forefinger. The rickety old office chair squawked in protest. Howard was not a small man. Telt wanted to warn him to watch it—the chair might give out—but then it might be kind of amusing to see Howard on his butt, and maybe Telt might get a new chair out of it.

“What is going on here?” Howard barked, “What is going on here is a God-damned travesty! That’s what’s going on here!” he shouted, pounding his fist down on the beat-up old desktop. Telt saw it shudder on its splintered old legs. With raised eyebrows, he considered there might be a new desk in this too, if Howard kept abusing his office furniture.

“You’ll have to be a little more specific, Howard. How is it a…a…what-you-call-it, ‘travesty’?”

Howard Buttrum was the man who had pressed him into becoming sheriff of Laura Creek in the first place. Telt would never have taken the job willingly, but once Howard recognized him as a retired lieutenant the man wouldn’t take no for an answer. Once in a while Howard did seem to seek out his advice, not that he ever took it. Telt hoped this circumstance would be the exception. “I’d like to help, but first I have to know what the problem is, Howard. So you got to open up and open up right now.”

Telt sat down on the edge of his desk and put his cup down, then crossed his arms. Leaning forward slightly, he got in Howard’s face. “Who is that woman? What does she want here in Laura Creek? And why the hell are you so all-fired worked up about it?”

He pulled back when Howard thrust himself out of the chair and began to fight his way out of his suit coat like a boxer, snorting mad, huffing and puffing. The man’s back was wet with sweat, his white shirt sticking to his skin.

Queenie, as if disgusted, tired of all the fuss, got up from her corner blanket. She ambled down the hall, her big, reddish-blonde fan-tail between her legs, heading off to the jail cell where it was quiet and cool.

Patiently, Telt kept silent as Howard wiped his sweaty face with his monogrammed white handkerchief and combed his fingers through the thinning remains of his hair.

Finally, after a few deep, deep breaths, Howard spoke, “The problem is I don’t believe it! I don’t believe a word that woman says. I don’t believe she drove those wagons from Oregon City up here all by herself, and I don’t believe she’s any relation to the O’Bannons. No female could handle a team of six by herself—it stands to reason. On the other hand, if it turns out she is who she says, then I’ve gone and sold the mercantile to a Woman!” This pronouncement came in the form of a confession that Howard T. Buttrum had blundered…horribly. And the result of his horrific blunder now had the potential to destroy the viability of the entire town.

Telt shook his head, thinking he must have missed something. It wasn’t impossible for a woman to drive a couple of wagons with a team of six mules. Women were tough. Telt had seen women, Indians mostly, take on a man’s chores, do’em without complaint, and get’em done. Selling the mercantile to a woman didn’t seem to be that bad of a ‘sit-chee-a-shion’. And there certainly wasn’t any law against a woman owning a mercantile, at least he didn’t think there was.

With arms flapping in frustration, Howard brought his point home, bellowing, “She-is-a-charlatan! I know it! I’ve been hoodwinked!” He added, looking for all the world like a pouting baby, “Yes, sir, I’ve been hoodwinked good and proper by that female! Oh, oh, she had help!” he shouted, shaking his big head, setting his jowls into motion.

Telt didn’t think the man should get so worked up all the time; it couldn’t be good for his heart.

“That cheap, chiseling judge, Crookshank…he’s behind this.  He’s laughing his bony butt off! You can take my word on that!”

With his brows knit together, Telt remained skeptical as Howard raised his fist and his voice to the almighty, “I demand credentials! I want solid proof of this corporation! I won’t settle for less. I will not hand over the keys to that store to a…woman! I’ll be damned if I will!”

The room fell silent for a moment. Telt listened to the sounds coming from the street: the barking dogs, the shouting children, and the droning buzz of the flies. He took back his desk chair, resting his elbows on the oak-top.

He asked, “You are talking about Judge Crookshank…the same Judge Crookshank who circles by here every now and then? Nice old fella, with a long beard, usually a good story to tell?”

Howard nodded vigorously. “He’s finally gotten back at me!”

“Gotten back at you? You aren’t making sense, Howard. You say the woman is lying, and the judge is in cahoots with her. As far as I know the judge doesn’t lie, it kind of goes with his job. I’m confused. I didn’t know you and the judge had a grudge going. I thought he was a friend of yours.”

Sputtering and spitting, Howard shook his head. “Oh, he’s a friend…a good friend!” In a deflated voice he added, “He introduced me to Eula.”

Telt posed the question in his mind (not out loud, that would be foolhardy), Well then, what’s the problem? 

Howard answered his unspoken thought by explaining, “Seven years ago come September I asked Eula to a concert. Francis thought he was courting Eula at the time. Eula and I started seeing one another and Francis was out. Eula was mine. It’s an old scab for the judge. He thought he was actually a contender for her hand. I knew he would never win her. Eula is a beautiful woman. She would never settle for an old goat like Francis Crookshank.”

“I still don’t see how he tricked you into selling the mercantile to someone you didn’t want to sell to. You had to know who your buyer was. Well, what I mean to say is, you must’ve had some hint that it was a…a female. Surely her name would have given you a hint. Didn’t it, Howard?”

Howard came to the desk, palms down, arms stiff, and a snarl on his face, shaking his head, “I would have if the judge had been up front with me and told me it was a woman buyer! Damn it…women don’t buy properties! Men buy properties. Women buy ribbons, fripperies and bon-bons! That brings up the question—where is her man? By God, if she’s a single female, then that makes it all the more unsuitable!”

In Howard’s mind, this might be obvious and reasonable, but Telt wasn’t sure he was of the same mind. Actually, he’d never given the matter much thought.

Howard went on to expound, “No woman, single or married,should be allowed to have enough cash on her to buy more than a new bonnet. It never entered my mind a woman would buy property, let alone buy property up here. Most women want to be in a bigger town, not stuck out in the backend of nowhere, especially a single female. I don’t like this; I don’t like it one little bit!”

Howard straightened. He shook his head, his sweaty face a study in misery. “Crookshank handled the sale. I trusted that man!”

Telt cringed; Howard looked like he was about to cry, for Christ’s sake! He thought it prudent to remain calm and quiet as Howard went on to explain.

“The contract for the sale of the mercantile was with the Big O’ Corporation, signed Wren O’Bannon. Wren could be a man’s name…I thought it was a man’s name. The judge didn’t say a word. Hell, he didn’t have too. It just stood to reason the buyer was a man. I assumed it was a man. I’d heard good things about O’Bannon Brothers Enterprises. I just assumed Wren O’Bannon was one of that outfit…a man!

“You know, of course, they own more than one mercantile over in the valley. They have their own warehouses and they haul freight, too. I had no reason to be cautious. I trusted the judge, ‘my old friend’, to get me a good deal. And it is a good deal.

“Hell, I was overjoyed the O’Bannons were interested in our little, no-account mercantile. I figured it must be the railroad was coming soon, and the O’Bannons wanted to be here, all set up, when that first train came blowing through. There was no reason to question the gender of the purchaser. Hell, I was paid top dollar for that store and property,” Howard bemoaned, then growled with frustration and punched the desktop.

Scrubbing his balding head with the palms of both hands, Howard wailed, “Property! Twenty good acres…sold to a woman! What’s a single female going to do with twenty acres of meadow? Shit! God a-mighty!”

Telt, leaning back in his chair, biding his time as Howard paced the room, ignored the chair’s groan of protest. With his hands behind his head, he muttered to himself, “Well, at least I ain’t bored anymore.”

The banker came to a halt before the open door. He jerked, eyes flying open, at last awake to all the activity going on outside. Telt saw the man’s jaw drop, and figured Howard had just crashed back down to earth.

Eula came up to him, her bonnet blown back off of her head, her thick mane of blonde curls loose from the chignon at the nape of her lovely, white neck, and handed her husband a cup of cool cider. Telt recognized the sweet mischievous smile on her lips. He heard Howard sigh.

Howard looked down into his cup of cider, then at his wife. He looked up and down the street. Telt could see he was taking in the tables, the food, the children, the dogs, and the men gathered in around the front of the office. Howard took a deep breath, his chest expanded, then he bellowed like a bull moose in rut, “Eula! Eula Irene Buttrum!”

Startled, Telt lurched forward. His old office chair gave out from under him and he flew backward. The result…he knocked his head on the wall behind the desk. After a lot of cussing and clatter, he found himself sitting on his ass on the floor, his once four-legged chair now a three-legged chair. “Damn you, Howard, you blow-hard!” he growled, rubbing the back of his head, nursing his wounded pride.

Meanwhile Howard demanded, “Eula Irene Buttrum, what in the tar-nation is going on out here? What’s all this?”

CHAPTER 4

The sounds of children playing echoed in the hills above town.  The sounds inspired Wren to quicken her pace and, with renewed purpose and determination, she set out to take possession of her property.  Keeping to the shade along the creek, she emerged from beneath the trees onto the main street near the north corner of the sheriff’s office. Out in the street there were a dozen or more children, and their dogs, playing. In front of the sheriff’s office a group of ladies hovered over a couple of makeshift tables weighted down with bowls and pots full of food.

It was her intent to slide by without bringing attention to herself. It was obvious the town was preparing for some sort of celebration, but the sooner she straightened out Mr. Buttrum, the sooner she could see her property and decide her next move.

Mrs. Buttrum and the wispy little blonde Wren had seen clinging to the sheriff’s shirttails stood handing out cups of what looked to be cider to the men and children. The smell of real, home-cooked food nearly made her swoon. She’d been living on a diet of beans and biscuits for better than three weeks, with a rabbit now and then. She almost drooled when her nose picked up the smell of fried chicken and freshly baked bread. More food was coming; several of the ladies continued to fuss around making room for it all.

Suddenly feeling a little weak, Wren stumbled but caught herself. Looking to her right, her eyes met those of a redheaded man. She’d noticed him earlier, shortly after Mr. Buttrum began shouting at her. He’d come from the direction of the telegraph office and had tried to help. She nodded and smiled at him; he blushed and nodded. There were other men with him, some squatting and others leaning against the sheriff’s office. They stopped their conversation when they spotted her.

Wren steadied herself as all activity came to a standstill. The children stopped running, even the dogs plunked down on their collective haunches as all eyes turned her direction—so much for sliding by unnoticed. Pasting a valiant smile on her lips, taking a firmer grip on her satchel, she prepared to run the gauntlet of onlookers. Moving forward, with shoulders back and head high, she found the friendly face of the woman she’d assigned as the banker’s wife, Mrs. Buttrum.

Nervous, she wanted to lick her lips, but didn’t dare, as she needed to leave them alone and allow the salve she had applied to moisten the cracks. Her mouth felt dry, and she desperately wanted to clear her throat, but that was a sure sign of insecurity. Feeling the need to say something, she prayed her voice wouldn’t fail her, and screwed up her nerve to make conversation. “My, this looks festive,” she managed to say, working very hard to meet the eyes of several of the ladies gathered. To her relief she found nothing more than curiosity written on their cheerful faces. “I do hope this business won’t delay your celebration,” she said directly to the banker’s wife. Mrs. Buttrum flashed her a beautiful smile and nodded as if in approval.

Wren hoped she’d erased any traces of the grimy muleskinner from her person and transformed herself back into the businesswoman that she was. However, she was not fool enough to believe changing into some acceptable female garb would alter one whit Mr. Buttrum’s opinion of her.

From out of the corner of her eye, she spied Mr. Buttrum. He filled the doorway to the sheriff’s office. Large and imposing, he glared at her, his eyes hard and full of malice. No, Mr. Buttrum definitely was not impressed with her improved appearance or anything else. Not one little bit.

Putting her nose in the air, she dismissed Mr. Buttrum and his surly attitude to accept his wife’s outstretched hand, allowing Mrs. Buttrum to draw her into the circle of ladies that had gathered about the tables. “Pish-tosh, the welcome is for you,” the woman declared, her gray eyes shining brightly with warmth and good will.

It took Wren a moment to digest this. Taking quick survey of those gathered about her, the children, the men and women, it appeared the whole town had stopped doing business for the day. There were at least twenty or more adults, and at least a dozen children. The tension eased out of her shoulders, and her throat constricted with tears of relief.

Could it be that things weren’t as bad as she’d feared? 

She could feel his eyes on her, a formidable aspect looming in the doorway of the sheriff’s office, daring her to look him in the eye. He stood there, the obstacle to her goal. Instantly, Wren sobered beneath Mr. Buttrum’s icy glare. She pulled back her silly tears, chanting an affirmation to herself, I am confident. Stay calm and be prepared to do battle. 

With renewed resolve, she turned her gaze back to the ladies, who were far less hostile.

With a smile and a nod of her head, Mrs. Buttrum immediately began the introductions, “I’m Eula Buttrum. My husband is Howard Buttrum, our mayor whom, you’ve already met,” she offered almost apologetically.

Wren couldn’t help it, she glanced back at the man. When their eyes met, she nodded and smiled at him, hoping to needle him just a bit. She would not allow him to ruin this warm welcome with his sour aspect.

Turning to Mrs. Buttrum, she said with a big smile, “I…I’m very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Buttrum, my name is Wren O’Bannon. Please call me Wren,” she said, holding out her hand to the beautiful Eula.

Eula’s hand was warm and gentle. She smiled and told her, “Wren, you must call me Eula. We’re very excited at the prospect of having a fully stocked mercantile. All of the ladies here have been waiting for this day a very long time. I know you’re going to like it here, I just know it!”

This was encouraging! Eula’s excitement was contagious. Wren wanted very much to believe the woman. “Eula,” Wren repeated, “this…” she stammered, indicating the tables of bounty set out before her, “this is quite unexpected. However did you manage it in such short order?”

Eula shrugged off the question and drew forward the fragile little bird-like woman. “Miss O’Bannon? It is Miss, isn’t it?” Eula asked and waited for Wren’s nod, then went on with the introduction, “this is Miss Lottie Bledsoe, Howard’s niece. She teaches school here. She’s from Chicago.” Said as if this were important somehow and definitely meant to impress. Wren shook hands with the pale, waif-like woman and wasn’t surprised to find her hand limp and cool.

Not the sheriff’s wife; oh, dear! Wren made note of that and bemoaned to herself, Oh, that’s too bad, he’s fair game! It was hard to ignore the rush this tidbit caused. Already, she felt the heat bloom down low in her belly, and her heart rate picked up in tempo. This was not the time to dwell on the possibilities. She told herself she didn’t want to, anyway.

She swallowed back a giggle when Eula elbowed to attention the tall, gawky, red-haired man who’d come to her aid earlier. All the while she’d been exchanging pleasantries with Mrs. Buttrum, he’d been staring at her. But so had all the other men that were gathered.

“Miss Wren O’Bannon, this is Percy Terrel, my brother,” Eula said with a good deal of pride in her voice.

Wren didn’t see the resemblance. Eula Buttrum had wonderfully thick, blonde hair, expressive gray eyes and a flawless complexion, whereas freckles covered her brother’s face. Upon closer examination, Wren did find a few freckles there on the bridge of Eula’s nose. She guessed the sunbonnet was doing its job.

Wren gave Eula her undivided attention as the woman went on to say, “Percy runs the post office, and he’s the telegrapher. He’s our minister and sometimes a deputy for the sheriff. Percy and his son, Shorty, moved here from Woodburn a few years back.” Wren smiled and made certain she expressed the proper degree of respect to a man who wore so many different hats.

As she shook Mr. Terrel’s freckled hand, he managed a garbled, “Good-to-meet-you”, but not without his face turning beet-red and breaking into a sweat. She had to wonder how such a shy man came to be a minister.

With a sweep of her arm, Eula told her, “There are lots of other folks here, but you’ll meet them by and by. You’ll want to get your business out of the way. You go ahead,” Eula said, giving her a little push toward the open doorway, still blocked by the banker.

Yes, it was time to set Mr. Buttrum straight, the sooner the better. Wren charged herself to ignore his forbidding demeanor and, with head high, put her hand on the doorframe, making her intent clear. Without saying a word, she met his nasty glare and let him know she was going in, even if she had to push him aside to do it.

He took one step back, about two seconds before she would’ve shoved him.

Inside, the sheriff’s office was like a mineshaft. It was dark, cool, filled with dust-motes, and smelled of old wood and tobacco smoke. She sensed the people of the town closing in around the front window and the door. The folks outside, their faces pressed to the glass window, sucked up the light in the room.

Her eyes adjusted to the gloom and settled on a potbellied woodstove in the corner, with three barrels drawn close around it.  She could visualize the men gathering here in the wintertime to have a smoke and pass the long winter days. There was a hallway a couple of feet from the side of the stove. She assumed it led back to a jail cell and tried not to think about it.

On the other side of the room sat the sheriff’s scarred and battered oak desk. A man was on the floor on his hands and knees, his head and broad shoulders under the desk, with his backside in plain view; she presumed it was the sheriff.

She heard him swear an oath as he dragged a crippled chair out from under the desk and propped it against the wall. He fished around under the desk and, coming to his knees, tossed a broken chair leg behind him toward the woodstove without a backward glance.

Anticipating the direction the chunk of wood would take, she dodged the projectile with a nimble hop to the side. Far from being dismayed, she couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

***

The musical sound of feminine laughter behind him gave Telt a start, and he cracked his head on the underside of the kneehole of his desk. His hand going to the goose egg on his pate, he peered over the top of the desk.

A woman stood there! A woman he’d never seen before.

The first thing that took his notice was the woman had the most luxurious, curly dark hair he’d ever seen. With it draped about her shoulders, he could only imagine it cascading down… shoot…probably all the way down her back. Damn! He licked his lips—must be to her waist.

His eyes traveled downward to come level with her waist, and his fingers itched to put his hands around her. Without his permission, his line of sight naturally traveled back up a fraction to come to rest on all those creamy ruffles that covered her well-endowed bosom, and he started to fantasize about all the hidden flesh lying beneath those ruffles. He preferred full-bosomed women. This woman, he could imagine, was firm, warm, and smooth to the touch.

Like a man in a desert seeing a mirage, he subconsciously licked his lips again.

Pulling his eyes away from the woman’s bosom, he cleared his throat and pushed himself up to get into a full kneeling position. This brought his line of sight to the woman’s smiling, laughing eyes, which disconcerted him as much as looking at her ample bosom.

Her eyes were dark brown, full of mischievous golden sparks. Her cheeks were round and glowing pink. With her lips parted, he could see her white teeth and her little, ruby-red tongue….

Hell! And Fire! Alarm bells went off in his head! He didn’t know if he could stand. Must be the blow he’d taken to his head, he told himself. It was that muleskinner gal, danged if it wasn’t. How in hell had she gotten herself up to look like…look like a…lady?

He gave himself a mental shake to snap out of it and, with the aid of the wall and the corner of his desk, rose to his feet, all the while his eyes locked with hers.

Howard cleared his throat, which reminded Telt to pull himself together. After all, he was the sheriff; he needed to maintain a certain degree of dignity. He represented law and order, and so far he’d seen very little order in this town today. “Sheriff Telt Longtree, Ma’am,” he said to her with as much authority as possible.

She held out her gloved hand to him. He hesitated, then took it, and just held it. With that touch, he forgot to breathe, and his ears started to sizzle. He heard her say in that lilting way of hers, “I’m pleased to meet you.”

***

Wren went all gooey inside the second their hands touched. Even with her gloves on, there was heat. “I do hope you won’t have to put me in your jail, Sheriff,” she heard herself say, and couldn’t believe it—she was flirting. She even giggled. The man was compelling, with thick, dark wavy hair and eyes of light blue, almost opaque, making a delicious contrast against his tanned complexion.

Everything about the man was substantial, his face, his shoulders, his chest, even the size of his hands. Her poor love-starved body experienced a series of tingling shock waves, the waves seeking out the womanly places where no man had ever gone before, where even she’d never dared to explore.

Giving herself a mental shake, she cleared her mind, determined to regain her senses. She detested simpering, silly females. She was supposed to be a self-assured businesswoman, not a fluffy-headed goose.

Really, the man had the most infuriating effect on her.

“I am Wren O’Bannon of the Big O’ Corporation,” she managed to say, sounding self-confident and composed, even though she felt light-headed and jittery. “I’ve purchased the mercantile from the city of Laura Creek and I would like to take possession immediately.”

Her words brought about the immediate release of her hand. The sheriff visibly pulled back. Cast adrift, she was once again alone in a sea of hostility.

With the lingering feeling of his fingers through her gloves, warm and strong, Wren denied herself the pleasure of drawing her hand to her breast to savor the sensation. She knew she didn’t dare look into those blue eyes—she’d be lost—so instead, she turned to the banker. Surely that would put the starch back in her. God only knew she could use a splash of sobriety at the moment—her heart was bouncing off her ribs.

“I believe, Mr. Buttrum, you represented the people of Laura Creek in the sale, correct?” She hated it that she sounded breathless, but it pleased her to see Mr. Buttrum blanch slightly, taken off his guard by her sudden shift of attention.

Before he could speak, she had her satchel open on the sheriff’s desk and said, “I have copies of our contract, Mr. Buttrum, should you care to look it over again, although you have the same contract as I.  I also have an affidavit from Louis B. Clarkston, of Clarkston, Meyer, and Rugh, my attorney, who handles the corporation’s legal matters.”

She looked up through her eyelashes to see how the sheriff was responding to her presentation. He had that fish-out-of-water look on his face again. As he picked up the papers she’d laid out and began to look them over, she tucked a smile back and pressed her lips together.

She then turned to Mr. Buttrum, giving him her undivided attention, passing him a long white envelope, “This is a letter for you from Judge Crookshank. He said you and he were old friends.”

Mr. Buttrum turned that funny shade of purple again. She ignored his ire, collectively addressing Mr. Buttrum and the sheriff. “The judge is a long time friend of my late father,” she said with a nod and a brief smile to the sheriff. “I found the judge to be very helpful with the negotiations of the purchase,” she said with her eyes steady and directed toward Mr. Buttrum.

***

“I just bet you did,” grumbled Howard as he stepped back to scan the letter before he handed it off to Telt, who took his time, actually absorbing the contents, which listed, in detail, Miss O’Bannon’s many talents and vast experience. Telt also read the personal part of the letter, “Give my regards to your lovely wife. My mouth waters just thinking of her huckleberry pie.”

Over his shoulder, Howard groused, “The dirty son-of-a bitch, thinking of my wife’s pie. The old letch.” Snatching the letter out of Telt’s hand, Howard wadded up the missive, his jaw tight and teeth clenched. He opened the potbellied stove and tossed the letter into the ashes, then slammed the door shut with a satisfying clank.

***

From Mr. Buttrum’s response, Wren gathered he was not pleased.  She glanced at the sheriff and found no clue in his open face. He did sort of smile at her; she wasn’t sure what that meant, perhaps he meant to reassure her. She wondered what in the world the judge could have said in that letter to further enrage the man. There was something very wrong here. The judge said he and Mr. Buttrum were good friends. She was sorry she hadn’t read that letter while it was in her possession.

Whatever he’d said, it wasn’t helping her case.

Mr. Buttrum turned the full force of his wrath on her, “You’d better be prepared to open your doors for business by the first of September, Miss O’Bannon! That’s less than two weeks. It’s in the contract.”

More threats; the man was impossible. She’d taken about all she could stand. It was time to let him know with whom he was dealing. Drawing herself up to all of her five-foot-two inches, she told him in a voice cold and hard, “Oh, I shall be open for business, Mr. Buttrum.  That is, provided, as stated inour contract of sale under provisions, covenants and considerations, the building is sound and in a ready-to-move-in condition with shelves, storage, and a living space.”

She noted a flicker of, could it be deceit, pass across the banker’s hostile countenance. He’d looked away from her, just a fraction of a second, and it gave her an uneasy feeling. She looked to the sheriff, but as soon as her gaze turned to him, he looked away toward the window. She was in for some challenges, all right. The banker stood there looking belligerent.

Taking advantage of the momentary silence in the room, she decided to make a little threat of her own, “I understand Judge Crookshank will be this way again in a month or two. He gave me the impression he looked forward to seeing the community of Laura Creek with an up-and-running mercantile. Let us hope that any disputes that may arise between us will be taken care of long before he arrives,” she said with a knowing smile on her lips.

“Is that a threat! How dare you threaten me, you runty little Banty hen! I’m the mayor of this town! Damn it! What do you know of provisions, covenants, and considerations anyway? That’s legal jargon!”

Wren took note of the sweat that had begun to soak his starched white collar. Bluster and bluff. It was best not to respond, but it took all of her will to remain impervious.

“Damned suffragettes. No, sir! You need to get down off your high horse, young woman! This is a man’s world up here. This isn’t the big city. You’ll soon find you’ve bitten off more than you can chew and I’ll have my store back. I’ll see to it that it gets a proper owner, not some sawed off little snippet of a female who thinks she can pull the wool over my eyes with her grandstand play of fancy talk and pieces of worthless paper. You need a man to bring you back in line, young woman. Which begs the question: does your family know what you’re up to?”

Unfortunately, Wren flinched.

“Ha!” the banker bellowed, shaking his finger in her nose, “I’ll wager they do not!”

CLICK HERE TO GO TO CHAPTERS 5 AND 6

A chaps 1 and 2 by Dorothy A. Bell

November 8, 2012

Laura Creek Mercantile

By Dorothy A. Bell

Chapter 1

Blue Mountains, Northeastern Oregon, 1881

Wren O’Bannon urged her team of six mules up the far bank to negotiate the turn down into Laura Creek, her final destination. Her two freight wagons careened, listing on two axles, rocking back, tongues twisting, perilously close to tipping over. With one foot braced against the dash to keep from going overboard, or worse pulled down between the traces, she hollered, “Haw!” then flicked the reins as hard as she could.

The mules, with their heads bowed, headed for the inviting shade of the tall timber. A cloud of powder-fine dust rose up just as she opened her mouth to shout out a correction. Now the dust sifted in her eyes, down her throat and up her nose. Cursing, she strained for control, drawing back the lines, sweat mingling with the dust down her neck.

So close! If she lost control now it would all go for naught—all her hardship, sacrifice, sweat, perseverance—everything—all in vain.

“Hup! Hup there!” she yelled above the thud, rattle and jangle of her wagons. No time to be dainty, she choked, hacked up a wad of muddy saliva and spit to the side. Providence took a hand, and as her team worked their way up and across the bank, the wagons righted themselves and rolled onto the narrow track. Holding back the hysterical tears of gratitude, she set her jaw, and pushed herself and her team toward their new home.

Soon the forest parted and in a small dell lay the town of Laura Creek. She’d dreamt how the town would look, and the dream had kept her going, moving eastward over the miles of torturous trail, across the barren landscape that followed the Columbia River, then up into the beautiful Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon.

With a flick of the reins she gave out a jubilant, “Yee-haw!”

Rolling into town in a cloud of dust, she pulled back on the reins, rumbling to a stop before the vacant mercantile.

She had to swallow back the urge to crow. She’d done it…all on her own! She’d arrived without killing herself or her mules and without any loss of merchandise. Excitement and relief brought forth a rush of emotions. Victory, of course, but there was disappointment, too. There was no one with whom to share her moment of triumph. It was a circumstance she was accustomed to, just one more painful reminder that she was on her own, no one was going to pat her on the back or make this easy.

Bone weary, thirsty and hungry, and she had to pee, her need to get her hands on the keys to her new home became an imperative. There was a lot of work to do before nightfall. Swiping at her tears of self-pity, she sucked in a big breath of fresh air, then pulled herself back in line.

Unrealistically, she wanted to unload the wagons first—get settled in. Then see her property, the twenty acres of meadow behind the store that went with the purchase. But she was getting ahead of herself. Before she could appraise the layout of the mercantile, she needed to find a Mr. Buttrum, with whom she’d made the purchase. According to Judge Crookshank, Buttrum owned most of the town; he was the mayor and owner of the bank.

With the wagons stopped, and the noise and jostle stilled, a sense of peace and quiet settled over her. A cloud of dust swirled down the street. The ringing sounds of a blacksmith pounding his anvil, sounds of civilization, came from the stable at the far end of town—the sound provoked a smile to form on her chapped and cracked lips. The upward lift of her lips caused her to wince. When she squeezed her eyes shut the burning sensation caused tears to seep out of the corners of her wind-scorched eyes. Rocking her head from one side to the other, she made herself relax her shoulders and loosen her grip on the reins. Once the stinging stopped, she opened her eyes to look around. The question was, could she have a real life here? A life where she wouldn’t have to deal with her lying, cheating, conniving, domineering Uncle Stanley.

Massaging the back of her neck, she wished she could rub all the hurtful memories of heartache and betrayal from her mind, or at least make them fade into the background. A shout from the bank steps behind her startled her, claiming her attention.

“You there! Move your wagons! Are you blind? You can see the stable down at the end there. Your mules are fouling our street!” informed a robust, dapper-looking gent.

With her luck, this would be the banker. Why was it they all had that same look, a look that branded them a pompous ass!  She shook her head, rolled her eyes when he withdrew from his vest-pocket a gold watch on a fob, as if he meant to put a time limit on said removal of the offensive wagons and mules.

Like it or not—she knew it in her gut—here was the man she sought. Anxious to get this meeting over and done with, she climbed down from the wagon seat. Shaky and dizzy, it took a few seconds for the ground beneath her feet to stop rolling. To ready herself for the confrontation with the gentleman on the steps, she wiped the sweat from her face with the sleeve of her canvas duster and pasted a friendly smile on her lips.

“Remove these wagons at once!” the gentleman ordered, coming down the bank steps, glaring at her, his chest thrown out, all bluster and bully, all of which she guessed was meant to intimidate her. Well, Wren knew a thing or two about intimidation—she’d learned from a master.

Mac, her canine traveling companion, took exception to the gentleman’s tone and charged forward, teeth bared. The black wooly fur on his shoulders stood straight up. Wren lunged forward, grabbed him by his collar, hauled him back, and commanded, “Sit!”

With a tight grip on Mac’s collar, she put her smile back in place and held out her hand to the man, “Good day. Wren O’Bannon of the Big O’ Corporation. I’ve come to take possession of my mercantile. I’m betting you’re Mr. Buttrum. Your friend Judge Crookshank described you to me when he informed me that you were looking for a buyer for the mercantile. I understand you’re the owner of the bank and the mayor of Laura Creek as well. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Not surprisingly, the man stood cold and rigid as a stone block, ignoring her outstretched hand. With a great intake of air through his nose, he puffed out his chest like a rooster pheasant and assured her, all in one breath, “Indeed, I am the owner of this bank, and I am the mayor of Laura Creek. It is neither here nor there to me who you are. Get these wagons off the street and away from my bank!”

Being a woman in business, Wren had run up against male opposition before. Still, she didn’t think she would ever become immune to the unreasonable hostility or incivility she often encountered. She’d learned a few things over the years: never back down, never show fear, and never lose your temper.

The latter was the hard one. She had a flash-fire temper and right now she wanted very badly to give this popinjay a piece of her mind and a lesson in manners.

Always pragmatic, she also knew that the sooner she could get past this ridiculous confrontation the better. Besides, she didn’t have the energy or the patience to argue with the blowhard—right now.

Gathering up her composure, putting her temper in check, she suggested, “Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Let’s start over.” Once again she offered her hand for him to shake. “How do you do, Mr. Buttrum, I am Wren O’Bannon, of the Big O’ Corporation. I am the new proprietor of the Laura Creek Mercantile and I wish to take possession of my property as soon as possible. Once I have the keys in hand, I will remove my wagons.”

He still wouldn’t take her hand. Actually, he looked ready to explode, the way the veins on his forehead popped out and his eyes snapped with indignation. All in all, it seemed an odd, if not downright hostile, response to her introduction, certainly not an auspicious beginning for her new enterprise.

Chapter 2

Seated at his desk, going through a stack of wanted-posters and fliers, Sheriff Telt Longtree bemoaned the fact he couldn’t find anything better to do than this. With the heat of the day, and the quiet, he kept nodding off.

As the days of summer marched by in a slow, dull procession, it occurred to him he was squandering the best years of his life sitting here behind this desk twiddling his thumbs.

The last memorable event he could recall took place late last April when a skinny, wild-eyed mountain lion came down the middle of the street, bold as brass, headed for the stable and Punk Baker’s chickens. That day, as every man in town took a shot at that poor old cat, it seemed to him the critter had as good as committed suicide.

He might have to wait for Billy Camalitta to come down the draw with his sheep before he’d get any relief from his inertia.  Billy wouldn’t arrive until sometime around the first of October, on his way to the Grande Ronde Valley grass for the winter. There were always a lot of complaints about Billy’s sheep. A flock of over five hundred wandered all around the town, getting in people’s houses and barns. That should keep things interesting for him, at least for a few weeks.

“Sheriff!” Shorty shouted, bursting through the slatted office door.

Half asleep, Telt came up out of his chair, the papers on his desk sent flying every which way. The rickety door banged against the wall, snapped back, and hit the kid in the forehead.  Shorty’s yelp set Queenie, Telt’s retriever, off to barking like to bring the roof down. Shorty’s pup, Peanut, took off like a wind-up toy. The dogs started to circle his desk around and around, yapping, and barking loud enough to split his eardrums. He reached out to grab a dog, any dog, or a kid, but found nothing but air. Pandemonium reigned.

Sticking two fingers in his mouth, he gave out a loud whistle. “Queenie, sit! Peanut, sit! And for God’s sake, Shorty, shut the hell up! You ain’t bleedin’!” Grabbing the kid by his ear, Telt yanked the boy’s head around to assess the damage. “You’re gonna have a goose-egg, but the skin ain’t even broken!”

Shorty rubbed his head, then brought his fingers down before his eyes, checking for blood. Telt suppressed a chuckle as the kid frowned in disappointment. At six-foot-two, he towered over the boy.

Shorty shut his yap, brown eyes wide tipped his freckled up and sniffed back his hurt. The dogs plopped down on their haunches at the boy’s feet. Telt nodded, satisfied to have order restored. “Now, where’s the fire, boy?”

The boy stopped his sniveling, drew himself up and caught his breath, “No fire, sir.”

Telt folded his arms across his chest and growled, “There better be a fire. You come through that door like you had a firecracker up your butt.”

Shorty vigorously nodded his head, “Yes, sir, I did, sir.  Sorry, sir. Uncle Howard sent me, said be quick!”

“Bank robbers?” A rush of adrenaline surged through Telt as he removed his army Colt and holster from his desk drawer, gave the well-oiled cylinder a spin to be sure it was loaded, and settled the gun belt on his hip. Months had passed since he’d used his gun. The weight of it, the feel of it on his hip, felt good…felt right.

When he’d first come to town four years ago and found himself with a sheriff’s badge pinned on his chest, he hadn’t really minded the dull pace of the town after ten long years in the army chasing Indians. But lately, the quiet and the routine had begun to wear on him, making him feel restless and rusty.  Maybe it was time to head down to Pendleton for a few days…play a couple of hands of poker and put his arms around a willing female.

Headed for the door, Shorty tripped over the dogs, nearly falling on his nose when he leapt in front of Telt to hold him back. “No robbers, sir! Uncle Howard said we got a ‘sit-chee-a-shion’. He said, ‘Get the sheriff! We got a sit-chee-a-shion.’ What’s a sit-chee-a-shion, sir?”

This brought Telt up short. Out of habit, he combed his fingers through his hair before he set his Stetson down low over his forehead. Looking out the window, then back at the boy, he shrugged his shoulders and muttered, “Damned if I know.”

***

Shorty’s ‘sit-chee-a-shion’ seemed to consist of six mules, two freight wagons, one pint-sized muleskinner, and one very big, very agitated, monster of a mongrel dog. At least, that’s what Telt could make out as he stepped out of his office and onto the street. Whatever else there might be, it afforded Buttrum the opportunity to stretch his vocal cords.

“Oh, Sheriff Longtree! Thank goodness!” Lottie Bledsoe exclaimed, skipping towards him, the skirt of her yellow and white gingham dress daintily held up by one small hand, revealing her pristine white petticoats. “I was on my way to the bank,” she managed to report, breathless and noticeably excited.  “I heard Uncle Howard shouting. There’s a person over there…and…” Lottie exclaimed as she tried to match her stride with his, “…and a huge ugly beast! The animal is going to attack Uncle Howard! And I don’t think that…person…can stop him!”

Miss Lottie Bledsoe, the town’s schoolmarm, had the uncanny knack of timing her sojourns about town to coincide with his rounds. Telt no longer found it strange when she popped out of nowhere. She was about the only single woman of marriageable age for a fifteen-mile radius. Shortly after her arrival in Laura Creek almost two years ago she’d set her cap for him. And with persistence she might just wear him down.

The long winters did have Telt considering matrimony as an antidote to his loneliness…his boredom. He asked himself: could he take Lottie night and day, “until death do us part”?  The axiom “marry in haste, repent at leisure” came to mind. He figured he wasn’t that bored, not yet.

A small crowd had gathered in the street in front of the bank. It was Saturday, and a lot of the men from town were at work in the quarry or the mill, but the womenfolk had come out to witness this event. Huddled together like a flock of clucking hens, nervous, they wisely kept their distance from the vicious dog on the wagon seat. Unlike their fearless, or was he foolhardy, mayor, Howard T. Buttrum.

Telt approached and spotted Mrs. Buttrum behind her man, peering around his substantial shoulder as her husband confronted a kid dressed in an oversized coat and dirty hat.  Buttrum, was all lathered up, red in the face, and sweaty. From the looks of things the kid, with his legs braced apart, feet planted, shoulders back against the wagon, and the dog above him on the seat, was holding his ground. Telt shook his head; you had to admire gumption, even if it was misspent and futile.

Shorty skipped around in front of him, trotting backwards, sadistic glee shining in his brown-button eyes, “Do yah think that dog’s gonna kill Uncle Howard, Sheriff? I bet he could!”

Telt advised, “Get hold of Peanut. I’d say that dog eats rats bigger than her for breakfast!”

Shorty’s pa, Percy Terrel, Telt’s deputy of sorts, had a hold of Buttrum’s coat-sleeve. Percy must’ve heard his son’s excited voice, he looked up and met Telt’s eyes. In two long strides, Percy had Shorty by the scruff of the neck, yanking him against his side.

Telt nodded and gave Percy a grin. He understood. The man had his hands full with Shorty. Percy stepped aside for him as Telt moved into the crowd to evaluate the sit-chee-a-shion, as Shorty would say. And sure enough Shorty was right; Buttrum needed to shut up and back off, or that dog would kill him, and that very real possibility made this a very definite situation.

Percy spoke over his shoulder. “The kid got the dog up on the wagon seat. A good thing too, or Howard would be wearin’ that dog for a bowtie.”

Telt just had to chuckle. He’d like to see that. He looked around for the person responsible for this kid—and the dog. No one stepped forward, and he didn’t see any strangers among the familiar faces. Buttrum and that mongrel had everybody on edge.

The kid didn’t look scared or even intimidated, he appeared obstinate, jaw set, gloved hands clenched at his side. He was sun scorched, soaked in sweat, and covered in trail dirt.

Telt put his head up, shading his eyes with his hand against the mid-day sun, and thought it must be near ninety degrees. The kid had to be roasting under that coat. He looked into the kid’s big, almond-shaped brown eyes—stubborn eyes—that said I’ve been around some, and I know what I’m doing. Telt sure as hell hoped he did, ‘cause that snarling, growling dog needed a firm hand.

It was his job as sheriff to stay calm in this kind of situation, although Telt thought it more comical than dire. What happened next confirmed his assessment.

The kid glanced over his shoulder, looked up to the dog, and said, “Hush, Mac, yah beasty!”

The voice didn’t match. The soft, lilting voice sounded playful in its cadence, with a hint of an accent—maybe Irish. Stranger still, the dog stopped snarling, went down on his belly, and laid his big, dark head on his enormous black paws just like a sweet little puppy. Impressed, several of the ladies gasped in awe. But those eyes, those blue-white, ghostly, fiendish canine eyes stayed alert. Wary, Telt hoped no one would make any sudden moves. No tellin’ what an animal like that would do.

The kid—no, he corrected himself, the female—drewherself up. Telt reckoned she was trying to gain some elevation. No matter what she did, she was still gonna be too short.

Displaying a foolish amount of confidence, she brazenly met Buttrum’s menacing countenance with chin up. With nary a waver nor a flinch in her tone or attitude, she declared loud enough for all to hear, “I’ll not stand here and be harangued by you in this public manner, Mr. Buttrum!”

This woman had balls. Everyone knew Howard T. Buttrum wasn’t a man to tolerate insolence, especially from a female. This woman, however, didn’t seem to realize to whom she was speaking, and pressed on.

“We have business to discuss, and business should be conducted in an orderly, civilized manner. As a businessman I’m sure you concur,” she pointed out as if speaking to an inexperienced rube, a cool smile on her cracked lips. Her eyes as hard and as dark as a walnut tree. And there was a challenge there, too, as if she knew full well no one told Howard T. Buttrum what to do or how to do it. But her eyes said it was about time someone did, and she was just that someone, by God.

If Telt read her right, she was mad as hell, a smoldering little pot of molten metal, and Buttrum just kept stirring.

She looked coarse, tough, covered in dust, her appearance at odds with her melodious voice and her refined manner. Telt decided she looked like something out of an old army duffle bag, dressed from neck to toe in an oversized canvas duster and a sweat-stained felt hat, covered in dust. Her demeanor was confusing and at odds with her appearance. The same went for her voice and her refined manner—she was imperious, regal in the way she delivered her set-down. Telt had the distinct feeling this diminutive, intrepid woman was used to getting her way. The problem was, so was Buttrum; but she couldn’t know that, or could she? Telt had a hard time holding back the urge to burst out laughing. Could it be Buttrum had finally met his match?

****

Wren was decidedly uncomfortable with everyone standing about, watching and listening, while Mr. Buttrum continued to humiliate her. Well, she’d not traveled nearly three hundred miles all on her own, over dusty, rutted, boulder-infested roads, driving six mules pulling two freight wagons, to have a posturing blowhard tell her she had no right to her new mercantile just because she was a female! At least, as far as she could make out, that was Mr. Buttrum’s soul objection.

Which was ridiculous, of course. Why, these days, women were doctors and lawyers, soon they would vote. Men like Mr. Buttrum would have to stand back and accept it.

She was about to point out to Mr. Buttrum that, male or female, she was the legal owner of the mercantile, and he must stand aside; she meant to take possession immediately.

But at precisely that moment, a tall, thick-chested man shouldered his way through the crowd. She couldn’t miss the shiny star on his chest, it was at eye level. Looking at him, she forgot what she was about to say; as a matter of fact, she forgot everything. Her mind went blank as she stared up into his big face, a nice face. Her mistake was looking into his eyes. They were clear blue, like the sky. She pressed her lips together to keep from ooohing…and making a fool of herself—but my, those eyes were pretty.

Then she saw the fluttery little blonde hanging on his arm and shook her head—what utter nonsense. She wanted to tsk, tsk!  Pretty he may be, but he obviously lacked sense; the blonde was all wrong for him.

Mr. Buttrum was still ranting, she knew, but the sheriff had her attention. She wished she’d stopped outside of town to clean up. She looked like hell, but five minutes ago that hadn’t mattered. It did now. She couldn’t take her eyes off the man with the blue eyes.

When he half smiled at her, there was definitely a twinkle in his blue eyes, and she wondered—what was he smiling about?  Then it dawned on her…he was laughing at her.

With the butterflies batting their wings against the walls of her hollow belly, and beads of perspiration forming on her upper lip, she instinctively decided to teach him a lesson, invite him to join her in this farce by addressing him directly.

“I believe you’ll agree with me, Sheriff. We shouldn’t stand about in public creating a nuisance on such a fine, peaceful day. You must have an office where we could sort this matter out in a more civilized fashion. What say you, Sheriff?  What would you recommend?”

Wren found his reaction quite satisfactory. It certainly wiped the smile off his lips, and when he blinked, his eyes darting around to those gathered, there was a hint of panic in those blue eyes.

Now, let him see how it feels to be the main attraction—like a cornered animal.

Well, he looked like a big ol’ fish, gulping for air, his face red as all eyes turned away from her and trained on him. Giddy with triumph, she had to press her lips together to keep from smirking.

It flashed across her mind that she didn’t think she’d ever felt giddy before, at least not since she’d left puberty.

***

Damn if his tongue hadn’t doubled up to twice its size—stuck to the roof of his mouth—and his brain turned to mush. Shit, he couldn’t even swallow. Worse yet, Telt suspected the grimy little dab of a female had put him on the spot, knowing full well the effect it would have on him, just to show off. That galled him.

“Well” he stammered, his eyes going around to those gathered, coming to rest on the mayor’s sanguine countenance. Uh…I don’t know all the particulars, but…sure, we could take this down to my office.”

Buttrum, a scowl on his sweaty, florid face, brows knit together, eyes blinking, looked to be as confused as everyone else. Telt didn’t think he’d ever see the day when Howard T. Buttrum would be brought to a standstill, completely bumfuzzled, and certainly not by a sawed-off female! Howard T. Buttrum at a loss for words? Unheard of! 

As his eyes traveled around the expectant faces of those gathered, Telt happened to glance down at Lottie, who had taken up her place at his side. She had her lace hanky pressed firmly to her little nose; all he could see was her big blue eyes. It was then he became aware that they were standing downwind of six sweaty mules, one dusty, riled-up dog, and one hard-assed muleskinner woman. The smell was a bit ripe.

But before he had a chance to say anything, Howard found his voice, “I’ll have no business with the likes of you!” he roared, bringing his big face down and coming nose-to-nose with the muleskinner gal, which set her dog off.

Buttrum’s big voice carried to the next county. Telt watched the gal correct her dog with a wave of her hand, and to his relief and amazement the beast settled down.

But Buttrum was just getting started, “You’re nothing but a filthy little beggar!” he charged, his finger wagging in the little muleskinner’s face. “You’ve got a lot of brass, young woman, coming in here feeding me a pack of lies! Trying to pass yourself of as an O’Bannon, claiming an association with an outfit like the Big O’ Corporation! Ha! You’re a joke!” When her lips twitched, curving up into a slight smirk, Howard raised his fist. He huffed in disgust when the little gal didn’t even back away or bat her eyes.

Telt did note her flared nostrils and her narrowed eyes, but she quickly wiped that smart-ass smirk of her lips, which he thought was deceptive…and dangerous. He had recognized that smirk for what it was; she was controlling herself, but with a herculean effort.

Telt put his hand on Buttrum’s shoulder to hold him down, knowing how the muleskinner gal’s lack of response provoked rather than defused the man’s outrage.

Buttrum swiped Telt’s hand off his shoulder and snarled, “I don’t know where you got all that…that contraband you’ve got there in those wagons, and I don’t need to know! You stole it, no doubt!” he shouted.

With a sweep of his arm, he dismissed her, saying “We’ve nothing to discuss, young woman! I’ve been duped! The whole town has been duped!” Swinging around, Howard ordered, “Arrest this…this…person, Sheriff, for fraud, and thievery, and God knows what else!”

***

Dealing with her Uncle Stanley had served Wren well. She could almost thank him for his volatility. Because of him, she’d become immune to irrational theatrics and, as a consequence, to Mr. Buttrum’s of this world and their bombastic attitude. From experience, she knew better than to exchange barbs and accusations with a man who was righteous and in his pulpit. As long as Mr. Buttrum had an audience, she could never hope to win an argument with him.

Stay calm, she told herself. He has no grounds to stand on.  You have right on your side.  

Which was easier said than done. She had to fight against the urge to giggle, she always giggled when she was nervous or afraid. It was a terrible habit. If only she could get away from the man. Her full bladder was becoming painful. She needed food…and water…both would help to refresh her. Water…she needed a drink of water in the worst way!

A lovely woman, handsome, fair-haired with fine gray eyes, came out from behind Mr. Buttrum. Her clothes were stylish, and Wren could see the other ladies looked to her for leadership. Wren assumed this was Mrs. Buttrum. Possibly it was foolish to assume, but Wren, a consummate people-watcher, enjoyed the game, and she was rarely wrong.

***

Telt stood there, seriously considering tossing Buttrum into the nearest water-trough to cool him down. The man was turning purple and looked about to have a stroke. But Eula Buttrum, usually a quiet shadow next to her husband, stepped forward and put a halt to her husband’s tirade. With her sky-blue bonnet bobbing up and down, she reasoned, “Howard, she’s right, you know,” with a nod and a gentle smile toward the muleskinner gal.

Dumbfounded, the folks gathered went quiet. Howard, his mouth agape and eyes bulging, gave her a look that said he thought she’d lost her mind.

“The middle of the street is no place to be discussing business,” she said to her husband’s face. Her gray eyes scanned the crowd and came to rest on Telt. She offered him a timid, sweet smile, then returned her gaze to her husband. Fanning herself with her lace hanky, she said, “It’s very hot here in the sun. Couldn’t we go down to the sheriff’s office and sort out this matter where it’s cooler?”

Telt thought he saw a glimmer of sympathy in Eula’s eyes as they turned to the muleskinner gal, and then to her dog. Eula nodded and smiled at the gal.

Yup, Mrs. Buttrum, for whatever perverse reason, had taken up the gal’s side of things. Now this was interesting. Telt held his breath, as did they all, to see how Buttrum would handle this turn of events.

Telt stood by as Mrs. Buttrum, God bless her, remained stalwart, her beautiful eyes steady in her perfectly oval face in spite of her husband’s obvious wrath. She stood her ground, her lace-gloved hands folded into the trim little waist of her calico-print dress, in a determined, no-nonsense fashion.

Buttrum, once again, appeared bereft of speech. Mrs. Buttrum’s reasonable demeanor left her husband with nothing more to do than sputter a bit before he flapped his arms in surrender. Telt pressed his lips together and looked away—the big man was in check—at least for the moment.

Sweat rolling down the sides of his face and neck, Buttrum tugged at the lapels of his brown suit coat and ran a finger around the edge of his highly starched collar before saying, “Very well. The sheriff’s office it is, where there’s a brand new, hardly-ever-used jail cell just waiting for you,” he said, shaking one big fat finger in the dirty little female’s face.

This seemed to be the end of the interview, so Telt signaled to Mr. and Mrs. Buttrum, Lottie, Percy and Shorty, and the townspeople, and of course the dogs, Queenie and Peanut, to adjourn to his office.

His signal moved everyone, everyone but the muleskinner gal.

She harkened them back by clearing her throat loud enough for all to hear. Smiling sweetly, her eyes going to one and all she announced, “I’ll be along very shortly, after I’ve watered my animals and made myself more presentable.”

Telt, everyone, stood there watching as she hiked up her long duster coat, revealing several inches of trim, stocking-encased leg, to hoist herself up onto the hub of the wheel, without any assistance, and climb over the side of the wagon to the wagon seat. Before sitting down and taking up the reins, she shoved the big black mongrel over, murmuring endearments to the beast as if he were the dearest, most gentle of pets, then yelled out a sharp “Yah!” that set her team into motion, turning them to go behind the mercantile to the open meadow out back.

“Well, don’t that take the prize,” Telt grumbled, removing his hat and slapping it against his thigh while dust from the retreating wagons blew in his eyes, and the eyes of all gathered. The woman definitely thought of herself as royalty, and everyone could await her presence. Somehow, it tickled his senses. Buttrum wasn’t going to be amused. That held its own appeal.

CLICK HERE TO GO TO CHAPTERS 3 AND 4

 

The Source Flash Fiction Contest Winner “One Arm Tied Behind My Back” by Dorothy A. Bell

One Arm Tied Behind My Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insomnia, In Twilgiht Hues, A poem by Dorothy A. Bell

Insomnia, In My Gentle Twilight Hues

by Dorothy A. Bell

In the black and white

Before she decides the color of the day,

The earth lies still and stark,

And I rest in a sleepless haze.

In my head,

Upon a stage, miniscule and grand

A shade, I call insomnia, splatters across the bleak pre-light.

Applying a creative pallet.

Here I lay suspended

Between dream-world

And reality

Seeking relief from my body’s

Screaming pain.

To ignore the pest

I turn up the volume

On an old, familiar dream.

At first, the vision floats out of focus.

I tune it in…

Sharpen the scene

I know  every player’s part.

If I shift my body’s weight

The dream,

I fear,

will fall apart.

With the wild drumbeat of my heart

Pounding against my skull,

I take shallow breaths.

My organ’s constant rhythm interferes.

I know my heart is there,

blood and sinew,

Yet I resent the  intrusion.

What I crave, is my illusion,

Distraction from my pain is what I seek.

Garish color spreads across the cheek

Of the earth where I lay.

Ah, it’s here,

The dreaded light of a new day.

My eyes snap shut,

Behind closed lids,

I hold the darkness,

Snatching at a scrap of dream

To carry with me into the fray.

Now in broad daylight,

Hobbled by my infirmities,

Mind and body weary of the struggle,

If I close my eyes,

Return to that old dream,

Looking to escape my body’s unrelenting scream

In the gentle twilight hues of my insomnia.

mother to mother recipies

Christmas cookies/ heartburn free, practically

1 cup but5ter or margarine softened

1cup sugar

1 (3 oz) package cream cheese, softened

1egg yolk

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 1/4 cups unsifted flourj

combine all ingredients except flour, beat with mixer until well blended then add flour.

Roll out balls of dough onto floured surface and cut into shapes.

Bake  at 375 until edges are golden brown. Frost and decorate at to suit.

Grandma Dickinson’s carrot cookies

Really? Yup, made with actual carrots.

1 cup of cooled, cooked and mashed carrots.

Cream together-3/4 cup margarine, 3/4 cup sugar, add carrots, 1 teaspoon vanilla, then add in 2 cups of flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon grated orange rind. Spoon onto baking sheet. Bake at 375 for approximately 12 minutes. Frost. Suggestions: top each cookie with half of a maraschino cherry before baking and add some grated orange rind to the frosting.

Grandma Cynthia’s Apple Dumplings

3 medium apples cut in half or 6 small apples pealed and cored. (Save peelings for syrup).

Dough

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup margarine or butter

5 and ½ tablespoons of ice water

Cut in ingredients as you would a pie crust dough. Roll dough out on floured surface–thin; cut 6 squares and place apple on the dough adding cinnamon, and a squeeze of lemon or lemon rind or both. Add sugar, a tablespoon approximately, and a dot of butter, wrap ½ or small apple in each square and place in a greased, deep baking dish and chill while preparing the syrup.

Syrup

Bring 1 and 1/2 cups of water to a boil, reduce heat, and add peelings, allow to simmer for 20 minutes. Pre-heat oven to 375, remove peels, add to liquid 1/2 cup sugar and 2 tablespoons of margarine, allow to sit until sugar is dissolved.

Brush the dumplings with a slightly beaten egg white; sprinkle with sugar and pour the syrup mix over the dumplings. Bake for 40 minutes or until tender

Serve warm with cream, or ice cream. Peaches may be substituted for apples.

Peach Kuchen

Sift together 2 cups flour

¼ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoons salt

1 cup sugar

Cut in ½ cup butter, spread in bottom of baking pan forming around sides, saving back some to sprinkle on top of 12 peach halves arranged on the bed of sugar flour mix. Cook 15 minutes then pour a cup of heavy cream, (or sour cream) mixed with 2 beaten egg yolks over the top and cook 30 minutes more at 400 degrees.

“An Exercise in One-syllable Words” a fairy tale

THE BABE AND THE BLUE CAT

BY

DOROTHY A. BELL

 (An exercise in one-syllable words)

A cloak of dark

hid the boy with hair of fire.

To make a torch of the wood,

he flew close to the land!

His eye to the rise,

and the first ray of sun,

he saw the crone in her black cart.

He heard her caw!  Caw!

Her call to lead him back to the croft!

“Dark will stay to hold the night!”

The crone did chant.

“Sun be gone!

Fire burn!

Lift the cloud to chase the day!”

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 was in the wood!

A shrill caw, caw… 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, purr” said the cat.

“Chert and stone!

Pearl and bone!”

sang the cat 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,

“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!

And in her wake, a slick of oil!

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!

As he sat on the floor,

the cat at his side,

a beam of gold from the sun to warm his blonde head,

“Chert and stone!

Pearl and bone!”

sang the babe.

“Purr, purr,”

said the blue cat.

The End

Schoolmarm at home

Schoolmarm at home

This is a photo taken probably 1915 or 16 of Cynthia Birdie Alice Beard-Bell when she was about 21 or 22 years old. She was the new schoolmarm for the little country school in Brogan, Oregon near the town of Ontario, Oregon. She lived in that tent, we’re not certain for how long, but it gets darned cold out there in eastern Oregon. I think I see frost and snow on the ground. She married Wayne Allen, my husband’s grandfather,  in 1917 and continued to teach school in Brogan.Upon her marriage, she moved into an actual home on a small farm near the school. The Allens raised 3 children on that farm where they grew grain and sheep until they closed the eastern Oregon open range policy  in 1934. At that time the family picked up and moved to Kings Valley, Oregon in the Willamette Valley.

Me and Smokey

“Forget me Not” by Sherokee Ilse

Our little ones whisper,

“Forget me not”,

As their specialness wraps

around our heart.

Their short little lives

Hold meaning and love.

Their spirits have touched

us each and everyone.

they have left their gifts

For us to uncover,

If we open our eyes,

our hearts and our lives.

The road to discovery

is hilly and dark.

Will we long harbor the pain

or set our wings for the light?

Our lives have been changed,

our paths filled with sorrow.

Yet their memories embrace us

and our love lasts forever.

If we open our hearts,

their gifts shall unfold,

as we

forget them not.

Oregon Trail near Baker City still visible

This photo was taken near the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center near Baker City, Oregon. Out there in the middle,  looking westward toward the Blue Mountains, you can see the trail. It’s faint but the ruts are there. What a lonesome place it must have been, what an awesome aspect it remains.

Crooked River Railroad bridge, near Redmond, Oregon under construction sometime around 1909.

This road, in the Blue Mountains of Northeastern Oregon, was probably made recently by man and  machine. Now imagine a road such as this, but imagine it worn down to dust and ruts not by a modern day machine, but by the hooves of oxen and horses,  iron-rimmed wagon wheels with spokes of wood rolling over it, carrying the covered wagons, and the intrepid, footsore immigrants.

A string of freight wagons circa 1900/1910

Meow, bark, bark! Smile pretty!

Rocky cat                                                         gentle Bud                                                    Corky, loveable brat

The title of this photo TRUCE.  Corky and Rocky sharing a rare moment of peaceful, mutual interest.