A funeral ought to be attended by more than just two people. One of those two wasn’t even technically a mourner, just someone paid to be there. And that felt even more like rubbing salt into the wound. To add further insult to injury, the day’s sunny April skies had grown overcast, the clouds parting enough to spit down a light but annoying seasonal mist.
In which biblical passage was it decreed that a burial service must be accompanied by rain? Although, through some trick of the fading light, a tiny rainbow could be seen here and there, shining like the promise it was supposed to be.
Jacob Dempsey felt neither irritated nor disappointed by such a poor showing in the town’s small cemetery. Tell the truth, he just wanted to get his brother safely planted, so he could shake the dust—or, possibly, a few clods of mud—of Sweet Water Ridge from his boots and dig out. A million places on earth would be better for him than this place. He’d arrived just this morning and would, with good luck, be ready to leave this afternoon.
“I’m so sorry for your loss, Mr. Dempsey.” The minister/undertaker/gravedigger, a man clad in black whom Jacob hoped never to see again, unctuously shook his hand. Jacob refrained from rubbing his palm down the side of his trousers in distaste.
“Ain’t much of a loss, Preacher Answell, but I appreciate the thought. And the marker?”
“I’ll make sure our typical wooden cross is made, inscribed and staked down, once the ground has settled. Samuel Dempsey, correct? And you’ve left all his pertinent information for me?”
Jacob’s small smile was a mere stretching of facial muscles through a thick beard, with no indication of humor or good will involved. Tall and trim, with over-long straight black hair and farsighted eyes of a cool steel blue, he gave the impression of strength coiled up and waiting to be used, like that of a muleskinner’s whip.
“Along with some bank notes for your service, Preacher. Thanks.”
No grief could be seen in the controlled lines of his countenance, only a slight impatience to be done with his duty and gone to wherever, as soon as possible. In this he seemed certain to be stymied, because the minister was trailing along beside him as if they were fast friends. All the way back through a hodgepodge cemetery and to the ramshackle building Answell had claimed as his headquarters, Jacob had to listen to a rambling discourse on the dead man’s affiliation with Sweet Water Ridge.
Deeds, described as neither good nor bad but simply as deeds, done in town and the surrounding countryside. Whether Samuel’s long-time residence here might have held any sway on politics or outlook was anyone’s guess.
“That’s as may be,” said Jacob noncommittally. Be hanged if he would discuss his late brother’s business, upfront or underhanded as it was, with anyone outside the family. And with Samuel’s unexpected death, Jacob himself was the sole remaining member. So he guessed he could be silent as the tomb, with no one to tell him yea or nay.
“A right shame, him bein’ shot down in cold blood like that,” the minister, having finally arrived at the door of his establishment, idly commented. “And Sheriff Mason’s got no clue, from what I heard.”
“You heard correct. It’s a mystery. Thanks, Preacher.” Jacob touched the brim of his neat black sombrero in a sign of respect that he had found few deserved and made his escape.
Lord above, with all the bitter memories burning hellfire in his soul—could he still claim the possession of one—he couldn’t wait to get out of this town. But, swiftly changing his decision as to departure time, he wanted to get a decent night’s sleep first.
Best accommodation he could find, as far as what was available in the area, was at Ella’s Saloon and Hotel, which he had passed riding into town early this morning. It took only a few moments to stable his buckskin pony at Painter’s Livery, down at the end of the street, and haul his packed saddlebags back to the building’s lobby.
“Yes, sir,” smiled the clerk, turning away from his book work and toward paying clientele. “What can I do for you?”
“A room, if you please,” said Jacob, who had paused at the counter. He ensured he was thin-lipped and unsmiling enough as to keep distance between himself and the world. “For one day.”
“Of course. If you’ll just sign the register, here…”
Evidently the kid was too young to recognize his name, and certainly neither his face nor his reputation. After all, Jacob had been gone from this area for ten years, having left under a dismal black cloud. Afterward, he had sugar-footed through a region of several hundred miles to the west and south.
His room held nothing special—one window, net curtains, a rug on the wooden floor and a washstand with jug and basin. At least the single iron bedstead seemed sturdy enough when he tested it for firmness, and the linens were clean. It was no more and no less than he expected. He had slept in a lot worse. He’d count himself lucky if there were no mice or bugs racing around, once he’d settled down.
Too late for dinner, too early for supper. He might as well go have himself a shot of rotgut in Ella’s Saloon.
He wondered if she’d remember him.
Things were quiet enough that, besides the bartender, only one saloon girl was on duty. Not quite pretty, she wore the years of fighting for survival on her face and in her figure and looked used-up by life. But, heeding the call of economics and the job itself, she slithered on down from her corner to join him at the end of the bar.
“Howdy, stranger. Just pulled into town?”
“Well, sir, maybe I can keep you company. I’m Linda Sue. You got a name?”
Shifting position, the more to show off the faded décolletage of her pink and black silk dress, she gave a tired laugh. “Not much for talkin’, are you?”
“Look, Mister, I’m bettin’ you been down this road before. Got a pretty good idea of how things work, right? You buy the booze for both of us, and I keep you company. If you want more of my time, later on, well—” she lifted one half-bare shoulder, “you buy that, too. So don’t make this harder for me, okay?”
She had a point. Things were hard enough, all around, for everybody, without causing them to be worse. Jacob turned slightly to face her, leaning one elbow on the bar while he took a sip of the truly vile whiskey he had been served.
“Well, Miss Linda Sue, my name is Jacob Dempsey, and I’ve just come from the cemetery where I laid my miserable, good-for-nothin’ brother to rest. So let’s drink to that, whaddya say?”
“I’ll be happy to, Jacob. But you’ll notice that there’s no glass in my hand.”
“Huh. Gotta rectify that, then, here and now. Barkeep!”
He moved his base of operations to a table near the window, where he could keep an eye on what might be happening outside, and the woman, in her bedraggled finery, followed. First, they toasted his successful trip to Sweet Water Ridge. Then they toasted the successful interment of an unlamented relative. Then they toasted the future, however and whenever it came riding along.
Ella showed up halfway through all that toasting.
She came slowly and majestically—her usual movement, like some great Spanish galleon plowing the sea—down the stairs from somewhere above and sauntered through the room. Along the way, she sent over a glance. Jacob wondered if the lady noticed that Linda Sue was clearly doing her job in trying to attract and entertain her bearded customer.
Importantly, Ella assumed residence behind the long walnut bar and shooed her employee away. “Go along, now, Augustus. I’ll take over for a while.”
The man pulled off his apron to drape over a drawer handle. “Good enough. Not much goin’ on, anyways. Reckon I’ll go get a bite.”
Interesting. Could it be deduced that Ella Taylor had fallen far from her days as best friend of Clarice Dempsey? Or had she actually risen to the top by her appropriation of the mantle of town businesswoman…despite her questionable choice of profession? Whatever her plans, it was clear she had cornered the market here in these stagnant backwaters of the Ridge, holding possession of the only bar, hotel and dining hall in the area.
“Another drink over there, sir?” she called across the room to her sole customer.
Deliberately he was sitting turned away, so that she could see only his broad back, in its funeral dress-up suit. The position, and the fact that, at her age, she was probably short-sighted, would help prevent recognition.
“Your girl here has taken care of me,” he informed her, lifting the near-empty bottle high in response.
He didn’t have to meet her sharp gaze to realize the state of her mind and could just imagine the irritated thoughts aimed his way. Bar girls were not supposed to swill down the good liquor. They were supposed to be drinking only cold brown tea that mimicked whiskey. Not only was that a cost-saving feature for every saloon across the nation, but keeping female employees sober could be life-saving as well, if a drunken customer decided to play rough.
With a shrug, the proprietor and owner of this fine establishment turned away, disappearing into a rear doorway on some errand. Must be checking inventory to restock the bar shelves, Jacob surmised, given an occasional clink of glassware or bottles from those hidden depths.
His companion was making idle conversation, doing her best to keep him interested and entertained. Assuredly with an eye toward their eventual trek to some sleazy room up those stairs. Jacob paid little attention. At the moment, with the pain and regret from his brother’s demise still settled heavily on his heart, he felt no regard for Linda Sue’s debatable charms.
“So you laid your brother to rest, huh?” she asked, after a sip. A band of sleazy black lace, attached as unneeded support to the tight pink silk bustier, slipped from her shoulder down to her upper arm. “Heard that Sam Dempsey bit the dust not long ago. Would that be him?”
“You got it.”
“Caught up in a gun battle, wasn’t he? On the losin’ side. You gonna take over his business?”
Jacob was not one to wear his emotions on his sleeve. Thus, the surprise he felt was well hidden. “What business?”
“Well, there’s the stage line, for one.”
He felt another jolt of surprise. Travelers actually paid to come to this jumping-off place?
“Lotsa holdups, though,” Linda Sue went on, in a vague tone. Her fingers brushed lightly over the large bruise on her wrist. “Not right here in town, but miles out, either way. Reckon Sam probably lost some money, payin’ claims.”
“Was he into anything else?”
“He did have somebody runnin’ the gun shop just outside of city limits. Other than that—” she paused, “prob’ly a lot that nobody knows about.”
He leaned slightly forward across the table, surveying her with that intense, disconcerting steel-blue stare from which many a lesser man had quailed. “Do you?”
With a little shiver, she glanced around the large empty room as if the walls themselves might be listening. “No, not me. Not a clue. You’d oughta check around, though, if you wanna find out.”
Just then, the noise of something solid and weighty thumping upon the wooden sidewalk outside the window, as if an unidentifiable object had been dropped, drew his notice toward the city street. Curious, he watched while the noise identified itself in duplicate, as one small packing crate joined another in a heap. Then he recognized the source: two men were harassing a young woman who had been attempting to load freight, all by her lonesome, into the rear of a buckboard.
Ruffians, not men. Louts. They had her cornered, and by the expression on her face she was terrified.
Surely the sheriff must be around somewhere, either in his office or patrolling the streets? Where had he vanished to during this commotion? An innocent citizen was being assaulted, and Mason was nowhere to be seen.
Since no one was making a move to assist, Jacob half-rose from his seat.
“Oh, don’t bother with her,” said Linda Sue, putting a hand on his arm. “She ain’t nothin’ to worry about. C’mon, we ain’t finished the bottle yet.”
Could Jacob have looked into a mirror just then, he would have seen that a fierce scowl added years to his bearded face and a hint of savagery to his countenance. With a single, disdainful flick of the wrist, he removed the saloon girl’s grasp, surged upright, and strode out. Forcefully out, through the bat-wing doors that swung wildly back and forth as he exited, post haste.
“Gentlemen!” His imperious tone interrupted the fellow who now held the girl in his arms, trying for a kiss, though she was struggling mightily for release.
Barely halting for a sideways glance, the aggressor contemptuously dismissed any thought of rescue. “Get outa here,” he ordered. “Got no call to stop a man’s fun.”
“Yeah,” chimed in the other, with a whine. “Whodya think you are, anyways? The King of Whoozit?”
They were drunk, both of them, and had spent some time getting there. And he recognized the uncouth pair. During his brief time at the cemetery, these two had been, for some reason, hanging out at the gates, where the wooden markers began. It had taken but a single question for Preacher Answell to kindly offer up their names. Armed with that information, Jacob suspected too that not only had they had some part in his brother’s murder, but they were involved in some sort of crime ring right up to their unwashed necks.
“Naw,” Jacob said now, foregoing preamble. “Just call me Nemesis.”
And he hauled away with a haymaker, swung from the ground up, that bruised the knuckles of his right hand as it connected and flung his opponent backward, flat onto both hindquarters and stunned into insensibility.
“That oughta take care of Claude for a good amount of time,” he observed without malice, turning toward the other would-be desperado. “Let’s see how you hold up, Lewis.”
Yanking him away from the girl he had been so gleefully tormenting, Jacob finished off the other half of the pair with a couple of good hard punches to the man’s flabby belly. Gagging, coughing, moaning, Lewis crawled halfway across the street only to collapse, defeated, in the dust just barely dampened by mist.
Smiling absently, Jacob rubbed his abraded fist. When was the last time he’d gotten into a knockdown drag-out fight? True, this one had hardly been fair, with both combatants three sheets to the wind. Neither were the odds fair, though, for that matter, and the fact that they had been doing their darnedest to abuse a helpless victim.
“You okay, ma’am?” he asked, turning toward her with concern.
That helpless victim stood braced against the wagon’s side, watching all that had just transpired—lickety split, within a mere few seconds—in obvious horror. Eyes of hazel brown that were widened with disbelief, mouth reminiscent of his mama’s favorite pink rose, heart-shaped face whitened by vulnerability. When had he ever seen such loveliness, right here within reach? It was like finding some rare and invaluable faceted gemstone, shining amongst a whole scattered heap of common river rocks.
And through this whole thing, not a hoot. Not a squeak. Not a cry.
Shrugging, he moved to collect the two boxes that had been discarded, along with their contents, and stacked everything carefully into the back of her buckboard.
Her straw hat, tied by brown grosgrain ribbon, had fallen to her shoulders during the scuffle, to reveal scads of wavy hair as brown as her eyes. Settling the bodice and skirt that had been so carelessly disarranged by her assailants, she looked up at him with a wobbly smile.
Those enchanting lips formed the silent words, “Thank you!”
Before he could fully understand what was going on, she had clambered, unaided, onto the wagon’s step and then the high seat, picked up the reins to alert her team, and rattled away.
Leaving a befuddled Jacob behind, gaping.
What the blue blazes?
Who was this mystery girl, and how had she gotten herself (however unwittingly) mixed up in a fracas with two probable outlaws? More, what was wrong with her speech? Couldn’t talk? Wouldn’t talk? Didn’t want to talk?
Another shrug. He’d gotten quite talented in the art of shrugging, especially at the vagaries of a world he sometimes couldn’t comprehend. No sense puzzling his head about the things over which he had no control. He might have tossed off another drink on the subject, except that he was totally out of the mood for any kind of drinking.
The end of the trail still beckoned.
It was time to get some shut-eye, preparatory to leaving early tomorrow.
“Ella has quite a monopoly goin’ on here,” he observed next morning, to the man who brought him a thick earthenware mug and his own private pot of hot coffee.
“Yeah. All the needs of mankind, boiled down into just one location: a place to drink, a place to eat, a place to gamble, a place to sleep, and a place to have a serious roll in the hay.”
“Huh. S’pose that’s right.”
He seemed to have no interest, one way or the other, and disappeared toward the kitchen, and Jacob was left to drink his coffee and peruse matters. One being his restless slumber last night—or lack thereof—despite overwhelming fatigue, and the reason for his lack of sleep.
Her lovely face had haunted his dreams. Then he had awoken, to lie on his thin mattress staring upward in the dark, still seeing her face before him. He’d seen other women before. He’d dreamed about, and enjoyed the favors of, other women before. What was there in particular about this one that he found so intriguing?
And who needed such a distraction, when he was about to blow the dust of this scraggly town off his boot heels forever?
He had arisen feeling discombobulated and discomposed, as if everything were put together as it should be, but nothing really joined properly and just wasn’t working right. The pieces looked out of kilter. It was a sensation he had rarely experienced, and he didn’t like it. Because that meant a lack of control over himself and his surroundings, which could be a dangerous situation.
Especially given his need to skedaddle soon out of hostile territory.
After sponge-bathing with tepid water and a small hard square of lye soap, Jacob had dressed in his usual rider’s duds of flannel shirt and wool pants, finished off, of course, by that usual accessory in these parts: a loaded gun belt and holstered Colt. It was a relief to put aside the more formal wear that yesterday’s events had demanded. His beard was getting to be as wild as some wattle-necked old warthog, and his wiry hair was almost as bad. Time to track down a barber shop and get himself looking decent before he lit out. Lord only knew how long it would be before he got the chance again.
“So you didn’t take advantage last night of everything else we have to offer,” said the grand dame Ella Taylor herself, standing primly before him. “Lotsa pleasures of the flesh on the other side. I was hopin’ to entice a few more silver dollars outa that tight pocket of yours.”
Looking up at the interruption of his thoughts, Jacob leaned back in his chair and surveyed the woman he hadn’t thought to ever see again.
She’d gained some weight over the years, and both lines and gray hair had been involuntarily added to an appearance now considered matronly. But her manner was as all-encompassing as ever, with an aura of kindness lurking behind the sharp tone. And she was dressed, as befitted a businesswoman (and madam behind the scenes) in a neat black suit and white ruffled trim.
Interesting that she had kept such close tabs on his comings and goings. Was it nosiness? Or the mere desire to add more to her coffers?
“You mean Linda Sue? No. Got involved in some other things. Besides, I like my goods a little less shopworn.”
Ella snorted. “Shopworn, in your words. Most folks would call it experienced. She could give you a good time. However. You eatin’ breakfast with us this mornin’?”
“Yeah, I sure would like to. What’s cookin’?”
Smoothly she listed the menu’s items, and he placed his order, hoping the cuisine offered at the Ridge Dining Room was of a higher caliber than yesterday’s whiskey at Ella’s Saloon. As she turned away, he stopped her with one hand.
“You got a lot goin’ on here for a while, or can you spare some time for me?”
“I’m not for sale,” she snapped back at him. “I’ve already told you, Linda Sue—”
His rumbled shred of laughter came out roughly and unexpectedly, similar to the creak of some rusty, deserted piece of equipment. Like the long-disused pump of a windmill, finally primed. Ella, as audience, blinked.
“No. I wanna talk with you for a bit. And I’ll be happy to buy your breakfast, too, if you can sit down and eat with me. It seems my bankroll is a little thicker than I thought, so I may as well spend it on a nice lady like yourself.”
He suspected that, with a regular day-to-day routine set in place over the years, she might have gotten a bit bored. And maybe puzzled and inquisitive. Whatever the reason, she accepted. “I’ll clear my dance card, just for you, young man. There’s a few things I’d like to get off my chest too.”
By the time she returned from the kitchen with two overfilled plates, cutlery and napkins, and a cup for herself, he was smoking a thin cigarillo and contemplating life.
“Here you go.”
Jacob got the impression, by her attitude, that she merely oversaw the place, looking in now and then to check on events. That she was doing him a service by acting as menial could be seen in her gestures and her slightly downturned mouth reddened by lip color.
A portion of several flapjacks, swimming in butter and sorghum, several eggs scrambled together, sourdough biscuits, and a side of thick ham slices. What more could any man want for the beginning of his day? He took a first bite, then a second. The food lived up to its reputation.
“Good. Mighty good. Thanks.”
Seating herself, she assured him that there was plenty more where that came from. “And it’s on the house.”
“On the house?” Surprise creased his brow. In his experience, human beings rarely gave away anything for free unless they were hoping for something in return, farther on down the road.
“I happened to hear how you helped out Amelia yesterday. You got out there before I even knew what was goin’ on, because I was bringin’ in new stock from the back room. You took care of them rapscallions lickety-split. This is my way of showin’ gratitude.”
“It’s nice of you, but I’ll pay my own way. Always have, always will.”
“Really? Why is that? Some reason you can’t accept a meal in return for a favor?”
“Better not to owe anything to anybody, ever,” he stated flatly. “That way things can’t be held over your head, forcin’ a payment you might not wanna make.”
She studied him, this man with his unkempt black hair and beard. “Y’know, Jacob. The way you look right now puts me in mind of some old world barbarian. Or a pirate, flung off his ship. So you plan never to take a handout?”
“Not if I can help it.”
Several minutes passed by. More early diners wandered in, settled themselves here and there. Several called out greetings to others. It was a convivial room, made more so by the appetizing aromas being wafted out, and by the carefully chosen furnishings of ornate red wallpaper, gold curtain, and white un-pressed linen draped over each table.
“Amelia, huh?” Jacob finally spoke around a mouthful of eggs, chewed, swallowed, took another serving. That helped satisfy the empty spot in his middle. “What’s her last name?”
“Hudson. Amelia Hudson. She owns a small ranch, out in the country, and I’ve been kinda keepin’ an eye on her for a while.”
“Yeah?” He arched a brow in her direction and reapplied himself to his breakfast. “What’s your stake in it?”
Over the rim of her cup her gaze at him was amused. “You’re quite the cynical young man, arentcha?”
“You should know.”
Again puzzled, she frowned and looked him over while he, apparently oblivious to the survey, kept shoveling in food. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Eat, Mrs. Taylor. This is mighty tasty, and you never can tell when you’ll get to eat again.”
Who could argue with that statement?
Both did justice to the meal, tucking in with healthy appetite and desultory conversation. Once the plates were empty, with no desire for refills, Jacob sighed and drained his coffee cup. Then he leaned back once again in his chair and re-lit the cigarillo he had earlier stubbed out. He was taking his sweet time about it, too. As if he were waiting for something important.
“Do I know you?” Ella blurted out at last. Sweeping her neat skirts sideways, she leaned forward with the kind of penetrating stare that it was possible her companion might employ.
Jacob blew a small smoke ring into the air. “Are you guessin’ or sayin’?”
“Huh. You need a reminder, do you?” A second smoke ring, perfectly executed, followed the first.
“Certain things about you—I dunno. Just somethin’ kinda familiar.”
In low, almost hypnotic tones, Jacob murmured, “Three boys, all close in age, black hair and dark eyes. Their mother, a woman named Clarice, who had—”
“Oh, merciful heaven!” Clearly flabbergasted, Ella fell back against the chair with one hand pressed to her bosom as if to slow a rapidly beating heart. “Dempsey. You’re one of the Dempsey boys. You’re Jacob!”
“That I am.” He tapped ash into a saucer provided for just that purpose. “The only one left.”
“Of course. Henry was done to death in that gang shoot-out a long time ago, and you disappeared to parts unknown. Now Samuel’s been killed, and the funeral—oh. Why, that was just yesterday, wasn’t it?” Her hazel eyes widened. “And you came back to bury him.”
“Yup. Got a telegram to let me know. Had to travel a long way to get here, too.”
She slightly tilted her head, with its upsweep of curls, to peer intently at this individual returned from years ago in her past, when she and his mother had been the best of friends and close companions. “I can see that. Lookin’ a little rough around the edges, Jacob. In fact, I’ve caught sight of pine trees in the forest with less bristles on ’em. You ever think of gettin’ rid of all that chin hair?”
“The thought crossed my mind a time or two.”
“Uh-huh. Well, whatcha been up to since you last shook the Ridge’s dust from your boots?”
Glancing around the room which, now that only the remains of a morning meal could be seen, was rapidly emptying of patrons who needed to be about their usual business, Jacob shrugged. “Never seemed to settle down in one place, just kept movin’ on. Reckon I was worried the old days would catch up with me, if I landed too long in one spot.”
“Fair means or foul, you askin’?” His grin seemed even whiter, even more sardonic than before, in the depths of that grizzly bear’s beard. “You’ll be happy to know, Ella, that I’ve been on a straight and narrow path, ever since Henry died in my arms. That tends to shake a fellah up, as you can imagine.”
Her gaze swept the room, so sparsely filled by now, as if for eavesdroppers, and she cautiously lowered her tone. “Not surprisin’. But all three of you boys got yourselves in so much hot water with your darned Dempsey gang, robbin’ banks and holdin’ up stagecoaches, and such, it’s no wonder you’re tryin’ to keep a low profile now you’re here. You usin’ your real handle?”
“Ahuh. For the funeral, and to sign in at your hotel last night. But not as a regular thing. Ella.” He paused, thinking it through. “You prob’ly know most of the townsfolk. Think anybody will figure who I am?”
“Well, I didn’t,” she told him pertly. “So that explains the disguise. But you must be more concerned about trouble followin’ you than I realized. Sheriff Lindsay Mason, in particular?”
He let out a coarse guffaw. Coming from such a seemingly sardonic character, from the depths of all those black whiskers, it couldn’t help sounding just a bit incongruous. “Huh. Ole Lemon Linseed Mason? He’s still in office, is he? Swore he’d hang the three of us from the nearest tree, if I remember rightly. Maybe, if we end up takin’ off the gloves, I’ll haveta look him up and settle his hash once and for all.”
“Not such a good idea, Jake. You’d be at cross purposes.”
Leaning forward to speak, again in lowered tones, she said, “Word gets whispered around that he was in cahoots with Samuel, with games bein’ played under the table.”
“The pot callin’ the kettle black, huh? Well, some things never change, do they?”
“I’m just warnin’ you. Watch your step around here, or you’ll end up in the hoosegow.”
“No worry, Ella. I ain’t stayin’ in town long enough to be a problem.” Still, the slant of those steel blue eyes ranged toward the window, and outdoors, as he pondered things unknown.
She returned to the original thread of their conversation. “So. You were sayin’ about how you’ve survived all these years.”
“Oh. Yeah. Well, doin’ a little bit of everything—prospectin’ and minin’, ranch roustabout, some trappin’ in the winter. Enough money most of the time to keep me goin’, anyway. Now I came back to bury my brother, and I’ll be diggin’ out again right soon.”
“No plan to stick around the old home town for a while?”
“To what end? Nothin’ here for me. But a whole world out there. So, tell me, Ella,” planting one elbow on the table, he stubbed out the useless cigarillo, “how’d you end up the richest woman in the Ridge?”
“Now who told you that?” she laughed.
Silently, he spread one brown, capable hand wide to indicate their surroundings. “Looks like you’ve done right well for yourself.”
“Huh.” That was the snort of some peasant, not a lady. “Lotta hard work to build this up, my friend, lemme tell you. My husband—you remember Matt, doncha?—he died, not long after you took off, and I was left in pretty bad shape. Gradually got myself outa the hole, started addin’ this and that, got me a small stable of saloon gals, and there you have it.”
“My hat’s off to you, Ella.” Naturally, the hat was off, anyway, hung on a rack by the door. “You’ve done a fine job, and you can be proud of yourself.”
“Why, thanks, Jake,” she said, surprised. “I am, a mite, but it’s nice to hear somebody say it.”
“Looks to me like you’d oughta find yourself another man. To keep an eye on things, make sure you don’t get cheated, and what not.”
Draining her coffee cup, only to pour out another, she hooted at that suggestion. “Why, what in the world would I want with another man? I’m doin’ just fine on my own, bucko. Don’t need somebody else tryin’ to skim off my share of the profits.” She gave him a shrewd, considering glance. “Too bad you don’t plan on stickin’ around. I could prob’ly find a good job for you.”
“No, thanks. Had enough of Sweet Water Ridge the first twenty years of my life to last me forever. B’sides, I dunno just what Samuel mighta been mixed up in, and maybe it’s better I don’t know. Figure I can trust you, given our history. But I didn’t want too many of the locals findin’ out I was in town. You know enough about me to understand why.”
Finishing off a last forkful of flapjack, Ella chewed thoughtfully. “Sure. The sheriff, for one.”
Jacob, wishing he could exchange his breakfast coffee for a good little shot glass of redeye, toyed absently with the butter knife beside his plate. “You can give me some information, though.”
“Who’s the girl, and why was she bein’ roughed up by Samuel’s henchmen?”
Those keen eyes of what would appear to be a powerful boss lady in town surveyed him, taking in every detail of his rough-hewn face and figure. “Why d’you wanna know?”
One of the wide shoulders, in its blue flannel sleeve, lifted. “Well, I did kinda go outa my way to keep her from harm. At some personal cost, I might add.” He paused to glance down at his right hand, whose knuckles were bruised and just slightly swollen enough to prevent full, comfortable movement. “Reckon it was too much to ask that she might’ve expressed some gratitude.”
“Yes, Jacob, it was too much.”
“Huh? She got a problem with appreciatin’ the fact that a stranger saved her bacon?”
“Not at all.”
“Then why didn’t she say somethin’? I mean, I know I ain’t got the best manners in the world, and I might appear to be a polecat just run down to earth, but at least—”
“Because she can’t,” Ella replied quietly. “She can’t say anything. She can’t speak.”
Jacob had been tilted backward in his chair, lifting the front two legs several inches off the floor. There was an art to this balancing act, and most of those employing it used a wall as prop. Not so Jacob. But he did return to earth with a surprised thump. “You gotta be joshin’ me.”
“Now, just why would I be joshin’ you? Ain’t seen you since you was a green kid.”
“Huh. This a recent affliction?”
“Wish it was.” Ella heaved a hearty sigh that threatened to undo a few of the buttons at her tight bodice. “No, she was born that way. Mute, her pa told me. Never has been able to talk.”
Nonplussed, Jacob found himself wishing he hadn’t finished off the last neat little cigarillo in his pocket. “So, what’s her story?”
Jacob remembered Ella, from his boyhood and teenage years, with fondness. He hoped she felt the same way toward him. Maybe she would be more inclined to do so since he was taking an interest in their local female anomaly: a charity case while at the same time the butt of hectoring, threats and browbeating by those who should know better.
Finishing off her fifth cup of acid-churning black coffee, she related the details of Amelia Hudson’s history.
The only child of a successful Boston businessman, she had lost her mother, Damaris, at the age of six. Her father, Josiah, had never recovered from his bereavement. Hoping to leave pain and distress behind, he had sold all his holdings and moved with Amelia, seven years ago, to this treed and occasionally hilly plain in the northeastern part of what was then Nebraska Territory. His ranch, acquired by auction, had been established some ten miles or so outside the thriving little community of Sweet Water Ridge.
Financially, the JayDee Bar Ranch, named after the senior Hudsons, had prospered. A competent foreman had kept several laborers hard at work seeing to the cattle, crops and cumulative chores, while Josiah learned all he could about the ranching business.
Socially, the relations of the two-person family with the outside world were a different matter, due partly to Josiah’s lack of desire to fraternize, due mostly to his daughter’s painful inability to speak. All her life she had been teased and tormented, and the situation hadn’t changed here in a different region.
People could be just as mean in western country, he had learned, to his dismay, as back east with the nabobs and fat cats. Just because someone dressed in rough woolen and Stetsons, as opposed to a fine suit and beaver hat, or used words in a drawl as opposed to some Boston accent, obviously proved to have no effect on character.
So the Hudsons kept to themselves.
For some time prior, Josiah had felt minor twinges in his chest that, predictably, expanded into palpitations and sharp, spreading pain. One swift and consequential bout had been his last. He had died upon the parlor settee, where he had fallen, almost three years to the day earlier.
Since then, Amelia had somehow survived on her own. Only one cowhand remained, the others having pulled up stakes and drifted away once the master had been laid to rest.
Word had spread that the ranch was suffering by consequence, under her untried hand, both in appearance and in funding.
“I try to watch out for her when I can,” Ella said now, in a sober tone. “And I’ve got a good fellah workin’ for me, that I trust, who goes to check on her now and then. Other than that, the girl is more stubborn than Old Nick himself.”
“Oh, I’ve tried to get her to move into town and settle down with me. Yeah, I know, I know—” as she sat on the receiving end of a deeply skeptical shake of the head, “not exactly the most reputable place, I agree. But she wouldn’t be in the upstairs of my saloon, handin’ out paid favors. Lord above, figure I’ve got more common sense than that. You think I live in that place?”
He grinned. “Dunno just where you live, Ella. Didn’t figure it was any of my business to ask.”
“Well, I have an ordinary house, just like anybody else,” she sniffed. “The only thing that good-for-nothin’ husband of mine left for me. Anyway, I figured to provide a little more of a shelter for the poor girl, bein’ as she is. But she won’t take me up on my offer.”
“That’s what I’m tellin’ you. I love her like a daughter, but she won’t pay the least attention to me when I’m just tryin’ to look out for her best interests. Just won’t consider acceptin’ advice.”
Jacob took a moment to consider. “Maybe that’s best, not bein’ beholden to anybody.”
“You’d think different, if you could but see the way she’s treated, on her rare trips to town.”
“And the two yesterday were cohorts of my brother.” The bruised hand was shifting his cup around. “Was Samuel in on it, too?”
“His bullyin’ of her, you mean? Oh, laddy, he was one of the worst. Took positive pleasure in chasin’ Amelia around, makin’ rude noises at her like some kinda animal. I haveta tell you, there’s a lotta people not feelin’ overly sorry that he’s no longer on earth.”
“Not surprisin’. Just that many more suspects in his murder, I reckon.”
They had been sitting at their table for some time now, while other tables had been cleared by a couple of staff, dishes were washed, and more dinner menu items were prepared in the kitchen. The clink of pottery and the bang of pans reached them, and Ella, with a start, glanced up at the walnut wall clock to discover just how late the hour had grown.
“Well, Jake, it’s been great catchin’ up with you. But it’s time I was gettin’ back to work, ’cause pretty soon my bar will be seein’ its usual rush. I just wish you weren’t leavin’ us already.”
As she made motions to rise, he quickly got to his feet and came around to pull out her chair. Just as if she were a real lady, instead of the person she had become. Still, he was according Ella the respect he felt she deserved, for the warmth and kindness she had always shown him during his childhood.
Come to think of it, though, he had always given every woman a gentleman’s courtesy and deference, no matter her appearance, her age, or her position in life. A good upbringing teaches that.
“You—uh—you think she might be needin’ help out on that ranch of hers?”
Ella, already turning away after a swift hug of the tall prodigal, turned back in surprise. “Who, Amelia? Why, I reckon she does. Why, are you—Jacob. Are you thinkin’ what I think you’re thinkin’?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. Anything wrong about that?”
“Not at all! I’d be so happy if—why, you goin’ out there would be the answer to my prayers…if I ever prayed. You mean it, Jacob? You’ll really take on her problems, and help her?”
Clearly he was embarrassed by the effusion of her response. His face, barely visible behind the thick beard, didn’t redden, nor did he dig the toe of his boot into circles on the floor, like a discomfited young boy. But he did do an eye roll, and that was telling enough as to his mood.
“She can’t talk. Can she hear?”
“As well as you and me.” Ella favored him with another snort. “And she’s well educated, too. Coulda been a teacher, if not for her affliction. Can read and write with the best of ’em. When d’you plan on ridin’ out there?”
“May as well strike while the iron is hot, I expect. Got some things to do here in town, then I’ll come back here for dinner. After that, I’ll go see her.”
“All right.” It was obvious that, mentally, Ella was planning her day, deciding what absolutely must be done and what might be overlooked for a while. One could almost see the gears turning. “I’ll meet you back here when you’re ready to eat, and I’ll keep you company on your way to the ranch.”
Now his embarrassment extended to shoving his hands flat into both front trouser pockets, as if to prevent more touching or hugging. “Naw. You don’t need to interrupt what you got goin’ on.”
“But, I can—”
“She’d oughta recognize me from that little fracas yesterday. Just write her a note and that should take care of the matter.”
Rather doubtfully Ella surveyed him. “Well. All right, I reckon I can do that. And I’ll give you directions, too.” Pausing, she looked up with tears glimmering in her eyes. “I’ve been worried sick about that girl since she lost her paw. Jake Dempsey, you were a good boy when I knew you back in the old days. You’ve grown into a good man. Thank you.”
“A Love Blooming in the Silent Ranch” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
After Amelia Hudson loses her father, she becomes the only owner of the remote ranch they used to run together. Being a mute was already hard, but managing a ranch brings her to live in dire straits. All up until a stranger appears out of nowhere, offering to help her deal with everything she’s been facing. Will she trust this mysterious charming man who arrived uninvited at her door? Or will she refuse the relief he is willing to offer, fearing that she might look weak?
Jacob Dempsey is a reformed outlaw. The day his youngest brother died in his arms, he turned tail and swore he would never return to the town connected to his criminal past. Now, some dreadful news reach his ears and he is called upon to return disguised to his old home once again. He never planned to stay more than a night, but when he rescues a young woman, his destiny suddenly changes. But will he be able to survive the dangerous present, and reach the future he so desperately craves?
Amelia and Jacob are about to develop a strong, almost magical, connection with each other. Yet, old enemies are prowling around, ready to attack. Will the heroes finally learn to trust each other, escape danger and surrender to a sincere love?
“A Love Blooming in the Silent Ranch” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.