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.
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.
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