“Are you two really sisters?” the sheriff demanded. “I was told you were, though looking at you together makes me wonder.” He peered at the pair across his desk. “Taller, blond hair, can’t sit still. You must be Miss Theodocia.” He scowled down his nose at her.
“Doci, if it’s all the same to you,” the young lady replied pertly. Living up to her description, she tapped the toe of her boot on the wooden floor of the sheriff’s office and jail.
“And since you’re the older sister, I would think you would want to set a better example for… Miss Adelaide? Is that right? Petite little thing, like a pixie with black hair, the neighbors told me, so that must be you.”
“Yes, sir, we are sisters. I got my dark hair from our mother’s side of the family and her disposition as well, or so they say. Please don’t be too hard on Doci, Sheriff Tim. She means well,” the younger girl replied.
Doci frowned deeply at each of the others in turn. “Addie, would you please let me do my apologizing for myself? If I have anything to apologize for, which in this case, I don’t, I could do a much better job of it than that! As it is, I won’t say I’m sorry. I did nothing wrong. I had to hit that man.” She sent a third scowl back through an open door that allowed a glimpse at the jail cell where a man’s form slumbered on a bed.
“No, you didn’t,” Addie countered sharply.
“Now, girls, please,” the sheriff interrupted. “I don’t have time to listen to you two fight.”
“We’re not girls!” Doci argued, hands on hips, eyes squinted as if she were examining him closely and finding him lacking. “She’s seventeen and I’m nineteen. We’ve been taking care of ourselves for over a year now, since our parents died in the epidemic.”
“So that’s why you young ladies think you’ve got to solve your own problems for yourselves instead of coming to the lawman like you’re supposed to. Well, I’m afraid the rest of the town is getting a bit tired of your brand of justice, Miss Doci. This is the third complaint this month. That’s why I called you in here for this come-to-judgment meeting, as we called it back home.”
“Come to judgment?” Addie repeated, her fear evident in her voice. “You’re not going to make her appear before the judge, are you? She was only defending me!”
“She pulled a gun in a public place,” Tim replied. “You should know about the new city ordinance. We’ve got law in this town now. No more gun play. The men all know about this rule and are abiding by it. You can leave your firearm with me any time you’re in town.”
“We live in town, Mr. Holt,” Doci answered, sarcasm verging on bitterness in her tone as her hands sketched a sweeping, all-inclusive gesture. “Would you like me to just give you my gun? Just let the big, handsome sheriff take care of us helpless, weak little women? Maybe you’d like to sleep on our porch at night with Lester, our dog.”
“Doci, really! He’s only doing his job! Do you want to land in jail next to that man?” Addie pleaded, her hands demurely in her lap.
After sending a grateful smile Addie’s way, Tim addressed Doci. “I don’t know about the handsome part, but if you’d call me sheriff like everyone else, maybe you’d be able to remember that I’m here to keep the whole town safe. I don’t blame you for keeping a little equalizer in your house or even a squirrel gun to keep varmints out of your garden, but you can’t go around with it in your bag like that. And you can’t swing that bag upside the head of every Tom, Dick, and Harry who gets fresh with you.”
“He wasn’t fresh with me. He was fresh with Addie, and drunk to boot,” Doci complained.
“He was on the other side of the road. He wasn’t a threat to you or your sister. The neighbors all saw you cross the street and try to hit a home run with your bag as the bat and his head as the ball. The delegation they sent told me that they wouldn’t have objected too strenuously for that, but when you pulled out that little derringer and started threatening to blow his head off, it was too much,” the sheriff declared hotly.
“A delegation? Those old busybodies on our street should mind their own business,” Doci noted sourly.
Addie shifted uncomfortably, giving the sheriff a look that said she hated to admit it but she agreed with him. “You do go off at the slightest provocation, Doci. The word hair-trigger comes to mind. The men singing on the corner too loudly. The cats in our garden. The kids in the street. They’re annoyances, not catastrophes.” Turning to the sheriff, she sighed. “I am sorry. Doci does tend to overreact but I think perhaps the neighbors have done the same thing, bothering you just because my sister has a tendency to indulge her impulses.”
“The neighbors did what you ought to do: they came to me with their problem and let me deal with it. And so this is how I dealt with it. I brought you in here for an official warning.” He stood and leaned on his desk, his fists planted firmly on the papers that cluttered every inch of the space. “Consider yourself warned. First, you live in a nice community where we all have to be tolerant of each other’s foibles. Second, you are not above the law. Nobody carries a gun in public inside my city limits anymore. Do you understand?”
Addie spoke over Doci to say, “Yes, sir, we do. We understand and are so glad you’ve come to make this town a decent place to live. Just the two of us living alone like we are, we really appreciate the way things are shaping up around here. Now, if that’s all, I’d like to take my sister home.”
“And that’s exactly the point. Usually, in a case like this, I’d release the troublemaker to somebody in charge of them: a father or an older brother. I don’t like making you, a young lady, take this kind of responsibility.”
“We’re both quite capable of being responsible for ourselves,” Doci declared as she rose in a dismissive manner.
Addie put a hand on her arm and drew her to sit back down. “I don’t think the sheriff is quite done speaking yet, Doci. Unless we want to be thought of as lawless hoydens, we have to listen respectfully to what he says. He is the law in this town and as good citizens… Please, go on, sheriff.”
“Thank you, Miss Adelaide. This time, I’ll allow it. Next time, you’ll learn that I’m not the only law in this town. We have a judge who visits on a regular basis and he’ll scob both our knobs. You for causing the trouble and me for not preventing it.” The sheriff’s mouth turned down in a kind of half-smile, half-grimace. “So please, if you won’t do it for yourself and your sister, do it for me.”
“Do what?” Addie asked.
“Send for me if you have any more problems with drunks. Ignore bothersome neighbors if you can. And just generally behave!” The sheriff sat back and began to look at the pile of papers littering his desk.
The girls got up. “Thank you, sheriff,” Addie said.
Doci cleared her throat. “I take it we may leave.” She looked at him askance, pointedly directing her gaze from his chair to her own feet, then gesturing to the door.
The sheriff stood, a look of amused chagrin on his face. “Sorry about that, ladies. I’m used to having men in here.” He opened the door and bowed mockingly to Doci as she sailed out the door. To Addie he directed a courteous nod. “You’ll see that she leaves that gun at home?”
“Don’t worry, sheriff. I’ll be sure she toes the line from now on. And thank you!”
Wilhelmina, Texas, 1881
“I don’t see why you think we need to step outside, Jarod,” Addie said, her tones crisper than the autumn air around them.
Jarod’s scowl was blacker than the night sky above them. Keeping a firm grip on her arm, he conducted her down the deserted street and away from the house. “Because I felt it only fair to warn you that if you keep up with your pointed little digs and jibes, I’m going to cloud up and rain all over you. Do you understand that?”
“I understand that you’re being overbearing and unreasonable,” Addie shot back. “I think I should be allowed to express my opinions.”
“But we both know that it’s dangerous for you to do it in public.”
“Don’t be melodramatic. It’s not dangerous.” Addie shook her head dismissively.
“For you to go around saying that we’re not getting married until you get your sister away from that horrible Longstreth clan? Addie, I know I don’t have to tell you that the Longstreths are the most powerful family in this town. We both know word will get around to them of anything we say against them and if they feel slighted, they won’t hesitate to get even with anyone they think insulted them.”
“That’s exactly why I want to get Doci away from them! I can’t leave her with such horrible people.” Addie stopped in the shadows where the front porch of the livery stable blocked out the moonlight that shone through the barren trees lining the street.
Jarod put his large hands on her slim shoulders and looked into her eyes. “I feel the same way about her being with them, but she made her choice. She married Amos Longstreth and there’s nothing you can do about it. Do you think it will help your sister’s position if you badmouth her husband’s people all over town?”
Addie shrugged away from him and stepped farther down the street, away from the noise of the crowd. “Maybe it won’t help her, but I’m in the habit of telling the truth! And I don’t want people thinking that just because we let your family have this engagement party for us that it means we’re getting married right away. It was very nice of your mother and I didn’t want to offend her by refusing, but we aren’t getting married until this thing with my sister is resolved.”
Jarod stopped in front of the doctor’s office and leaned against the low stone wall that fronted his lawn. A pair of large stone and mortar pillars marked the corners of the wall, hiding him and Addie from the view of the rest of the street. “Resolved? What’s more resolved than being married? Doci chose the man. He’s her husband. What exactly do you think can be done about it?”
“What can be done about her impulsive actions? Where there’s life, there’s hope! And there is such a thing as divorce.”
“But she has grounds. Everyone in town knows where Amos spends his evenings.” Addie hated to talk about such coarse and degrading subjects, but she had to make her fiancé understand the depths of her feelings and her plans for extricating her sister from the terrible mess she had landed herself in.
Jarod looked away from her. “If Doci wants to divorce the man, and if she can manage to get a judge to rule in her favor, I’ll be happy to take her in. She can even live with us, if we’re married.” He gave her a sidelong look. “How will delaying our life together benefit Doci? Or anybody else for that matter?”
Addie could tell Jarod was trying to gauge her reaction, but try as she might, she couldn’t keep her cool any longer. She had always been the thinker, the one to plan and ponder. It was her sister who had always been the impulsive one, never looking before she leapt. Sneaking off and following this last impulse to marry Amos Longstreth had cost her much more than either of them had imagined. That was why she found herself sounding more and more like Doci as she went along. “How can you expect me to just dance along to your tune as if everything were rosy and I hadn’t a care in the world. I can’t begin our life together with any kind of joy or happiness. Not if my sister is still living in misery.”
“But what can you do about it?”
“Not much all by myself. I’m counting on the help of my fiancé.”
Jarod’s expression darkened. “That’s not the way to get my help, Addie. You know I love you and I’d do anything for you, but I won’t be blackmailed like that.”
“It’s not blackmail. It’s persuasion. And if you were any kind of a man, I wouldn’t have to resort to such tactics.”
“Any kind of man?” Jarod repeated slowly, his voice betraying his incredulity and ire.
“A brave man would do what it took to rescue his future sister-in-law from the clutches of such people.”
“Are you calling me a coward? Me?” Jarod asked in a calm low voice.
“If the shoe fits!” Addie shot back callously. She knew she had gone too far the moment the words left her lips, but she was beyond caring.
“What in this world has gotten into you?” Jarod demanded. He sat down on the wall and pulled her over his knee.
She could feel her skirts falling over her waist as he positioned her further forward almost in the same motion as his palm cracked down on her backside. With only one petticoat left to protect her from his fiery onslaught, Addie’s backside was soon smarting and stinging like mad. Squirming, she let out several squeaks and moans. “Help! Stop! Someone will see!” she protested.
Jarod spanked on and on, covering all her bottom with hard hot swats. “Everybody’s at the party. Besides, you should have thought of that before you smarted off to me. Calling me a coward? You want ‘brave’? I’ll give you ‘brave’ all over your sassy little rear end! If it weren’t for me, you still might not know where your sister is!”
Addie, tiring from twisting and fighting to get away from the pain of his spanking, started to plead. “You’re right! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it! Please, stop!”
He gave her several more swats. “No more disrespect, young lady! I won’t have it. You’ve got to understand that I’m trying to help you.”
“I’m sorry! I know you’re doing everything you can to help me.”
“Then act like it. Quit squirming and hush.”
She obeyed to the best of her ability, suddenly chagrined to be in this embarrassing position. She knew she should not have spoken to him that way. It was not only unfair but also patently wrong. She was just so worried. Her humiliation drained away as her tears burst the dam of her anger.
He ended the spanking then, bringing her up to hold her close to his chest. “I know, honey, I know. It’s got to be hard to see somebody you love making such big mistakes, but we can only help her if she wants to be helped. Until then, you putting off your own happiness doesn’t help her. Not one bit. She wouldn’t want you to wait.”
She clung to him, feeling the rush of love she felt every time he showed how much he cared about her. Her heart pounding, she raised her tearstained face for the kiss she knew he would crave as much as she. He didn’t disappoint her. His hand behind her head was hot strength flowing from him into her. His mouth claiming hers meant both forbidden thrill and longed-for safety. In his arms, she felt she could unsnarl any tangle she might face. From the security of his embrace, she could soar like any dove into whatever storm life might brew up for her.
Soon enough, she felt his hands wander to places she longed for him to touch. That brought her up short and she pulled back. “Jarod, really! Wasn’t spanking me in public bad enough? Anybody could walk by.”
“The spanking was necessary,” he responded, his voice gruff, the embarrassment suddenly on his side. “But the kissing… well, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for that to happen. Not out here. Not on the street. But it just goes to show why we need to get married.”
Addie turned away under the pretense of straightening her hair and smoothing down her skirts. “Shouldn’t we get back to the party?”
“Yes, indeed.” He looked down at her seriously. “If you can settle down, that is. I’d rather make your excuses and say you went home with a headache than risk you making more of a scene with your snide comments.”
“I was rude, wasn’t I?” Addie admitted with a return of the guilt she had just managed to suppress.
“You might not have crossed over the line, but you were certainly playing on the fence.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll be careful.” She smoothed the back of her skirts in a meaningful manner. “I don’t think I’ll be forgetting any time soon.”
“Oh, that little love tap? You probably can’t even feel it anymore.”
“That’s what you think.”
“Whatever helps that little attitude of yours…” He shrugged and offered her his arm. “We don’t need to decide anything tonight. I just want you to see that while I agree with you about the mess your sister is in, I don’t think there’s any sense pulling our own happiness onto a sidetrack to wait to be coupled to a train that isn’t coming.”
Thoughtfully, she allowed herself to be led back to where the street was lighter and the moon shone through the sparser trees in front of more businesses interspersed among the homes. “I know you’re right. It’s just that every time I think about getting married without my sister standing up for me, I can’t picture it.”
“She got married without you by her side,” he said in the tone Addie knew to be his careful tone, the one he used when he had to deliver news he knew she wouldn’t like or when he denied her something she wanted.
“That’s all the more reason for me to have her at mine. At least we’ll have one wedding together to remember.”
“I suppose that’s one way to look at it,” he said doubtfully. “How could her in-laws deny her the right to attend her own sister’s wedding?”
“How, indeed? It would be criminal, but then again, isn’t that what they are?”
“Well, just because we haven’t seen her in town since she married doesn’t mean that they will keep her away from an important occasion like this. If we had a date set, it would give us a good excuse to go out and see her again,” Jarod mused.
“There you go again. And you just said we didn’t have to decide anything tonight!” she retorted before starting out walking more purposefully back toward his family home where the party was even now in full swing. “But really, I’m feeling better about things, now that we’ve made a plan.”
He looked at her warily. “What plan would that be?”
“The one you just suggested. We’ll go out and see Doci again to ask her to the wedding. If she agrees to come, we’ll make plans to get married and then once she’s in town for the wedding, she’ll never have to go back to the Great Northern.”
“Now, hold on one minute,” Jarod cautioned as they passed the livery stable next to his family’s three-story brick home. “I never said… But I suppose it is a good idea.”
“Of course it is! Just wait a moment while I slip back here and readjust my bloomers. Something made them ride up.” She left him to hide in the shadows and put her clothing back into place.
“Wonder what that could have been?” he laughed, following her into the alley between the stable and the house.
“You keep away from me!” Addie skipped lightly back, farther into the shadows until she was at the corner of the yard where the livery horses got hitched up to buggies or were saddled for riders.
“Just one more kiss,” Jarod suggested insistently.
They both saw it at the same time, the still form lying on the ground in the shadows at that pronounced angle. An awkward angle. An unnatural angle. Addie gasped then turned toward Jarod, who put his arm around her shoulders and moved between her and what she now suspected was a corpse.
“Where’s Jarod?” Mrs. Newgate asked. “You’ve been gone quite a while. And what’s this? Why are you so pale? Addie, what’s wrong? Where’s Jarod?”
“He… we… I… can someone walk home with me? I need to go home,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry about the party. It was lovely but…” Addie reached out to support herself, relieved to find an empty bench by the wall just inside the door. She half-fell, half-sat down onto it and stared wildly around, taking in almost nothing of the lively party going on all over the first floor of the house.
“What’s going on? Addie, you can tell me. What’s wrong? Where’s my son?” Mrs. Newgate’s usually lovely face had a pinched look to it as she squeezed the words out between narrowed lips. “You’re not going anywhere in this state.” She knelt down on the well-worn carpet beside Addie and took her hands but looked around.
Just then, the door behind them slammed open and the broad, short man filling the doorway demanded loudly, “Where’s the sheriff? There’s been a murder.”
Mrs. Newgate was instantly on her feet, rushing to the man as he barged in. “No need to shout. I’ll get the sheriff. Who… who is it? Who’s been…?” Apparently, she couldn’t speak the words.
Addie knew what her fear must be. “It’s not Jarod. I don’t know who it is.”
Mrs. Newgate whirled again to Addie, speaking each word clearly, as if she were planting a seedling on each word. “Where is my son?”
“He went to look for the sheriff,” Addie replied.
The broad man who had shouted so loudly had slipped past them into the house. He stopped short in the hallway, however, when the sheriff he sought stepped out of the main press of the party and into the hallway near the kitchen. “What’s going on here? Who said anything about murder? Was that you, Hoyt?”
“He’s out back of the livery stable,” the man replied with a nod.
“Who is it?” he asked as he and the man stepped past the two women on the bench. Addie could still hear them as they hurried away.
Hoyt answered, not bothering to keep his voice down. “Couldn’t tell. It was too dark and I didn’t want to turn the body over. There’s things you should see.” Addie wished he would be quieter. The rest of the guests didn’t need to know about this just yet.
“So you didn’t touch anything? Good man,” the sheriff said just before the door shut behind them.
“Are you sure it wasn’t Jarod?” Mrs. Newgate asked when they were gone.
“I’m very sure. He was with me when… we found the body.”
“But why would it have to be murder? Maybe it was an accident. People die unexpectedly all the time.”
“He was shot in the back. It couldn’t have been an accident, or suicide either. In the back, Mrs. Newgate! He just… lay there… this big gaping hole, all…” She turned to her future mother-in-law and sought the comfort a girl might seek of her mother,
Mrs. Newgate held her gently and let her cry. “Are you sure he was dead?” she asked in a matter-of-fact tone.
“A man doesn’t… lie at that angle. He can’t. Not if he’s alive. And the size of the hole. And where it was on his back. Jarod said right off not to touch him because we couldn’t help him. There was no hope at all.”
“So where is my son now?”
Addie wondered why Lavinia was repeating the question so slowly. And why was her face so grave? “He went to find the sheriff. He knew Mr. Holt wasn’t here so he went over to the jail to try to find him.”
“Sheriff Holt is here, Addie.”
Her air of forced calm was frightening, but Addie understood. “It would take Jarod a while to look in the jail and then make his way back here. And if he met anyone, they might have to spend some time talking. I’m sure Jarod will be here soon. How long has the sheriff been here?”
“He arrived a few minutes after you all slipped out.”
“Oh, my! Does everyone know that we…?”
“No, I think there would have been some talk about it if anyone had noticed besides me. Even my husband didn’t realize the two of you were gone.”
“Thank goodness there are so many people here tonight,” Addie breathed.
“Yes, indeed. Now, why don’t I take you upstairs and put you to bed?”
“I’d rather go back to my own home,” Addie protested.
“Nonsense,” Mrs. Newgate replied. “You’ll stay right here and drink some hot milk with just a drop of something in it to make you sleep. You’ve had more shock than is good for a body.”
Sounds of the dancers’ feet rasping against the polished wood floors and the fiddle that kept them all in time with each other followed the ladies as they ascended the stairs at the back of the house. Someone opened the kitchen door and a strong aroma of freshly baked apple cake wafted up to her. Normally, she would have headed right back down the stairs toward that delicious smell, but tonight it made her cover her mouth with her hand and start to jog to the landing on the second floor.
“All the way up,” Mrs. Newgate told her, putting a comforting hand on her back. “First door on the left.”
Addie went in and sat heavily on a straight-backed chair that sat by the bed. “I wonder why Jarod isn’t back yet.”
“These things take time to report and explain. They’ll have to go examine the… well, there’s just a lot to be done. I don’t expect Jarod till morning anyway, but if you want me to, I’ll wake you when he comes in.” Mrs. Newgate turned the colorful quilt down and patted the pillow. “Why don’t you read a while to take your mind off things? There’s that new book Jarod is always raving about. I think it’s called Ben-Hur, isn’t it? All about Romans and exotic things like that. Just the thing to help you forget what you saw. Or you could just lie down for a while.”
“Maybe just for a minute,” Addie sighed wearily. She glanced down at the book but made no motion to pick it up.
“I’ll be back up directly with that milk.”
When she woke the next morning, Addie found the milk next to the novel on the small table beside the bed.