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.
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