“Gus! Augustus Butler! You worthless, no-good lump of cow patty! Gus!”
Fierce pounding to accompany that ear-splitting yowl rattled the door, startling Gus out of a sound sleep that shot him straight off the parlor settee into a dive flat onto the wooden floor. What the blue blazes! Was the place under attack? Was a giant fire burning out of control?
“Young man, you in there? Getcher lazy bones outa bed, boy, sun’s been up for hours, and I ain’t payin’ you to lollygag when there’s chores to be done!”
The door swung suddenly open with a great squeaky rasp of the hinges. His employer stomped over the threshold and inside the foreman’s respectably-sized house, bequeathed to him by his parents when all the land was sold off. He was larger than life, was Tanner Brown, with a reputation to match his size, and his head, encased in a ten gallon hat, nearly brushed the ceiling.
“Dang,” said Gus mildly, as he clambered to his knees. Being caught comatose as a hibernating ole boar bear, in droopy long underwear, puts a man at distinct disadvantage, and he had learned early on that a soft answer turneth away wrath. “Sure thought I locked up last night.”
“You did,” Tanner boomed. “But I got me a spare key, remember? G’wan, you get your duds on and I’ll make a pot of coffee. Looks t’ me like you’re still havin’ trouble peelin’ your eyelids open. You out carousin’ last night, son?”
Yawning, Gus pushing one hand through tousled curls the color of mahogany wood gleaming in the sunlight. He was a tall man, in the prime of life, with a loose-limbed frame and muscles that knew how to be used. Dark brown long-lashed eyes looked out upon a world with charity and compassion, even though that world had given him an unfair shake in return. He could have grown a creditable beard, were he so inclined; but, most days, he preferred the feel of a clean-shaven face.
“Now, you know I wouldn’t go doin’ such a thing, Tanner. Not unless you were right there carousin’ with me.” His cheeky grin showed he knew just how far he could go in answering back, employer or no employer, and that was pretty far.
“Huh. Catch me havin’ time for the sins of the flesh. I got me a ranch to run. Well? You still standin’ around for some reason? Scoot!”
“Yes, sir.” And Gus, realizing he had probably pressed the man to his limits, scooted.
While he hastily visited his bathroom down the hall, and then washed up and pulled on fresh garments out of the wardrobe, Tanner filled the blue enamel coffeepot with water from the stove reservoir. Only warm, since the fire was low. He added more small chunks of wood, stirred the embers, and continued with his preparations for morning coffee.
Soon enough, Gus clumped his heavy boots back to the kitchen, dressed in his usual worn Levi’s pants, blue cotton shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbows, and brown corduroy vest. Similar, in fact, to the outfit worn by his employer, who was attired not for a visit to the town of Mill Creek, Montana, but for ranch work. Deep into spring, which meant it would soon be time to herd the cattle up into the high country for fresh pasture.
Tanner, waiting for the coffee to boil, had propped himself at the sizable table that had often, in the past, doubled as a work station, and was drumming his fingers on the wood surface. He might have been any age. The removal of his hat revealed a mane of pure white hair, which matched the luxuriant white mustache and pointed goatee—both of which gave him inordinate pride.
“So how’s come you were sleepin’ in so goldarned late, son?” he wanted to know. “You sick or somethin’?”
“No, I ain’t sick.” Gus was beginning to feel a trifle peeved by the inquisition. “Gawdalmighty, can’t a feller have an off day once in a while? I was just tired, that’s all.”
And he’d be blessed if he’d go around blabbing his own personal business to anybody that asked. What he did in the dead of night was nobody’s concern but his own.
The coffeepot gave a warning hiss, then a gurgle. Gus, who was closest to the stove, immediately jumped up to remove the utensil from the flames below and poured two mugs full of the dark inky stuff. No niceties like cream or sugar graced the table; real western cowboys didn’t bother with such sissy non-essentials.
From beneath heavy brows, Tanner watched the young man he still considered a boy while he straddled his chair and blew a hopeful breath across the top of his mug before taking a sip. “You’re lookin’ kinda peaked,” he tried next. “You sure you ain’t comin’ down with summer complaint?”
“It ain’t summer, Tan. And, no, I ain’t comin’ down with nothin’. Get off my back, will you?”
“Well, don’t getcher long underwear strung out on a clothesline, son. I made a promise to your folks to look after you, and that’s just what I been tryin’—”
His words rambled on, as they were wont to do when he got a subject he liked between his teeth and just had to keep chawin’ on it. Gus, though so recently awake after too few hours of sleep, was too polite to interrupt the old cuss, so he just leaned back and let him prarttle.
The only reason Gus was even still holding onto his job, according to Tanner, was the respect and admiration he had held for Jesse and Seralita Butler. His folks would be rolling over in their graves, could they but see the lazy bones their son had turned into. Why, at the grand great age of twenty-seven (or thereabouts, since Tanner wasn’t exactly sure) he oughta have made something of himself by now. Instead of sleeping in till noon and expecting the world to be his oyster.
Finally Gus could take no more. This typical harangue had listed all through his first cup of coffee, and partway into his second. He was not only tired and hungry, he was growing seriously irritated. Enough to take the old man down a peg or two.
“Tanner. Love of God, it’s only seven o’clock in the mornin’. I ain’t never slept in till noon in my life. Seems like you could cut me some slack for once. What if I really was sick? Then wouldn’t you feel bad, yellin’ at me as you have done?”
“Huh. Always a mistake to try makin’ a point once you get that cuppa joe into your system and your wits back about you,” muttered Tanner. “You have a sharp tongue in your head, young man.”
“Musta got it from you, Boss. What’dja really come over here for?”
“This here is terrible coffee, Gus. You’d oughta learn how to boil the stuff with decent taste.”
Gus sighed. “And your memory is failin’, too. You made the coffee, remember?”
Suddenly Tanner, with a laugh, reached across the kitchen table to slap his foreman on the arm. “Course I remember. Just wantin’ to see if you was full awake. Now. About our spring roundup. How many men we got workin’ the ranch, and which ones are you figurin’ to put where?”
The foreman’s house, situated on less than two acres of land, was all that remained to Augustus Butler of his parents’ inheritance. Once upon a time, the ranch had consisted of nearly a thousand of those rich, lush acres, spread out across a scenic valley, pastured hills, a meandering creek named Argent (in honor of the silver mines in the area) and forests stretching away to the mountains beyond.
Jesse Butler had been bequeathed this beautiful piece of property by his own father, an industrious soul who was determined to add to his holdings, and did so, every chance he got. But Jesse, likable and generous though he was, had earned the name of ne’er-do-well by everyone who knew him.
A poor head for business, certainly, was the general consensus. But also not much interest in managing his land. A whole library of books, and time to read them, had proved to be more important than holding the original estate together. Gradually, just to keep the Butler family’s collective heads above water, and pay bills, he had sold off a hundred acres here, three hundred acres there,
By the time an outbreak of cholera had killed off both Jesse and Seralita, within a mere ten days of each other, all that remained was this sturdy two-story log house, of which Gus was still in possession. Given more time, Gus had once ruefully reflected, his idle slacker of a parent would have lost the whole kit and caboodle. He couldn’t blame Jesse for character traits that had apparently skipped a generation—Gus himself having inherited his grandfather’s drive and ambition. He had loved his parents with every drop of blood in his veins, and missed their presence in his life to this day. But between his father’s personality and his own lay an insurmountable gulf of differences.
Tanner, next-door neighbor and long-time friend to the Butlers, had willingly purchased anything that Jesse was ready to put up for sale. Rumor had it that, in the long run, it wasn’t Jesse’s land that he coveted, but Jesse’s beautiful dark-haired wife.
Perhaps, during all this, he saw in Gus the son that might have been his.
At any rate, Tanner Brown had never married. His sole passions in life seemed to be the ongoing accumulation of real estate to add to the TeeBee Ranch and the whipping into shape (figuratively only) of young Augustus.
Who really didn’t need it.
Gus figured he himself was actually a pretty decent human being, overall, especially given recent past history. There are some who are called to greatness, he had heard recounted from the pastor’s pulpit, and some who are dragged kicking and screaming into greatness. Well, he wasn’t sure if he could be considered either of those, and he was way past the possibility of being great.
But he was trying. He had seen the need for help, and he had then seized the opportunity. Call his gesture what you would; he thought his folks, wherever their spirits might be resting right now, would be proud of him and his initiative.
On his own since the age of seventeen, at the time of his parents’ deaths, he had taken his tall, broad-shouldered frame out into the world looking for employment. He was educated enough, certainly, but had been trained for little else other than ranch work. Which he loved. Gus often felt himself to be one with the land, like that fellow in Greek mythology his ma had told him about, that gained renewed strength and power every time his feet touched the earth.
His fondest dream was to somehow reclaim those lost acres of his heritage, and bring the Limberpine Ranch back into full bloom again.
So, when Tanner Brown had offered him the position of foreman (despite the boy’s inexperience in the role, and at a higher rate of pay than anyone might have expected), Gus had jumped at the chance. What better opportunity to keep an eye on his beloved acres than riding along for a periodic inspection?
“You seen them tent cities that’ve sprung up all over, on the outskirts of town?” Tanner, working on his third cup of coffee and complaining because there was nothing to go with it, asked now, at the end of their discussion.
“I have, sir. A soberin’ sight, for sure.”
“Ahuh. Got any idea what’s goin’ on?”
“From what I heard tell in Mill Creek, last time I went in for supplies, things are slow movin’ b’cause of the railroad.”
Tanner snorted. “Things’re always bein’ blamed on the railroad, slow movin’ or fast movin’.”
“True.” Gus, for whom this was a cause close to his heart, was deliberately, thoughtfully turning his cup from handle around to handle again. “But the delay has caused a lotta folks to get stuck here, in a bottleneck. Can’t go forward, can’t go back. They put most of their money into buyin’ land farther west, some of ’em, and got little left to live on. Others were countin’ on jobs, and that idea got scotched the longer plans are delayed.”
“Huh. Well, we ain’t runnin’ no welfare camps round here. They’re gonna haveta figure somethin’ out, and make their own way.”
This was where Gus and Tanner could not, and would never, see eye to eye on the particular subject of a man pulling himself up by the bootstraps. Only Gus knew the truth concerning the story of Tanner’s humble beginnings. There were none.
There was family money piled all over Tanner’s illustrious heritage, and he’d never been poor a day in his life. He’d been born in Chicago, the son of a meat-packing dynasty, and had come west with his parents as a toddler. Eventually, he’d managed to pile up even more wealth with the ranch he’d been longing to own and run. What did he know about having to scrabble for a living, especially when a wife and children were involved?
“The Superior Track and Railway System might be able to rightfully excuse all their postponements,” Gus said quietly. “But they’re disruptin’ lives. There’s folks in desperate straits, needin’ just the basics. And they can’t get ’em. Ain’t there anybody that oughta be responsible for helpin’ these people?”
“A feller’s s’posed to watch out for his own,” said Tanner sharply. “Sometimes that alone is hard to do. You’re goin’ to the sawmill tomorrow, right?”
“The sawmill,” repeated Gus, trying to wrap his head around the abrupt change of subject.
“The Fourth of July booth somebody volunteered me for, remember?”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry. Gotta pick up the lumber we need. You already decided on who you want puttin’ it together?”
Gus pushed his chair back, stood with a mighty stretch of his arms, and grabbed his hat. “Nope. I leave that up to you, son. So. You awake now? Appreciate our chance for a little chat.” Grinning, he offered a wave and headed down the hall and out.
It was as if some hurricane-force wind had blown through the house, upending all in its path.
Musing over a number of topics that had come up in this morning’s conversation, Gus poured another cup of coffee and stood looking out the window over the back yard, and his paltry two acres.
What little that was left of the once-rambling acreage of the Limberpine.
Closer to, in what was considered an orchard just past the back yard fence, fruit trees had lost most of the colorful, sweet-smelling blooms that had attracted several hives of honeybees, replaced by tiny apples and pears that would, during the next few months, grow and ripen into produce to be preserved or sold at market. Mature alder, birch, and ash bordered the orchard; from here, Gus could catch a glimpse of the rope swing, which his father had installed, still hanging from a sturdy oak branch.
That brought a reminiscent smile. Sometimes he missed the very presence of his parents so much, like a twisting fist to the gut. No matter that his father had been such a no-a’count in the eyes of other country folk, and some of the town folk, as well. It mattered more that both had loved and encouraged him in any venture.
Work was calling.
Putting aside his cup, he mimicked Tanner’s earlier movements to stretch tired muscles, and put forth a wide, luxurious yawn. Time to go start his day, despite his long hours of the night before. It wouldn’t do if his continued absence from the fields prompted another visit from his sometimes irascible boss. Gus didn’t want to be held responsible for Tanner’s attack of apoplexy.
* * * * *
That June day, and its labors, turned out to be only slightly longer than his night.
Fortunately, he was prepared for the amount of joshing he would have to take, because he got plenty when he joined the half dozen men already tending to chores in the ranch yard.
“Hey, Gussie, boy, didja get to sleep in this mornin’?” laughed Tommy Clyde, where he was (most reluctantly) scrubbing out accumulated green algae in the horse tank that had made the water almost undrinkable. He was wet to the gills, and his hands looked like wrinkled-up brown prunes. “Musta been out after the witchin’ hour, eh?”
“In my dreams, Thomas, my lad,” a good-humored Gus, continuing on his way, responded with a grin.”In my dreams. Unless you got a favorite haunt you can direct me to.”
“He don’t,” retorted Jim Carmichael, who was gathering supplies to begin shoeing a horse. “But I sure do. Nice place in town, Gus, showin’ off the nicest, purtiest ladies you ever saw, with the biggest—”
“Ahuh. I get the picture. Seen some of them ladies, Jim, off from a distance. Awful painted up, if you ask me. Looked like they’d rather be pickin’ your pocket than keepin’ you company.”
Farther down the line, Two-Step Torrance (so-named because of his admirable skills exhibited on any dance floor) had drawn the despicable chore of mucking out the stable.
This time of year, every horse on the place had been out eating his or her head off in fine green pasture, but there still remained occasional confinement time for whatever reason: illness, or a hoof needing treatment, or imminent delivery. Amazing how much waste can pile up within just a few days. And the boys managed to delay getting at this particular bit of drudgery for as long as possible.
“How ya doin’ there, Two-Step?” Gus could accord the man good cheer, since his position right now on the roster ladder was at least slightly higher. “Quite an ef-flu-vi-ous job you’re makin’ of it.”
Two-Step sent his foreman a sour look. He might not know the meaning of that double-barreled word (one of many that Gus sometimes threw out, just for emphasis) but he got the gist of it. “Rather be ridin’ the fence line.”
Gus laughed. Now that was sour grapes, indeed, since riding the fence line was a cowpoke’s second least favorite duty. “I know,” he sympathized. “Ain’t much you can do about it, though. Take heart; it’ll be my turn to be pitchin’ the fork onea these days.”
All seemed in order, as he walked about checking on the various men assigned their various tasks. He poked his head into the cook shack, where Jubal Harris was peeling a mound of potatoes in between pounding strips of raw steak with a meat hammer.
“Gotta go to town tomorrow. Anything you need in the way of provisions?”
Usually the cook, a dark-skinned man with the flaring nostrils and tight black hair of his race, handed over a weekly list to his foreman, adding items that were running low. Pausing to wipe his hands on a canvas apron, he searched for the paper he kept on a small wooden table that served as desk.
“Here y’ go, Mr. Gus. Nothin’ completely empty, but I wouldn’t mind you gettin’ another bag of coffee beans. Don’t you go havin’ Mason, at that there general store, do anything but dish ’em up. He likes to fill the sack with burnt stuff, and then charge you for it. I’ll roast ’em and grind ’em myself.”
“Fair enough.” Gus strolled over to the window, tally in hand, in an attempt to decipher the words in brighter light. Julep had emigrated from a south still staggering after the war, and his education—thus his skills at spelling, and at handwriting—left much to be desired. “Huh. What’s this here, Jube? Looks like Pot Billy Goat.”
Julep sniffed his disdain. “Pork Belly Roast.”
“Ahuh. Mighty glad you cleared that up for me. And this’n? Books shootin’ surrey?”
“Now, it ain’t that hard. Wooden cookin’ spoons. That no-’count helper you done give me last week run off with my two best ones, and I—”
Puzzlement ran all over Gus’s handsome suntanned face. “Now what in blazes would that kid want with a couplea spoons?”
“Usin’ ’em to stir up them cans of whitewash Master Tanner bought. He’s s’posed to be workin’ on the barn, and he—”
“That’s right, I forgot. Shouldn’ta taken stuff from your stove, though. All right, now, here’s another’n I rightly can’t figure.”
Jubal’s amazingly white teeth flashed in a grin. “Now, Mr. Gus, you’s just funnin’ me. Do I gotta go along to the Creek with you, make sure you read everything right?”
Returning the grin, Gus folded the list to tuck inside his breast pocket. “Here’s a thought, Jube. You get that pretty wife of yours to take over your record-makin’ chores from here on. Be a sight easier on all of us.”
Marcy and the couple’s two children had been managing Tanner Brown’s house for the past eight years, taking care of the cleaning, the meals, the laundry, and whatever other necessary things came along. All of them—she, with John Richard and Camelia—were utterly dependable and utterly unobtrusive, and Gus would hate to think of the TeeBee without all four of them around. As wheels go, the Harris family were pretty important cogs, to help keep everything running smoothly.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Gus. I’ll ask her. But she’s gonna tell me she’s got too much to do already.”
“Then how about Camelia? That girl, even at the age of eight, has got a lotta common sense, and enough schoolin’ to do a right good job. All right, Jube, gotta be on my way. See you at dinner.”
With a small one-finger salute to the brim of his Stetson, without which headgear any normal westerner would not set foot in public, Gus headed on to his next stop: the machine shed, where one of his jack-of-all-trades, Charlie Simpson, was working on the ranch buggy’s broken wheel. All was in order there; after a few minutes’ chat, Gus could head out to check on another order of the day, rotated around—two men sent out with the buckboard to cut up dead wood in the distant timber.
Ranch buildings were many, varied, and scattered, with some distance in between. Sheds, the bunk house, the chicken pen, a series of corrals, storage structures, a stable, one large barn, and so on. Not to mention the house itself, and a smaller cabin set aside for the Harris quartet. Then there was his own spacious house, far enough away from the general commotion that seemed to involve all of the TeeBee whenever Tanner was in the vicinity. Lord only knew where he’d disappeared to now.
Gus usually walked the perimeter, when making his rounds each day. By the time he’d finished, and was ready to return for dinner, he was feeling the morning’s warmth and ready to rest in the shade like an old man thrice his age. Probably his late night hours were getting the best of him. About to ruin his health and sanity, for all he knew.
“Hey, Gus, we’ll be gettin’ on towards dinner, ain’t we?” called out one friendly soul from the depths of the barn. He came out slowly, carrying a pail, leading a small calf, accompanied by the ranch dog.
“H’lo, Malcolm. How’s our newest youngun doin’?”
Malcolm Armstrong served the ranch as animal-doctor-in-chief. In his early thirties, to the best guess, his was a lean, lanky frame that seemed able to contort itself into the most bizarre proportions when it came to delivering a colt stuck bottleneck or tend a litter of sick piglets. His craggy face, with its unruly mass of red hair, couldn’t be considered handsome, by any means. Interesting, would be the operative description. Certainly he carried around a university’s store of knowledge in that hard head of his.
For a few days, he had been caring for a tiny heifer whose mama had refused to let her suckle. Mothers of all species can acquire strange notions, after birth, and this one was no exception. So Malcolm was feeding the little waif several times a day, and now she trailed around after him much in the manner of Shep, the black and white spotted dog who loved everyone indiscriminately. In fact, he and the calf had become the best of friends.
Meanwhile, the ranch wags were collecting bets on how soon good ole Mal would allow the animal to climb into his bunk at night, for companionship.
Straightening, Malcolm’s ruddy features beamed. “Oh, quite well, actually. It might be just the vain pride in me, you understand, but I fancy she might even have gained a pound or two.”
“Ahuh. Good job, then, savin’ this one. Heard tell we got us a man laid up with a bunged-up ankle?”
The faint burr in Malcolm’s voice betrayed his origins, as did his brilliant coloring and occasional fighting spirit. “Aye. I’ve used cold compresses for a bit, then wrapped him up. I’d advise rest from work for a few days, with your approval, to quicken recovery. Then he ought to be usin’ a cane, for support.”
No one on the ranch exhibited the slightest surprise that a would-be veterinarian would doctor both animals and people. They were similar in form and feeling, weren’t they? And with Malcolm right handy, to treat any injury, it was easier than having to rush to town, roust Doc Pribble out of bed, and rush back. As far as anyone was concerned, this was a satisfactory working arrangement.
Providing medical care for two-legged and four-legged beasties alike might have been Malcolm’s first love, but he had been hired mainly to supply an extra pair of working hands. Cowboys on any busy ranch learned a multitude of skills at a young age, thus being able to fill in, as needed. Shoeing horses, repairing equipment and vehicles, riding fence, cutting and storing hay—all such abilities rendered a man not only more valuable to his present employer, but also to any in the future.
“Sure, whatever you say. Don’t want anybody permanently hobbled. O’ course—it was Obed Landry, right?”
The two exchanged a meaningful look. “’Twas, indeed,” said Malcolm levelly.
“Ahuh. Well, we’ll just keep an eye on him.”
Obediah was the worst malingerer, the loudest complainer, the whiniest shirker of work on the ranch. He was always faking some sort of damage, be it a sprained wrist or a torn ligament or a fall that resulted in ghastly trauma to neck and spine.
Tanner, with little patience for such a thing, had threatened to fire the man on numerous occasions, but so far had held off. Softness of the head, Tanner harrumphed, when asked. Softness of the heart, Gus suspected, but did not mention.
Obediah, age unknown, was mentally challenged and had lasted only a few days at each of his prior jobs. Tanner keeping him on at the TeeBee was an act of charity, one for which he refused to acknowledge or take credit.
“Well, reckon it’s time to head back,” said Gus, glancing up at the sun which stood straight overhead. His inner workings, meaning his empty belly, told him food ought to soon be on the table, because, having had nothing but acid-strength coffee for breakfast, he was ready to eat. “You bringin’ that young cow in as a dinner guest?” he politely asked.
“Considered it. Except those roughhouses would probably try to cook her up in a giant stew pot. Hold on, I’ll get little Jezebel into the near corral and walk back with you.”
Waiting, watching while the Scotsman turned on his heel with the calf and the dog frolicking along, Gus shook his head in wonderment. Life had created an unusual cast of characters on this earth, and he figured he’d already dealt with a good many of them.
Amid much male chit-chat, and some easy banter—most of which even turned out to be friendly—the whole crew gathered around the dinner table while Jubal almost flung platters from place to place. Gus, as foreman, was called upon to deliver his usual brief blessing on the food. The amenities satisfied gave permission to dive in.
Someone asked about next Saturday night’s dance; where was it being held, and at what time, and which organization was providing refreshments? Someone else commented on how much wood had been gathered, trimmed, cut into workable sections, and piled into the buckboard. Another someone twitted Malcolm about the little heifer he had adopted; was she wearing a flower necklace yet, or a hat on her head?
Most of this Gus could ignore to concentrate mostly on his meal. The men under his command found him always pleasant enough, amenable to changes in routine, slow to anger and quick to laugh. But there was just a certain reserve that set him apart, a certain barrier between himself and the rest of the gang, as second-in-command to general roustabouts. So no one tried to infringe, or become bosom buddies. Something simply held him on a different plane from the others.
“Steaks are mighty palatable, Jube,” he complimented the chef. “And so’re them potatoes you spent all mornin’ gettin’ peeled. You sure got a way with fixin’ stuff for us to eat.”
A murmur of agreement passed around the table. When Gus had finished, and pushed back his chair to rise, the others hovered uncertainly. Time to get back to work already?
“Naw, you boys g’wan and have at your meal,” he assured them. “Y’all know what you gotta do this afternoon. Me, I’m headin’ back to my own place to do some bookwork for Tanner. That’s if anybody needs me for somethin’.”
His saddled horse remained waiting patiently in the shade of a giant black walnut. Gus might be willing to walk some measurable distance, around the grounds of the TeeBee, but he wasn’t about to wear out the leather on his cherished boots to hike two miles from and to his own home. Nor would his feet appreciate the inconvenience.
The silence of the spacious two-story house welcomed him. With the buckskin gelding, appropriately named Buck, basking bare to the sun in the comfort of his own paddock, Gus worked off his high-heeled boots through the fork of the back porch bootjack and padded into the kitchen.
Still tired, no matter the amount of coffee he’d already consumed.
The second story of four bedrooms and small utility room still held all the furnishings left after his parents’ death, but he rarely ascended the stairs for any reason. Not to retrieve any items. Certainly not to clean. Long ago he had set up a single cot in the space being used as an office / library for his own personal use. A wardrobe held his limited bits and pieces of clothing, and a small but adequate bath, built at the end of the hall, across from the kitchen, provided everything he might need. It was a compact way of living, all practically within arm’s reach.
Gus poured a glass of cool water, straight from the well, and took it out onto the veranda. He’d grab himself a bit of shut-eye right now, soaking up the view of prolific fruit trees closer to and the soft greenish-purple hills farther away. The bookwork—totting up columns, checking debits and credits, paying bills—could wait.
Even youngsters like himself deserved a nap now and then.
“Howdy, Miss Green. My, you’re looking lovely today.”
With her usual welcoming smile, Maria glanced up from the Columbia typewriter at which her father proclaimed, with utmost admiration, she was able to perform such miracles. Only ten o’clock, and already her first visitor had hesitantly come through the ornate carved door of the mayor’s office.
“Good morning, Mr. Hirsch. You’re looking quite well yourself.”
The pleasantries observed, Bentley Hirsch, proprietor of the highly successful Men’s Tailoring and Haberdashery Shop located in the center of Mill Creek’s Main Street, replaced the panama hat he had removed in deference. “I stopped by to inquire whether I might see the mayor for a few minutes.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir, but the mayor is out and about this morning. So many details to see to about the grand Fourth of July celebration, you understand.”
“Pity,” said Mr. Hirsch. “Pity. That is precisely what I’d like to speak to him about. Well.” He pondered for a few minutes, while Maria inwardly fidgeted. It seemed the man could never get straight to the point, and spit out what he needed to say. “I wonder, then, if you would be so kind—perhaps you could pencil my name into his calendar for an appointment?”
“Certainly, sir.” Obligingly Maria reached over to the corner of her desk for necessary implements. “Which day, and what time, would you prefer?”
“Hmmm. Well. So amazingly efficient, you do your father proud. Well, now. I hadn’t really considered…”
As the mayor’s secretary, and her father’s efficient daughter (a slightly cold-blooded term, but factual), Maria was accustomed to dealing with all the varying personalities involved in Mill Creek. From business people to everyday workers to bank presidents, she exuded courtesy to all. But she wanted to finish typewriting this document, and to do that she must speed Mr. Hirsch on his way.
“Shall we say tomorrow morning? At eleven o’clock?”
“Why, yes, yes. I do believe that would be fine. Thank you, Miss Green, I appreciate it. Uh. Well. Then I’ll wish you good day.”
Maria couldn’t help releasing a breath of relief as the door closed quietly upon his departure. The forty-ish, balding bachelor entertained a certain fondness toward her, she knew, that, in some circumstances, might cause embarrassment. Or, pushed too far, rancor. Occasionally he had complimented her on her thick chestnut hair, often worn in a cascade of curls tied back with a large grosgrain bow. Or on her green eyes, which he had once described as looking like a collection of polished emeralds. Hardly original, though rather quaint to hear.
He had not dared comment on her figure, attired now in an1890 costume of the day: azure shirtwaist with modified leg o’ mutton sleeves, and slim dark brown skirt to her ankles.
Thus far, she had managed to hold him at arm’s length. However, she was afraid that, at some point, she might be forced to bring the power of her father’s office to bear, just to move him out and away from any further complications.
Back to the letter Robert Green had dictated first thing this morning. Well, not really a letter; an announcement. Her father wanted information concerning the upcoming celebration to be published in the Mill Creek Mouthpiece, listing planned activities, and places and times for each. This was his third, and final, report to the populace at large, and by far the most detailed.
“I’ll give you the basics,” he had told her. “And then you clean it up, let your fingers work their magic on that infernal contraption of yours, and take it on over to Yancey Hope at the paper. Got some errands to run, honey; be back sometime after dinner.”
The Mayor often spoke disparagingly of her modern typewriter, forgetting (or choosing to forget) each time just how much effort and how many hours were saved through the use of this infernal contraption by his orderly secretary. Not to mention the fact of his office appearing quite businesslike and up-to-date. Not to mention, either, that Maria doted upon that ungainly piece of equipment. Robert sometimes complained about the tickety-tickety noise of the striking keys, which, he claimed, ruined his concentration.
“What concentration?” she calmly inquired in response to each of these grievances. “You spend no more time in this place than absolutely necessary, Papa. I do believe you’d far rather be squiring Mama about town than tending to your mayoral duties.”
“Huh.” Robert, standing near his door at the time, ready to make another escape, was nonplussed. And then, of course, offered his usual type of quote, “Oh, how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is—”
“—to have a thankless child,” she finished, having heard these same words ad infinitum. “I know. I am such an ingrate. And what would you have me do today, Mr. Mayor?”
He had departed shaking his head, as if with regret, mumbling something about making such mistakes in the raising of his daughter, teaching her to think for herself and behave independently, which had only led to showing grave disrespect to her only father…
Maria had merely smiled and returned to her task. More words to which she had been subject, again and again. And none of them actually true. She and her parents enjoyed quite a convivial relationship, full of pleasantries and playfulness, much love and laughter. They were generous, good-hearted souls, all three of the Greens, with a cheerful outlook on life and absolute loyalty to each other. Family support, the mayor had often declaimed, was of vital importance.
After a restorative few sips of coffee, she finished typing and proofreading her document before rolling it up and out from the platen. Perfect. A few more papers, with which she must deal, lay on her desk; once she had discharged whatever might be involved in those, she would be free to visit the Mouthpiece.
Being able to take some much-needed exercise and breathing in some fresh air, in the meantime. Leaving office windows wide open simply didn’t offer the same appeal. She wanted to feel the sunshine and sniff the town’s ever-changing effluvia of aromas.
When the bell over the door jangled to admit another visitor, Maria hastily stifled a groan when she realized his identity, wishing she had departed five short minutes ago and missed the man.
“Good morning, Marshal,” she dutifully chirped at him. “A fine day, is it not?”
Marshal Aloysius Myers had to be one of the least favorite characters on the Mill Creek roster.
Not only was he physically less than prepossessing, with a hulking frame, straight black hair slicked back desperado-style, and a perpetual scowl, but his personality left so much to be desired.
“One thing you can say about him,” Robert had recently observed, “he doesn’t discriminate against any particular race, color, or creed. He hates everybody, bar none.”
Now, the marshal yanked his hat off—not in deference, but in fury—to slam down upon Maria’s desk. She literally jumped back, out of harm’s way.
“Do you or your lily-livered paw know anything about the latest?” he fired off at her.
Maria blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“Stuff stolen from down at End o’ Tracks.”
“Marshal, forgive me, but I haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re talking about.”
He moved closer to loom over her. “You tellin’ me you don’t know who done it, or why?”
Refusing to back down before the town bully, even if he was wearing a badge on his bulky chest, she gave him an icy glare. “Isn’t that your job?”
He took the glare and returned it straight as a spent arrow. “Ha. Mighta known you’d have some know-it-all comeback. Too bad your paw didn’t take the strap to you more often as a kid, Missy.”
“He never once took the strap to me at all, Marshal!” she flashed, stung.
Even for this intensely unlikable man, such a personal attack was beyond the pale.
“Well, there you go, then. That’s the problem. Now, I gotta get some information about what’s goin’ on in my town. When is the mayor due in?”
Maria, deeply offended by this whole conversation, lifted her chin. Any confrontation with their only law official left her feeling ruffled and out of sorts, but this one particularly so. How could any government appoint such a disagreeable man to oversee their town? A simple sheriff could be voted in, and just as quickly voted out, by the good citizens. But not this miserable wretch.
“He’s been and gone, and you’ve just missed him,” she took great pleasure in declaring. “Would you like to leave a message? Or make an appointment?”
“Yeah, I sure would. Wanna talk to your ole man, so make it for one o’clock today. Or, better yet, send him a-skitterin’ on over to my place. This is the fifth heist in the last few weeks, and I’m tired of cleanin’ up the mess after Superior Track finds stuff stolen yet again.”
“The railroad, hmmm?”
“ Danged straight. We got us some lowdown, connivin’ sneak thief in these parts, stealin’ valuable stuff like food and blankets. And I got a pretty good idea where he’s come from.”
“Really?” Maria stared. When the marshal really got his dander up, the blood rose pulsing into his face, his nostrils flared, and his eyes narrowed into malignant slits like a maddened bull. Fascinating. “And where is that?”
“Them vagrant camps out past Mill Creek. Tents, and shanties built of waste wood and tin cups, and about a million down-and-outers crawlin’ around like ants to find what they’re lookin’ for.”
He was too close, leaning forward with both hairy fists planted knuckle-down on her desk as if to bar her from any more retorts. Or an escape. She’d had about enough. Rising, with an infuriated swish of her skirts, she met his gaze flat on.
“Well, I for one would applaud anyone with the temerity to take matters into their own hands,” she snapped at him. “Those people have been trapped in no-man’s land for months, thanks to that high-and-mighty railroad you slaver over. There are lots of families in those encampments, with small children, and all of them need supplies. It’s a crying shame, that’s what it is!”
“Oh, yeah?” If his eyes narrowed but a scant millimeter more, she would have to lead him out of the office by hand, because he would have vision to see nothing. “Makes me wonder if you and your goody-two-shoes paw have had anything to do with this stealin’.”
“From lily-livered to two-shoes in less than five minutes. Amazing. Any other jibe you’d like to throw at my father?”
“Look, Miss Green, if you got any idea who’s involved, you better tell me now. Because what’s happenin’ is a crime, and I intend to hunt the feller down and throw him into the calaboose.”
Their discussion was becoming more and more strained, and Maria was fast losing patience with the marshal, his gripes, and his heated accusations that smacked of slander. This was worse than having to subtly evade Bentley Hirsch’s backhanded compliments. Perhaps she ought to ask for a raise in salary to handle the stress of these unexpected encounters.
“I am ashamed of the railroad, that was supposed to continue on westward and bring all of us prosperity,” she told him with a decided edge to her voice. “And I am ashamed of this town, which allows helpless individuals—victims of that railroad—to flounder along without jobs, without adequate shelter, without decent meals or clothing or education for their little ones.”
He snorted. “Fine words, Miss Green. Fine words. You got anything to back ’em up?”
“Not yet. But, hopefully, soon. My father and I have already discussed working with the churches to provide more charity until people can get back on their feet. And we’re trying to form a committee that will oversee the tent city and its inhabitants, address their needs, and so on.”
“Oh, izzat so?” Myers raised a skeptical brow. “And use up whatever funds Mill Creek might have left in the coffers, huh? Run us bankrupt and ruined?”
Color rose into Maria’s clear, creamy complexion. Had she made a mistake in blurting out that information to this horrible man? It was true that she and her father had talked over both these possibilities, along with writing a list of suggestions on how to attend to and resolve the ongoing problems. But she probably should have kept those details to herself, instead of being goaded into revealing what was, thus far, merely prospective ideas.
“Not a bit,” thrown on defensive, she replied sharply. “We all do better when we all do better. Is this the image of the town we want presented? That we are willing to allow misery and starvation and poverty exist in plain sight, within our borders? No, I wholeheartedly approve of your so-called thief. He’s jumping right in to do what no one else has. Why, the man is a modern Robin Hood, taking from that bombastic bloated railroad and giving to the poor!”
“Robin Hood! What a fantasy! Must I remind you, Miss Green, that he is a common criminal, and he deserves—”
“Who deserves what?” The office door had been left open; Mayor Green, returning early from his errands, caught enough of that last remark to ask mildly.
He was a man of average size who carried himself well, despite the slight paunch of his office. Dressed in lightweight tweed sack coat, pale gray trousers complete with suspenders, and a burgundy brocade waistcoat, he stood with a leg on each side of the societal fence—one the more common middle class worker, the other part of the business world. And was a popular figure with both.
“You returned early,” noted his daughter with some relief.
“Yep. Someone I wanted to see turned up being out of town. So I decided to take my beautiful secretary to dinner, later on. Something going on I should know about?”
“You betcher boots there is,” the marshal retorted. “All them roustabouts in the tents, freeloadin’ off every bleedin’ heart—one of which is Miss Green’s, I’d say—and now thievery. Gotta nip this in the bud, Mayor. And you and the Council oughta get together and put out some kinda proclamation.”
“Hmmm. Think so?”
“Know so. Set up some hard and fast rules, and run whoever you can outa town that don’t follow ’em.”
“Really?” Robert perched on one corner of his own desk, halfway between interest and disinterest. “And where would they go?”
“Dunno, don’t care, Mayor. Anyplace but here.”
Considering, Robert gazed out the window for a moment, watching sporadic traffic pass by. This building was located on a strategic corner, with a large room fronting the street for mayoral digs and more space to the rear for council meetings, town hall confabs, and the like. A compact indoor bathroom had even been installed, much to the delight of visitors.
“You know, Marshal, that the railroad is greatly at fault here, don’t you? The corporate heads promised the moon to these folks, took their savings, then brought them here and dumped them. Superior Track bears a lot of responsibility for what has happened.”
It came as a surprise to his daughter that Mayor Green was actually supporting her own views in the matter. During their own discussions, in private, he stood by the STARS and its policies. Or was it simply the concept of a house divided, and he had decided to challenge the marshal? Certainly no love lost there, between the two. So often their meetings came down to a verbal battle, with each testing the other for strength and stamina.
Maria, during the rare times she witnessed such an encounter, felt battered and buffeted by the hail of angry words being flung back and forth and couldn’t wait to slink away.
“And continue making their promises of pie-in-the-sky,” added Maria now, with a sense of outrage. “They need to be stopped. They need to be prevented from doing this again and again.”
The marshal was clearly unimpressed by this appeal. “Yeah? Well, maybe if them Eastern idjits had a brain in their heads, they wouldn’ta fallen for some slick pledge that don’t mean squat.”
“Sounds like you don’t feel much sympathy for the people having to live there.”
“Does it? Well, I don’t. This situation has been growin’ worse for the last couplea months, ever since these moochers started showin’ up. Mark my words, things keep on as they have, we’re gonna see some trouble all the way around. B’sides, anybody wants a job can get one at the mine.”
The mayor’s thick brows arched. “I didn’t know the Silver Dollar was hiring.”
Myers, shifting position, backed down. Just a little. His mood was still antagonistic enough to fight off anyone who disagreed with his own strong opinions. “Well, I haven’t checked right within the last few days, so I ain’t rightly sure. But there’s saloons to work at, ain’t there? And clerks are needed at some of the shops, ain’t there?”
“Not to my knowledge. There isn’t much available, Marshal, because the poor people have been desperate to snap up whatever they can. It’s a problem we have to deal with. Most of these families came here, enticed by the railroad into jobs and land much further on. And then Superior stopped laying track.” This was Maria again, probably overstepping boundaries left and right, but determined to get her point across.
“You can hardly blame the ones already here, stranded high and dry to fend for themselves,” Robert added. Though his tone was mild enough, he flung his daughter a quelling look. As in, Please be quiet for the moment.
Mayor Green was at his best when standing on a soapbox, pontificating—rightly or wrongly. In this case, rightly, even with a single comment, and Maria was silently adding a “Huzzah!” to his words.
“Women are taking in laundry, men are crushing rock into gravel for roads,” put in a sobered Maria, at this juncture. “They’re doing what they can. It isn’t enough. And to see those poor children—thin and ragged, trying to help out—why, it fairly breaks your heart.”
Robert arched a warning brow in her direction. “Sounds like you’ve been in communication with the outcasts, Maria. I don’t want you hanging around the place on your own; it could be dangerous.”
“Especially if you run into our local—I b’lieve you called him Robin Hood,” sneered the marshal. “You’d best stick to your knittin’, Missy.”
“Oh, I never knit,” she assured him complacently. “I leave that to the experts. Have you tried it yourself, Marshal? I understand working with a few needles, of any size, can be wonderfully calming.”
“Huh.” Looking her up and down with suppressed scorn, Myers grabbed his hat and started toward the door. “All right, then, gonna go take a look around. Heed me on this, Mayor, you gotta get a handle on this whole situation. Next you know, we’re gonna have a riot on our hands.”
And he stomped away, before Maria could finish sweetly asking, “Does this mean you want to cancel this afternoon’s appointment?”
Chuckling, Robert got up off his haunch and smoothed his brilliant waistcoat. “Best not to badger him, Maria. It’s like poking a bear in a cave—commotion, in one way or another. Now, then. I have another errand for you to run.”
“Besides going to the newspaper? All right, Papa. Just let me put myself together for public viewing.”
He watched her fondly as she settled a summer hat upon her head. Hardly a hat. It was more like an antimacassar, a small confection made of stiffened lace and topped by a couple of aqua blue silk roses and marabou feathers to match.
“Hardly worth bothering with, is it?” he observed with a grin.
“Papa. You ought to know by now. A hat is not used to shade one’s face from the sun or the wind. A hat is planned to enhance one’s charms. It can be frivolous, or serious, or weighty. A hat is indicative of one’s mood, and shows the world how to approach. Choosing a particular hat to wear each morning requires one to have a deliberate plan of action in mind.”
“My, my.” His tone was dry. “All these years, and I had no idea the idea of just plopping something on your head could be so complicated.”
Her smile was broad enough to show off two deep dimples. “Of course you did, you dear man. You married Mama, didn’t you? Now, where else shall I be off to?”
Pleading a pile of correspondence to go through, and details to be arranged still for the Fourth of July celebration, he had decided to let Maria stand in his stead with some of the businesses in town. He couldn’t be everywhere at once, after all; and his daughter was pretty, circumspect, intelligent, a fine speaker, and one who knew how to smooth over any project’s rough edges.
Maria loved visiting the newspaper office. Strange though it might seem, she loved the clutter, she loved the sound of the great press waffling away, she even loved the smell of ink. Had she not been volunteered for her present position, she might have pursued something in the newspaper business.
She found the proprietor and main reporter, Yancey Hope, up to his eyebrows in a stack of paper about to be printed.
Knocking loudly on the counter helped to draw his attention, over the continuous noise, Which she did not quite love. In fact, she wondered how anyone could work here for any length of time without going temporarily or permanently deaf.
Looking up, he smiled and shooed her back outside, where he joined her on the wooden sidewalk. “Too hard to hear in there,” he freely admitted. “Whatcha got there, lady?”
Was there a remote chance that she might love Yancey just a little, too? Or was it the attraction of the job, rather than the easy-going man himself, that pulled her in? Handing over the announcement, she explained her purpose, and her father’s intent.
“Sure. Be happy to run it.” Quickly he scanned the words, nodded here and there, then gave her a grin. “I detect Miss Maria Green’s fine hand in this.”
“Oh, not so much, really. My father wrote; I typewrote.”
“Got it. Well, this seems fine to me. Wednesday’s edition soon enough?”
“Perfect, Mr. Hope. Thank you.” Smiling, she turned to leave.
Yancey waited for a few beats, then called after her, “Hey! Sure do like that hat!”
Her smile broadened. How was she so fortunate that almost everyone in town greeted her with pleasure and offered her such friendliness? She couldn’t live in a big, cold, unsociable city for anything on earth.
Her next stop was Howie’s Lumber Yard, where a decorated float, sponsored by the town of Mill Creek, was being constructed and beautified for the celebration’s parade. Her father had been vague as to the names and number of volunteers putting in their time, so she was asked to acquire that information and check on progress.
“I never did see a design for the thing,” Robert had said earlier, sounding a trifle miffed. “So whether there’ll be gals in hoop skirts sitting atop the hay wagon, or a couple of cows in the process of being milked, I have no idea.”
She could easily walk the distance. Howie’s was located a block or two from the city limits, that the noise and woodsy aromas of sap and sawdust (for which some residents, surprisingly, did not care) might not disturb any more than necessary.
Besides, it was a one of those perfect June days, and she would be able to wave and say hello to various passersby. And to poke her nose inside a couple of her favorite emporiums, if a glimpse through the window showed anything new and exciting which she might explore.
“Hey, there, Miss Green, what’s your paw up to t’day?” greeted one shopkeeper, who was out front sweeping what seemed to be an already immaculate walkway.
“Oh, right now he probably has his feet propped up on his desk and is resting his eyes,” she laughed.
“Ha! Wisht I could be doin’ the same. You remember me to your maw, now. Tell her them kitchen tongs she’s been waitin’ for finally come in.”
“I will, Mr. Perkins. She’ll be happy to hear that. Thank you so much!”
Farther on, Theodore Riggs, Attorney at Law, was just leaving his office. “Well, now, Miss Green, as I live and breathe. I’m just going down to the Three Square Café for dinner. Care to join me?”
“I’d love to, Mr. Riggs, but I’m afraid business comes first. Another time, perhaps.”
She carefully sidestepped two dogs who, with hackles raised and fangs bared, were growling low in their throats at each other. And moved into the street for a short distance to avoid sounds of something untoward taking place in a narrow alley.
With color higher than usual, she finally made it to the big building that housed all sorts of sawn lumber, of various grades and various lengths, with a small energetic sawmill out back. Swinging inside, she sniffed happily at the air. How could anyone possibly not appreciate such earthy smells? It was beyond the imagination.
“Hello? Anyone here?” She made her way around stacks of this and piles of that, wondering where the mayor’s prized vehicle platform was being stored.
Turning the corner around a post that was larger in circumference than her whole body, she banged squarely into some immovable something that let out a grunt of surprise.
“Rescuing a Heart In Need” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Maria Green, the mayor’s daughter, is a young girl whose only passion in life is to help people in need. In an unexpected turn of events, she meets her childhood friend, Gus, at the parade celebrating the 4th of July, and her heart shivers for the first time. Her father immediately forbids her from ever talking to the infamous young man who has no bright future ahead of him. Yet, when she finds out that Gus is the one who secretly steals food every night to help the poor, she embarks on a journey she could have never fathomed. Desperate to escape the grim future her parents planned for her, she decides to accompany Gus on a mission to bring justice. Will Maria manage to defy her father’s orders and follow her heart? Will Gus be the salvation she was looking for?
Gus is a young man who lost his family at a young age and has been struggling to earn a living as a ranch hand ever since. He has always been in love with Maria for longer than he cares to count, but he is painfully aware that she’s out of his league. A lifetime adventure soon brings them closer, though, when they join forces to end the injustice against helpless immigrants. Although Gus’s life is in danger for stealing, he will not give up that easily. But when fate brings another shocking twist, will he eventually choose society’s rules and give up his life’s purpose?
Even though passion flares between Gus and Maria, they must find a way to protect each other while doing everything possible to help the people in need. In a heart-stopping moment, their lives will turn around once and for all while everything is set against them. Can the two heroes find a true soulmate in one another, despite all odds? Can their love survive the obstacles threatening to destroy it?
“Rescuing a Heart In Need” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.