“What is that?”
When Lacey, stifling in the dim interior of the coach, heard these words, her curiosity got the better of her. Despite the objections of the two other passengers, she struggled to twist around and open the window as they jostled along. Looking this way and that, she immediately spied what had made the driver comment. “Stop, driver! We have to help her,” Lacey called, brushing a lock of her unruly long brown hair out of her face.
“Not sure we should, miss. Could be a trap. See, the bad guy sets out a lady like that, then when we stop to help her, he comes out of cover and—”
“But there is no cover. Look around! Not a rock or tree in sight. Now, stop this instant!”
Before the coach pulled to a stop, Lacey was already out, trotting over to the young woman lying on her side by the road. “What happened, dear?” Lacey asked in a sympathetic but business-like manner. “Are you injured or just sick?”
“Thought ‘could make it,” the girl replied in a cracked voice. She spoke strangely, almost as if she hadn’t spoken in a while.
Lacey looked down at her parched lips, dusty dust dress and flushed face. “Of course you did. And you will, make it, that is. I’ll see to that myself.”
“Make what?” The driver had appeared at her side.
“I don’t know,” Lacey whispered in a curt aside to him. “She’s suffering from heat stroke. She doesn’t know what she’s saying.”
“I can take her as far as the next town, but that’s it. Company policy. You’re not getting off until the stop after that.”
“I’ll pay her fare all the way to Molenose with me. Just get her in the coach so I can give her some water from my flask.”
She was duly picked up and the two men already in the coach helped in pulling her onto the bench opposite them while Lacey followed her up. Lacey dug her flask out of the basket at her feet and held the girl’s head while she drank.
“Just sips now, miss,” said one of the men. Of the two male passengers, he was the one Lacey liked better, though his rough cowboy clothes and unshaven face inspired little confidence. She called him Cowboy in her mind because she couldn’t remember the name he had given at the beginning of their journey. “Too much and she’ll be sick.”
“You hear that? Just sips, now,” Lacey coached the girl.
She nodded and sipped obediently. “Thank you. Thank you so much. ‘Thought ‘would make it.” She gave a strange little pause where the missing words should have been.
It made Lacey wonder about her background, but it wasn’t the time or place to satisfy her curiosity. “Make what?” Lacey asked kindly.
“Next town. ‘Thought it would take a day, but been walking two already and don’t seem no nearer. ‘Got lost.”
“What happened to your gear?” Cowboy asked.
“What gear?” the girl asked in return.
Lacey took a moment to digest what she was saying. A day-long journey out in the open with no gear? She always packed a bag when she went to spend the night with a girlfriend. Her heart went out to this poor creature. “What’s your name, dear?”
“Tess,” she answered simply, as if she hadn’t expected anyone to want to know.
Cowboy seemed more concerned with her situation than her feelings. “Where were you coming from with no gear?”
Tess shrugged and glanced over her shoulder toward the East. “From ‘hills. ‘Watering hole ‘was counting on dried up. ‘Didn’t know.”
Cowboy rubbed his chin. “The watering hole at Steggles Canyon dried up three months ago. You haven’t been down from the hills in all that time?”
“Used to come to town once a month, but not since Pa died. Never come down by myself before, but… ‘food ran out. Then the horse run off and never come back.” What with her strange way of pausing and speaking, Lacey almost missed her hesitation about giving her reason for leaving the hills, but it made her wonder even more.
“Well, we’ll get you some food once we get to Molenose. I ate all my food already or I’d give you some right now.” Lacey eyed the men across from her, but neither of them gave any indication that they had any food available either.
“She shouldn’t eat just yet anyway,” Cowboy put in. “Don’t want her getting sick. Say, I’m getting off at Corinth. I’ll see to her.”
Lacey looked at him again. “Thank you, sir, but it’ll be more proper if I take her with me.”
“What do you need with a girl? Corinth will be glad of another female.”
“She’s not a commodity to be distributed fairly. She’ll be going with me.”
“If Corinth wants girls, maybe better go with him. Going to saloon anyway. No place else to go. Heard they needed help.” She sounded stronger after the water and the rest, but Lacey was still concerned.
“They always need female help.” This came from the other man now suddenly taking an interest in the proceedings. Lacey had figured him for a gambler, with his neat suit and assessing eyes. Her brothers had pointed out to her the types of men to watch out for. The gambler across from her seemed to be a typical specimen.
“If that’s the kind of girl you are, I’m your man. Joe Farely’s the name. You’d better leave her to me, miss.” He addressed this to Lacey. “She’s not the kind of girl you should be associating with. Here, switch places with me. Those brothers who put you on the train in Rivera wouldn’t want you touching the likes of her.”
Tess got a stricken look on her pale face. “Didn’t know that. ‘Don’t know about town ways.” She sat up and drew away from Lacey.
Lacey put her hand out and stopped her but addressed her curt remarks to the gambler. “If you noticed my brothers on the train platform then you must realize I can get around them when I want to. And what they warned me about was not girls like her, but rather men like you, so don’t you go getting all righteous on me.”
“How did you get rid of your brothers?” the gambler asked in a calmly interested manner as if he were making notes on a fellow professional’s methodology. “You might as well tell me. There’s nothing I can do to keep you from getting to Molenose anyway.”
Lacey gave him another assessing glance, agreed with his premise and couldn’t help showing off a bit. “We were waiting for the train from Rivera to Collinsville where I was going to visit a friend then come on to Molenose on the coach from there. I told them I had changed my mind about going to Molenose and declared my intention to see my Auntie Margaret, then jumped on the train heading East before they could stop me.
“So how did you end up on this coach?” Farely asked.
“While the boys were searching the train carriage by carriage, I jumped off the train on the other side from where I boarded. I then ran around to the coach office and hopped on the stage that was coming straight to Molenose. I made it just as the coach was pulling away. I knew that it was coming straight to Molenose because we had just put my trunks on it.”
The cowboy looked interested despite himself. “Females! Who can figure them? Why would you put your trunks on the coach if you were supposed to take the train?”
Lacey gave him a sympathetic smile. “I didn’t need my trunks in Collinsville. I was only going to stay a day or two, so I was just carrying my valise. My brothers were actually going to meet me in Molenose, but now they can’t do that. They’ve missed both this coach, which is the only direct coach this week and the train to Collinsville, if they want to look for me there. I suppose they might show up in Molenose after a day or two.”
“That little meeting might not be any fun,” Farely posited with a mocking grin.
“I’m sure you’re right, but oh, well. They’ll get over it. And it will take a day or two for them to figure out where I’ve gone and what I’ve done, so I’ll have a little time to look around me and get the lay of the land, so to speak. By the time they realize I’m not with Auntie Margaret…”
“But why would you do such a thing, miss? Were they mean to you? We don’t put up with abuse of women round these parts. They’re too scarce. If you’d have told somebody, they’d have helped you.”
“Oh, no. They weren’t being mean. Just bossy as per usual. With five older brothers I’ve learned a thing or two about escaping a gilded cage every once in a while, especially when I want to make up my own mind about something as I do now. I’m on my way to meet the man they want me to marry, and I decided I’d like to get to know him without the three youngest brothers hulking over my shoulder the whole time. Only fair to him, really. No man would look his best with six suspicious eyes fixed on him.”
The gambler sat back but continued to study her with an insolent eye. “Three brothers just coming to watch over their little sister? You must be quite a troublemaker, miss. My kind of girl, eh?”
“Not at all. They’re coming to begin work on their new ranch. It’ll be a joint venture with each brother taking care of the things he knows best. One for the general outside work, one for the financial or legal matters and one for the glad-handing and bargaining needed to set up a large concern like this. I’ll be helping them get everything set up so they can bring their families eventually.”
“And you’ll also apparently be checking out a potential husband. Sounds like a lot of work for a girl your age,” Farely observed…”
“My age? You make it sound like I’m a schoolgirl. I’ll have you know I’m almost twenty-one.”
The gambler gave her a slow sly grin. “Old enough to make up your own mind, indeed. If you decide you’d rather chart your own course, you could come with me and Tess here. Always room for one more.”
“On the highway to perdition? No thank you. Tess isn’t going anywhere with you and neither am I.” She gave him the quelling look she usually reserved for recalcitrant tradesmen trying to cheat her.
Cowboy sat forward, his fists clenched. “Too right you are, miss.”
Lacey sat back and noticed Tess had fallen asleep. When they pulled into Corinth a little while later, Farely tipped his hat and gave her a cheeky salute. “I’m the new owner of the Six-gun Saloon. Won it in a poker game a month ago. I’m here to see if it’s an investment worth keeping. Remember my offer.”
While Cowboy growled as he climbed down out of the coach, Lacey looked down and realized Tess had opened her eyes and was about to sit up. She put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Molenose is where we’ll be if you ever want to sell your saloon, give up gambling, take the temperance pledge and generally turn over a new leaf.” To add to the effect she started whistling one of the temperance hymns that were popular that year at the ladies meetings she attended. This particular one mentioned the evils of rum by name but she sang it mostly because she enjoyed the tune.
Her little performance elicited a hearty guffaw from both Cowboy and Farely as they walked away. Not for the first time in her life did Lacey overhear a male voice say, “You’ve got to admit, she’s got pluck.”
* * *
“She’s expected on the three o’clock stage,” Harold told his teller as he stood up from his large desk behind a decorative railing in the back of the bank. “Hold down the fort while I go greet her.” Straightening his tie with an excited hand, the slender young man hastened across the street.
“Maybe you should get a quick one under your belt. Dutch courage, you know?”
Harold looked around at the speaker. “Oh, it’s you Sheriff. You startled me.”
“I thought I’d greet the new arrivals.”
“These Alton brothers are perfectly respectable, I assure you. There’s no need to lay down the law to them like you do newly arriving cowpokes and drifters. I know you won your office by promising to clean up our little town and make it more civilized. It’s something the old Sheriff wasn’t willing to put the effort into. Well, I can promise you the Alton family is just the sort of influence you want to help you in your laudable efforts.”
“Don’t get your spurs in a knot, Mr. Bank President. I’m just intending to welcome them to town. As you say, they’re the sort we want and it never hurts to make a good first impression.” He puffed up his chest and pretended to shine his badge with his shirt cuff.
“If I wore spurs,” Harold shot back good-naturedly, “it would take more than a few words from the likes of you to get them knotted.”
“You’ve got that right. If I get cross-ways of you, I know you’ll skin me to the bone at the game Thursday night.”
Harold stopped at the door of the saloon, then thought better of it. “I don’t want to greet her with whiskey on my breath.” The men walked on.
“You’d better get used to passing the saloon like this anyway,” the other man mocked. “With a wife waiting at home for you, your days of whiling away hours bending your elbow are over.”
“And don’t I know it. Home cooking every night. A sweet face to look at over the table. Oh, sorry, Zach. I forgot.”
“It’s okay. I’m happy for you.”
“Maybe Betty will change her mind again once she gets used to the idea.”
“Not likely. She let me know the day I pinned on this badge she didn’t intend to link her lot in life to a lowly sheriff.”
“I suppose it was a shock when you got elected. The last sheriff served for over ten years. Everybody thought he was a shoe in.”
“She knew I was running. She just didn’t think I would win, and when I did, she wasted no time in handing me my walking papers. If she can walk away so easily, maybe she’s not the girl I thought she was.”
“That’s a very astute observation,” Harold declared. Seeing the blank look on his friend’s face, he amended, “You said a mouthful.”
Zach nodded and then went on, “I don’t begrudge you finding a great gal to marry. In fact, I’ve heard it said more than once that the best way to find a wife is make friends with a married man. So, once you’re married, maybe you can help me find a gal. One with a little more grit than Betty.”
“Sure thing. I’ll bet Miss Lacey has a gaggle of friends just waiting around to meet a dashing romantic figure like a sheriff. If her brothers hadn’t pressured her into agreeing to this engagement, I doubt she would have given this old banker a second glance. Nothing very romantic about banking.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that. And anyway, you don’t have to worry about that anymore. You’re not starting a collection, are you? You’ve got yours already picked out.”
“I do,” Harold agreed as they reached the stage coach office and turned around to look up the street to the end of town from which the coach would come. “But then again, we’re not married yet. I’ll still have to woo her and win her, you know. They were able to influence her to come to Molenose and give me a chance, but…”
“Until the ring’s on her finger, you have to stay on your toes. Nobody knows that better than me,” Zach asserted.
They waited in silence for several minutes. At first, all Harold could see was a small cloud of dust, but eventually that cloud grew until it was dissipated by the coach itself, coming to a stop in front of the stage coach office. As Harold was hurrying forward to open the door, his shoelace caught in a crack in the last step. He went flying and landed face down in the street.
By the time he was able to pick himself up to a kneeling position and extricate his shoelace from the crack, he realized that Zach had stepped forward and helped one skirt-clad figure down out of the coach. She looked just like she had when he first met her, clad all in the latest fashions, her face resembling an angelic general who had temporarily misplaced the heavenly army.
Harold realized that it must have taken him a while to collect himself because his intended was now standing behind him. It surprised him then, when a movement from near the coach caught his eye. He looked over his shoulder to see another skirt, admittedly ragged but still definitely modest, descending the steps that pulled down to help coach passengers alight. He straightened up, then promptly sat back down heavily on the ground in stupefaction. “There you are!” he announced, his gaze fixed upon the coach and the girl alighting from it.
“Is this the one?” Zach asked, looking at the coach as well.
“There who is?” a female voice asked behind Harold.
Clambering to his feet, Harold reluctantly turned his back to the girl still holding onto the coach and faced the girl who had stood behind him. “Miss Lacey, I uh… how nice to uh… lovely to… uh, wonderful to see you again!” His face burned hot with embarrassment and he fished in his pocket for a handkerchief. “It’s been a long time since the party.”
“So this is the one. I thought so,” Zach commented in a disappointed tone as he took a step toward Lacey.
Lacey stepped forward and put out her hand. Harold, remembering his manners, responded in kind. When she hesitated to actually clasp his offered hand, he looked down and realized to his horror that it still held his handkerchief. He jerked that hand away as if she had burned him. She laughed and put her hand to her heart as she said, “That’s all right, Mr. Earhart.”
“No, no! I meant to… I mean…” He shoved his handkerchief back in his pocket and grabbed at her hand, bringing his hand in scandalous proximity to highly inappropriate parts of her anatomy.
She stepped back, still laughing, but also shocked. “Mr. Earhart!”
Zach stepped up. “Now, see here, Earhart.”
“I’m sorry.” He jerked his hand away so quickly that he had to take a step backward toward the coach. Since the other girl was still standing behind him, between him and the coach, she was set off balance and nearly fell back into the steps. He reached out to catch her, grasping the first part of her he could reach. It happened to be her shirtfront, which ripped with a sound loud enough to alert three counties.
Zack was already taking off his coat as he let out a ripe curse. “Which one is it, Earhart? You can’t have both of them.”
At this, Lacey doubled up with laughter. Even the other girl let out a giggle, though to Harold she appeared to be tottering where she stood. Stepping away from the two young women so that he could face them both, he took a deep breath as he always did when he wanted to calm himself. “Let’s begin this again, shall we? Miss Lacey, so nice to see you again. And may I enquire as to how your journey was and who your charming companion is?”
Lacey Alton gave a slight curtsey as she brought her mirth under control. “This is Tess. She has recently come down from the hills where she resided with her father until his recent tragic passing.”
“Tess,” breathed Harold. “How lovely… to meet you. Lovely to meet you.” He couldn’t take his eyes off her, but only because she looked like she might faint.
“She needs a doctor, Mr. Earhart. I hate to impose, but I’m afraid it’s rather urgent,” Miss Alton declared.
“Does she need a doctor? Oh, yes, you just said that, didn’t you? A doctor. Yes. Yes, of course, a doctor.” Still he just stood there, gaping at her. He had thought never to see her again. It was the same girl. It had to be. The first of each month, rain or shine she stood outside his bank while her father collected from him his army pension which their agent in Austin picked up from Fort Henson on the behalf of several pensioners in the area. Every month for more than a year, he had looked forward to that day, even giving his suit an extra brushing in anticipation of the event. And then, three months ago, she hadn’t come. It had been quite a blow, though he had never gotten beyond a nod and a “good afternoon” with her. Every time he had gone out to see her, she had glanced into the bank fearfully and backed away from him.
Now, after he had given up hope, after he had given in to Miss Alton’s brother’s entireties and agreed to ask Miss Alton to marry him, here this girl was again, looking like a soft breeze might blow her away, but all the more attractive to him for the gratitude he saw in her eyes when she looked at Miss Alton. He offered an arm to each young lady. “The doctor’s office is right this way.”
Zach stepped up beside Lacey. “You still trying to keep both of them?”
Lacey laughed uproariously at this. “How you do go on, Mr… Uh…”
“Mr. Zach Eagan at your service,” Zach replied.
“Well, Mr. Eagan, if you don’t mind, I think you’d better carry Tess the rest of the way. She probably shouldn’t walk.”
Harold hardly noticed the strange smile Zach gave her. “Earhart can do it.” He gently pulled Lacey away as Tess swayed.
Harold swept her up in his arms as if she weighed no more than a kitten. Zach offered Lacey his arm again. “He’s stronger than he looks.”
“That wouldn’t be hard to achieve,” she muttered.
Harold wondered what she meant, but his concern was all for the girl in his arms. She felt so comfortable there. It was wrong. Wasn’t he committed to another? He steeled himself to act with honor toward these two young ladies. He would fulfill his obligations. He had given his word. But Miss Alton had asked him to help Tess. Miss Tess, he corrected himself mentally. He would prove his regard for Miss Alton by helping her friend.
He charged into the doctor’s exam room without regard to doors or protests. “She’s hurt, Doctor. Please, help her!” Harold exclaimed.
“Hey, Earhart! Let a man get decent, will you? Doc’s just finishing up working on my… aw, heck! Oh, excuse me, miss! I didn’t see you there.” The patient, whom Harold suddenly noticed and recognized to be the dry goods store owner, Willard Matheson hastily tried to cover his bare backside with a sheet.
“Oh, sorry, Willard!” He exclaimed. Having laid Tess down on the bed in the corner, he started to back away.
“Don’t back away, you nincompoop!” This order came from the doctor. “Stand in front of her till I can get Matheson covered up.”
Zach’s head appeared in the doorway but he kept walking in a kind of parody of a square dance promenade as he guided Lacey back out of the scene of the chaos, a maneuver for which Harold would be forever grateful. He had no wish to expose even one girl, much less two of them, to the unsightly figure he had beheld. He trusted Tess’s eyes had been closed anyway, so she hadn’t seen much if anything.
The doctor quickly drew a screen in front of Willard. Before the man could hasten out of the room, the physician had already rounded the barrier and was listening to Tess’s heart with his stethoscope. “Out of the way! Out of the way! Right now! Let me work.”
Harold practically ran for the door, but as he jerked it open, the doctor bellowed, “Don’t leave! What kind of idiot are you? Tell me what happened.”
Lacey’s voice filtered in through the closed door. “I can tell you better than he can.”
“Maybe you’d best come in then, young lady,” the doctor ordered.
Harold threw open the door and changed places with Lacey. It was easy enough to hear what was going on since the door, like the rest of the building was not exactly built to perfect plumb. There was a crack under it an inch wide but that was nothing to the slope of the floor. In the outer waiting room, similar chaos reigned. Ledger books were stacked haphazardly in most of the chairs, the table held a basket of eggs along with the ink and fountain pen and a ham hung in the corner off a coat rack.
“Calm down,” Zach began. “You’re not helping anybody by pacing like that.”
“Calm down and pipe down,” the doctor echoed. “I can’t hear her heartbeat for your stomping around.” There was a moment of complete silence while Harold stopped, stock still, in the middle of the room. “She’s fine. Just passed out from the heat. Happens all the time. Been eating none too well of late,” the doctor explained. “Any fool can see that, but if we give her a cool sponge bath and get some broth into her, she’ll be fine. What was all the commotion about, young lady?”
“Me? I wasn’t the one who burst in here like a bomb going off,” Lacey said defensively.
“Yes, but you know how men are when women faint. You should have reined him in.”
“I’ll do that next time,” Lacey said dryly.
“See that you do. And I suppose I can trust you to follow my instructions to the letter? If not, I’ll have to keep her here in the clinic overnight and that costs a pretty penny.”
“I’ll pay you for your services and in coin rather than farm produce, so have no worries on that score,” Lacey said in a businesslike manner. “But yes, I will take care of her myself and not let the men rush over here in a panic for no reason.”
“Let’s get her clothes off of her so we can make her more comfortable with that sponge bath. It won’t be hard to do. This dress is not much more than a rag anyway and somebody already started the job.”
“That was an accident,” Lacey explained, “And was kindly meant.”
Harold felt relieved as he heard these words. At least she knew he wasn’t a brute. Just clumsy. And incompetent. He found himself feeling grateful that Tess had been mostly unaware of what was going on around her.
The doctor raised his voice, so Harold knew he was addressing them again. “You two go out and find her folks. They’ll need to know what’s going on. Haven’t I seen her around town with her father?”
“You have, but… from what Miss Alton says, Old Mr. Sorenson must have passed away. I know he hasn’t been in to collect his pension in three months,” Harold called back in his usual composed manner.
Lacey spoke up. “She told me in the coach that her father passed away three months ago and her food ran out.”
The doctor came out of the room and closed the door behind him. “She’ll need some care and some fattening up, but she’ll be fine. What a way to begin a courtship, eh, Earhart?”
Harold could feel his color rising again. “Does everybody in town know about this arrangement?”
The doctor nodded. “Just like everybody knows about Eagan’s trouble. Sorry to hear about that, Sheriff. That’s no way for a girl to treat her man. But as for this Lacey Alton, do you know what you’re getting in to?”
“Does anybody know what they’re getting into when they get married?” Zach answered for his friend.
Lacey cleared her throat before stepping out into the waiting room. “I’ve bathed her once and she’s sleeping peacefully. It’s wonderfully cool in here.”
“The sun’s setting and this office is in the shade of a large oak,” the doctor informed her. “Always the coolest place in town outside the saloon.”
“If you can sit with her a few minutes, we need to arrange to have her taken over to the hotel. I’ll need to buy her a nightdress as well. I thought I noticed a store on the way over here.” Lacey pulled her gloves out of her reticule and onto her hands.
Harold hadn’t even noticed she was carrying a reticule or anything else. “Shall I escort you to the hotel first? I imagine you’d like to freshen up. We could have a nice dinner. I’ll send a note over to the store. Matheson has some good clerks who will send something suitable.” He tried to make his voice as enthusiastic as he could, but he had no real desire to do anything but see to Tess’s needs himself. Thankfully, Lacey had the same idea.
“No, no, all that can wait, don’t you think? I’m sure you see that a young lady’s health and safety are more important. Of course you do.” Lacey put her arm under his elbow and smiled up at him in a persuasive manner. She was rather pretty and it pleased him how generous and considerate she was of a total stranger, especially his Tess.
Then Harold shook his head. She was not his Tess and never could be. At least he would be stuck with a young lady who had plenty of kindness and energy about her, not to mention good humor. She seemed to be smiling at him now. He noticed that when he turned from the door behind which Tess was lying. He supposed he had been staring, as if he could see through it to the patient lying without a nightdress on the bed. The heat rose to his face again. “As you wish. Matheson’s Dry Goods Store is right over there. They have the best selection of clothing in town, at least as far as men are concerned. I don’t know about young ladies’ clothing.”
“And why would you?” Lacey laughed. “You can safely leave the ladies’ clothing to me. Are you coming, Mr. Eagan?”
“I think I’ll stay here and talk to the patient when she wakes up,” he replied.
* * *
The next afternoon, Lacey sat by the open window stitching on a collar of a shirt she was making for her oldest brother. Al would be the one to work on. The others would fall in line with whatever he said and Lacey had no doubt that he would have quite a bit to say to her once he arrived. Harold, and somehow she called him Harold when she thought of him, had sent a telegram immediately to inform her brothers of her safe arrival, but Lacey knew that at least Al would come on the next coach. The others might take their time following, if she were lucky.
She hated the distraction of trying to figure out what she would say to him to convince him that she had made a mistake, but convince him she must. From the neat little shop, to the clean little hotel room with two twin beds, to the homey little restaurant, Lacey had seen one thing for certain: Harold was not for her. A fine man. A good-hearted man. So intelligent, mostly sophisticated, with a charming nervousness around the opposite sex, but utterly unsuitable for her. She was leading him around by the nose within a quarter hour. An excellent thing in a friend and even a business partner, but not what one wants in a husband, she mused.
She looked at her patient. Tess had woken up long enough to drink some broth and had sipped plenty of water throughout the night, but had not really sat up and spoken to anyone yet, so it was with relief that Lacey noted signs of stirring now.
“Ah, there you are, sleepyhead! Feeling better?” Lacey asked cheerfully.
Tess struggled to sit up. “Yes, ‘am, but… what happened to my clothes?” There was that charming pause again where the personal pronoun should be.
“That’s not the usual question,” Lacey remarked with a chuckle. “Don’t you like the ones you’ve got on? I thought it was a very nice nightdress.”
Tess looked down. “It is nice, but ‘don’t have no money. ‘Can’t pay for finery like this.”
“Oh, no, it’s still my finery, as you call it. I’m just loaning it to you. And you can borrow a dress, too, if you’re ready.” This lie came tripping off her tongue like most lies did, without her thinking much about the consequences. She knew this girl would be too proud to take what she would consider charity, so Lacey decided on the spot to pretend it all belonged to her and would have any possibility of fitting Lacey. Tess was at least a foot taller than Lacey, so the dresses would hang off her like a flag on a still day, but the girl didn’t need to know that.
“‘Ready for the privy is what ‘ready for.”
Lacey laughed. “That’s a good sign.”
Not long afterward, they had taken care of all the necessities and were seated on either side of the table by the window eating a light lunch Lacey had ordered up from the restaurant. They usually didn’t allow food in the rooms, but for her, of course, they made an exception. Lacey had tipped generously, as was her habit, but the lightness of her purse reminded her that her funds were not limitless. Time to stop spending like a cowboy after a trail drive, she mused, but it had all been for a good cause.
As they were finishing up and Lacey was helping Tess back onto her bed for a quick nap, a knock came at the door. Lacey rose and opened the door to Zach Eagan, her eyes running up and up and up until she finally met his eyes under his dark brow and curly hair. He cleared his throat as he fixed her with a stern gaze that stood in contrast to his quirky little smile. “I thought you were going to send word to me when she woke up.”
Lacey backed up and let him pass. “She just now ate her first meal in I don’t know how long. She’ll need to rest.”
“And I need to talk to her,” Zach insisted. Without asking, he drew up a chair and sat by the bedside. “Alone.”
“Alone in a hotel room? I think not,” Lacey shot back. “It’s not proper.”
“All right. Stay if you like, but I’ll ask you not to interrupt. I need to hear her story in her own words.” Zach turned to Tess and Lacey noticed that his smile was back, but his eyes remained harder than one would expect in so handsome a man. “So, Miss Tess,” Zach began in a severely confidential manner, which Lacey was glad to note held not even one hint of condescension, “would you please tell me how you came to Molenose and what you intend to do here?” He was speaking to the girl as an equal, with respect and attention.
“Sure thing, sheriff. Pa told me to always mind ‘lawman and stay out of his way as he had criminals to catch and no time to waste on ‘likes of us.
Lacey and Zach exchanged a significant glance. She assumed he found that statement as suspiciously disingenuous as he did. “You can start by telling me where you live and how old you are.”
Lacey knew he was trying to establish what kind of problem he had on his hands and how much involvement she would require. “Nineteen or thereabouts. My ma never wrote down day ‘was born and she been gone these many a year.”
“And where do you live?”
“‘Used to live up in hills but Pa’s dead now.”
“And do you know who inherits the property?”
“Inherits?” It sounded to Lacey as if Tess had never heard the word.
“Who does the house go to? Who owns the land now? Do you have any brothers?”
“No, all Pa had was me and ‘house will go to who can take it. ‘Not strong enough to fight men off.” Tess said this in such a matter of fact voice that Lacey was thoroughly convinced that Tess believed that her father’s property would go to whoever came along to claim it.
Lacey couldn’t help interrupting. “You don’t have to fight men for your property. It was your father’s and now it’s yours.”
Zach cleared his throat. “Now, that depends. Do you know if your father owned the land? Or was he just kind of… borrowing it. Nobody will blame you either way.”
Lacey suddenly understood. Her father might have been a squatter, not a land-owner. “We’ll have Mr. Earhart look into it, shall we? If you can describe where the house is, he can look it up in the records at the county seat or even in the capitol if he has to.”
“‘Don’t want to put him to no trouble. ‘Can’t farm it anyway. Tried three months. Corn died. ‘Couldn’t till deep enough to plant. That’s why came to town. Get work. Got to eat.”
“Of course you have to eat, dear.” Lacey said sympathetically.
“Miss, please. Last I looked, I was wearing the badge, so I get to ask the questions. Now, what kind of work did you think to get?”
“Only work there is for a girl. Pa told me. Saloon girl. That’s why he told me to stay away from town, cause if ‘went to town, only thing to find there is saloon girl work and that’s bad, but at least they eat.”
“Your Pa told you that was the only kind of work for a girl in town? Did he tell you exactly what they’d want you to do in a saloon?” Zach asked gently.
“Not exactly. ‘Just figured on pouring drinks, cooking food, cleaning up after men. That’s what ‘did at home anyway.”
Lacey, shocked, waited to hear what he would say next. This girl wasn’t planning to be a saloon girl by choice, nor did she have any idea what it would entail. Lacey knew she shouldn’t know such things either, but she had sneaked around enough to understand quite a bit. Between her brothers’ books, conversations and some unauthorized late night wandering, Lacey’s education had been more extensive than that of most girls her age. She knew enough to realize that she had to do everything in her power to keep Tess away from that kind of life. But what would Zach say? Would he judge her and try to run her out of town? Or deliver her to the saloon himself, feeling she had no other future anyway?
“Well, Miss, I hate to contradict your father, but there are other options for young ladies, at least here in Molenose. If you can cook and clean, we have a plenty of families in the area that are always looking for help. But I want you to listen to me now. The saloon is not for you. It’s not a nice place. Don’t let me hear of you going there, do you understand?”
Tess nodded. “Not in Corinth, either? There’s a saloon there. Met ‘owner on ‘coach.”
“You met the owner of the saloon on the coach?” Zach repeated, disbelieving, looking to Lacey for confirmation.
Lacey nodded. “He tried to recruit her right then and there.”
“Said ‘wasn’t fit company for Miss Lacey here. Is that so?” Tess wanted to know.
Zach answered before Lacey could. “That’s for nobody but you and Miss Alton to decide. She seems to think you’re fit company, so that’s good enough for me and should be for you, too. But no saloons. Not in Molenose or in Corinth or anywhere.” He rose to go. “Miss Alton, I take it you’ll be looking out for Miss Tess here until she gets a more permanent situation?”
“Yes, indeed. Thank you for your help.” Lacey walked him to the door and looked up at him curiously. “That was very kind.”
“It was nothing to what you’re doing. Are you thinking of taking her on as a servant once you marry Earhart?” His tone sounded almost wistful as he asked this.
“I’m thinking of hiring her, yes, but as for marrying Mr. Earhart… well, I think we’ve both seen that cupid seems to have other ideas.” She enjoyed the shocked look on the sheriff’s face as she joined him in the hallway and closed the door behind her to speak with him out of Tess’s hearing. “Don’t try to tell me you didn’t notice how Mr. Earhart looked at Tess yesterday. And he called three times this morning. Tess was sleeping, so I only let him peek in at her, but really, it’s so obvious.”
“You think Earhart is smitten with Tess? They barely know each other. He only knew her father as a client.”
“Love is a strange and mysterious thing, Mr. Eagan.” She grinned up at him impishly. “All I know is, while I admire Mr. Earhart, he is not the man for me. Still, I like Molenose and will enjoy living here at the hotel until my three youngest brothers get settled on their ranch. Tess can help me in numerous ways as I prepare. For their arrival, I mean.”
“Prepare for their arrival?”
“Making curtains, ordering stoves and furniture. Things like that. My brothers are buying the Simpson place, so I’ll be able to measure and start work as soon as Tess is well enough. My three sisters-in-law have their hands full with young children and aging parents, so the task of taming the ranch has been left to me.”
“Quite the go-getter, aren’t you?”
Lacey gave him a winning smile, the one reserved for her brothers when they brought her nice presents or let her keep stray puppies. “Thank you. I do try.”
The banker came up just at that moment. “Sheriff? Is everything all right?”
Zach nodded. “I think we’ve come to an understanding. I’ll need Miss Alton here to look after Tess for a while. You haven’t got a problem with that, have you?”
“None at all,” Harold assured them. “I heard from the clerk downstairs that she has eaten some lunch. Is she well enough to come down to chat? I thought it might be nice for you ladies to have some tea or even supper.”
“That would be lovely,” Lacey agreed. “We’ll be right down.”
“I’ll go get us a table. Sheriff, will you join us?” Harold sounded almost desperate in his hope. Lacey thought she knew why. He didn’t want to be alone with her any more than she wished to be tête-à-tête with him.
“Please do, Mr. Eagan,” Lacey encouraged him.
“I’ll go get a table,” Harold said hastily and dashed down the stairs.
Zach cocked an eye at Lacey. “What are you up to?”
He lowered his brow. “You’re not going to lead him on, are you?”
“Not at all! I’ll tell him my intentions soon. Tonight or tomorrow at the latest, but I want him at least halfway in love with Tess before I do. He may be there already but I want to be sure. It’ll make everything so much easier. If he’s in love with her, I mean.”
“And what’s my part in all this?”
“You come down now and talk to me. That’ll give Mr. Earhart a chance to talk to Tess.”
“What am I supposed to talk to you about?”
Lacey wasn’t sure she liked his half-mocking manner. She could hardly tell if he was joking or not, but she answered him anyway. “Oh, anything at all. Sheriff-y things, if you like. I’ve read all the police-related penny-dreadfuls I could get my hands on and find it all wonderfully interesting.”
“Where did you get something like that?”
“My brothers, of course.”
“Of course,” Zach nodded.
Lacey only smiled brightly and opened the door. “We’ll be out shortly.” She scuttled inside and found Tess sitting up by the window again.
“Feeling much better. ‘Need to sit up. Get my strength back.”
“And we need to get you presentable. We’re going down to take a bit of supper with Mr. Earhart and Mr. Eagan in a few minutes.”
“Me? In ‘restaurant?”
“The restaurant,” Lacey corrected.
“The? Why do you say ‘I’ and ‘the’ all ‘time? ‘Noticed you do that.”
“It’s just how people talk, Tess. But I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have corrected you. I didn’t think. You talk however you want to.” Lacey stood behind Tess and slowly ran her brush through her dark brown curls.
“No, but ‘want to talk better. ‘Don’t know how.”
“You speak nicely enough, Tess, but if you want to speak better, just listen to me and try to say what I say. You should do fine. I’ll help you if you want.”
“Surely! ‘Can’t thank you enough!”
“Yes, you can. Seeing you happy and healthy is all the thanks I need.”
“All the thanks I need,” Tess repeated under her breath, stressing the pronoun she usually omitted.
* * *
“It’s a classic,” Lacey hissed. “We can’t pass up a chance like this. The swimming hole, the men in their long johns, the shirts and pants just lying there, asking us to take them. I can hear them calling my name. Can’t you?” Just a short walk out of town on the river road was one of their favorite haunts these days. The pines and junipers contested with the oaks to see which ones could stand the tallest and look the most majestic by the waterside, but it was the silly fun of wading in the still pond that tempted Lacey. In the two weeks they had lived in Molenose, they had made many wonderful discoveries, but it was the river that captured her attention the most.
The pond was formed by a little oxbow in the river and Lacey loved to think of the meandering current having been slowly caught by a shift in the sand and stuck there, taking on a life of its own, no longer part of the flow of the river, but its own entity. Of course, Lacey had taken this opportunity to teach Tess that this was what was meant by the term oxbow, so it was educational for them to visit the elongated pond that had resulted, perhaps years ago if the popularity of the place were any indication. They often met other girls there and enjoyed a good splash in the shady shallows on the edges of the water. It was usually the men who swam out into the deeper parts. When the girls spotted bathers already enjoying the spot, they always prudently and modestly beat a hasty retreat. Always? Well, not quite. Not with Lacey around.
“But we’d have to climb that tall rock or they’d see us. I’m not exactly hankering to have five cowboys hot on my trail, mad at me, as they’d have every right to be.” Still Tess laughed as she spoke.
Lacey could tell the idea appealed to her. “So we’ll climb it, but on the other side. See? There’s a way up through those boulders and that broken up stone there. That’s called scree, by the way.”
“Scree,” Tess dutifully repeated.
“There! Geology lesson for the day: climb that scree slope and get to the top of that boulder. Then we’ll have a literature lesson. We’ll re-enact the quest for the Holy Grail. I told you about that. Remember?”
“King Arthur and all his boys? They were hunting some cup, weren’t they?”
“Yes, exactly. The Holy Grail. Well, those clothes will be our Grail. Okay, geology first, then literature.” Up the two girls started to climb, scrambling over the scree, counting on the men’s good-natured banter and splashing to cover the noise of their approach. Once on top of the boulder that jutted out into the pond in a smooth slope that formed a kind of solid rock beach, they were able to sneak down to where the clothes lay piled about like little mushrooms growing here and there in a field. Each girl snatched up two piles and together they went and got the last one. Then it was up over the back of the boulder and down the slope of loose rocks and debris they scrambled, stifling their giggles in the men’s clothes.
“Ouch!” hissed Tess. “What was that?”
“Keep your voice down,” returned Lacey vehemently. “We can talk over there.” She pointed to a clump of trees that lined the road. Once they had reached that point, she paused to get her breath and ask, “What happened? Did you step on something?”
“No! I stuck myself on something in this shirt here.” Tess struggled to unfold the shirt on top of her pile of stolen booty. “This pile seemed awfully heavy, so I looked down and saw this. I think it’s a—”
Just then there arose a shout followed by a loud outcry of several men’s voices. Lacey looked up, suddenly frozen in overwhelming humor. “They’ve seen us. Not us, rather, but what we did. They’ve seen that the rock is empty and—” her voice cut off suddenly when she saw what her friend was holding out to her, then her laughter was re-doubled. “Oh, Tess, do you realize whose clothes you have there? And maybe his gun belt, too? This is too—”
Another jolt interrupted her victorious gloating. A horse galloped by, his rider cursing and spurring him on as if he were pursued by a demon.
“Oh, my. That isn’t what I expected at all,” Lacey breathed, suddenly concerned.
The laughter died on Tess’s lips as well. “Why is he riding like that? Those shouts don’t sound like men who’ve had a trick played on them.”
The imagined demon rode by a moment later, his dirty red long johns streaming water behind him in a kind of sprinkling stream. The man had obviously donned his boots and nothing more, since he’d had nothing more to put on, then gone in hot pursuit of some fugitive from justice. She knew that to be the case because what had pricked Tess from the contraband clothes when she’d stifled her giggles had been a sheriff’s badge.
* * *
“It wasn’t our fault,” Lacey kept telling Tess. “Just remember that. We did nothing wrong and in the end, we saved the day, didn’t we?”
“‘Don’t think that’s going to count for much.” Tess sat there in her chair in the sheriff’s private office looking downcast. “He’ll throw me out of town for sure, now. And Mr. Earhart won’t want to marry you, either.”
“Oh, Tess, don’t worry about that. I set Mr. Earhart straight on that matter several days ago. He took it with amazing good grace. Almost insulting really. He seemed to be relieved.” Lacey scowled at the memory, then brightened again. “Not that I’m complaining. I didn’t intend to hurt his feelings and I got my wish. He already knew he wasn’t going to marry me. Now he’s just a little more convinced that it was for the best.” She couldn’t stifle her laughter and neither could Tess.
So that’s the way Harold and Zach found them when they entered the office once more. “Well, isn’t this a fine pair of cooing doves,” Harold declared, obviously trying to look sour and failing miserably.
“More like laughing hyenas, if you ask me,” Zach declared, tucking his fresh shirt into his trousers.
“I’m sorry you had to wait, but I think you must admit the wisdom of the sheriff’s request that I attend this meeting,” Harold went on. “It gave the deputy time to go to Zach’s boarding house and get him some fresh clothes. He didn’t want to leave the building with you two still here, but he didn’t want to stay in his other sodden garments. So all in all the wait was necessary, don’t you think?”
“Well, I do hate to contradict,” Lacey said, turning on the doe-eyed charm guaranteed to turn the members of the sterner sex into so much jelly in her hand. “But I must observe that we could have waited in our hotel room. If the sheriff wishes to thank us, he can do it there.” She rose primly and took a pace toward the door before a steaming sheriff stepped in front of her. She sat down hastily.
Zach let out a wordless cry, reminding Lacey of what a chuckle merged with a howl might sound like. “Thank you? Thank you! There’s something I’d like to do to you and it rhymes with ‘thank’ but—”
“Now, Eagan, please. We can all be civilized here,” Harold admonished him. “While the end result has worked out favorably for all concerned, you two young ladies will still need to answer for you actions.”
“Which actions? The facilitating of the successful capture of a wanted man?” Lacey asked.
“Facilitating?” Tess queried.
“It means—” Lacey began.
Zach’s howl and chuckle merged with a roar to form a new sound that interrupted Lacey quite effectively. “This isn’t a darn vocabulary lesson and this isn’t a schoolroom, but oh, how I wish it was. Then I’d have a board of education handy and use it to teach two little brats the error of their ways! As a matter of fact, I do have—”
“Mr. Eagan, that would be most improper!” Lacey replied, hoping that Harold might be sympathetic enough to see things that way. Her hopes were soon dashed.
“Not improper at all, Miss Alton, and I’m sure you’ll agree it would be less damaging to your reputation than a jail sentence,” Harold replied smoothly.
“A jail sentence? He wouldn’t dare,” Lacey cried.
“Oh, wouldn’t he?” Zach answered, suddenly looking much calmer. “Since I haven’t got any male prisoners right now, you’d better believe I would. For a girl who stole property and interfered with a law enforcement officer in the discharge of his sworn duty.”
“Well, when you put it like that, of course it sounds worse,” Lacey admitted smoothly, “but I’m sure there’ll be no need for jail.”
Tess let out a wail. “Not jail, please. I would die of shame.”
Zach turned a stern but sympathetic look on Tess. “Not for you, Miss Tess. I know who was the ringleader in all this. I have no intention of putting you in jail.”
“That’s right,” Lacey said stoutly. “Tess was only following my lead.”
Harold spoke up. “Perhaps I could take Miss Tess back to the hotel and explain to her the dangers of following blindly when our friends try to lead us astray.”
At first, Lacey was all smiles at this suggestion. “Yes, indeed. That will do admirably. You go along with Mr. Earhart, Tess. Have a cup of tea in the hotel and try to steady your nerves. It’s been a trying day.” As soon as they left, however, she realized her error. “On second thought, I really ought to go with them.”
“Not so fast,” Zach declared hotly, towering over her chair.
“This is highly improper.”
“So is jail.”
“Oh, Sheriff Eagan, really. It was just a joke. Where’s your sense of humor?”
“I must have dropped it as I was galloping after a wanted criminal without my gun, or my pants for that matter. And why didn’t you just give my clothes and my gun to the man whose horse you stole? That would have been the sensible thing to do.”
“There wasn’t time. I realized the extent of the danger of the situation I had inadvertently put you in, so I just ran to the nearest horse and chased after you.” She saw no reason to inform the sheriff that it had been Tess actually holding his clothes. Keeping Tess out of this mess was her first priority. Her position was precarious enough.
A moment later, Zach proved he felt the same way with regards to Tess. “You know, Miss Alton, your behavior today makes me want to rethink my attitude toward your taking Tess under your wing. Is it really in her best interest for you to take charge of her education and well-being? She, by rights, should be the problem of the sheriff in Corinth.”
Lacey’s heart turned over. “Now, Mr. Eagan, really, you are making quite a mountain out of this little molehill. What harm was done? I’ll pay for any clothing that was ruined, but you must admit, you would have had on wet clothes anyway if we hadn’t… played our little prank. They would have been soaked by your sodden long johns. You wouldn’t have had time to let your undergarment dry out in the sun as I suppose you planned to do.”
“That’s true enough,” Zach admitted with ill grace. “The clothes getting wet from the inside out wasn’t your fault.”
“In fact, since there was no apparel for you to put on, you were able to begin your chase much faster. I actually saved you time.” She tried so hard to say this with a straight face, but she just couldn’t manage it. A grin seemed to trickle out of her heart and onto her face.
This set Zach off, but whether he was amused or angry, Lacey couldn’t tell. Exasperation seemed to be the overwhelming emotion his voice betrayed. “Saved me time? I had to go haring across the country in my long johns! Wet long johns at that! I looked like a crazed comet streaking across the landscape and then… and then when I caught up with him because his horse refused to jump a fence, I realized I didn’t even have my darn gun!”
“So that’s why I brought you your gun. It all worked out, didn’t it?” Honey seemed sour compared to her tone just then.
“And there you were, holding my clothes in one hand, pointing my own gun at me. If that skunk I was chasing could have stopped laughing we both would have been in serious trouble.”
“But he couldn’t. Stop laughing, I mean.”
“But I can. Stop laughing, I mean,” he repeated menacingly, throwing her words back at her, imitating her tone and expression. “Stand up and bend over that desk.”
She could tell the time for argument and jokes was over. “What are you going to do?”
“In my desk there’s a paddle, left over from the old sheriff. Knowing his wife, I can imagine it’s seen some good usage. He told me he had a paddle at home so he didn’t need this one, and I just kind of kept it here not knowing what else to do with it. Well, now I’m glad I did. I’m going to offer you a choice. Can you think of what that choice might be?”
“I imagine you’re suggesting that I can take a paddling or go to jail.” Lacey tried to keep her voice calm, but she knew any paddling from Zach would be serious business.
“If you take your licks like a good girl, I’ll forget about formal charges.” He paused for a moment. “But you’ll have to convince me you are really sorry before I trust you with Miss Tess anymore.”
Lacey stood up. “You couldn’t do anything about us being friends!”
“Oh, couldn’t I? Do you think she’d fight me if I told her I thought you were a bad influence on her? That I thought it was best for her to move back home for her own good? Somehow I can’t see that sweet little gal contradicting a lawman like that, can you?”
Lacey couldn’t. He was right and she was in a corner, at least figuratively if not literally. And maybe he had a point. She did need to settle down and think of what was best for Tess. Lacey herself had means and status in the community. She was safe from many of the dangers that would face a vulnerable girl like Tess. “I am sorry. You’re right and I’ve been… mistaken.”
“Say it. You were wrong to play that prank. It could have gone badly wrong. Worse wrong than it did and that was bad enough. You’re not a little girl anymore, and those weren’t your brothers you stole from. It was wrong.”
Still, she hesitated, hating to give this man the upper hand. No, she wasn’t giving it to him. He was taking the upper hand and applying it to her backside. With a paddle in that hand, no less.
Apparently he got tired of waiting. “Admit you were wrong and I’ll think about letting you go with just five licks.”
She could take that. “Oh, all right. I admit it. I was wrong and I won’t do it again.”
He got the paddle out of the drawer of his desk. It was massive, a flat oak board oblong in shape, the better to whip through the air, she thought. He waved it at the desk and she couldn’t pretend she didn’t know what he wanted. All she could do was wish it were winter and her skirts were heavier.
“Pull that skirt up.”
“Now see here, Mr. Eagan.” Lacey whirled to face him.
“You’ve got on at least two petticoats underneath. I can tell from your hemline. Pull the skirt up or I’ll do it for you.”
“Oh, all right.” And somehow, that made it worse. “I’ll slip the petticoats off.”
“Nope. The skirt. Hold it up and out of the way. I’m going to see your pretty little petticoats just like you saw my long johns.”
And suddenly, she saw the rightness of it. She hadn’t hesitated to embarrass him and that was in public. She could only thank her lucky stars she wasn’t being spanked in the street. She reached down and pulled her skirt up out of the way.
“Now, bend over the desk and tuck your petticoats under you so they’re tight across your backside.”
The waiting was awful, so she didn’t even try to protest. When it was done, she took a deep breath.
He swung the paddle in an arc she could see because she had turned her face to the side. The thwack sounded a moment later, followed by her yelp. Two petticoats were not enough to protect her from the heat and the ache produced by that paddle. She endured two more swats in silence merely stamping her feet in reaction, but the last two had her gasping and making wordless cries of pain. As soon as the count of five ended, she stood up and whirled to face him. His face was a mask of sincere determination.
As she dropped her skirts, he turned his back, as a proper gentleman should. She almost challenged him on this little consideration, but then she realized that, with her punishment over, he was according her the courtesy he felt he owed her again. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“For being, well… fair. It was no more than I deserved. Every bit as much,” she said, ruefully rubbing her backside, “but no more.”
“What you did was wrong and dangerous. I want you safe. If you mend your ways, then I’ll agree with you that it was enough. “
“I will. You’ve made me think.”
“That paddle has a tendency to shake the cobwebs from any mind pretty effectively.”
He held the door open for her and followed her out into the jail itself. As they walked side by side to the hotel, she couldn’t shake the feeling that he really cared about what she did and how she did it. Her safety mattered to him and that gave her a very safe feeling indeed.