Copyright 2016 Shaunna Gonzales
This book is published by Shaunna Gonzales at Shakespir.
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for yur use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Names, characters and incidents depicted in this book are products of the author’s imagination, or are used in a fictitious situation. Any resemblances to actual events, locations, organizations, incidents or persons – living or dead – are coincidental and beyond the intent of the author.
And always, thank you to my husband, Herman, my beautiful children, for the love and support, strength and encouragement.
“That’s it then.” Trish patted Yedi, her prized Arabian stallion, on the neck. She sat erect and yet relaxed.
The sun inched higher above the eastern mountains. May was always a beautiful month, one she looked forward to for more than the new greenery. It was the month of her birthday—May seventeenth, and the date she used to mark visits from Grammy, and her stories. Stories of travel and wild adventures, “…criss-cross my heart and hope never to die.” Stories Grammy Patricia had promised were true.
The valley lay below Trish. Tractors crawled like ants in the fields. A vehicle sped down a country road spewing a trail of dust in the early morning light. Despite the tranquility around her, Trish’s heart still weighed heavy at her latest failure.
That’s the third time I tried to pass the bar. I guess I’ll never prosecute a case in a court of law. It’s a pity, really. All I’ve ever wanted to do was be a successful attorney. I sat right here on my twentieth birthday and vowed I’d get there. Ten years later, I’m still not there. She sighed feeling her shoulders sag. Maybe Grammy was right about what I should be.
Trish withdrew her grandmother’s gaudy yet delicately beautiful trinket from under her shirt. It dangled on the long chain Trish wore around her neck. Sunlight shimmered on the intricate scrollwork delicately woven around the inner crystal. The design of the outer casing allowed the inner scrolls to turn one way while the outer scrolls turned the other. She fondled the talisman lovingly, keeping it from spinning.
Yedi shifted his feet. Trish clasped her hand tightly about the talisman and leaned forward slightly. Yedi responded to her cue by moving forward at a gentle walk. Trish reined him in near the stand of cottonwoods at the edge of the gulley. Again she fondled the trinket.
“I promised, you know.”
Yedi listened, his ears turned, indicating his full attention. “I always kept my promises to Grammy, even if she seemed a bit loony at times. I know she’s dead, but today’s my birthday and I promised her that if on my thirtieth birthday I wasn’t married or an attorney, I’d do it. So that’s it. No more discussion.” She let the reins sag, and took the chain in her left hand, the talisman dancing in the bright sunlight.
“Clockwise forward, counter clockwise back, I just wish—” She flicked the inner scrolls with her fingernail, sending it spinning. A gust of wind at her back caught her cowboy hat and sent it flying over Yedi’s head. Yedi spooked, crow-hopped, and spun. Trish grabbed at the reins and brought him up short.
“Easy, easy boy. It was just my hat. Look, there it is.” Her hat balanced on its brim near the edge of the gulley, poised to continue its runaway flight.
Frustrated with yet another thing going amiss in her life, she found her favorite curse formed on her lips. She bit it back and dismounted, leading Yedi toward her hat. As she reached for it, another gust of wind carried it out and over the gulley. She watched as the hat flirted with the air currents before dropping to settle below her. Things didn’t seem all that different. Maybe the talisman and its magical ability to transport her through time and space was all a fantastical and continual fantasy of Grammy’s. Trish turned to remount.
“Well, I’m not walking down in there alone. You’re coming with me. We’ll have to find a way down, and I don’t want to go to the bottom—”
Trish stopped. Her stomach bucked. Paralyzed, her hand rested on the saddle horn, her foot in the stirrup, her weight balanced across Yedi’s back. The view from his back had changed with open and groomed fields of crops no longer gracing the valley floor as they had moments ago. Stands of trees filled most of the valley, dotted with the occasional brown of small buildings. There were no tractors, no cars or pick-ups traversing country roads. In fact, there weren’t any roads.
Had Grammy Patricia been sane all along? Trish settled in the saddle and stared at the scene before her, the hat momentarily forgotten. Her mind raced through Grammy’s stories with stories of time travel, romance, and adventure. Wonderful stories of times long forgotten or romanticized by paperback novels and old movies. Stories of unbelievable characters in futuristic settings that put the biggest blockbusters to shame. But all of Grammy’s stories had two things in common—Grammy and romance.
Trish grasped the chain about her neck, lifting it into the sunlight. The talisman remained as beautiful, but somehow not quite as alive. The reflected sunlight didn’t dance, it merely reflected off the metallic surfaces. The crystal no longer glowed. What had Grammy Patricia said?
“My adventures were not always glamorous but they were always very real. Sometimes full of romance, other times deception and danger. I wasn’t ever afraid at those dangerous times. I knew the talisman worked in a seven-day cycle. I just had to survive for seven days until the cycle began again. Of course there were times I didn’t use the talisman, letting it lay dormant for sixty-three days and, once, even a year. But that year cost me. You must not abuse the talisman. If you do, it will have its revenge. And that, my dear, is why I must have your promise…”
Trish smiled, remembering how Grammy ended every story with the same promise.
Tell of my heart ‘cross fallow lost places
Bitter sweet secrets to heart of my tale,
Wind without wine to far times and places
Alter time’s misstep in wide-open spaces
Protect the talisman, keep her from harm
Criss-cross my heart and hope never to die.
It wasn’t until Trish had promised, word for word, that Grammy Patricia gave her the talisman.
Was she, Patricia Anne Larsen, ready for her first adventure in time? The “criss-cross her heart and hope never to die” was the easy part. No one she knew wanted to die. It was the rest of the pledge that caused her a moment of pause. It didn’t matter. She was here, but where exactly was here? “Fallow lost places, …far times and places, and …wide-open spaces” covered a lot of area in cosmic space. She scanned the valley searching for the straight clearing that would mark the railroad tracks, and wished she could fly. She didn’t think she saw anything. Okay girl, stay calm and think.
The valley was the same. She double-checked for Borah Peak. Yes, it still stood as sentry to the north—place located. No vehicles. No roads. Some settlers, if those were actually cabins. It had to be the late 1800s to have this many settlers. She tried to find the railroad right-of-way she had crossed earlier. The right-of-way wasn’t cleared. The railroad tracks were laid in this valley in the early 1900s and torn out in the early 1980s for some reason that she never understood.
No railroad tracks. More trees, as in a lot more.
What would a stagecoach stop look like? She wasn’t sure but a smattering of buildings in one area might be where the stage stopped. Her mind retraced the old stories. Yes, Mom had mentioned a community proposal recently, something about an Eagle Scout petitioning for support to erect a stagecoach monument at the baseball field. Time narrowed somewhat.
Mom! Trish’s throat went dry. She had left home this morning without saying goodbye to Rhea, her at-times-over-protective mother. A slip-up she had regretted while telling Vance, her cousin, she was off for a very long ride. Worry seized her, cutting off her air supply. Mom would worry. Mom would worry, which might be good for her for a day, but a week…not so much And if she and Vance compared notes… Trish tried in vain to recollect the tone she had used this morning. Yedi had been difficult to catch and she’d been in a sour mood. Would Vance think her flippant tone a reason to disappear for a week? What conclusion would Mom then draw?
No. I refuse to worry about that right now. I have my adventure to think about.
Now where was I? The baseball field, a field that wasn’t cleared of trees yet, or was it? A stage station would need corrals and water for horses as well as a reasonable place to ford the river. She closed her eyes, trying to retrace the country road running north and south where the baseball field would one day be. Yedi danced nervously under her as if responding to her own anxiety level. Unwilling to label whether she felt excitement or fear, she took a deep breath, pushing the niggling guilt aside. Careful to be as accurate as she could imagine, she pointed at the spot where the field would be and opened her eyes. It was no use.
She’d have to ride down the valley if she wanted to be sure of the stage or not and knowing would help her adjust to whatever year she now found herself in. It would take a good part of the day to get there but she needed to start somewhere. It had to be the late 1800s. If it got dangerous, she only had to survive seven days until the talisman could work its magic again. One could do that on just water. Not a bad place to start an adventure.
First, she needed to locate her hat.
Trish reined Yedi back to the gulley. If the valley had changed, odds were, so had the gulley. It wouldn’t wash out at the same place. She either had to climb down where she could see the hat or hope to find a better way. She dismounted, daring to get closer to the edge on foot than on horseback.
She easily located her hat again. She would most definitely need it to keep the sun off, and what if the weather turned nasty? It could be said that Idaho’s weather was the most unpredictable in the world, or at least in the states. Besides, that hat was given to her by Grammy Patricia. Now she needed to find a way to get to it. She scanned the gulley, trying to determine the best route. She shook her head. There would be no easy way down and only the way out would most likely prove even more difficult.
Vance would tease her about having to chase her hat. Cousins, especially Trish’s younger cousins, like Vance, could be a pain in her backside. Setting her teeth against formidable odds, she started down the steep wall of the gulley. Whenever possible, she kicked at the soil in an effort to leave footholds for climbing out again. Things went well until the walls narrowed and the ground grew muddy. One wrong step could mean a broken leg or worse. With nothing to grasp hold of, nothing to break her fall, she lost her footing and slipped, her momentum no longer under control. She tumbled and bounced from one wall to the other.
She screamed. Her shoulder smashed against a jutting rock and sent her into an awkward somersault. Her body came to an abrupt stop, knocking the wind out of her.
She carefully rolled one shoulder and then the other, fearing something might be broken. She seemed fine so far. Her hat lay three feet away. She reached for it. A sharp, stabbing pain warned her to drop her arm.
You’ve got to be kidding! No hat is worth this.
“Okay, right arm hurts,” she said aloud. “Stand?”
Putting her weight under her was far more difficult than she expected. The soil was more mud than solid. She stood, slipped and tried again only to find her feet pinched into the narrow V where the mud sucked at her boots.
“At least I’m closer to my hat.”
She snatched it with her left hand and stuffed it firmly on her head. “Now, one, two, three. Go.” Her scrambling slips and slides netted an inglorious turnaround. She looked up at the edge of the gulley in disgust. It proved more narrow and deep than she had thought. She sagged against the wall, letting the cool mud stick to her lime green shirt. She took a deep breath and, with renewed determination, scrambled in the direction from which she had come. She clenched the fingers of her right hand. Her arm didn’t appear bruised but it definitely hurt. With clamoring hands and feet, she only managed to make the gulley closest to her slicker. She slid further from her goal.
“I’m going to get out of here,” she muttered through clenched teeth. The breeze overhead seemed to laugh at her determination. She made a fist and squeezed the mud through her fingers. Tightening every muscle in her body, she screamed. “Damn it!”
Anger at her own stupidity cinched her realization; she was trapped like a lone maverick. She should have known better. Stupid. Would she spend her whole adventure stuck in the bottom of this gulley?
She only had to survive seven days without food and water, but what if the sunlight never reached the bottom of the gulley? Without sunlight, the talisman wouldn’t dance; and if it didn’t dance, it wouldn’t transport her back to her own time. What about a flash flood? That would make her situation decay a lot faster. Her stomach churned with dread, but she couldn’t afford to be sick. She needed this morning’s breakfast to carry her for as long as possible.
“Well, I’ll be.” A masculine voice tickled her ears, making her jump. She struggled to keep her feet under her. “I thought I was hearing things, but sure enough… You in need of help, mister?”
Trish looked up, the man’s form shielded by the edge of the gulley. She could only see his head as he swept off his hat.
“Of course I need help,” she snapped before reminding herself that she wasn’t in the twenty-first century but the late 1800’s and shifted her attitude to more of a country hick, hoping to sound like she fit in. She couldn’t afford for this man to leave her. “Can you get me outta here?”
“Ya think if I throw you a rope, you can climb out?”
“I—” Trish stopped. Could she with a sore arm? She’d never been overly strong in her upper body. “I think I can.”
She didn’t need to worry about making a false claim to her abilities. He’d disappeared from her view. Moments later, something hit her hat. She brushed at it and caught a rope in her hand.
“Yourn ‘orse don’t seem too friendly so I hope ol’ Clementine can pull ya out. Now you start a walkin’ that-a-way.” He turned his back to her. Was he pointing? She wasn’t sure. She’d just follow the rope. “An’ we’ll ‘ave ya outta there right quick.”
The rope dragged on the gulley wall, knocking mud, loose dirt and rocks on her until it became taut at an angle to her right. She grasped the rope and started to climb. She paused when she had enough to wrap around her backside to climb more like the rock climbers. The added leverage took the strain off her arms, enabling her to climb steadily up out of the slippery gulley. Her feet reached drier ground, making it easier to keep her footing but the foot and hand holds she had worked so diligently to make remained out of reach. The rescuer had not decided on the same trail as she had, forcing her to break new ground as she climbed. She didn’t care. At least she was getting out of the gulley.
Reaching level ground, she kept hold of the rope for several steps. It would do no good to slip back into the gulley. She let go of the rope and bent over, catching her breath. “Thank you.”
“Mister, if I was you, I’d steer clear of that there gulley.” He approached her, winding the rope around his hand and elbow as he came. He stopped, finishing the task. Trish stood. “Hey, you ain’t a feller. What’s a woman doin’ in these parts alone?”
“I—” Trish stared at the dirty old codger that had rescued her. Layers of dirt obscured his features. He must have taken a sharp knife to his straggly beard and hair. She grimaced, realizing his hat was nothing more than a dead raccoon with its eyes rotted out. How should she answer his question? What was she doing? Vacationing? She clamped her mouth shut, not wanting to say the wrong thing.
Leering, he leaned toward her. “You runnin’ away from someone, girlie? I’ll take ya with me an’ you’ll be safe.”
“Thanks, but I don’t think we’re headed the same direction.” She turned to get Yedi and ride away. The rope settled over her and yanked tight at her chest. She stopped. He’d offered to help but now it appeared he had other intentions. A nagging sense of dismay eked at her. What could she do now? She needed to think.
“Missy, these parts ain’t safe for the likes of you.” The rope tightened, forcing her to stumble in his direction. “You need a feller to protect you an’ I be thinkin’ that feller should be me. Why not? I saved ya from a nasty death of starvation ‘til you be too tired to fight off the varmints. As I see it, you owe me.”
Had he never heard of chivalry? Was such nonexistent here?
“As I see it, you’ve done your good turn for the day.”
“Ya come along with me an’ I’ll let ya keep yer ‘orse.”
Was he actually ignoring her? Did he really intend for her to be able to keep her horse? Or did he plan a subterfuge of some kind? She tried a different tactic. “Horse stealing is a hanging offense, you know.”
“Ya cook my meals and I’ll feed you. I be thinkin’ I might even share my blanket with you to keep ya warm.”
Ah, gee thanks, you old buzzard. His leer turned uglier, stripping her with his cold blue eyes. Her skin crawled. He rubbed his rough beard.
“Been dreamin’ of a warm bed. Even been prayin’ fer one. Guess the good Lord answers prayers. Whatda ya say? Come with me and ‘ave the nice things?”
“Never.” Trish struggled against the rough bands about her arms and chest, trying to break free. It was a mistake. He pulled the rope tighter, cutting into her skin.
“I done fought meaner heifers than you, girl.”
He tramped toward her, closing the distance between them until he was so close she smelled the layers of dirt and sweat. She threw her knee at his groin, intending to drive him to his knees long enough to escape. Instead she found her knee caught in layers of filthy cloth, sending a more putrid whiff of his stench to her senses. He chuckled, his stale breath of decayed teeth and food engulfing her, turning her stomach. Her gag reflex forced its way to the surface and she held her breath, swallowing the bile down. He dragged his filthy hand across her face, pinching her mouth between his fingers.
His eyes tightened on her. “Ya come along nice an’ sweet like, an’ I won’t ‘ave to get mean. Maybe ya like the feel of spurs to yar skin. I gave up cowboy’n in favor of huntin’ for gold. But don’t think Old Curly’s lost his touch. I’s can still rodeo with the best of ‘em. Ya give me trouble an’ I just might think of goin’ back.” He continued making his vile plans while he tied her hands. “That ‘orse of yourn don’t ‘ave much for hind quarters on ‘em, but Old Curly could do some right sharp ‘orse tradin’ an’ get me one that do.”
She tuned his sordid verbiage out for the moment. She had to watch for the chance to escape.
When he indicated she mount Yedi, her hopes soared. Yedi would respond to her leg cues. She didn’t have the chance to settle herself before Old Curly climbed up behind her, wrapping his filthy arms around her and hissing his lurid plans in her ear. Her stomach churned at his debasing comments and sickening odors.
This was not the kind of adventure she’d hoped for.
The setting sun signaled the need to make camp, yet Quinn pushed on. There would be time to rest once he reached home. He smiled while thinking of Zelda and her warm welcome. Of course, she would prefer he get the trail dust off and a shave before he visited her, but her solicitous attentions warmed his thoughts. Yes, she had proven herself well worth the gamble. She was no innocent, but he’d known that from the beginning.
He caught a glimpse of flickering fire light as he rounded the pass. Strange, settlers didn’t know about this pass. From the side these folks must have come, it looked like a box canyon. He knew it was passable on horseback but was careful not to travel this pass from the other side so as to not leave a trail. So far the rustlers had not found this shortcut between the Big Lost and Little Lost valleys He intended to keep it that way. This pass afforded him the luxury of getting home a whole day early. Others in the valley communities had voiced their wonder about how he could make a living with playing cards, riding an occasional round-up and still get his homestead going. He had his secrets and this one he would keep to himself, not even sharing it with Albert, his brother.
Quinn reined his horse toward the game trail on the south once he cleared the narrow pass. Usually he kept to the stream to cover his tracks. Tonight it was more important to learn who was in this canyon. A canyon most believed had only one way out.
He tied his horse a good distance from the campfire and crept closer on foot, careful to remain out of sight. Crouched behind a fallen log, he watched the old timer, his long coat shielding Quinn’s view of the fire. At last the man moved around the fire, revealing another more slender figure crouched over. He watched long enough to recognize something wasn’t right. When the figure stood, he kept his arms tight to his body, his hands together. He didn’t even pull the long hair off his face.
The figure had no coat and carried the pot from the fire much too close to his body, pouring the steaming liquid from an awkward angle. The form jumped, a feminine squeal of pain filling the air. The old timer swiped a heavy backhand at the slender form.
Quinn felt the bile of outrage rise in his throat. An old battle reawakened in his gut. Men had died at the hands of outraged youth over the shameful treatment of his kith and kin. To his way of thinking, no female, young or old, educated or not, deserved abuse at a man’s hand. There were some things a man just should not do. He and his brother had ended a particular abusive situation with their own retribution. They had fled from the warped Tennessee lawman and kept on the move for years with only their horses under them. Hard work kept them fed and card games kept them on the move… until Denver. One night and one card game had changed it all but not the past. The past held bitter secrets, molding the man he’d become. His mother and sister’s screams of that night melted to whimpers, whimpers that always brought the same reaction to the surface, his grinding teeth and insatiable need for vengeance. A need from his past that dictated he not allow an old timer to strike a woman.
Quinn worked his way back to his horse, remounted and skirted the camp to approach from the west. He rode in, his back straight, his shoulders broad. He would not run from this fight, if it came to that.
“Hello at the fire.” Quinn called out.
“Who goes there?” came the guarded greeting from the camp.
“Are ya willing to share your fire? I come in friendly,” Quinn responded, checking the knife at his belt.
“That’s two in one day. Come on in.”
Quinn rode closer to the camp, wondering at the comment, dismounting at the firelight’s ring. “Smells right inviting.” He nodded at the woman and the plate of beans in her hand.
“When she ain’t burnin’ it or dumpin’ it on ya.” The old timer turned his attention to the woman. “Get the man the rest of ‘em vittles.”
Quinn watched her. She glanced longingly at the beans and then handed him the plate. A look of angry annoyance replaced that of hunger on her features. As he took the plate, he observed that her hands were tethered. A length of rope kept her within the ring of firelight.
“Have a sit. Move, woman, or ya’ll get no blanket tonight.”
The woman eyed her captor, an inkling of hunger mixing with the vengeful glare. She moved away from him as far as her tether would allow.
Quinn nodded his thanks and hesitantly took her seat on a comfortable rock. He spooned a healthy bite into his mouth. They tasted awful. What had she done to them? The old timer took his place on a ratty stool and resumed his meal, seemingly unaware of the offensive taste.
“Betcha are wondrun’ ‘bout this.” The old man traced the tether in the air with his spoon.
Quinn nodded in a nonchalant manner while taking a smaller bite of beans.
“Ungrateful wretch. Saved ‘er life, I did. An’ this ‘eres the result.”
“She volunteered to be your slave, did she?” Quinn knew better, but wanted to hear the old timer’s version of the story. Nothing made it right to tether a woman like this, especially one that seemed rather unhappy about it. If she were a cattle rustler, it might be different. The old timer definitely wasn’t a cattleman.
“Jus’ opposite. Old Curly saves her life an’ she weren’t even appreciable. Ya ever heard of that?”
“I said ‘thanks’,” the woman snapped.
Curly yanked hard on the rope, causing her to fall. Quinn followed it with his eyes to find it anchored to a large rock near Curly.
Anger boiled in Quinn’s throat. You couldn’t force someone to be thankful, and if anything, Curly had heaped the wrath of the woman on himself. He managed to hide his feelings. Could Curly be reasoned with? Was Curly the type of man to seek revenge if Quinn stepped in? Would he have to outright kill Curly to set the woman free? Quinn considered the woman in the firelight. She was slender, the manly clothing doing nothing to hide her feminine curves even if she looked rather dirty and unkempt. He harbored little doubt about Curly’s warped motive.
“Women,” Quinn drawled. “Seems they’re more trouble than they’re worth. Are you a gambling man, Curly?”
“Thinking of takin’ ‘er off my hands, are ya?” Curly shook his head. “She’s a heap of trouble but ya ain’t takin ‘er ‘fore I get my poke.”
“Tough time getting that poke?” Quinn couldn’t help but feel relief knowing the woman had held Curly off until now.
“Ain’t been the time.”
“So what’s stopping you?” Quinn measured the man across the campfire from him, disgust growing with every passing minute.
“Nothun now. My belly’s full. I ain’t a greedy feller. Ya can ‘ave a go, jus’ as well. Then we know what stakes we’re playin’ fer.”
Quinn noticed the evil glint of anticipation in Curly’s eyes. He looked around to see the woman grasping a stout branch in her hands, obviously planning to stand her ground. Instinct told him that she very well could.
“No way. Over my dead body. You want a go? I’ll take your manhood first,” she hissed.
Quinn stood facing her, the plate of beans forgotten. If he could divert any hostility, he had to come between the woman and Old Curly. He sidestepped, placing one foot firmly on the rope that tethered her. He spread his hands, inviting her to trust him as he would a skittish horse. He tried to reassure her, mouthing the words, “It’s okay. I won’t hurt you.”
He sensed rather than saw Curly skirt the fire. “Ya go fer ‘er hands. I’ll hog tie ‘er.”
Quinn’s hand recoiled at the same time he spun. His knife flashed once before sinking into Old Curly’s shoulder. “N—” The stout branch caught Quinn off guard. The second swipe hit him and all went black.
Adrenaline pumped through Trish’s veins. Her heart pounded, threatening to jump out of her chest, yet she stood firm. No man would take her virtue without a fight.
She turned her attack on Old Curly. He was on his knees, his eyes stunned, his right arm in the air as if to protect himself from her blows. Just think of his head as a tennis ball. She shuffled her feet on the uneven ground, took her stance and swung a beautifully executed backhand. Curly fell back. A strange ker-thunk whispered in the darkness. Both men lay motionless.
Trish stood still, surprised at her easy victory. Smoke from the campfire drifted toward her. The branch slipped from her fingers. Why had the man who ate her supper turned at the last minute? It was as if he’d wanted her to hit him. It took her a minute to absorb what she’d done. She could see by the campfire’s dancing light that he was still breathing. She shuddered, willing the gruesome scene to depart. Remembering her need to escape, she knelt by the newcomer, hoping to find a knife to cut the rope off her wrists. She did her best to search him, her hands roaming across solid muscle, finding the empty sheath. Why would he have a sheath and no knife? She sat back on her heels and looked at him.
She’d sent his pale cowboy hat flying when she hit him and now she couldn’t reach it to return it. A glimmer of guilt for robbing him of his cowboy appeal tickled her thoughts. No, he doesn’t deserve my sympathy. He was going to help Curly rape me. Still, she couldn’t keep herself from marveling at his wavy locks of dark brown hair and felt a jolt of attraction as his eyelashes appeared thick and long against tanned cheeks. His nose came to a gentle point, punctuating defining cheekbones and a strong jaw. He looked totally at ease with his mouth pleasantly relaxed. She resisted the impulse to twist her head and get closer. Where was his knife?
The fire crackled and spit as a log shifted, making her jump. She stood, trying to evaluate Old Curly from a distance. He lay in an awkward position with his legs tucked under him, his eyes open. Her gut twisted, bile rising in her throat. Was he dead? She dared to get closer but was jerked to a halt. The stranger laying on the rope was tethering her. Tugging at it, she pulled the rope free and stepped closer to Curly. The shaft of a knife stuck out of his chest, a pool of blood on his clothes and another dark puddle growing on the ground under his head. He had to be dead. She reached for the knife and pulled. It stuck firm. She turned away, her hands trembling.
Moments later, shuddering angst encompassed her whole frame. What had she done? Trish mentally shook herself, knowing she wasn’t out of this mess yet, and forced herself to do what she must.
She turned back to the dead man, placing her foot on his chest. "I'm not --" She grasped the knife and gave it a firm tug. "Going --" Another tug. "To die out here with the likes of you."
The knife came free. She staggered back, almost falling into the fire. She returned to his body and wiped the knife on his coat. Her strength, driven by shear willpower, lagged as she stumbled over to the decaying log Curly had forced her to drag to the fireside. She sat with her back to his dead stare. Propping the knife between her feet, she worked at the cord securing her wrists. A sharp zing at her wrist warned her to work more carefully. At last, she was free. Trish examined her cut wrist in the flickering fire light. Where is that canteen?
Locating it behind the rock Old Curly had used to anchor her tether, she poured water on her cut. The cloth she’d used as a hot pad would have to do for a wrap. Piercing the cloth with the knife, she gave the fabric a savage yank to tear it. Using her teeth as well as her fingers from her injured limb, she managed to tie a rough bandage on her wrist. Her stomach grumbled.
Trish turned to regard the beans scattered in the dirt. The plate had landed right side up with a few beans still stuck to it. Nausea engulfed her. For the first time all day, she was grateful that her stomach was empty. The need to heave gave way to rumblings before shifting to shallow pangs.
She turned her attention on the newcomer. His knife had cut her free but it had also killed. She could see the shallow rise and fall of his muscled chest. She watched the firelight skip on his features. How long would he lay unconscious?
She carefully measured the knife to the sheath at his waist; an exact match. Had he turned and thrown the knife to protect her? She sat back and closed her eyes, trying to remember. It had happened so fast. One moment he was standing there, making those weird faces at her. Then he spun. She slammed the branch as hard as she could at his head, twice. Wait.
She stepped over him, retrieving his hat and setting it on his head. Maybe there had been a reason for the look he gave her and for the… She swallowed. What if he had been trying to communicate with her? Telling her something?
Trish took her hat off and did the best she could to comb her hair with her fingers. She would watch him and wait. His knife balanced on her knees. The fire burned low. She set the knife on a rock and added a log to the fire.
"Come on, hero. If you are a hero, wake up. I couldn't have hit you that hard." She shivered, knowing she'd hit Old Curly hard enough. She looked around, wondering where Old Curly left his bedroll. Locating it with his mule's pack, she stood to retrieve it. "Dang, I forgot how cold the canyons get at night. Curly, you dog, you better not have fleas or --"
“You always talk to dead men?”
Trish jumped and spun. She stared at him. When did he wake up?
“How do you know he’s dead?”
The man chuckled, winced in pain and sat up. “You got a wicked swing.” He touched his head and grimaced.
Curly’s rifle lay with the rest of the gear still with the pack. Trish grabbed it, pointing it at the newcomer. He glanced at her but continued to check his head for blood. “You should at least trust me now. I could have killed you or at least let Old Curly have his way with you. Put the rifle away before you kill somethin’.”
“Trust you? Why should I? How do I know you were trying to help me, and not just get Curly out of the picture?”
“Are you slow? Is that why he had you all trussed up like a steer?”
Trish kept the gun pointed his direction. She had no idea whether or not it was loaded. She reached for the bedroll, rolling it up her leg to get it under her arm. “I’m not slow, and you haven’t answered my question.”
“The old goat’s dead or you wouldn’t be free.” He glanced at the body before his gaze focused on his knife several feet away. “Ya gonna let me have my knife back?”
She moved to the knife, planting her foot on it.
“Hmm—” He pressed his fingers to his lips, checking for blood. She watched him roll his tongue around his teeth. “Busted one of my teeth, too.”
She smiled. She’d done better than expected. “Looks like you won’t be taking advantage of a shanghaied woman. I ought to press charges against you for being an accessory.”
He grimaced, pulling his head back. “What’s with the high fa-lutten words? Ya from back East somewhere’s? I ain’t heard that kind of gibberish since I was a youngster.” He settled back against a rather large, downed tree and relaxed, his knees flexed and his arms draped across his thighs.
A wolf howled in the distance sending a shiver up her spine. How close was it? Would it be safe to travel alone? Through this canyon in the dark? The possibilities raced across her mind. Although she would be considered a city girl in this era, she knew enough to know the answers to her questions. Too close, no, and no. The wolf howled again as if finalizing her decision. A choice she didn’t want to make.
“I tell you what. You haul dead Old Curly away from here and I’ll share the fire with you,” she bargained.
“Tell you what. We leave Old Curly where he is. Put our bedrolls on this side of the fire and let the wolves have him tomorrow while we mosey on down the canyon.”
“I’m not sleeping near a dead body.” She cringed. Did I really kill a man? No, I could never even hurt a man… but Ihad this time.
He almost smiled. “Put ‘im out in the cold and invite the wolves to dinner, eh? Or maybe you plan to fight the pack off yourself. Either way, the wolves’ll have dinner. I’m thinkin’ I’ll stay right here, near the fire and put the vittles out for ‘em when we leave at daybreak.”
She stared at him, relaxing her grip on the rifle. “Yeah, but can I trust you?”
In one fluid motion, he sprung to his feet, grabbed his knife and held it to her throat. Trish froze. He held her against him, his blade centimeters from her neck for several minutes before releasing her. He stepped away into the darkness. Her knees nearly buckled, and her whole body trembled.
“If I was gonna help Old Curly or hurt ya, ya couldn’t a stopped me. Settle your roll by the fire an’ I’ll check the horses. Just don’t shoot me when I come back.”
She stared after him as he disappeared into the darkness.
Trish lay on her back with her knees up, ready to spring from her bedroll and scramble away or fight. Old Curly’s bedroll surprised her with its functional warmth that also served well as padding underneath. She opted to wrap the newest looking blanket around her, a finely woven Indian blanket of deep orangey red with a unique pattern near one end.
She stared at the night sky teaming with its abundance of stars, so unlike the night sky of her home in the outskirts of Seattle. There the night sky invariably glowed with the reflection of manmade lights on the overcast sky. Oh sure, there were clear nights, but she’d stopped noticing them about the time she’d mistakenly believed her career kicked into high gear. How could she have really believed the “Old Boys” considered her anything but a glorified office girl? They had given her the mandatory pay raise every six months with the occasional bonus of a title change. She knew betting took place on everything of public knowledge from a baby’s birth date, time, and weight to who was shacking up with whom. Surely the office had run betting odds for if she, the oldest unofficial intern in the office, would pass her exams this time just like they had the time before.
The memories made her want to climb in a hole and disappear. She chuckled mirthlessly. She had done better than that; she had slipped through the fabric of time with a device she, no doubt, should have used years ago. But how had Grammy ever gotten it in the first place? Why didn’t she listen to Grammy Patricia? I listened, alright. I just didn’t believe her.
Had Trish listened with an open mind, she could be experiencing her umpteenth adventure rather than her first and by now she would know better than to fall victim to the likes of Old Curly.
“What’s done is done,” she sighed barely above a whisper. Realizing she’d verbalized her thoughts, she snapped back to her present situation.
A rather handsome stranger lay to one side of her. On the other side, and just beyond the fire, lay a dead man. She didn’t know if she could trust the stranger and yet he hadn’t killed her. He had actually, in a roundabout way, helped her kill the man holding her prisoner. She may have gotten away from Old Curly without this stranger’s help, but how long would it have taken and at what price? She was here alone and it had proven dangerous today. Maybe surviving seven days wasn’t as easy as Grammy had made it sound. She needed to trust someone, why not him?
“Do you have a name?” she asked into the darkness.
He didn’t answer right away. “Quinn. You?”
What if he asked about more than her name? She couldn’t tell him she was from the twenty-first century. He’d never believe her and what if he asked where she was from? She didn’t know anyone and she didn’t know exactly what the year was. Her not knowing even the most common realities could easily be mistaken for amnesia. That’s it!
"I -- I don't know."
“What do you mean, ya don’t know? Every man has a name.”
She had to think fast. A lie was easier to remember if it echoed the truth. “I just remember Curly fishing me out of the gulley. Nothing else.”
He pushed himself up on one elbow, looking down at her. “Is that why Curly had you trussed up? Ya ain’t lyin’ to me?”
“I don’t know why he had me tied up. He helped me out. I thanked him. The next thing I knew he’d lassoed me.”
“He ain’t your pa, is he?”
Her stomach wrenched at the thought. “Heavens, no. You think he’d wanna take a poke at his own daughter?”
“It’d explain a bit, though. Don’t ‘magine his fatherin’ skills’d be much better than his othern’.”
“What other?” Are we really having a conversation about a dead man?
His indifference toward the campsite revealed his disgust. He glanced at her while evaluating the situation. “Well, we gotta call ya somethin’. Got a name ya like?”
She didn’t want to answer too fast. “For some reason I feel partial to Trish.”
“Trish. Guess it’s a’right. Nice meetin’ ya, ma’am.” He repositioned his hat on his head with a gentleman’s nod.
Trish found his presence so near her disturbing and shifted onto her side, her back to him. She tried to focus on the flames of the fire but her eyes inevitably returned to Curly. She pinched her eyes closed, not wanting to remember the dead man on the other side of the fire or those frenzied moments leading up to his death. Fearing the memory more than the stranger, she rolled over and wiggled a bit closer to him, her chin tucked to avert her eyes from meeting his.
“Fire’s gonna die down. Ya might be want’n to stay close to it.”
“It. Not Curly.”
“He’s a real danger now,” Quinn interjected in a sardonic fashion.
A shudder crawled up her back. How could she admit to him the horror she felt at what she had done? She couldn’t verbally admit it to herself. “It’s not Curly that bothers me. It’s dead bodies in general. That blank death stare gives me the creeps.”
He rolled out of his bedroll and circled the fire. On the other side he bent over the body and rolled it further away from the fire, face down. He returned, stepping over her.
“Anything else botherin’ ya?”
She wanted to say lots of things bothered her, including being near him. Instead she answered, “No, thank you.”
He settled into his bedroll, and moments later, serenaded her with his snoring. How could he do it? How could he be part of a murder, roll the victim over and sleep as if it were all in a day’s work? Was he that hard? She stopped. Who had killed Curly? Had Quinn with his knife? Or had she struck the final blow? One of them could be found guilty of murder in a court of law, but the other would be an accessory.
If she should happen to be charged with murder, she would plead self-defense. If charged with accessory? She was guilty. The memory of her actions sickened her. She faced the fire. Maybe if she snuggled down just right, the rocks at the fire’s edge would block her view of Curly. She watched the flames as the fire crackled but she couldn’t ignore the dead man.
She turned over, her feet getting tangled in the bedroll. She sat up, her breathing coming in ragged gasps. She had to deal with this. Her gaze settled on Quinn. She didn’t know the man. He had proven himself dangerous… no more so than she herself. The light from the fire flickered across his rugged features, turning the dark locks of hair fiery black. Could she trust this man? Did she have a choice? If she must trust herself to someone in this dangerous adventure of hers, she could do worse. She had done worse. She resituated her bedroll closer to him, chiding herself for finding him even slightly attractive. Pulling a few rocks out from under her, she turned to him for a smidgeon of human comfort and safety. The wolves howled and after a time she slept.
Quinn stirred the fire, getting it going again. He figured it was about three in the morning. The horses squealed, alerting him to what had woken him in the first place. He didn’t usually wake at this hour unless he had good reason. This spring the job for Leavitt had stolen many nights’ sleep, what with the wolves running the range. The men had opted to work in pairs this year, all but Quinn. He preferred to work alone to protect his secrets, even if it meant less sleep. Leavitt paid well for these occasional short jobs of gathering his livestock from the rough passes of this ridge. Passes no one knew as well as Quinn.
He checked the horses. The stallion pawed at the ground, testing the tether line. Quinn checked the knots and tightened the line. It would be unwise to try to traverse this country without a horse. Though not wide-eyed, the stallion seemed ready to bolt at the slightest altercation. Quinn soothed the animal, running an appreciative hand over his sleek coat. The stallion’s head was fine, his eyes speaking of intelligence. Could this stud be stolen property? Maybe he was used for breeding as he certainly wasn’t a cowpony. This was the type of animal Quinn would happily breed his mares against. Too bad the mare he rode on this trip wasn’t in season. If she were, no doubt there would have been a bit more squealing on her part.
Quinn had spent years bartering good breed mares for his training services. Noble was notorious for not recognizing a good animal and even worse at caring for them. Quinn had rescued more than one prime mare from the man.
Finding all well with the horses, he returned to the campfire. The woman had named herself Trish, not what he would have expected.
He filled the quiet hours of darkness watching her sleep. Her long hair had a hint of red in the firelight. Her features were gentle, her cheekbones high, her nose slightly upturned. He wondered how old she was. The dirt and grime smeared along her cheeks and chin masked her age quite adequately, a comely woman, not overly attractive.
Why would a woman dress like a man? Her clothing choice wasn’t the only thing that seemed odd. Her shirt had fancy stitching and a collar like that needing a cravat of sorts, but she had none. And her pants: she looked to be plumb poured into them. Of course, though it had been merely a glance, he had noticed the curves of her figure. Zelda had once been slight like Trish, and he’d liked Zelda that way. But time at Pierre’s saloon had changed her.
When Quinn had first watched Trish from the cover of a downed tree nearby, she had seemed so small and needy under Old Curly’s cruel captivity. Curly had threatened to take a poke at her and her whole bearing changed. Trish had become a she-wolf, fighting for her life. A reaction totally opposite of how he knew Zelda would have reacted. Obviously this woman was cut from different cloth.
Trish had proved her capability to use a weapon quite well; he had the broken tooth and a nasty bump on his head to attest to it. He glanced at the dead man. She had finished him as well. A daughter, even one with amnesia, wouldn’t turn on her father unless… How long had Curly had her trussed up? Had he hit her or threatened to rape her before? If he had, he’d gotten what he deserved. Nah, it didn’t make sense. Curly was as old and dirty as years of nothing but trails could make a man. Trish, on the other hand, was clean in spite of the dirty smudge on her face and arms.
In Quinn’s experience, women generally needed taking care of. Trish apparently did too. Of course, when she’d been free of her tethers, the tables had turned.
She turned over in her sleep, pulling her blanket up and exposing her feet. He appraised her boots. The heel seemed high and the fringe… Common sense, even that of a lady, deemed such extra trappings unwise. Maybe she was hiding the fancy stitching across the toe of the boot. The woman’s clothing didn’t make sense.
Trish wasn’t like other women he’d known. His mother and sister were both genteel ladies of the South, although they’d not been strangers to work. Zelda, though not refined, certainly enjoyed the softer side of life. Honest work, whether in the house or the fields, wasn’t what Zelda relished. Lucinda, Albert’s wife, wasn’t a complainer. She dealt with living in the rough cabin for the past year with a loving, even doting affection for Albert. They all needed defending at some point, but not this one.
Trish was different, and spirited -- just like her stallion. He liked a spirited horse. He'd trained many of them. They made the best mounts, even in a cowpony. Spirited animals worked hard and would give a man their last ounce of strength.
The log in the fire dropped, sending sparks into the air. Trish stirred and turned over but didn’t wake.
Birds chirped, heralding the coming of morning. Steam rose from the heating coffee pot. At last she awoke.
Rhea woke with a start. Why was she sitting up in her chair and in the living room? Trish!
Rhea scrambled to right herself, plucking her reading glasses from their precarious perch at the end of her nose with one hand while fumbling for her romance novel that had slid between the chair’s generous cushions. The grandfather clock ticked with its usual disciplined beat. She reached to turn off the lamp on the side table. The first pale glimmer of dawn beckoned at the horizon across the valley. Pushing the footrest closed, she stood and moved carefully through the waning darkness to see the clock’s face. Five o’clock. She had fallen asleep waiting for Trish to come home.
This wasn’t like Trish. Yesterday had been her birthday but she hadn’t seemed overly distraught about it. She’d left the house early to go riding.
Maybe she’d gone with Vance. No one at his home had answered the phone last evening and Rhea had left more than one message. Of course, if Vance and his mother were anything like herself, the light on the message recorder could go unnoticed for more than a day.
Where was Trish? Cell phones were wonderful gadgets and maybe after this, she would get one, but service was spotty at best in this valley and thus her decision to keep the landline. It was too early to call. Vinita, Vince’s mother, worked the late shift and wouldn’t be up until after eight. That left her one choice—to go over and try to catch Vance before he got too engaged in training or left to deliver a horse. Why did Trish have to agree to go into business with Vance? He was so young and full of dreams, not to mention being cock-sure of himself.
Rhea mentally shook herself. Trish and Vance and their huge dreams were not the issue this morning. Finding Trish was.
Rhea paused long enough in the kitchen to grab a couple pieces of toast. She’d need it to think straight and if the day demanded more? Well, she’d cross that bridge when she came to it. With her purse strap over her arm, butter slicking her fingers from the toast and keys in the other hand, Rhea hurried through the brisk morning air to her car. The old Pontiac Grand Prix turned over and burst into the gentle roar of power tweaked by local teens. Taking her foot off the brake, she let the power roll the heavy car down the drive before coaxing the engine to speed down the dirt road. Oh Trish, where are you? Have you truly succumbed to your grandmothers dark ways? She immediately threw the notion out.
Ten years ago, Rhea would have thumbed through Trish’s notebook, looking for friends and boyfriends whose couches Trish would happily crash on in a case like this. But not today. Trish had come home after weeks of phone calls from Rhea, begging her to reconsider.
Trish had reconsidered, all right—right into Vance’s dream of horses and training grandeur. What had become of Trish’s dream to become a defense attorney? Rhea mulled the possibilities around in her head. Maybe something had happened at the law offices of Mikelson, Hoffman and Bauer. Trish had seemed happy enough until that last phone conversation. Rhea shook her head; she’d not held the power to sway Trish’s decisions since high school. Something or someone else must have been the cause for Trish’s willing return home.
Deep in thought, Rhea took the corner a bit too fast. The papers on the passenger seat slid. Rhea slapped her hand on them to keep them from falling to the floor. Letting off the accelerator, Rhea pulled safely into the yards of Vance’s dream-come-true, a horse set-up. As Rhea lifted her hand to put the car into park, the papers slipped to their earlier destination, the floor. She bent to pick them up. It was only then that she took the moment to read. She didn’t have to read much to discover the reason for Trish’s rash decisions. The letter informed the reader that Trish had not passed her bar exam.
Rhea’s heart dropped. No wonder Trish had returned home. Her life-long dream had been shattered. She had turned to plan B, whatever that was. Rhea gasped. Plan B, ride off into the sunset, never to be heard from again. Could that be Plan B? It didn’t seem that farfetched when she considered Grammy Patricia and her outlandish stories bordering on the archaic divination.
Tap, tap, tap.
Rhea flinched and looked at her window to discover Vance standing there. Rhea put her hand in motion, rolling down the window.
“Morning, Mrs. Larsen.” Rhea could still remember changing this boy’s diapers twenty years ago but, he still used the formal address.
“Morning.” Rhea righted her demeanor.
“What brings you by this morning?”
“I’m looking for Trish.”
“What? Miss Play-by-the-Rules is sneaking around behind your back or something?”
“Or something. She didn’t come home last night…”
It didn’t take long to discover that Yedi wasn’t in his stall or that Trish hadn’t returned her saddle and tack.
Vance pulled out his cell phone, astonishing Rhea with not only the number of people he called, asking if they’d seen Trish but the clarity of the conversation via the wireless.
“Looks like nobody’s seen her since yesterday morning.”
“It didn’t sound to me like anyone had seen her. Who said they’d seen her?”
“Me,” Vance said as though the one syllable solved the puzzle.
“You,” Rhea pounced on the clue. “Where? When?”
“Right here, yesterday morning. She seemed fine.”
“What did she say? Where did she go?”
“Whoa, Mrs. Larsen. She said ‘Morning, I’m going riding.’ That was it. She didn’t say where she was headed or when she planned to be back.”
“Which way did she go?”
“Down the road, but that isn’t going to help us any. She was on horseback and she knows the valley as well as I do. It wouldn’t surprise me none if she turned up in a day or so, telling us she’d followed the Oregon Trail or the Old Stage Coach Trail.”
“Did she take supplies?”
“I didn’t notice any other than her canteen, but really, I pulled out of here before mid-morning to get to that sale in Idaho Falls on time. She coulda come back by and Mom wouldn’t have seen her if Trish came to this north gate.”
“Young man, you are not helping,” Rhea accused.
“What’s to help? If Trish wants to vanish up one of these canyons, she’s likely to do it and see more deer and elk than hunters do. She’s a survivor. You know that. Heck, she taught me about most of those canyons.”
“And her father taught her.”
“Don’t worry about her.”
“I can’t help it. It’s womankind’s nature to worry and to top it off I have a bad feeling about this.”
Rhea reached through the open car window, grasped the piece of bad news, and handed it to Vance. “This is why.”
Trish rode Yedi as she followed Quinn down the trail, a trail she couldn’t see. The vast wilderness around them whispered of a simpler time without the distant whine of power lines or rumble of machines. The singing of birds filled the air with a wondrous cacophony of sound. A bluebird darted across their path while an angry squirrel lectured them. The morning light streamed through the trees, sprinkling the ground with a splattering of undefined patterns. A light breeze lifted leaves overhead, leaving a neighboring branch still.
A twig snapped to Trish’s left. She flinched, thinking Curly would burst from the forest cover. She split her attention between following Quinn, and the forest to their left, positive that danger lurked just out of sight.
She nudged Yedi to catch up to Quinn and ride beside him.
“Quinn?” Hearing the fear in her voice, she cringed.
“Yup,” he answered casually.
“I think someone’s following us.”
“I heard something. I’m not sure what it was.”
“Ain’t no one in this here canyon but us.”
“Are you sure?”
Quinn pulled his horse to a halt. “Yar a skittery one this morning. Guess ya got a good reason. But there ain’t no one in this canyon but us and God’s creatures. If we mind our business, they’ll mind theirs.”
“But I heard a branch break.”
“I ain’t saying ya didn’t, but if we start chasin’ ghosts, we’ll be a lot longer getting’ ya to somewhere more civilized. And I’m guessin’ that is what you are wanting more than anything else.” A gentle nudge of his heel and his horse moved on.
She urged Yedi forward, hoping to find a more agreeable type of adventure than the one she’d experienced yesterday. Her stomach rumbled. If only she had a good meal to satisfy her hunger, and a hot bath to rid her body of the dirt. She scratched her head, removing an irritating piece of dried mud from her hair. Oh, to enjoy the comforts of the civilization he spoke of, to be clean and to sleep in a soft bed.
In spite of her discomfort and the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach from her memory of the previous day, she smiled at the scenery around her, looking ahead through the stand of lodge pole pines. The stand, in general, seemed familiar. Old Curly had probably brought her through here, somewhere.
She watched Quinn ride in front of her. He sat his horse quite well. Legs secure yet relaxed against the animals back. Toes forward and heels down. Astride a horse, his back cut a magnificent “V” to his shoulders. Broad shoulders boasting of strength, remaining flat while his hips swayed with the horse’s strides. A dirty hat that looked as if it had been trampled by a stampede hid most of a mass of hair. Quinn’s pale-colored shirt had generous sleeves that hung from the neckline rather than a shoulder seam. He didn’t wear a vest. He wore his shirt tucked into trousers of a soft yet sturdy dark gray cloth.
The trees thinned as they descended. Quinn swiveled in his saddle. “Ya still comin’?”
He slowed his buckskin, waiting for her to catch up. “Don’t figure we need to hide our numbers like the Indians do. ‘Course bein’‘ a lady, ya ain’t one to know that.”
“What makes you think I’m a lady?” Trish glanced down at her mediocre feminine shape under the mud-spattered green cowboy shirt and jeans. Even her Roper boots with their leather fringe looked out of place. She made a mental note to remove the fringe tongue.
“Yar clothes, bit fancy for this side of Kansas.”
Trish didn’t respond.
“So where ya from?” Quinn asked.
Trish couldn’t tell him the truth, not that she felt she needed to. It would be better if they talked about something else. “Couldn’t say. So are you going to tell me why we left the camp like we did?”
“Ya did right good followin’ me like ya did. Don’t need any trails leadin’ back to us. You finished a job I started. Best if no one puts the two of us and Curly together. Shouldn’t be hard.” Quinn’s timbre had dropped for the last comment as if targeted at himself. He shifted in his saddle. “Leavin’ Curly be, his mule tethered and the footprints muddied ‘ll keep folks from askin’ questions. Old Curly don’t have anythin’ we need.”
“Some food would be nice.” Her stomach growled again.
His glance traveled from her face, down her leg and back again. “Too bad ya gone an’ lost your memory. By your speakin’ I’m guessin’ ya’ll be missed. By your clothes, I gotta think yar runnin’ from somethin’. Maybe Albert and Lucinda will put you up for a time. Maybe they can find where you belong. Least ways you won’t be takin’ a stick to my head again.”
“I’m sorry about that. I thought you were on Curly’s side.”
“That’s another thing. You gotta watch yer words. Don’t wanna get people askin’ questions ‘bout what went on up ‘ere. You think you can keep quiet?”
“Partners in crime, are we?” She glanced his direction. He kept his eyes on the trail. “I can keep a secret if that’s what you’re asking.”
He remained silent until they stopped to water the horses. The river rushed by, threatening its banks with the recently melted snow. She followed his example and dismounted.
He watched the river for several minutes. The sound of the river drowned out the birds’ chirping. Quinn rubbed his rough beard. If they were in the twenty-first century and she knew him better, she’d try to convince him to keep it this length. With a trim he would look quite dashing.
“With the wolves and this high run-off, this country ain’t safe for a woman. We should make Albert’s by nightfall. Any of this look familiar to ya?”
“Not at all,” Trish answered honestly. There were a lot more trees in the valley than she ever remembered. Most of the lodge pole pines would be harvested between now and her time, clearing the land for farming.
“This should quiet your stomach.” He handed her a piece of dried meat.
“I thought you said there wasn’t anything for breakfast,” she accused, taking the meat.
“Suns fully up. You chew on this for a while. Heard yer gut squealin’ since we left the canyon. Here.” He handed her his canteen. “Put some water down, then when you swallow that meat, it’ll swell and fill you up.”
“You think? Why didn’t you give this to me earlier?” Trish shook her head, mumbling in frustration. “He doesn’t give a rat’s butt for anyone but himself. Probably chewing a bit of jerky all morning long, but did he offer me any before now? Nooo.”
He waited for her to drink and return the canteen. After a long swig, he spoke again. “Daylight’s burnin’. Yer welcome to stay put and fuss. Just watch for them wolves. They follow the scent of meat, even if it’s dry.”
Quinn mounted and reined his horse around, pointing west. “Moore’s place is that way.” He swung his arm slightly to his left. “Albert’s place is that way. Ya have to cross the river an’ stay close. Watch for the fords, there’s only two. The river’s mighty high. Saloon’s just downstream a bit. Get ridin’ now, you should get there just after nightfall. You come with me, I’ll take you there the way the eagle flies before sundown.”
“You’re considering leaving me here?” She wasn’t sure if she should be offended.
“I’m movin’ on. Yer welcome to come along or stay. I ain’t one to hogtie a woman. But I ain’t one to put up with a woman’s fussin’.” He put his heel to his horse and entered the river.
Trish hurried to mount and follow him. Moore? Could that be the beginnings of the tiny town? Or just the name of a settler? She urged Yedi into the surging river. Quinn was astride his horse with the raging water above his knees. She pulled Yedi up.
“Isn’t there a ford where we can cross?” she called over the rushing river.
Quinn made the far bank before he answered. “This is the ford. Come ahead right where I did. Give your horse his head and he’ll get ya here.”
Trish kicked Yedi to get him to enter the deeper water. He turned back toward the bank as soon as she gave him his head and had to rein him completely around to head toward Quinn.
“Make sure he thinks it’s closer to this side than back to that bank before ya let him on his own.”
She wanted to swear at him. She was trying. What did he know? Just then, Yedi bucked uncharacteristically. Trish hit the water chest first. Oh damn, this water is cold. She reached for the saddle horn and missed.
“Keep a hold of the reins. Let ‘im bring ya across. Kick your feet but…” Quinn yelled his instructions while climbing off his horse. His words were drowned out by the esurient water.
Quinn charged into the icy water and reached out knowing if he didn’t snag her with this one desperate grab, the river could carry her so far down stream that she would be lost forever. Trish’s watery, vacant expression of horror spurned him to resurgence of effort. He lounged, grasping her arm. Quinn noticed her other hand gripping the wet leather with unyielding fingers. He stepped back toward the bank and at the same time pulled her to him.
Slipping on the wet rocks and mud of the bank, Quinn fought with the tugging current to drag her to solid ground. Her horse stood, the bridle reins still locked in her icy fingers.
“Woman,” he heaved a great breath of relief. “That’s twice. But who’s counting?”
Trish clambered to her hands and knees, sputtering river water. Quinn remained beside her as Trish scrambled to higher ground. She knelt there on all fours, panting like a dog.
“Ya drink enough?” He couldn’t decide if he was more irritated by her lack of know-how or relieved to have rescued her. Women were always needing safeguarding and he didn’t mind doing the rescuing when it wasn’t icy cold, but there had to be a woman somewhere on God’s green earth that didn’t need constant protection. He set a hand on her shoulder and noticed the goose bumps on her skin. “It’s a fine day for a swim, don’t ya think?”
“That wasn’t a swim. That was an exercise in stupidity.”
“Glad we agree. I ain’t got no whiskey to warm ya up. Planned to be home by now.”
“We’re that close?” Trish shivered, balling her fists repeatedly in an effort to warm them.
“Yup.” Quinn mounted his buckskin. “Better get movin’. Those fancy clothes are gonna have to dry on your backside.”
Trish knew he was right and reluctantly obliged him. Wet jeans cut and sodden saddle leather squeaked as she mounted. The breeze chilled her through her soaked clothes, settling a layer of goose bumps form her scalp to her toes. She willed the sun to beat down hotter, craving its warmth. She tried to wiggle her toes unsuccessfully. Soaked as she was, she would have to wear her boots until completely dry so they wouldn’t shrink. The bright side was that they would be very comfortable from here on out. She might even look back on her river dunking and be thankful. That thought she pushed aside for a warmer day.
A pair of squirrels raced up and down the trunk of a tree, across the clearing and up another as they left the stand of trees. A pair of robins darted about overhead as if playing a game of “cat and mouse” before hurtling back to the trees.
Trish stared at Quinn’s back, wondering what he was thinking. Was he upset about having to rescue her? It wasn’t her fault the river was so high. Nor did she make Yedi buck mid-stream. She shouldn’t be surprised by Yedi’s balk. She never took him in deep water and only across the river once. That day she had lifted her feet, sparing them from getting wet.
“Had that stallion for long?” Quinn asked, riding a couple of yards to her side. He watched her and her horse intently.
“Since he was a foal.” She hoped his conversation reflected what he seemed to appraise.
“Breed him much?”
“Occasionally. Why?” Trish felt a wave of heat rush to her cheeks.
“Need to educate him about crossing high water, but that’s just him needin’ experience. Don’t care for the size of his feet, but that’s a right fine animal.”
She knew the quality of the animal under her. The foal had been her uncle’s pride just before he died. Uncle Hy had spent his whole life breeding horses. That love of horses is what united her and Vance’s dream.
Momentary melancholy enveloped her. Was Vance worried about her this morning? What would he do? She hoped he noticed with his heavy schedule this week, but she had made it clear that she would only help train horses, not attend sales, whether selling or buying. Of course, Yedi and the stud fees he would generate were all her responsibility. Yedi had proven himself up to the job this spring, according to Vance. Yedi had even jumped a fence or two to get to the mares. As a matter of fact, Trish had found Yedi and one of the mares “caught in the act” upon her return home last week. Embarrassment at remembering how she had gawked at the stud’s genital length sent an aftershock of heat to her cheeks. Not an activity for the innocent to observe.
She yanked her thoughts back to Quinn and glanced his direction, unintentionally letting her gaze drop to his groin. Yep. His pants were drying quite nicely and he was enjoying the ride. She felt a resurgence of heat to her cheeks.
“It’s too bad.” Quinn finished.
“What? What’s too bad?” Trish stammered, wondering what she’d missed.
“You okay? Lost ya there for a minute. It don’t feel quite right talkin’ to a woman ‘bout it. But since ya own him, guess you are the one deciding. You wanna bring him to my place or should I be plannin’ to bring the mare to you when she’s in season?”
It wasn’t that Trish minded making business deals about breeding. She would be negotiating such several times in the future, but either her subconscious was working overtime or something Quinn had said while her thoughts were elsewhere made her uncomfortable. If they were going to talk to pass the time, she needed to change the subject.
“Whatever is fine. So, tell me about Moore.”
Quinn didn’t respond right away but at last answered, “Name sound familiar to ya does it? Moore runs a saloon up this way. Him and his wife. Never heard ‘em mention a filly like yourself. But then I don’t care for Moore’s place myself. Always waterin’ down his whiskey. Had a right nice brew a few years back. Ruined it by tryin’ to make it stretch. Still remember that night,” he chuckled.
“A night worth remembering, was it?”
“Only ‘cause it was the last time I drank there.”
“So if the whiskey isn’t strong enough you don’t go back, is that it?”
She waited for him to elaborate. When he didn’t, she tried to pry his reasoning from him. “No, to the whiskey not being strong enough? Or no, that isn’t the reason you haven’t been back?”
“Just ain’t to my likin’.”
Quinn nudged his horse to a fast trot.
Trish watched his back for several moments before she urged Yedi to a canter to catch up. She settled into a posting trot beside him. He looked over at her.
“Looks like that is fancy ridin’. Is that what they teach in those fancy girls’ schools back East? Sure a lot of work to just get down the trail.”
She smiled. Let him think she was from back East, maybe his questions would stop.
“Maybe. I don’t really remember. What do you know of schools back East?”
“Enough to know it costs money no self-respecting rancher in these parts will pay.”
“Are you a rancher then?”
“Is Albert?” She fished for information.
“Nope. Albert’s a blacksmith. Runs a right successful business in these parts.”
“And you? What is it you do?” She expected him to puff out his chest and claim his position. He instead looked at her and answered softly.
“I break horses and pick up some extra cash workin’ cattle for a few ranchers east of here.”
“Mostly? Are you a rustler, too?”
“I may have helped ya last night, but I ain’t no low down rustler. You could say I ride the range to keep ‘em out of business. Thing is, rustlers multiply like rabbits in these parts. Don’t matter how many coyotes and wolves eat the varmints, there’s always plenty more.”
“So we’re better than rustlers even if a man is dead.” She wondered if she could live with what she’d done. Quinn had buried a knife in his chest so it wasn’t all her doing. She knew any defense she could muster in a court of law would boil down to self-defense on her part, but a good prosecuting attorney, the kind she wanted to become, would unravel the façade. She had intended to kill. That’s why she had swung more than once. Her intent was the key. The intent of any woman to defend herself from rape, physical abuse or emotional abuse wouldn’t stand up in a court of this era. The shoe of guilt was on the other foot for the first time. Now she understood the motive. Could she prosecute such a trial? If she did, could she win, having an inkling to the motive? Maybe she’d have to rethink her profession.
Trish rode beside Quinn into the yard of a cabin as the sun set in the west. “Are you sure your brother won’t mind an unexpected house guest?”
“Cain’t very well leave ya in the cold, now can I? Ya might fall in another gulley or drown or end up in a worse pinch.” He reined up and dismounted.
“Thank you.” Trish lowered her voice and dismounted. Her still damp jeans cut and pinched in the most delicate of places. She tried not to visibly wince. “I’m not sure how I would have gotten away—”
“Told you, ya ain’t never to mention last evenin’ again. It never happened.” He wrapped both horse’s reins around the small hitching rail. “Lucinda and Albert both share the same views on hospitality. Play yar cards right and ya’ll have a friend in Lucinda.”
“Give me a hot bath and a soft bed and you’ll have a friend for life,” Trish exclaimed, trying not to sound wimpy.
Quinn responded with a chuckle and opened the door without knocking. Trish remained at the door, not willing to intrude. She listened as family greeted one another; apparently, his barging into their cabin unannounced was commonplace.
"Well, where is this damsel in distress that you've brought to our door?" a feminine voice asked. "Surely you didn't -- Oh Quinn, bring her inside."
A young woman, a good three inches shorter than Trish and about her age, pushed past Quinn. Trish noted the dingy blue print of her long dress, its skirt full and the apron that appeared clean but not really white. The woman reached for Trish with a welcoming embrace. “Come in, come in. Have you had anything to eat, honey?”
Trish shook her head, allowing herself to be towed inside.
“Doesn’t surprise me. Quinn’s always getting here hungry. I’m convinced he doesn’t know how to cook on the trail. Where did he find you anyway, honey?” The woman turned to Quinn, hitting him gently on the arm. “Wash up, then you can eat.” She continued to lead Trish to the hand pump.
Quinn joined them at the pump, removing his hat and hanging it on a peg. “I’ll get it for ya.”
Trish stepped to the side and hung her hat beside Quinn’s while he pumped the water. Once her hands were clean, though icy cold from the water, the woman handed her a towel of sorts.
“Are you gonna introduce us, Quinn?” The deep bass voice surprised Trish. She’d seen the man as she entered, his arms bare, showing bulging muscles, his chest thicker than Quinn’s. His hair, though dark, was several shades lighter than Quinn’s and his strong facial features appeared softer. Could the two really be brothers? “Miss, the name’s Albert and this here little woman is my wife, Lucinda.”
“Um—” She turned to him, still drying her hands, and smiled.
“She don’t remember much,” Quinn interjected. “Decided on the trail to call ‘er Trish.”
“Trish,” Lucinda seemed surprised. She evaluated Trish from head to toe before continuing in her soft Tennessee drawl. “Well, it suits you, honey. I’m assuming you remembered that name. Quinn’s met a lot of women but I don’t remember him mentioning a Trish.” She placed a hand on Quinn’s shoulder, guiding him to a chair.
Quinn started to argue but instead satisfied himself with the food she served him.
“Honey, I reckon this is a mean place to lose your memory. Don’t fret it for now. Let’s get a good hot meal in you. Then we can get some of that trail washed off. Albert, since I’m frying another steak, do you want more?”
“This is fine. Feed our guest and yourself. The biscuits are still warm.” He held the plate toward Trish.
Trish ate hungrily, appreciating every bite.
“Well, best be headed on home.” Quinn excused himself while retrieving his hat. “Ya gonna put her horse up fer the night? Ya might wanna put yer stock in. That wolf pack howled last night through the pass.”
“What about yer stock?” Albert asked the question as he stood from the table. Quinn was out the door with Albert close at his heels before he answered in a masculine rumble Trish couldn’t decipher.
Trish sopped up the thick gravy on her plate with her last bite of the sweet biscuit. “Thank you, Lucinda. I don’t know when I’ve eaten as well.”
“Nonsense,” Lucinda waved the compliment aside. “Come honey, let’s get you cleaned up and see if we can find you some clean clothes.”
“A hot bath sounds really nice right about now.”
A gentle snicker escaped Lucinda’s lips as she lifted a lantern from its place on a side table. “A hot bath isn’t what I can give you here, honey. Now Zelda has a tub. I’ll introduce you to her tomorrow. Maybe she’ll let you use it.”
Lucinda led the way to the cabin’s third room on the main floor. A quilt covered the far wall. A tall-backed, ornate wooden chair stood against another wall. An armoire filled the corner. A washstand filled the emptiness on the other side. Lucinda set the lantern on a wooden crate next to the ornate chair.
“Sit, honey.” Lucinda indicated the wrought iron stool at the foot of the bed. A finely crafted quilt, neatly folded on top served as a cushion for the stool.
“You get out of those clothes and wrap up in this blanket while I heat some water, honey.” She handed Trish a light quilt made of previously worn fabrics. The pieces were small and the design exquisite. Lucinda left the room, shutting the door behind her, Trish peeled off her filthy clothes.
Lucinda returned, carrying a bucket of hot steaming water, and poured it into the basin on the washstand. She dropped a grapefruit-sized sponge into the steaming water.
“While you bathe, I’ll get another bucket for the dirty water, honey.” Lucinda left the bedroom as Trish began her sponge bath, her thoughts dragging across Lucinda’s constant use of “honey.” It reminded Trish of a college roommate that constantly used the word, “sugar” in almost every sentence. For months, Trish had bit her tongue and Suzanne continued using the endearment until Suzanne’s holiday dinner party during which a guest exploded with, “I am certainly not your ‘sugar’.” Suzanne had sat absolutely still, shocked by the outburst. At last, she had very politely excused herself and gone to her room. Trish had filled the role of hostess for the duration of the party. After that evening, Suzanne had not used the endearment as frequently and Trish had come to appreciate Suzanne’s not so subtle habit of her Louisiana upbringing.
Lucinda returned with an empty bucket, emptied the dirty water into it and refilled the basin with clean water. “Here, honey, I’ll rinse your clothes out while you finish your bath.”
Trish felt a guilty smile twinge her lips when she got water on the floor. Lucinda seemed not to notice.
Trish watched for Lucinda’s reactions to her modern clothing articles out of the corner of her eye. Lucinda appeared unaffected until she dangled Trish’s muddy green bra and matching panties above the bucket of used bath water. Trish held her breath, waiting for the inevitable.
"Why, honey, where are your camisole and bloomers? I-- no wonder you dress in trousers like a man. Don't you have any proper clothing? These will never do." Lucinda sighed, shaking her head. She withdrew a clean flannel nightgown from the armoire, holding it up to Trish.
Trish considered the worn flannel, doing her best not to appear ungrateful, and said nothing.
“For now, let’s put you in this nightdress, honey. It’s warm, even if it is a little short on you. I’ll wash your—” Trish thought Lucida might call her modern underwear “rags” and held her breath. “Things better tomorrow. In the meantime, we’ll have to find you some more appropriate clothes to wear. I wonder if Penelope would have something. I think she’s more your size, honey.”
Lucinda seemed to flit about the room like a bee searching for the sweetest flower. She paused at the washbasin to test the water temperature with her finger. Then at the armoire to close the door, and across the room rinsing Trish’s clothes out in the used bath water before wringing them out.
Lucinda spoke softly, moving closer and handing a quilt to Trish. “Here’s a clean quilt to wrap around you, honey. You look tuckered out. The chamber pot is there if you need it.” Lucinda pointed at the large enamel-coated pot tucked under the tall ornate chair. “Come out when you feel ready. The privy’s out back. Of course, you’d need some more appropriate clothes to make the trip across the yard so for now… Just come on out when you’re done, honey.”
A chamber pot! And a privy? Was this really part of her adventure? Oh Grammy, I want a refund!
Her mind raced across a cacophony of thoughts. Trish had manufactured the story of her amnesia and now she must tread carefully. Her full name was Patricia Larsen. Even in 2015 she was single, married to her quest to become a prosecuting attorney. At thirty she had no plans for marriage and lived at home for her mother’s benefit more than for her own. Until yesterday, time travel had been a series of wonderful stories. Grammy Patricia had often told her that a cover story was paramount to any adventure. Trish had ignored the counsel and now found herself backpedaling. Now she definitely needed one.
What had she told Quinn? Only that she couldn’t remember and that ‘Trish’ sounded familiar. So far, so good. She’d unexpectedly, but luckily, brought Yedi with her. What else had she brought with her? The saddle and tack. Hopefully, they hadn’t changed much in the past century. Her clothing. Could such daily and seemingly inconsequential items trigger a paradox? That might prove tricky. She mentally scrambled. Which jeans did I wear? Hopefully not a pair that would draw a lot of attention. Could Lucinda be trusted to keep quiet?
Wait a minute, what did Grammy say? Something about how the talisman seemed to have its own agenda. How could an inanimate object and one so small as the talisman have an agenda? Grammy had also assured Trish that no matter how hard she may try, as the traveler, she had no more control of where the talisman would place her except choosing to travel forward or back in time. Did the possibility of a paradox matter to the talisman? She recited the chanting promise “…Alter times misstep in wide open spaces…” The talisman intends for me to alter the past? The ability to breathe drained from her body, taking with it all of her strength.
Trish had no way of knowing how much time passed while she struggled to compose herself. This was no longer an adventure but a mission. One in which she had no way of knowing what she was supposed to do. How could one succeed under these conditions? It was like going to court without studying the briefs or interviewing the witnesses. Blind man’s bluff, that’s what it was.
She took her time returning to join Lucinda in the main room. Lucinda sat near a lantern, her fingers busy with needlework as she hummed what Trish believed to be a church hymn.
“Pity you don’t have a dress with you, honey.” Lucinda spoke in her soft Tennessee drawl, sifting through each word. “We can most likely get a dress from Penelope when we visit tomorrow. Or do you have a few things tucked in your saddlebags, honey?”
“No, I don’t have a dress.” Trish shrugged, omitting her lack of saddlebags as well. How could she do this without preparation? “I’m not sure I even own a dress.”
“That’s a pity, honey. Do you remember anything? Anything at all?”
Trish’s head spun. “Um, not really, ‘Trish’ feels real familiar, but maybe that’s because I’ve heard it and thought it for a day or so now.”
“I guess that would be a little like my marrying Albert, honey. I’m still getting used to answering to Mrs. Jackson.”
Trish didn’t respond immediately, biting her lip instead of airing her distaste for Lucinda’s constant use of ‘honey’. She needed to change the focus of their conversation. “So you haven’t been Mrs. Jackson for very long?”
“Going on a year now, honey.” Lucinda seemed to glow. “I love being Albert’s wife. He is so kind and gentle. I wasn’t sure he would be at first.”
“You didn’t know that before you married him?” Trish asked incredulously.
“How much do you know after just a day or two? I met Albert when he came to Salt Lake City to get things for the smithy.” Lucinda got a faraway look in her eyes. “He seemed bigger than life. He stood toe to toe with Mr. Claybourne, towering over him, his shoulders obviously wider and stronger. Mr. Claybourne wanted more for the supplies and Albert would have none of Claybourne’s high-priced shenanigans. Albert was the only man I saw stand up to Claybourne. And I worked for him at his store for a good year or more.”
“You married him because he stood up to your employer? That doesn’t sound like a reason that I’d get married for.”
Lucinda smiled. “Marriage to Albert sounded a whole lot better than where I was. And when he asked, I just couldn’t refuse.”
It would take a lot more than just a simple request for Trish to consent to marriage. The guy she married would have to prove that he loved her in so many ways. “I’ve never given marriage much thought, maybe someday, but not now.”
“That will come someday, honey. Tomorrow we’ll stop at the mercantile, then go on down to the saloon to visit Zelda. Guess Quinn mentioned her. He’s pretty tight-lipped when it comes to her, even if he sees her a lot. I’m thinking the day will come that they will marry, too. Then again, maybe not. I’m sure if it’s a hot bath you’re wantin, she’ll help you get one.”
Quinn and Zelda? Trish wasn’t sure she wanted to find out just what kind of woman Quinn liked. She stuffed the hint of jealous interest down. She had no right to entertain thoughts of a relationship here. Besides, Quinn obviously didn’t find her the least bit attractive… or interesting. Even if he proved himself willing to keep her secret. He couldn’t be all bad, even if he had killed a man. It had been in defending her honor.
Trish moved across the wood floor in her bare feet to find Albert reading by kerosene lantern light and Lucinda washing the last of the dinner dishes. She stopped before they noticed her and listened to Albert’s deep voice as it resonated through the room. She listened as Albert read from Proverbs, recognizing the verses from chapter three.
“Trust in the Lord…”
“…With all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths,” Trish finished.
Albert and Lucinda turned to her. “So, you are familiar with the Bible?” Lucinda intoned.
“Yes, well… those versus at least.”
“Do you know the next verse?” Albert asked.
Trish’s brow furrowed as she tried to remember if there was more to the quote, finally shaking her head. “No, nothing more comes to mind.”
“Well, that is something at least, honey. Do you remember where you learned those verses?”
Trish shook her head and pinched her lips into a firm line. “From my mother, I think.”
“Do you remember your mother?”
“Dear,” Albert warned in a gentle tone. “Don’t push her.” He extended his hand to her. “Please, join us.”
“Thank you.” Trish moved to the second chair at the table and sat down, her back perfectly straight. “I really appreciate your letting me stay here. I’ll try to find other lodgings tomorrow.”
“Nonsense.” Both Albert and Lucinda spoke in unison. Lucinda yielded to her husband, returning to her chore.
“Lucinda has been wishing for the opportunity to share some of her Southern hospitality with someone that will appreciate it. Quinn wouldn’t care if she put a rock on his plate for dinner, as long as he can cut it with his knife.”
Trish instantly thought of the knife Quinn had killed Old Curly with and bit her tongue to keep from telling them she’d seen his knife. “An easily satisfied customer, is he?”
“Not tonight.” Albert chuckled. “Yar takin’ his bed upstairs there.”
“He lives with you?”
“Oh no, couldn’t get him to stay for the first two seasons after I married Lucinda. Guess he figured he might be cuttin’ in on the honeymoon.” Albert shoved his chair back and stood, taking Lucinda in his arms.
Trish immediately felt uncomfortable. The last thing she needed was to be the third wheel in this small cabin. Would she overhear them tonight? She had to find another place to stay…and the sooner, the better. “Um…I think I’ll be heading off to bed.”
Lucinda pushed herself out of Albert’s arms. “You poor dear, you must be terribly tired. Let me dry my hands and I’ll show you where you can sleep.”
“I am a little tired, but I should tend to my horse.”
“I’ll tend to the animal. You get your rest.” Albert winked at his wife and donned his hat.
Lucinda led Trish up the steep stairwell. “You can sleep up here. There’s an extra blanket if it gets cold. Quinn rarely uses it. Sleep well.”
Trish felt a pang of guilt for having dislodged the man, but it didn’t last long. She closed her eyes and prayed for the faith to trust in the Lord. The apprehension she had experienced earlier faded. God reigned in Heaven, and He was aware of her here, now.
Quinn rode to Pierre’s saloon and tied his horse at the hitching rail beside two others, Tuckett’s leggy bay mare and an average dun. Stale cigarette smoke tainted the air as he pushed the doors open. The lighting from inside pierced the darkening shadows of the day. He could see Pierre’s legs and feet on the other side of the bar from where he stood. Quinn stepped inside, letting the heavy door swing shut on its own. A floorboard creaked under his feet as he crossed the saloon.
Pierre rubbed the wooden slab bar with his frayed bar towel. The slab’s rough knots had worn smooth from use and heavy scrubbing. He burnished a damp spot until it was almost dry.
Quinn pushed against the bar, testing it for sturdiness.
“Got it nailed down, do ya?”
“Don’t need more broken glasses. Just got this batch here from Frisco.” Pierre set a shot glass on the bar. “Your usual?”
“‘Course, trail’s mighty dry. Plum cracked my throat.” Quinn turned slightly to evaluate his fellow customer, Tuckett. The man had proven himself more than equal to taking any unearned advantage he could, whether at a hand of poker or life. Quinn despised Tuckett’s stringy ponytail and goatee almost as much as he despised Tuckett himself.
Bottles rattled against jars as Pierre retrieved a whiskey bottle from the shelf behind him. Quinn turned back to Pierre without acknowledging Tuckett’s nod in his direction. “Zelda ‘round?”
Pierre’s pouring of whiskey stuttered. “Been gone awhile this time.”
“She visitin’ another sick friend?” Quinn smiled, taking the shot glass. That woman, she was always showing someone how generous and sympathetic she was.
The boards overhead creaked rhythmically. Pierre’s eyes darted to the ceiling and back to Quinn. The creaking stopped.
“Don’t think Kueter looked at all sick.” Pierre jerked his thumb toward the ceiling without moving the bar towel in his hand.
Quinn’s expression turned dark. The boards overhead squeaked out the rhythm once more, increasing in speed. All at once it was quiet.
“Kueter.” Quinn sneered, tossing the whiskey back. He’d not expected Zelda to return to her whoring in his absence. Had she done it before? Or just with Kueter?
“Have another drink.”
Quinn swiped the bottle from Pierre’s hand with one hand while slapping a silver dollar on the bar with the other. He’d probably owe Pierre more before too long. He poured the shot glass to overflowing and drank it down. Another, this time some of the whiskey, spilled onto the bar. With the bottle still in one hand and his shot glass in the other, Quinn leaned on the bar, drinking and waiting.
Pierre pocketed the coin and dabbed at the spilled liquor before moving down the bar to polish another spot.
Quinn’s anger simmered. He’d met Zelda on his trip to San Francisco last fall and brought her here. Back then Pierre had run a hotel/saloon. He had asked her to marry him. She’d said she needed to think about it. Every time he came to see her, he asked again. He planned to take her for a walk in the moonlight tonight and ask her to marry him again. They’d talked about her leaving her profession quite a bit on their journey to this little valley and she had agreed. He poured the last of the whiskey into his glass, downing it with bile anger.
At last the couple moseyed down the steps, Kueter’s arm draped around Zelda as if claiming her for himself, a nearly empty bottle in his other hand. One of his pant legs stuck in his boot as if it had been pulled on in haste. Zelda wore her purple dress trimmed in black off her shoulder in a seductive style, her black camisole revealing a glimpse of her ample breasts. The matching feather in her hair was slightly askew, proof of her activities. Four steps from the bottom, Zelda glanced up. Her expression changed from flirtatious seduction to stunned guilt.
Quinn glared at her, waiting for her or Kueter to speak. Zelda’s walk lost its sashay of moments before as she approached him with Kueter beside her.
"I -- I didn't expect you." Her explanation sounded weak.
“Obviously. I hurried back. Guess it weren’t fast ‘nough. Didn’t ‘spect ya to be mov’n on.”
“You got a problem?” Kueter interrupted, puffing out his chest. He stood several inches shorter than Quinn. Quinn cocked his head slightly and pulled himself erect, no longer leaning on the bar.
“Just ya’ll and yer bein’ here.” Quinn quickly measured the man. He appeared younger than Quinn, his light hair still tussled from their activities upstairs. Quinn knew he outweighed the man and had a longer reach.
“Don’t recall seeing you around here. I believe I was here first.”
“Tonight maybe. Whose string ya workin’? Don’t know anybody in these parts that’d wanna hire the likes of you.” Quinn scowled at the younger man’s fancy britches and finely sewn shirt. He didn’t bother to check the bottoms of Kueter’s boots. They probably didn’t have any manure on them.
“Who says I have to be working for anyone? It ain’t your business, anyway.”
“Zelda’s my business.”
“Not tonight, she ain’t.”
Quinn stepped closer to Kueter, unwilling to back down. Zelda was his girl and had been for the better part of a year. He lowered his voice. “Zelda’s always my business.”
“Quinn, stop.” Zelda tried to interfere.
“So you’re the cowboy that toddles away and leaves such a beauty to fend for herself.”
“A man’s gotta make a livin.’ Ain’t never heard ‘er complain.”
“You wouldn’t ‘cause you’re never here.”
“An’ ya think ya can just come in ‘ere and bed her?” Quinn bit off the question.
“No wonder she’s so lonely. ‘Course you probably don’t know how to satisfy her, anyway.”
Quinn answered Kueter with a stiff upper cut. Kueter stumbled back, caught off-guard. He regained his balance and charged. Fists landed on muscle, leaving bruises in their wake. Quinn’s fist found Kueter’s nose. The awful crunch of smashed cartilage warned of severe injury.
Kueter answered with a wicked blow to Quinn’s eye socket, tearing flesh. Quinn advanced, sending punch after punch to his opponent’s soft underbelly. He didn’t care for the man or his implications. This was Quinn’s territory. Zelda was his girl. A table crashed to the floor under the weight of grown men. Quinn was up first, but Kueter charged again, wrapping his arms around Quinn’s middle and driving him back. Quinn staggered back against the bar, the solid wood bruising his back.
Tuckett, an adversary ever since Quinn won the hand of poker that cost Tuckett his best horse, stepped in, picking up the whiskey bottle Quinn had drained. Quinn saw Tuckett raise the bottle overhead out of the corner of his uninjured eye. Twisting, he blocked Tuckett’s blow with his arm. A nasty gash spurted blood in all directions. Kueter punched Quinn hard in the left kidney. Quinn arched to the side and back in reflex. Tuckett took a swing at Quinn. Instinct aroused Quinn’s senses, pushing him to a murderous frenzy, fighting both men at the same time.
Tuckett and Kueter got their feet tangled while trying to back Quinn into the corner. Kueter stumbled, cursing Tuckett for his interference. Tuckett shoved a poker table at Quinn. It caught on a chair. Quinn grasped the chair with both hands. Kueter scrambled to his feet as Quinn brought the chair down on his head, driving Kueter back to the floor. Quinn had no time to savor his victory as Tuckett clambered over the table to reach Quinn. Using the wall at his back for leverage, Quinn kicked the edge of the table, sending it crashing to the floor. Tuckett lay stunned. Quinn placed his heavy foot on his throat.
“This ain’t your fight, Tuckett. Stay down,” Quinn growled. Tuckett raised his hands over his head in surrender. Just as Quinn relaxed, Tuckett swept Quinn’s feet out from under him. Tuckett stood, his hand going for his gun.
“No guns.” Pierre eased the shotgun he always kept loaded on the bar, its barrel pointing in the combatants’ general direction. “I won’t miss at this distance and you know it. You owe me for a table and chair. Let that be enough.”
Zelda bent over Kueter while Pierre helped Quinn to his feet with one hand, the shotgun in the other. Quinn pushed the assistance away. He glared at Zelda, further infuriated by her attention to his opponent. Tuckett staggered toward the door, pausing to lean on the wall with one hand. Quinn moved to Zelda, grasped her arm and pulled her away from Kueter. The man was barely conscious. Quinn dragged him from the floor, thrusting him at Tuckett.
“Get his carcass out of here before I kill both of ya,” Quinn bellowed, herding them to the hitching rail with his lurching steps.
Tuckett pushed Kueter up on his dun with Kueter unable to sit erect in the saddle. Kueter didn’t wait for Tuckett but turned his horse and rode away.
Tuckett turned back to Quinn with an ugly though beaten glare. “Next time.”
“Get out,” Quinn growled, feeling a glimmer of victory.
Tuckett climbed on his own horse and lit out in the same direction Kueter had gone, southwest.
Zelda shook her head at Quinn with an expression of contempt. “You know what I am. You always have.” She slipped behind the bar and reached for a whiskey bottle and a glass.
Quinn stumbled down the saloon steps, wounded and bleeding.
“Don’t expect to see Kueter in here again.”
Quinn watched his friend’s expression. “You know I make good on the mess.”
“Yup. Whiskey’s gonna double in price ‘til ya do. Get out of here and get yarself fixed up. Zelda ain’t gonna help this time,” Pierre said as he helped Quinn up on his buckskin and slapped its rump with the barrel of his shotgun.
Quinn didn’t remember turning his horse for home. Nor getting inside his cabin.
He leaned against the door jamb for several minutes before lighting the lantern. The lantern burned bright on his table. He set his bowie knife and its sheath on the table and retrieved his small shaving mirror. Setting his mirror on the table to better see the far side of his arm and reflect the lantern light, he dropped into his only chair. He took a long swig of whiskey and poured a generous amount over the ragged gash on his forearm. Putting the knife sheath between his teeth, he set to work digging the glass out of the ragged and bleeding wound.
Once he cleaned the wound as best he could, he poured more whiskey over it and wrapped a clean cloth around his arm. His muscles sore, his eye swollen, he slumped forward, resting his pounding head on the table and dropped into a whiskey-aided sleep.
Quinn awoke to the crowing of a rooster in the distance. Stiff, sore and hung over, he made his way to the pump to clean up. This was a new day. The spring roundup had taken him hundreds of miles to gather Leavitt’s cattle, cattle that had hardened over the winter wherever they could forage. The roundup represented a good deal of pay for the year, income he had intended to share with Zelda.
The following morning dawned bright and clear with just a few clouds. She stayed where she lay, listening to her surroundings. They seemed sharper in comparison to the more familiar sounds of home. All the sounds she heard this morning seemed organic—the birds in the trees, the light breeze rustling the leaves, the rooster heralding a new day, the distant lowing of a cow. It wasn’t that she had never heard them before but that, there wasn’t the accompanying rumble of engines, hum of air conditioners, or other mechanical noises was absent.
At home, her alarm buzzed unannounced into her slumber. From that moment on, the days usually felt rushed. Hurry and shower, grab a bite, get to the office before the clock clicked a minute after the hour. Time in the twenty-first century waited for no one and every man hustled to meet the demands placed upon him.
In contrast, this morning, waking up to pleasant sounds, even if her bed seemed a little hard, the atmosphere relaxed her. It seemed that she didn’t have a care in the world. This morning was the kind of relaxing vacation she’d yearned for.
The heavy door of the cabin squeaked softly, announcing the arrival of someone. “Morning my sweet.” Albert’s deep voice floated up the steps.
Trish imagined the morning embrace and sweet kiss between Albert and Lucinda and wondered if the day would ever come that she might enjoy a similar moment with the man of her dreams. She had never found the right guy that fit in with her heavy class load at law school. She had a difficult time dealing with her multiple failures to pass the bar and if she wasn’t good enough at what she loved, how could she be good enough for a man to love? Her new job had at least gotten her through the courthouse doors, but even that wouldn’t work out with her not showing up. Law and love, no matter how much she wanted both, would have to wait until she proved good enough…at least to herself.
Albert’s voice rumbled with warmth from the rooms below. “Brought some ladylike things to replace that girl’s getup. I ain’t seen nothin’ like it. She probably had little choice. Quinn describes a rather unsavory situation when he stumbled upon her. How would you expect a woman to travel the wilderness? Certainly not in a long skirt.”
“Ya think women folk back east have takin’ to dressin’ like a man these days?” Lucinda asked.
“Guess you’re right, you usually are.” Trish strained to hear more, but for the moment only heard the birds chirping outside. “Penelope sent these, too.”
“If you would set them on the bed, I’ll tuck them in my sewing basket to work on later.” Lucinda’s gentle Tennessee drawl answered and grew closer as she climbed the stairs. Trish sat up.
“Oh, I didn’t think you were up yet, honey.” Lucinda continued climbing just far enough to set a bundle of clothing on the landing. “Albert just brought these things from Penelope with a message that we must come down and introduce you. I hope these fit. How did you sleep, honey?”
“Fine, thank you. When do we plan to visit…Penelope? Is it?”
“No hurry, dear. We can see to that after breakfast.” Lucinda smiled before retreating down the steps.
“I’ll hurry and dress and come down,” Trish responded, reaching for the bundle of clothing. She had the skirt and blouse on before she realized she should have dressed in the camisole and bloomers at the bottom of the pile. She decided against the stockings, but redressed with the other items of underclothing. Going without a bra would take some getting used to, especially as she decided not to do up all the buttons of the high-necked blouse. She appeared modest, by twenty-first century standards, but when Lucinda saw her, she obviously thought all the buttons of the blouse should be buttoned clear up to her throat.
“Do you really dress that way where you are from, honey?”
“Actually, where I’m from, most of the girls wear less than the underclothing Penelope sent.” Lucinda’s wide-eyed expression spoke volumes. “Don’t worry, I’m not like most of those girls, although it is a bit warm for long stockings.”
Lucinda looked at Trish’s bare feet, carefully evaluating her. She sighed as though deciding that a little understanding and friendship would prove appropriate.
“It is warm. I’d like to go without them too, honey.”
Trish smiled, feeling a little guilty, and buttoned up one button. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend.”
“What do you mean, honey? I’m just trying to make you more comfortable. I must admit that I thought after reciting the Bible verse last night you would be different.” Lucinda’s smile seemed uncomfortable. “Back home in Tennessee, we dressed a bit different too.”
“You’re from Tennessee? You’re a long way from home.”
“Well, it was either come out west or consent to an arranged marriage to my cousin, honey. I reckon that out west sounded better,” Lucinda admitted.
“So you are happy.”
“It took me three winters to work my way out west.” Lucinda paused from her task to reflect. “It would’ve been faster if I had traded my body, but in a way, that is why I left home. Why leave the devil I knew for one I didn’t? Some men merely want a woman to warm their beds. I refused to be a ‘sin-stained woman’, honey. Albert came to Salt Lake City to get an anvil for the black smithy. We liked the looks of each other and were married and here I am. I reckon that isn’t for everyone, but it was the right thing for me.” Lucinda changed the subject. “I hope that eggs are okay for breakfast. I can’t stomach smoked pork of late.”
“That’s fine, I usually only eat…” Trish caught herself before she said a bagel or muffin. A simple life prevailed here. “Just a little, that would be fine. Should I tell Albert that it’s almost ready?”
“No honey, Albert has already ate before taking care of the livestock.” As if on cue Albert entered the room.
“Morning ma’am, sleep well?”
“Good morning. Yes, thank you.”
“Hoping you’d feel a bit more like a lady outta them trousers, ma’am.”
Trish couldn’t help wondering if a woman in pants was so distasteful. Of course, even in the Western movies she’d grown up on, the women almost never wore pants. They rarely even rode horses. What must they think of her?
“Give me a half hour or so to take care of my horse,” Trish bade Lucinda with a smile and wave. The sun beamed bright, daring to warm the nip in the morning light. Trish’s steps broke into skips for several paces until she caught sight of someone in the distance. Not wanting to look like a silly schoolgirl, she slowed to a more studious walk.
Albert’s voice carried on the cooler air of the livery as she pulled the heavy door open.
“You know Old Curly and his tales of silver and gold.”
“Yup,” an unfamiliar masculine voice responded. “Finally paid for that pack. Guessin’ he paid you for his mule, too.”
Albert looked up and motioned toward Trish. “Lady is gonna be needin’ somethin’.”
The man Trish didn’t recognize didn’t glance at her, as he stepped around Albert and hurried out the doors behind Albert.
“Go ahead and prop that door open with that round of a log there.” Albert indicated a chunk of wood that had apparently been left by the door just for that purpose.
“Morning, what brings you to my livery?”
“Oh, I just thought I’d check on my horse. I see you kept him in a stall overnight.”
“He was downright flighty last night. Seems like a right high maintenance animal.”
Trish picked up a brush and entered the stall before continuing the conversation. “Guess he can be that at times. I don’t mind, gives me a chance to think while I groom him.”
Albert placed a couple more logs on the forge. The flames licked at the hard wood and finally took hold of it. “What on God’s green earth do you need to think about?”
“Nothin’ in particular. Do you have any saddle soap that I can use?” Trish did her best to mimic the vernacular of those around her.
“Over there,” Albert indicated a shelf across the livery and its paraphernalia with a jerk of his chin. Apparently, Albert had a bit of work to do. Trish located a tin of saddle soap with a rag under it. She settled into soaping and rubbing the water-stained leather.
Several minutes later, Albert stood over her. “In my livery, there will be no women soaping down saddles, not even you.”
Trish started to argue, but Albert stared her down. “My livery, my rules. Working with horses and even your own tack is no job for the genteel lady.”
“Oh, I don’t mind. I actually enjoy working with my hands.”
Albert paused what he was doing. “Maybe yar pa does leatherwork or is a saddler.”
“I don’t…maybe.” Don’t blow it now, Trish reminded herself. Lies need to be as close to the truth as possible. “I’m not even sure I know how. It just seems like something I would do.”
Albert rubbed his chin with thoughtful strokes. “You sure seem to know how to get it done right and quick.”
Trish allowed a small smile to curl her lips. She had lost count of how many saddles, harnesses, and carriages she had soaped and polished for her uncle in payment for Yedi before he was even foaled. Caring for horses and leather was in her blood and Vance’s. It was the commonality that held their bonds of friendship as secure as the second cousin relationship. It didn’t matter that years separated them. A horse didn’t know age. It knew its handler’s comfort level.
Yedi’s shrill whinny alerted them to new arrivals moments before the door Trish had propped open was jostled completely ajar. A girl that Trish judged to be in her mid-teens led a roan pony into the livery. The animal was being difficult, balking repeatedly and fighting its lead rope.
“Blue Bell,” the girl yelled at the animal, yanking the lead rope. The whites of the pony’s eyes spoke volumes. “Stop being a jack—-”
“May I?” Trish intervened, taking the lead and speaking softly to the animal. The pony’s ears twitched, swiveling to listen.
“Easy, baby. No one’s gonna hurt you.” Trish stepped closer to the animal and easily recognized the problem. The saddle blanket had moved under the saddle. Keeping her hand on the lead rope, Trish loosened the cinch and lifted the heavy western saddle from the animal’s back.
“Blue Bell is always great in the corral, but whenever I put the saddle on her, she acts like a jack—”
“Katie,” Albert interrupted the girl. “Your mother would not be pleased to hear you speaking so.”
“But she is such a—” Trish didn’t hear what Albert said to soothe the girl’s temper. Instead, Trish gave all of her attention to the animal. She pulled the saddle blanket off, dropping it on the saddle behind her. Quietly and with sure hands Trish stroked the animal. The pony had a bump on her back. When Trish ran her hand over it, the pony shied away. “Whoa, baby. What have we here? Does this hurt?” The animal shied again at her touch.
“Katie, is it?”
Katie nodded. “What’s wrong with my pony?”
“Have you had her for long?”
“Pa got her about a month ago in trade for some supplies.”
“Were the people that traded her riding her at the time?”
“I don’t think so. Why?”
“This pony has had a broken back. She has a knot right here.”
Katie’s eyes grew the size of teacups just before the tears started to roll down her cheeks. “Not my Blue Bell. I didn’t do it, I promise,” the girl wailed.
“Katie, you need to stop crying. You’ll scare her again.” Trish waited for the girl to calm down. “If you’ll come here and be quiet, I’ll show you where the break was.”
Katie tentatively stepped forward. “We have to have a light touch or she’ll balk again.” Trish guided Katie’s hand over the pony’s back. “Can you feel that?”
“Yes. Katie’s voice still quivered. “Does this mean I can’t ride her?”
“Well, that depends on Blue Bell. You need a much thicker blanket under the saddle and maybe even a different saddle.”
“I’ll go ask Mother for a heavy blanket.” Katie skipped out the open door.
Trish watched her go with a smile.
“That was right smooth. Ya sure the pony’s back was broke?”
“Shame. Right pretty pony.”
“Albert, do you have an English saddle?”
“Nope, but I’m sure I can get one. It may take a couple of weeks.”
“In the meantime, I’ll need to teach that young lady to be very unladylike.”
“She needs to learn to ride that pony bareback.”
“Her mother isn’t going to take too kindly to that notion. Penelope has it in her mind to raise a lady in these parts. I doubt riding like a boy is on the woman’s agenda.”
“Then we won’t tell her mother. Do you have a pasture that Katie can ride in? At least while she is learning and until the saddle gets here? Katie would have to ride astride on the saddle she has.”
“Penelope expected the girl to loop her leg over the horn.”
“Penelope needs to do it herself to learn just how uncomfortable and unrealistic that is in the long run.”
Albert ran his hand along the pony’s back. “And yar sure an English saddle is what Katie needs?”
“Not sure at all. But because of where the break is on this rib, I would imagine the weight of the saddle is rather painful. Katie’s lucky she wasn’t on the pony when it hurt. Blue Bell could have hurt them both.”
“I looked that pony over when I shoed her two days ago. Paid more attention to her feet and legs than her back. Missed that bump. Told Katie’s pa the pony was safe to ride. I was wrong.” Albert extended his bear-sized hand to Trish. “Rules are made to break. Yar welcome in my livery any time for any reason.”
Trish took his hand and gave it a firm shake. “Thank you.”
Albert turned back to the forge and the work he’d left there. Trish led the pony to where she could be tied and turned to watch Albert resume his work. She hadn’t paid attention to the way he was built until she watched him draw the bellows with one arm. Men in the twenty-first century were wimps compared to the power Albert displayed on a daily basis. She found herself wishing she would one day find such a man.
Lucinda’s cheerful voice punctuated the tap, tap, twang of Albert’s handiwork. “It’s a beautiful morning.”
Trish turned to greet her, dusting her hands on her skirts. “It is at that.”
“He didn’t have you working, did he?” Lucinda’s words were laced with abject disdain.
“Oh don’t fret,” Trish reassured her brightly. “He didn’t ask me to do anything. I offered to help Katie with her pony.”
“We best be getting to the mercantile.”
Albert thrust the iron he had been shaping into a bucket of water. It hissed as steam rose. Trish glanced at the steam and the man who caused it. Albert had an adoring smile for his wife before his gaze settled on Trish. “Most men ain’t willing ta help a girl with her pony. Sure she thanks ya.”
Trish smiled at him and for a moment, nothing else existed except the two of them and their mutual respect. She pulled herself away to follow Lucinda out of the livery.
The two were half way to the mercantile when Trish stopped. “I’ll be right there, Lucinda. I left that saddle and blanket on the ground.”
Worrying that she might be too late, Trish lifted her skirts and ran toward the livery. A young cowboy approached on foot from the opposite direction, leading a lame horse. He appeared dirty and looked as if he’d had a sleepless night. She skidded to a tentative walk. The cowboy nodded in her direction without stopping, the expression on his face unpleasant as he led the animal into the livery. Trish waited at the door for an appropriate time to interrupt the ensuing scene.
“Jackson, my ‘orse has gone lame again,” the cowboy roared. “I just walked a day and a ‘alf. Spent the night under a pine tree without shelter with the wolves a howlin’, ‘cause ‘e threw the shoe you put on last week!”
Albert thrust the horse shoe into the nearby bucket of water. Water hissed sending steam into the air. Albert’s shirt hung on a nearby nail, his leather apron tied at his waist. He walked to the horse and placed his experienced hand on its flank. The horse kept its weight off its near hind foot.
“Cardston, I put the far hind shoe on last week. Your gelding has thrown his near hind shoe.” Albert’s voice remained stoic in spite of the young cowboy’s badgering. “You paid me for one shoe. I suggested then an’ I’m suggestin’ ‘gin now… Shoe ‘im properly and he won’t throw the others. One of these days you might not be so lucky as to walk just a day and a half. That there desert has taken more than one man.”
“Was the same shoe ‘e threw, I tell ya!” Cardston bellowed with venom in his words. “Don’t I know my own ‘orse?”
“I suggest you put shoes on both hind feet, that way they will wear evenly.” Albert’s self-mastery held true as his words defied any frustration.
“And pay you for two shoes? Never, I’d rather see you dead.” The cowboy stormed out of the livery, leaving his horse ground tied. “Have ‘im shoed right or I’ll see you ‘anged for cheatin’ me.”
Trish expected Albert to react to the threat. He remained calm, leaving the horse ground tied. Apparently, the matter would wait.
Trish weighed Albert’s response to her more modern point of view. She probably would have told Cardston and his bad attitude to take a flying leap off a very high cliff, but not Albert. Was he as level tempered about everything? No wonder Lucinda was happy in her impromptu marriage.
Deciding the moment to interrupt wouldn’t get any better, she stepped into the livery. “I’m sorry I left the saddle and blanket in the middle of the floor.”
Albert looked up at her, his expression calm but definitely not inviting as it had been, earlier. “I’ll take care of it. Thank you.”
Recognizing that she was no longer welcome, Trish nodded and retreated to return to Lucinda.
“Good,” Lucinda said as Trish caught up to her at the steps to the mercantile. “For a moment there I thought you weren’t coming, honey. Ready to meet Penelope?”
“Of course.” Trish paused at the top of the steps and turned back to glance across the distance of the dusty street to the livery. What was happening there behind those rough walls?
Things were certainly different here. The street which she considered more a well-worn trail wide enough for two wagons to pass, stood sparingly occupied by the livery on the north end and the mercantile with its lone hitching rail at the other. The mercantile boasted a wooden walk spanning its front. At the other side of the store, the street took a dogleg toward a narrow bridge spanning the river. A dark red building with smaller matching outbuildings appeared hastily positioned among a sparse scattering of trees.
Lucinda pushed the door open. A jingling of bells welcomed them. Soft humming coming from behind a tall display alerted them to a woman’s presence. A sturdy version of the frontier woman that Trish assumed to be Penelope appeared from behind the display with a welcoming smile. She wore her blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun. Her well-dressed figure marked a sharp contrast to Lucinda’s plain dressed petite one. Penelope’s three-quarter length sleeves appeared starched and pressed, her bustle simple where Lucinda was clean and tidy but not overly fashionable.
“Good morning, Penelope,” Lucinda greeted.
“You’ve come to introduce me to a newcomer.” Penelope cast a discerning regard Trish’s direction. “I do believe Albert’s appraisal was accurate. You better keep a firm hand on him, Lucinda. Most men can’t describe a woman standing right in front of him.”
Lucinda laughed. “I’m sure whatever he said was guided by my words.”
“That explains his brash evaluation, all tactless and a smidgeon of boyish guilt.” Penelope smirked as if remembering a humorous moment. “I find it hard to believe that you would send him out with such an errand.”
“Oh honey, don’t you know that I can get him to do anything for me?”
“Spoken like a true newlywed.” Penelope extended a hand to Trish. “But we are being rude. I’m Penelope and you?”
“Honey,” Lucinda cut in. “This is Trish. We, or rather she, needs your help. My skirt may fit around her waist, but she can’t go around showing her ankles like this. Even if her boots are high.”
Trish hadn’t given much thought to the length of her skirt. She’d accepted the gift of clothing without question, knowing her wrangler jeans and shirt would be considered men’s clothing. She hoped Lucinda would be too reserved to mention her underclothing. The demands of survival and simplicity of the west and its need for practicality suited Trish. Of course, it would prove challenging to ride in long skirts.
Penelope ushered them to a back room and offered Trish a longer gray skirt. She removed the one Lucinda had given her and quickly redressed.
Penelope offered yet another gift, one of her fashionable dresses.
“I actually have no need of such dresses, but thank you so very much for this one,” Trish declined.
“Nonsense. You’ll need something to wear while you wash what you’re wearing.” Penelope pressed a simple dark green skirt and matching striped blouse into her hands.
“We’ll take it with us.” Lucinda handed a scrap of paper to Penelope. “I’m taking her over to meet Zelda.” Penelope’s smile faded, replaced by a disapproving grimace. “Trish is wanting a hot bath. I’ll introduce them and be back for these things.”
“You’re not—” Penelope placed a hand on the folded green clothing sliding it away from Trish a bit.
“Honey,” Lucinda laughed, putting a hand on Penelope’s forearm. “It’s just a bath.”
Trish wasn’t sure whether or not her guilt flickered at seeing Penelope’s reaction or her needs being so openly discussed. She really wanted a hot bath, no matter what. The sponge bath had done little for her body odor. She just hoped Zelda had some nice fragrances she was willing to share as well.
Trish and Lucinda walked side by side in the morning light. The river boiled and swirled incessantly, threatening its banks, and yet it seemed slower.
“This river hardly seems the same as the one Quinn helped me cross yesterday.”
“How so, honey?”
There that word was again. Trish had almost believed it had vanished from Lucinda’s vocabulary. “It doesn’t seem as ready to swallow me alive this morning.”
“Oh honey, if it’s that kind of excitement you’re wantin’ all ya have to do is go downstream beyond the oxbow where the stage crosses. The channel gets mighty deep.”
Lucinda waved to a woman as they approached the bridge. The woman appeared as though dressed in her underthings, including an ivory white corset. She wore a thin red wrapper that fluttered in the morning breeze while she hung out her silk stockings on a clothesline strung from the post of the red buildings back stairway to a nearby shack.
“Good morning,” Lucinda called across the rushing river.
Lucinda and Trish walked across the new wooden bridge, barely wide enough for a wagon. “I’m so glad the men built this bridge. I used to wade across on the other side of the saloon but after the wagons with a load of dry goods got stuck again this spring, the men decided a bridge was less work than unloading mid-stream.”
“I’ll bet. I don’t need two baths today or to get dirty again after I get a bath. Thanks for this.” Trish motioned toward the woman Lucinda had greeted. “Who is she?”
Trish felt her jaw go slack and quickly righted it. The woman's brash display of generous curves in her lingerie felt like it belonged more in the twenty-first century's skin flicks than here. "Isn't she concerned about being seen by -- someone in her lingerie?"
“She is a good friend, honey. What she wears is really her business.” Lucinda chuckled. “She’s probably getting herself all done up for Quinn.”
A Meadowlark warbled nearby as they greeted Zelda. “Honey, this is Trish. She just isn’t happy with a sponge bath at my house. Could she impose on you for a nice hot soak?”
“I musta known you was comin’. The pot is already over the fire.” Zelda turned to Trish, swinging a bucket toward her. “You haul the water and you’ve got yourself a hot bath.”
Trish exchanged the bundle of clothing from Penelope for the bucket Zelda offered her. Trish wasn’t about to pass up a hot bath, even if it meant hauling twenty buckets of water.
She returned from the river with her first full bucket to hear “…and he probably won’t get here for hours.”
“He’ll probably stop by the cabin first, honey. Enjoy your bath, Trish.” Lucinda turned, heading for the bridge.
Zelda turned to Trish. “I tried to get Pierre to build the bathhouse on the other side away from the road here. But the privy’s on the other side and he says I should be close to the river to haul water, so close to the river it is.”
Trish dumped the bucket of water in the huge pot hanging over the fire. She turned her attention to the small shack. It stood off-centered from the saloon, the river, and the road with the door facing the fire. A narrow and damp man-made, or woman-made waterway led from the shack to the river. She peeked inside. It hardly had enough room for the tub and a small stool near the door. A rough plank ran the length of the far wall. It hardly claimed the space but boasted a few pretty bottles, a bar of soap and an odd-shaped sponge. Clearly, this tiny shack was for daylight use only as the plank wasn’t wide enough to hold a lantern safely.
“You keep filling the pot and I’ll get some more wood to heat the water. I’ll just put your things on the stool inside the door. Lucinda comes down for an occasional bath, too. Don’t let her fool ya.”
Trish slipped into the tub of steaming water and few bubbles with a sigh. Hauling the water had taken several trips but with a long, luxurious soak, her muscles wouldn’t complain. “Thank you Zelda. This feels fabulous.”
“Come up the back steps with this sheet tight around you. Wouldn’t want any fellers passin’ by to think there’s a new tart in the house. Cain’t blame ya fer wantin’ to get a break from the love birds. I sware, I ain’t never seen no man fawn over a woman like Albert does fer Lucy. ‘Course she encourages ‘im with her flutterin’ lashes and shy giggles.”
“They seemed rather proper to me.”
“Augh.” Zelda batted Trish’s observation aside with her hand. “Newlyweds. They can rein it all in when they wanna. But what woman would wanna with the likes of Albert to put a poke in yar fire?”
Trish ignored Zelda’s comment and slipped deeper into the water with a moan of pleasure. Her eyes closed.
Zelda’s lusty laughter filled the bath house. “I’ll just take these clothes upstairs. You come get them when you’re ready. The soap and sponge are there on the shelf. Lilac, lavender or rose?”
“Lilac, lavender or rose what?”
“You strike me as a lavender.” Trish opened her eyes to see Zelda pour a bottle of water into her bath. The fragrance of lavender filled the tiny shack. “Ta da.”
For years, Trish had dreamed of a bath that she could completely immerse her body in. Such luxury didn’t fill her mother’s house. Mother always conserved everything from antibiotics to Ziploc bags and most things in between, including water. She relaxed and fell asleep briefly.
“Ught hum.” A distinctly male voice disturbed her sweet dream of picking flowers in a wide-open field. Trish’s eyes flew open wide. She sat up in surprise. Feeling the cold of a light breeze across her breasts, she sank back into the water. A rush of embarrassment flooded her senses. A man stood in the door way, the light behind him. Her heart pounded wildly. For a moment she didn’t remember where she was and almost accused him of breaking into her home.
“What are you doing here?”
Recognizing his voice, she felt confident in responding with a bold, “I would ask ya the same, but apparently yer bathing in my bath water.”
“I hauled and heated this water, and not for you.” He didn’t back away. Had she been wrong? Not sure, she inched further under the soapy gray water.
“A’right, ifn’ you hauled the water, guess ya have the right. Ifn’ I haul more water an’ re-light the fire, can ya get a wiggle on?”
“I’ll be done when I’m ready to be done. And not before.”
The sweet fragrance of lavender had filled Quinn’s nostrils when he reached the bath shack. Zelda hadn’t drawn a bath for him. No matter, he’d haul his own water, bathe, then talk to Zelda.
Quinn shifted, moving slightly to the side of the doorway. He felt a wry grin creep across his features. His long shadow marked an odd silhouette on the tub, leaving the young woman’s features in the light. Her skin glistened with traces of the bath water. She wore her hair up on her head. He looked closer, it was still dirty. Her pale blue eyes glared at him from under her lashes. Hadn’t her lashes been black yesterday? Today they appeared light brown, almost invisible. Quinn didn’t consider himself a lecherous man, but he certainly enjoyed watching her squirm now that she wasn’t in danger.
He was seeing her in a different light than on their first meeting. He relaxed his poker-faced expression somewhat, knowing that with the light at his back, she wouldn’t be able to see his expression.
“Ain’t ya gonna wash yer hair?”
“Of course,” Trish huffed. “Isn’t that why you take a bath? To get clean?”
“Wouldn’t take too long, if’n ya know what I mean.”
“I’ll take just as long as I want.”
“Suit yer self. I’m haulin’ water, but I don’ mind the sweet smellin’ ya got there ifn’ ya ain’t emptin’ the tub. With that spiritualist, Monsey, in town, won’t be long ‘til some of the boys start in for baths.”
She sucked air, “What do you mean by that?”
“Even a man likes bein’ clean. An’ folks round these parts expect cleanliness at the spiritualist meetin’.” He stepped back and tipped his hat. “Ma’am. Just don’ take too long. I might change my mind ‘bout waitin’.”
He expected to hear a sound retort from her. Instead, a wet sponge hit him squarely on his back. He chuckled, picking it up. “Sure ya won’t be needin’ this?”
No answer. The gentle sound of sloshing water got his attention. Had he driven her out of the tub so soon? “Trish? Trish, I still got water to haul.”
She still didn’t answer. Had she drowned? In the tub? He hurried to the bath shack, the bucket in one hand, the sponge in the other. She was gone. He dropped the sponge into the bucket and stepped closer to the tub. At that moment she emerged from the water, sitting up straight. Quinn stepped back in surprise and couldn’t take his eyes off of her. With her eyes tightly closed and her hair streaming with water, she lathered her hair. She was the most beautiful drowned rat he had ever beheld. She didn’t move for several moments as the water streamed down her satin skin. With a deep breath she submerged herself again. She hadn’t even known he was there.
Shaking his head, he walked down the path to the rushing river to rinse the sponge and haul a fresh bucket of water. Four bucketfuls later, he decided to check on her. When he did, she was gone—not submerged in the tub, but gone. The sheet on the stool was gone as well.
Wet footprints marked a trail to the steps. He glanced up, catching the flutter of the sheet as the door closed. Trish had gone to Zelda’s room. Women talked. What would either of them have to say about him? He smirked, knowing he had behaved as a gentleman… generally.
Steam from the pot over the fire signaled it was time to haul the large pot to the tub for his bath. Quinn bailed a little of Trish’s water before adding his fresh water. It was his turn to soak his aching muscles.
Trish stared at Zelda as she pulled her stockings up and straightened her skirt.
“Well, ya can’t expect me to marry him just ‘cause he saved my hide, can ya?” Zelda asked.
“Well, no, I guess not. I mean, he saved my bacon the other day, too.”
“See what I mean? Quinn’s a good man but he rescues every woman he sees from everything. His constant rescuin’ of every dame in the valley is downright infuriatin’. I was sittin’ right there when he saved little old Penelope from her own stupidity not too long ago. What woman tries to take honey from a beehive? It was right funny, tho’. All them bees swarmin’ round her like she was the queen bee. I just ‘bout busted my ribs laughin’.” Zelda rested her hand on her ribcage as if for support should she start laughing again.
“So how did Quinn save her? Did he swat them all or what?”
“Gracious me, no.” Zelda grabbed Trish at the waist and proceeded to involve Trish in a mock rescue. “He grabbed the old goat around her waist and jumps in the river. She come up sputterin’ and spittin’. Mad as those bees, she was. Didn’t help none. When Quinn seen them bees still swarmin’ he dunks her again and keeps her down while they floated down the river a piece. Don’t know how long a walk they had. But I’m sure it was longer for Quinn than it was for her.”
“She was beatin’ him with a stick when they got back.” Zelda beat the air with her invisible stick. Trish felt her lips tug into a smile. “Took her almost a month to thank him for savin’ her from herself. He hasn’t tried to save her since. She left some mighty mean welts on his back and arms. I should know, I doctored ‘em. So how did he save your bacon?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“Come on, girl. What’s more fun than laughing about the stuns we dames pull when we ain’t got the sense to know better?”
“I’m surprised you ask.”
Zelda got a perplexed expression on her face. “How so?”
“You just said his chivalry infuriated you. I don’t want to get on your bad side.”
Zelda reached for Trish’s arm, a gentle smile on her lips.“You’re different. Besides it isn’t so much what Quinn does but that dame’s lack of thanks that infuriates me.”
Trish burst into laughter.
Zelda smirked before adding, “Featherless fowls ain’t good for nothin’.”
“Except chicken soup.”
Both of them succumbed to fits of laughter.
Zelda gasped, “And varmint traps!”
“Oh, I can see it now. Poor naked bird hobbled to a trap.” Trish gulped. “Squawking and squealing like a stuck pig.”
“Tie the bird on the hogs back and watch the show.”
“Spur, bird. Spur.” Trish yielded to more laughter, tears coursing down her cheeks while Zelda seemed able to grasp reality quicker.
Zelda stepped to the mirror and primped.
Trish lay on the bed, dabbing her cheeks with her bath sheet and asked in a serious tone, “What did Quinn save you from?”
“Hal Durant. That man was plumb mean. I didn’t know that at first, though. I guess it wasn’t all bad but when a man takes ya real rough like that and then teaches ya to pleasure him, well, I was an excellent student. I had to be to survive. I’m not proud of it, but I am who I am, and I guess I owe it all to Hal Durant and Quinn.”
“Durant taught you to—”
“Be a whore. You can say it, it’s the truth, plain and simple.” Zelda settled on the edge of the bed.
“And how does Quinn come into your story?”
“Best I can figure is that Quinn laid a bet on the poker table that Durant couldn’t resist. Durant had to ante up, guess he put his latest prize on the table. Me. Durant lost and Quinn won. He packed me up and brought me here. I’m not complaining, but I got no right being a housewife. Not that I’d wanna be shackled to one man and a parcel of kids. Keepin’ house and fixin’ meals ain’t for me. Rather make my own choices than have others’ needs make ‘em for me.” Zelda shrugged her shoulder back with self-respect.
“I may be a whore, but I get to choose and name my price. Durant’s girls don’t get that. He chooses the richest old cronies and names the price in exchange for the twit’s survival. San Francisco can be a right dangerous place.”
Zelda’s expression darkened. “Those were desperate days for a twit like me. It had been hard when Mama was alive but after she died, I had no one and nothing. Durant found me in the alley beggin’ for scraps.”
Zelda waved her dismay aside. “Best day of my life. Imagine me in one a those fancy tubs, with more bubbles that I could count!”
Trish stared at Zelda, not sure what to think.
“I love a hot bath. There ain’t no harm in it. Now ya know what Quinn saved me from. Your turn.”
“Um—I guess my story is similar to yours, except I wasn’t raped and the man wasn’t the original danger, my own stupidity was.”
The room was silent and although Zelda trusted Trish enough to share stories, Trish knew she couldn’t trust anyone. She must be careful to keep her secret. She’d come here for an adventure, not to swap life-changing stories.
“So that’s all ya have to tell me? Ya ain’t much of a storyteller are ya?”
“Not really.” Trish reached for the clothes Penelope had given her. Zelda placed her hand on Trish’s outstretched arm.
"You don't think the worst of me, do ya? I mean -- I'm not a bad person."
Trish smiled. “I don’t think you’re a bad person. A harlot, but not a bad person.”
Zelda chuckled, “I never thought of myself in the same class as the women in the Bible.”
Trish shifted and squinted at Zelda. “You’ve read the Bible?”
“Of course. Mama did her best to teach me how to read. I just never considered myself like that. I guess I thought I was better. Guess taking a bath in a tub doesn’t make me better, does it?”
“Prostitution is the oldest profession in the world. I have to think there were some pretty savvy business women somewhere along the way.”
“I guess I’m in business for myself. It’s a lot easier than working in the field all day. I can’t stand that backbreaking work.” Zelda cackled. “Gotta say it’s much easier being on my back. Pays better, too.”
Trish shook her head and stepped into her skirt. “You’re a business woman. I have to respect that.”
“Well, I thought of being a preacher, but these folks nearly stoned me last time I called a church meetin’.”
“They didn’t,” Trish exclaimed.
“Oh yes, they can’t agree on doctrine but they sure agreed on one thing, stone the whore. I’d even put on my best dress and gave a right first class sermon. Old man Janus gets up in the middle of my sermon an’ starts the fiasco. Ya know I never have taken his money when he comes in the saloon, pantin’ all over me. The old fart couldn’t pay me enough. I have my principles.” Zelda smoothed the paisley bed covering. Her expression saddened. “I don’t get it. Janus can try and buy a harlot and preach every Sunday and nobody bats an eye. Me, I show up to worship and the church goers start throwin’ things.”
Trish smiled, trying to imagine Zelda at church.
“Ya laughin’ at me?” Zelda question held a smidgeon of insecurity.
“I just can’t see you preaching with your skirts showing your ankles and most of your shoulders while the other stiff collared preacher is thumping his Bible about being baptized or being damned.”
“You don’t think I dress like this to go to church, do you? I have a right proper Sunday goin’ to meetin’ dress. High-neck and long-sleeves. I have kid gloves too.” Zelda lifted her chin with pride and stood. The previous hint of insecurity found its way to Zelda’s features. Her brash pride took a back seat to the hurt. “Just ain’t got no place to wear it if I don’t go to church.”
Zelda crossed the room to her armoire and shuffled clothes. At last she withdrew a fashionable costume of soft blues and crisp gray.
“Oh Zelda, it’s beautiful.”
“I don’t have much use for it. Do you want to try it on?”
A knock sounded at the door. Zelda handed the clothing to Trish and started toward the door.
“Go behind the screen and try it. That’s the dress Quinn bought me before we came here.” She smiled reminiscently, putting her hand on the doorknob. “Guess he was plumb determined to bring a lady to this valley.”
Trish slipped behind the screen as Zelda opened the door.
Trish froze mid-tug. Zelda’s dress fit her perfectly but the dress wasn’t what had her attention. She’d tried not to eavesdrop but she couldn’t help it. The room was small and Zelda and Quinn were only a few feet away. She needed to get out of here and leave them their privacy, but how could she without being seen? Had she managed to flee the confines of a cabin filled with newlywed bliss just to find herself privy to lovers a few feet away?
“I brought ya here ta save ya from this kind of life.”
“And I’m grateful, but I’m not marrying you or any man.”
“So that feller last night? You ain’t marryin’ him neither?”
“I’m just not the marrying type of woman. I like bein’ on my own.”
“Ya call prostituting yerself bein’ on yer own.” Quinn’s words sounded like an accusation rather than a question.
“Ifn’ it keeps me from owin’ any man, yes.”
“What about owin’ me? I brought ya out here.”
“I didn’t ask you to.”
“No, ya didn’t. But ya sure seemed grateful that I did.”
“An’ I said thank you and showed you how grateful I was.”
Trish let the implication of their argument settle in her mind. They had been intimate.
“So that weren’t a promise of marriage in yer way of thinkin’.”
“Ifn’ it was, I think I promised at least a dozen fellers the same thing, some of ‘em already married.”
Trish peaked over the top of the screen to catch a glimmer of hurt on Quinn’s features change to a poker face. She ducked back down, holding her breath.
“I see. Ya never intended to marry me, even after I built the place.”
“You were just so pleased with yourself and you expected me to be too. So I was.”
“Ya play a stiff hand.”
“It comes with the territory.”
“How long ya been playin’ me?”
Zelda’s skirts rustled, she took up a position near the armoire, where Trish could see her. Her tone soft and soothing.
“I never meant to lead you along, Quinn. I just did what made you happy. That’s what I do. I spend time with the fellers. I listen to their stories, nurse ‘em back to health, keep their secrets, and yes, when they want a poke, I give ‘em that too.”
Trish didn’t see the hardened woman she expected to hearing Zelda’s words, instead she recognized genuine concern for Quinn written across her features.
“I fold.” Quinn sounded beaten.
“You can still come see me. I’m still here, Quinn. Nothun’s changed.”
“Yer wrong. Everythin’s changed. Guess I should thank ya for puttin’ the record straight.”
Trish heard Quinn’s footsteps carry him to the door and down the outer steps.
Trish straightened the jacket before looking back at Zelda.
“Think I’s too hard on him?”
“It isn’t my business.”
“Maybe not. Thanks, anyway. Yer being here helped me come clean with him. I guess I’ve taken him for his last ride. He won’t come back. You win some, you lose some. That’s one right generous cowpoke out the door.”
“Do you regret being honest with him?”
“I don’t, but the purse is gonna.” Zelda chuckled, looking Trish over.
“Wait a minute,” Trish exclaimed. “Quinn paid you, but was still asking you to marry him?”
“Naw.” Zelda waved Trish’s vociferation aside. “He usually just showers me with presents.”
“What kind of presents?”
“That dress for one thing. It looks better on you than it does on me. Maybe I ain’t cut out for bein’ a church goer. Heck, that spiritualist that’s calling us to meetin’ tonight won’t know the difference. We can go together, if you’d like. I’ve rented a horse from Albert to pull my buggy. No sense you walking and getting’ your skirts dirty.”
“I can’t take your dress. It was a gift.”
“Nonsense.” Zelda sneered at the clothing Penelope had given Trish. “Never liked this, even on the old goat. She’s real according to Hoyle nowa days. But she sure was at sea when she first came. These rags are proof of that. You ain’t wearin’ this getup. You’re wearin’ what cha’ got on.”
“Well, I got another couple of dresses, but then folks would have two harlots to stone instead of just one.”
“No, I mean I couldn’t possibly go to a spiritualist meeting. I’m new here and I’ve never been to one before.”
Zelda’s chuckle sounded like warm bubbles of friendship. “You wear that dress, an’ I’ll burn this rag. You go with me and folks’ll think you’re a friend come to call me to repent. You wear one of my other dresses an’ folks ‘ll think there’s a new harlot in the whore house and ifn’ ya don’t go, folks round these parts will know you’re a sinner, even if ya ain’t.”
“But no one even knows I’m here.”
“Trish, Quinn brought you in. The last woman he brought here is the best harlot these boys have ever known.” Zelda winked at her. “You went to Penelope’s this morning. That woman is the biggest windbag this side of Kansas, even if Lucinda introduced you, an’ Penelope gave ya this. I know Penelope has told her own story as many different times as anybody’s listened. And most days is right busy days at the mercantile. Then there’s the bath shack. You think nobody noticed a woman like yourself bathing there? Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if every cowpoke in the valley knew you were here by nightfall.”
“Nobody saw me.”
“Honey, Pierre an’ I debated for weeks just how to set that shack so the boys had good cover to watch without seein’ too much of the goods, just enough to pick up my business. Folks know you’re here. Trust me.”
“I thought—” Trish could have sworn Zelda said she wanted the bath shack on the other side of the saloon. She didn’t want to argue the point. “So are you saying that if I leave here, walk past the mercantile to go back to Lucinda’s and spend the day with her, more folks will know I’m here?”
“What I’m sayin’ is folks already know you’re here. Are you going to make a stunning entry at the spiritualism this evening? Or water down your appearance? The choice is yours. While you’re deciding, come see the other room.
“I don’t know anyone willing to stay where love runs as rampant as it does under Lucy and Albert’s roof. I went by to visit her one afternoon just recent like and found myself imposin’ on a right luscious moment. Oh, they was behind their own closed door an’ all.” Zelda batted the air dismissively. “But I found myself wishin’ Albert was one of my johns. Lucinda wore a right sweet blush, too. I can’t be blamin’ ya for not wantin’ to impede on their privacy. I’m sure yar welcome to stay here. Don’t guarantee it’ll be quieter, but at least ya won’t feel like you’re putting a chink in the windmill ifn’ ya get my drift. Mind you, if you want to go into business, I won’t mind.”
Trish felt a rush of heat in response to Zelda’s story. She was right, Albert and Lucinda were actively in love. She’d seen proof of that his morning. She also recognized the attraction Zelda said she had for the man. Hadn’t she admired his physique as well?
“Yar thinkin’ about it, ain’t ya? I’m sure Pierre would be willing to rent you the room.”
“But Lucinda will be expecting me.”
“She’s a right Christian woman, an’ ifn’ Quinn introduced you as a woman he knew, she probably would. But he didn’t. That an’ you’re wanting of the finer things in life has her thinkin’ being here would be more suitin’ to your likin’.
“Lucinda is half believin’ yar just like me. She mentioned how she figured Quinn took ya to her home instead of here ‘cause he expected the sparks in the whore house might start flyin’. And not the friendly kind. That she as much confessed, but she’d take ya back in, ifn’ that’s what ya be wantin’. ‘Course she never would admit ta ya cutting in on their romance.” Zelda dropped her gaze to a more conniving pose. “Actually, the cookin’s the same here most evenin’s. Mornin’ an’ midday Pierre an’ I manage. Guess if whorin’ ain’t what you want, Pierre might be open to you cookin’.”
“He might not be when I burn more than I cook.”
Zelda chuckled, taking a hold of the doorknob. She turned back to Trish. “You ain’t the real loud, moanin’ type, are you? Don’t do much for me and it gets a few of the fellers a bit too riled up. Come on, I’ll show you the other room and then you can be thinkin’ on it.”
The room Zelda showed Trish needed a thorough cleaning. The brass bed stood against the far wall, an exact duplicate of the one in Zelda’s room. The mattress was bare. Trish crossed the room and opened the window, the instant breeze lifted dust mites to stir in the bright sunlight streaming through the window. Trish sat on the bed. It squeaked quietly but held strong.
“Guess there ain’t much in here,” Zelda apologized. “When Pierre decided havin’ a hotel and a whore house under one roof didn’t go too well, I snatched the extra furniture for my room. What I didn’t take, Pierre hauled back down to his tiny room off the kitchen. If yar stayin’ I’ll go tell him and get you some bedding.”
Trish inspected the room from where she sat. A bed would be better than the hay mattress at Lucinda's and as for the background noise -- it beat cramping star crossed newlyweds. She had to stay somewhere. She'd never been one for camping under the stars and one campfire experience was enough for this adventure. She looked at Zelda and smiled. "Okay."
Zelda smiled in return, filling Trish with a welcoming warmth. “Good. For now, you can use the bath sheet to cover your window for privacy and let it dry at the same time. Don’t want to rush you none, but you need to decide just what you’re goin’ to do here. And before we go to the spiritualism this evenin’.”
Trish followed Zelda out of the room, but when Zelda turned toward the stairs, Trish returned to Zelda’s room for the sheet and her extra clothing. She paused in front of the cheval mirror. She looked nice in Zelda’s dress with its form-fitting jacket. The skirt cleared the floor by an inch, revealing her bare toes. She would have to make do with her boots. Her gaze traveled back up to her face.
She seemed so pale and lifeless without the modern necessities of make-up. She’d have to learn to live with no mascara and almost invisible eyebrows. But the lack of color in her cheeks couldn’t be ignored. She pinched them several times. It didn’t help as much as she’d hoped. Zelda had helped her with her hair, and now that it was drier, the auburn curls had turned out fairly decent for not having the luxury of modern hair products. Maybe being without shampoo wouldn’t be as bad as she first believed.
She glanced at Zelda’s vanity table. Several little makeup pots arrayed the top beside the comb and brush they’d used earlier. She opened one, finding it held a brownish red rouge. It was better than nothing. She dabbed at it and smudged it lightly on her cheeks. Better. Then she touched her fingers to her lips, giving them a hint of color. The next pot held a powdery white. She didn’t need less color, but more and put it back. A smaller pot had a short hairbrush balanced on it. Trish opened it to find a taupe powder. She dabbed at it with the brush and carefully drew her eyebrows. The mirror revealed a different woman than it had moments before. Trish smiled at her reflection, resituated the make-up pots as closely as she could remember finding them and left the room with her sheet and clothing.
Hanging the sheet across the window was easy but it cut out most of the light. She undid one corner and turned to face the door, just as Zelda returned, followed closely by a man. He wasn’t much taller than Zelda. His hair was dark and he was clean-shaven. His shirt sleeves were rolled up to his elbows and he wore a whitish apron tied at his waist.
"Trish," Zelda began before she entered the room. "This is-- Pierre, saloon owner and by the looks of you, our landlord."
Pierre thrust his hand toward her in a friendly handshake. “Ma’am.”
"It's nice to meet you." Trish still hadn't taken the time to consider whether she intended to work or just rent the room. But how would she pay for the room if she didn't work? But surely she didn't need to work as a prostitute. "Thank you for letting me this room. I --"
Zelda chuckled. “What she’s meanin’ to say is that she’s stayin’ an’ workin’. Things are lookin’ up for this place.”
"I -- Wait. I'm not a lady of the evening."
Pierre frowned while Zelda waved her comment aside.
“Not a problem, is it, Pierre? She can start as early as the fellers show up.”
“So you’re a bit nervous. The cowpokes will never notice and after a time or two, you’ll be a professional. Here’s some bedding.”
“Welcome. Food’s hot.” Pierre said no more, but led the way down the steps while Zelda herded Trish behind him.
Quinn sat astride his buckskin, watching the wagons and buggies roll into the clearing. Several cowboys rode in from the direction of Pierre’s. Obviously the bath shack had been busy all afternoon.
He didn’t have much interest in Spiritualism but he knew Zelda did, and she was why he put in an appearance. He had to know what cowpoke had drawn her away from him. If it wasn’t the poor sap he’d fought last night, who was it?
He studied every couple, ignoring those who arrived alone or with families. Folks sat on logs surrounding a fire pit. No doubt the spiritualist would orchestrate some showy way of starting the fire. The logs were set as if to form the framework of a short teepee with only three legs and no kindling in the middle. This should be a good show.
Quinn dismounted and leaned against a tree where he could see each and every face. Zelda wasn’t in the group. He searched again, this time missing no one. He thought he caught a glimpse of her in a buggy. He stood straight. There, but who was she with? He moved casually, not wanting to draw attention.
“Brothers and Sisters,” The spiritualist began in a booming voice, drawing everyone’s attention. “Brother, take a seat.”
The group grew quiet and Quinn paused to turn to face the spiritualist, pretending to search the crowd for someone.
“Brothers and Sisters, today is a day of greatness. Today we are no longer alone. Today…” Quinn tuned the rambling words out, focusing on his mark. The setting sun cast long shadows through the trees that sheltered the clearing, making it impossible to tell if it was indeed Zelda in the buggy. He approached, getting close enough to recognize her robust laughter, in the subdued tones.
He made a wide berth of the buggy, intending to approach them from behind Zelda. Just as he stepped forward to confront Zelda and her companion, a heavy hand clapped onto his shoulder.
“Just wantun’ ya to know. I think it’s mighty neighborly of ya. Some of the boys don’t agree, but give ‘em time. Yes sir, right neighborly.”
Quinn tucked his surprise under his seasoned poker face. No one, not even Leavitt could know his tells. Quinn’s tales were the least of his problems at the moment. What on earth was Wes talking about? He had to play along to find out.
“Warn’t nothin’,” Quinn drawled.
“Sure it was. You don’t see any other cowpoke ridin’ miles out of his way, unless there’s somethin’ in it for him.” Wes winked and slapped him on the shoulder. “Well, you connivin’ scoundrel. Them ladies are payin’ you or you’re taking a cut in what they’re makin’. I sure as Hades hope you ain’t buildin’ that house of yorn for them gals. I’d hate to lose more of my boys to another establishment. At least at Pierre’s I know I’ll find ‘em all corralled in one spot, whether it’s poker, whiskey or whores that they’re spendin’ their pay on.”
Ladies. That could only be in reference to Zelda and-- Trish. The scared rabbit he had helped kill a man. That's why he couldn't make out the cowboy with Zelda. It wasn't a cowboy with her at all, it was Trish. Had Old Curly just intended to get his free poke in before turning her over to Zelda? Had he, Quinn Jackson, been played?
“Well, Wes,” Quinn drawled. “Ladies such as them only come out to be seen. How ‘bout visitin’ with them now instead of hangin’ back an’ waitin’ in line later at Pierre’s?”
Quinn led the way, sauntering over to the buggy where the two women sat, enthralled by the spiritualist’s latest parry.
“Shush, Quinn.” Zelda swatted at him with her fan. “We gotta see how he gets outta this one.”
“The spirit is telling me that you have more interests than your business.” A gasp went up from the assembly in front of Zelda’s buggy. Quinn couldn’t tell who it had emanated from.
“Moore sure does,” Zelda snickered.
“Wait… business-related, it seems.” The spiritualist dallied with the company. “Mr. Moore, the spirit is telling me that you should expand your business.”
Several clapped, apparently supporters of Moore’s saloon.
“Smooth,” Zelda cackled in a most unladylike fashion. “There are children present or I could have told the whole crowd just how he wants to expand his business.”
While Zelda and Trish hung on the spiritualists every word, Quinn appraised Trish. She wore a grayish blue skirt and a simple striped blouse. She wore her hair atop her head in a typical Zelda hairstyle, most of it piled in dozens of little curls secured by tiny ribbons. Intentionally stray tendrils of deep auburn danced on her shoulders as Trish turned her head.
His throat went dry. Manipulated or played didn’t matter. He’d been on her side before the murder. His knife had delivered the fatal blow. He’d warned her of the need to keep silent. He had no doubts she had done so. If she had played him, she’d not relied on finding his tells; she’d won the hand by outsmarting and outplaying him. He had to admire her for her game. She sat beside Zelda, outshining the seasoned whore in every way, from the reds in her hair, to the delicate painting of her face, to the way the clothes he had bought for Zelda fit over Trish’s every delicate curve. His imagination danced with the possibility of seeing those curves. He yanked his thoughts back to the reason he stood on the ground instead of seated between the Zelda and Trish.
“Ladies.” This time Zelda gave him her attention. Trish kept an eye on the spiritualist.
“We’re not rehashing this afternoon,” Zelda’s tone was cool.
“Not at all, ma’am.” He refused to give her the satisfaction of rubbing salt on his ego. He had laid his cards on the table long ago but Zelda had finally played the winning hand, and he had lost. Wes was a good friend, but it riled him that he, Quinn Jackson, should be party to showing any of his regular cowhands a feminine good time. The hands regularly clapped him on the back with appreciation for bringing the ladies in, but he knew they gaffed behind his back, especially after the last barroom brawl. “This here is Wes Leavitt. He’s wantin’ to be assured that ya ladies will be takin’ good care of his boys.”
“I always do.” Zelda answered. Trish still watched the spiritualist. Zelda elbowed her, getting her attention.
Quinn felt the need to appear larger than life at the moment and puffed out his chest. "Wes Leavitt, Trish --"
“Trish Larsen. It is nice to meet you Mister Leavitt, is it?” Had she manufactured her lie about her amnesia or a new last name? Trish smiled at Wes, taking Quinn’s breath away. Her white teeth seemed to sparkle in the fading light as did her pale blue eyes. She extended her gloved hand to Wes.
Wes took her hand, seeming not to know what to do with it. At last, he gave it a gentle squeeze. Quinn watched, his eyes darting from Trish’s pleasant expression to Wes’ smitten one and back again. A spark of jealousy niggled at him.
Quinn forced himself to remember his manners. “And you know Zelda.”
The introductions complete, Quinn didn’t pay attention to Wes and Zelda’s friendly exchange. Instead he watched Trish, entranced by her devilish innocent delight. Trish watched the spiritualist. He walked around the back of the buggy to stand next to her. From his position at her knees, he could almost feel her enthusiasm for the fanatic.
“Yer real interested in this?” he said, trying to hide his disgust of the whole show.
"Interested? No. Fascinated? Yes." Trish answered without taking her eyes off the spiritualist. "I wonder how he does it. I mean, I've seen most of the parlor tricks, but there are a few that would be impossible to reenact out in the open like this. I guess it could be just dumb luck, or maybe --"
Quinn kept her in his sights and glanced quickly at the man holding most of the group’s attention.
“I sense that there are doubters here.” The spiritualist voice carried over the gathering.
“Wouldn’t it be awesome if he’d light the fire from way over there?” Trish sounded much too excited for her own good.
The spiritualist pointed their direction then stopped, closing his eyes and pulling his hand, two fingers at his temple as if receiving some spiritual message.
“I’ve got to get him to do it.” Trish sounded desperate. His familiar battle raised its factions, weighing a woman’s frivolous wants and needs, something he found so difficult to turn his back to, against his better judgment. Quinn couldn’t let her make a fool of herself, playing into the fraud’s hand. His sense of chivalry emerged victorious. Was Trish and what she wanted his weakness? In less time than it required for him to take a breath, he surrendered. In that same breath he felt able to conquer any foe, including this charlatan. This was a conflict free of violence that he knew how to win. Quinn faced the spiritualist squarely and folded his arms while plastering a snide expression of open disbelief on his face. He waited for the spiritualist to come out of his fraudulent trance and point their direction again.
“There is no way,” Quinn shouted across the clearing. “No way ya can make me believe all this nonsense.”
“Ah ha.” The charlatan rose to the bait. “The spirits have moved him to confess his unbelief.”
Quinn meandered around the group and toward the spiritualist. “Yer spirits got nothun’ to do with it. Yer deceiv’n and parlor tricks ain’t swindlin’ me out of my week’s pay.”
“But sir, I knew your doubt before you spoke of it.”
“I bet there’s at least one doubter in every crowd, ain’t there, holy man? All ya gotta do is bluff that yer gonna call ‘em out and at least one ‘ll break. Just like a calf from the herd.” Quinn stood near the front row of onlookers, casual and sure. “Yer spirits tell ya my Christian name?”
A few in the group murmured, one even using his name and asking what he was up to.
The charlatan looked over the crowd as if measuring their collective belief. “Quinn.”
Quinn huffed, smothering his laughter. “Quinn’s the name people use in these parts. We all heard somebody mutter it just now. Care to check with your spirits again?”
“If Quinn isn’t your given name but it is the name everyone here knows you by, the spirits would use the name as well. Besides, it is easy to deny when no one here knew you as a babe.”
“Yer spirits are failin’ ya. They’d know thar’s one here that was present when I was born.” Quinn loved to watch the charlatan squirm, his façade of spiritualism cracking. “Whadda ya say? Wanna try again?”
The spiritualist refused to back down. “Who is this that was present when you were born? Your old mamma?”
“Mister, you’d be wise to speak kindly of my dearly departed mother.” Albert stood while Lucinda dragged at his hand. “Our daddy insisted we always speak of a woman, any woman with respect. These people here know the two of us are brothers.”
Quinn repositioned his feet shoulder width apart, his arms folded loosely across his chest.
The spiritualist bowed his head as if in deep spiritual thought. At last, when the group grew restless he raised his head. “The spirits have left. They see no need to give you further signs.”
“Signs!” Quinn bellowed. “Signs would be the trick of startin’ that there fire from way over here. Didn’t ask for that sign, but then I was by here this afternoon when ya was practicin’ that trick. Marley, flick that cigarette ya got in the fires direction. Now watch close, folks. Watch how the flame licks around the edges in a circle before the flames catch those logs.”
Marley flicked his cigarette and the ring of fire licked the edges of the fire circle before the flames engulfed the logs with a crack of gunfire.
Quinn backed away from the fracas. He’d run enough men out of town. He’d let those who had temporarily believed run this party.
Trish listened while Zelda recounted the charlatan’s antics. Pierre expressed genuine grief at the end of the story yet Trish sensed it was more for the loss of business than for not seeing the shenanigans of riding the imposter out of town on a rail.
“Guess most the boys ‘ll be drinkin’ at the Root Hog Bar tonight. Makes no sense to ride the five miles back this ‘o way.” Pierre rubbed the bar.
Trish felt a wry smile tug at the corner of her mouth, recognizing Pierre’s constant activity as an unconscious habit.
“Trish, care for a hand of poker to keep us busy, or should we go through my wardrobe and find some more suitable clothes for you? You ain’t goin’ to keep the fellers’ interest for long lookin’ like a schoolmarm.”
For the first time in her life, being compared to a schoolmarm sounded good. The lie she’d unintentionally found herself in by not refuting their assumptions didn’t feel right. How long could she keep it up? Hopefully long enough to keep a roof over her head.
Four years ago, Trish had a sweet deal living with Meredith until her friend had married Truman. Meredith and Truman were not quiet lovers as they had vowed they would be. But Trish had only needed to stay until she passed her bar exams. The exam date had arrived with Trish getting very little study time, due to the riotous lovemaking at all hours. She had failed the exams. That had been the second time and Trish vowed that romance—hers or anyone else’s—wouldn’t deter her from her goal again.
This afternoon, cloistered in her new room, she rearranged her three pieces of furniture consisting of the brass bed, the tiny table Pierre had carried from his own rooms, and the kerosene lamp on it. It hadn’t been difficult. She’d even daydreamed about Quinn being her one and only customer while she dusted and cleaned. He would come to her straight from the bath shack, clean-shaven. The interlude would be sweet and intoxicating. It wasn’t like he would be keeping her from her life-long dream of passing the bar. Reality descended. Zelda intended to make Trish a right proper prostitute and Pierre expected her to pay for the room she occupied. The dilemma gave her a headache.
A headache. That was it.
“I’m sorry, Zelda.” Trish allowed the stress to infiltrate her tone and pressed her fingers to her forehead. “I’m really not feeling up to it. I’ve got such a splitting headache.”
“What a pity. Let’s get you some supper and put you to bed.”
“I don’t think I could eat a bite.” It wasn’t difficult to feign a migraine, the stale odors of tobacco smoke and sweaty bodies were enough to turn her stomach. Trish knew that her mother could never eat when one of her bad migraines plagued her.
“You go right up to your room. I’ll bring you some food and you can eat when you feel like it.”
Trish climbed the stairs, afraid to look back, fearing they would see through her deception. Once in her room, she retired with nothing else to do and was soon asleep.
Trish pulled on the red wrapper that Zelda had left for her and hurried down the stairs the next morning.
“Mornin’, feelin’ better?” Pierre stood in the doorway at to the back of the saloon leading to the kitchen and his private rooms. The smell of warm pancakes dared to chase the odors from the saloon away. “Ya musta made quite an impression since you arrived. A couple of fellers were hoping to see ya. One even asked for ya by name. Ya wantun breakfast? I got the griddle on for hotcakes.”
“Privy stop first,” Trish explained, thrusting her finger in the air as she hurried past him and out the back door. How was she going to do this? Two or more cowboys already awaited her services. Would they be back today? Did it really matter? She couldn’t think with the stench of the privy and quickly finished her business. The bright morning embraced her with welcoming warmth. Birds twittered and sang in the trees, the river rushed on with its constant and ever soothing giggles and watery undertones. Was it anxious to meet the new whore too? The descriptive jarred her. She must find a way out of this mess she’d so willingly embraced with her silence, but she couldn’t tell these people the whole truth.
A wagon rolled by on the other side of the river, its occupants waving gentle morning greetings. She smiled at the complete strangers and waved back. Maybe they thought she was Zelda. She wore Zelda’s clothes.
She had to fix this, but how? Pierre called to her from the door. “Hotcakes are on. Come an’ get ‘em.”
If only she could go somewhere and think. Isn’t that what had brought her here in the first place? A carefree ride so she could think? Maybe she wasn’t cut out for adventure and all it offered like Grammy. Maybe she should just hurry home, to what? Her ultra-exciting life of romantic prospects and elegant lifestyle afforded her due to her awesome job? She choked on the truth. Bryan was even younger than her cousin, Vance. Bryan was the only guy that even showed an interest. He was young, stupid and although he loved horses, he didn’t ride well and spent every moment with her telling “red-neck” jokes between spitting tobacco juice everywhere. He seemed to think the chew tucked under his lip made him devastatingly sexy. Not. He was about as desirable as her new job was legally demanding and right up her alley. Webster and Sons was large, but not a legal firm like Mikelson, Hoffman and Bauer. Webster’s was more of a feed store. She needed to think.
Trish seated herself at the rough kitchen table just as Pierre set a plate of steaming hotcakes in front of her. She found the smell of melting fresh churned butter delicate and drizzled a generous amount of what she thought was syrup on top. The first bite surprised her the warm blend of flavors biting at her taste buds. She quickly swallowed. It bit at her throat. She coughed, covering her mouth.
Pierre chuckled, “Guess I used a bit too much whiskey to thin the molasses and honey syrup this mornin’.”
“You put whiskey in the syrup?” Trish winced, scowling at him.
“Takes the bite off a mornin’ hangover. Neighbors come for miles to buy a jar of my syrup. Now don’t you go tellin’ nobody ‘bout my secret ingredient.”
“I won’t.” Trish shook her head and cut a smaller bite with her fork. “Just warn a girl next time.”
“Warnin’, I put whiskey in just about everythin’ I cook. Ain’t never had a complaint before.”
“I’m not complaining.” Trish took another bite. The flavors blended in her mouth as she chewed slowly. “It’s actually very good. Reminds me of Grammy’s fruit preserves. She really hoarded the apricot preserves.”
“Grammy, huh? That’s somethin’ you remember. See how that there syrup is good for somethin’ else,” he said pointing proudly at her plate. “Mornin’ hangovers and memories.”
Trish stared at her plate. Darn it! Why did she have to forget? She couldn’t tell anyone anything else. If she slipped again and someone started to put the pieces together there was no telling what would happen. It was one thing to fake amnesia and remembering tidbits, it was quite another if she should reveal where she was really from. She’d only been here three, going onto four days and she’d already revealed too much. But she couldn’t act all the time. She wasn’t that good of an actress. She needed to think. She hurried and finished her breakfast.
“I can make more, there’s plenty and it don’t keep.”
“No, thank you. It was very good. I think I better go get dressed.” Did she dare add what she’d heard her grandfather say? “Daylight’s burning.”
She hurried up the stairs, slipping into her room without seeing Zelda.
Moments later while she dressed, a shoulder bumped against her door, followed by stumbling footsteps. She fumbled with her boots and hurried to the door. Opening it, she discovered a masculine form stumbling down the steps. The man wasn’t hung over, he was drunk. She watched him leave, grateful to know he wouldn’t be driving, but would he be able to stay in the saddle? She laughed while pitying the horse he rode.
“I thought Looney Louis would never leave. That man has more drive than five men. He plumb wore me out. Hope you’re up to fillin’ the gap today.”
Trish’s stomach lurched. Looney Louis? Filling in for Zelda? She needed to find a solution and fast. Could she do it without tipping her hand?
"Um --" Trish had to stall. "Looney Louis?"
“He’s Old Curly’s bastard son. Could never see what any woman saw in Old Curly. That wench musta been plumb blind.”
“Old Curly? Starting to go gray, about yea tall.” Trish indicated the height of the Old Curly she had met. “Talks to his mule.”
“Sounds like the old coot. I swear the man talks to his Cleo ‘cause he done Miss Cleo in. Wench finally came to her senses when she discovered she had them two on her hands. Lazy coots. Cleo had to work right up to her dyin’ days to keep ‘em fed. After that, Old Curly took to prospectin’. Looney Louis, well, that boy could get lost in a crowded saloon. He stays close and spends what his daddy finds on women and whiskey. Not that I don’t mind the gold in my purse, but I earn it. Every tiny ounce.”
“Louis looked drunk.”
“He was. Only way I can get ‘em to leave is after most of a second bottle goes down his gullet.” Zelda’s chuckle had a distinct raunchy edge. She focused on Trish, assessing the clothing from Penelope. “You ain’t workin’ are you?”
“No. I thought I’d go for a ride. I need to clear my head.”
“Don’t be too long. The boys’ll be gathering as early as their foremen let ‘em go.” She chortled, “Some ‘ll come before they’s supposed to.”
Trish experienced momentary blindness as she moved from the bright sunlight to the darkness of the livery. She stopped just inside the doorframe a moment while listening for some indication of Albert’s whereabouts. The split log walls of the livery had wooden pegs wedged between the logs to hold all manner of tools, wheel rims, and pieces of metal. The lean-to outside the east doors provided shade while Albert worked the huge wood and leather bellows for the fire to heat the iron. A breeze aired the livery, lifting the stench of horse manure and sweat.
A horse nickered. She moved to the animal, letting it sniff her hand before rubbing his nose. “Here all by yourself, I see. Well, I didn’t come to see you, so you’re gonna be alone again. I have to figure out what I’m going to do, and you can’t help me with that.”
She lifted Yedi’s bridle from a hook and, locating a brush went to get her horse. Yedi came when she whistled, trotting across the paddock to her. She brushed him, put the bridle on and led him out of the enclosure. Not wanting to return to the livery, she balanced the brush on the fence and used an old Indian technique her uncle had taught her as a youth to mount the horse. She grabbed a handful of mane at the withers, stepped back toward the horse’s head, and let fly with her right leg. Jumping off the left, she got her right leg over the horse’s back and hooked her heel into Yedi’s hipbone. She used her arms to pull herself upright. It wasn’t easy with a long skirt, but she managed it.
The sun felt good on her shoulders, helping her to relax. She rode Yedi away from the saloon, letting her mind wander as she followed the river upstream.
The simplest solution to her compromised situation was to use the talisman to return home. She reined Yedi to a halt and withdrew the talisman from under her blouse. The trinket sparkled and shined in the sunlight but seemed to lack its former dancing quality. She dangled it as she had before. Watching it made remembering her Grammys words easier.
If you want to return to the former space in time, hold it upside down like this. Trish mimicked Grammy’s actions. And flick it with your finger, just as you did before. Trish flicked the talisman’s inner spindle and waited for her setting to change. She visually explored her surroundings. It all looked the same. Her posture sagged. The talisman spins on a seven-day cycle, not six, not eight. Remember, if you want to return to where you were, you must act on that cycle. Be careful after you cross day seven. After seven days, the talisman wants to travel. If you spin it without careful consideration of where you are and where you want to go, you might end up unable to ever return. It is not a toy. It cannot be governed. You can only act on the guiding principles given. Choose your course through time wisely. From there, Grammy had launched into a series of unfortunate shifts in time. The adventure had become ever dangerous and that is why Trish’s grammy, born in 1940, had died in 2011, appearing to be in her early forties. She’d spent her suspended years trying to return to a specific space in time, never able to do so. Finally, she settled for acting the part of a distant relative to her daughter, a daughter raised by strangers in time.
Trish grasped the talisman, tucking it safely under her shirt. Today was not the day. She dismounted, and with a stick, drew a calendar in the dirt. Sunday, plus seven days was Sunday, but if Sunday were day one, that would make Saturday day seven. The talisman wouldn’t dance until day seven so if Saturday were not the day to travel, nothing would happen and everything would be a go to return home the following day. Saturday was the day to try to return, the earliest day. Three days, what could happen in three days? Figuring her travel calendar out still left her with at least a handful of people thinking she was a trick-turning whore.
She scraped the dirt calendar with the stick in frustration. She could just tell Pierre and Zelda, and refuse to turn tricks but how would she pay for her room? She had to at least appear to be planning to pay for her room. Rob a bank? A stage? Get a job, but doing what? Even with failing to pass the bar for the third time, she probably had better credentials than most judges in this wild frontier, but would anyone hire a woman? Probably not.
She remounted Yedi. She always thought more clearly with the wind streaming through her hair. Trish nudged Yedi to a rolling canter. Forced to keep her mind on the branches, bushes, and obstacles in their path, she quickly forgot her present cares. Yedi’s strides soon cleared the trees. A small ranch house came into view nestled among corrals and smaller outbuildings. She slowed Yedi and approached. Trish dismounted.
She found Quinn working a colt in the lodge pole pine arena. He had apparently been working for some time. His shirt was open at the neck and although a light breeze lifted it ever so slightly, it stuck to his heated skin, damp from his perspiration. He stood in the center of the small arena, facing the young horse. Trish strained to hear his gentle words as he reassured the animal. She couldn’t make out the words, only the pleasant tenor of his voice. His movements remained deliberate, gentle and assuring. She watched Quinn, the damp, white fabric accenting the muscles of his broad back with the fluid motion of his hands and body. His stance, that of a dancer, ready to move as the need arose. She smiled, likening the movements of man and horse to a delicate ballet, one of balance between raw power, individual wills, and trust. His breath came slow and comfortably smooth, and as she watched, her own breathing matched his.
Yedi snorted and distracted the youngster. Trish flinched, ejected from her trance. Hearing Quinn swear under his breath, Trish led Yedi away, putting the house between them and the arena.
“That wasn’t very nice, Yedi. That youngster is in school. Didn’t Vance teach you not to talk to other horses while they are learning? Especially distracting him with your alpha male stud hood?” She smiled at the horse, proud of the fact that with all his testosterone she could control him and call him her own. She personally had not seen a better example of horseflesh. His muzzle was small as Arabians often are. His eyes set wide on his head that spoke of intelligence, not “knot-headed-ness.” He stood tall for an Arabian, adding to his speed and endurance. His coloring was common for Arabians, white with an undercoat of black skin, especially noticeable around his face. The thing she loved most about him remained his gentleness under her hand. Oh, to find his equal in a man…
Her mind circled back to her present dilemma. She had to face the fact that this wasn’t home, not as she knew it. The mountains and valley appeared the same except for the generous sprinkling of trees across the valley floor. History recorded the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as a wild time, even here in this valley. Rustlers preyed on the cattle drives across the lava flats to Oregon. Robbers often held up the stages running from Eagle Rock to Root Hog and on across the lava flats, especially when stages started running from the mining communities to the north of Root Hog. The opportunities sounded vague for a woman, except for prostitution.
Trish mounted again, thinking it time to leave but instead leaned forward, laying on Yedi's neck, allowing her tears of frustration and faltering courage to flow. Her skirt draped barely to her knees as she sat astride her one link with home. What could she offer to such a rugged time? She didn't sing or dance -- or did she? She didn't have to do it well. This wasn't Broadway, it was the rugged frontier. If she could just talk Pierre into getting a piano and a piano player…Would he let her dance? Okay, shake her twenty-first century, scrawny in the nineteen century, figure in his saloon? Were the cowboys that picky? She'd have to write, or plagiarize a few songs, the ones, or bits and pieces of the ones, she could remember. She could even fake doing some can-can dance steps, if Pierre would go for it.
She lay draped across her horse and sang Grammy’s version of “You are my Sunshine” knowing she was flat almost as much as she was on key. She didn’t hear Quinn come around the corner of the house. Yedi’s ears pricked at the approaching footsteps but he stood still waiting for a cue to move. Quinn cleared his throat. Trish sat up quickly, her song cut short.
“Sorry to interrupt. Yer memory comin’ back with that song?” His voice warmed her.
“Maybe a little.” She wanted to kick herself. She hadn’t considered how her actions or decision to sing might be perceived. He clearly expected her to remember more. She’d have to stick to “You are my Sunshine,” and not vary in her plans. How much of it had he heard?
A wry smile tugged at the corners of her mouth and she felt a surge of embarrassment threaten to turn her cheeks red. It was true, she had dreamt of holding him in her arms or rather him holding her in his arms. If he had heard, how would he perceive the words of the song?
Surely it wouldn’t prove welcome. Her flirting might lead to more. No, it wouldn’t do to have a relationship here now, should she return home. The thought of a long distance romance across the fabric of time caused her to smirk where the embarrassment had not.
“Ya ridin’ without a saddle?”
“Is that so strange?”
“Depends on what?”
“What ya come for.”
“Nothing really. I was just out for a ride. I didn’t know this is where you live. This is your place, isn’t it?”
“Here, let me help ya off.” He moved close to her, but instead of lifting her down, he placed his hand gently on her bare leg. His touch sent shivers all over her. She longed for his embrace. “Tell me, if it ain’t too forward of me. How is it that ya have this tan on yer legs and neck?”
Her hand went to her neck, pulling the blouse closed. “How do you know I’m not brown all over?” She forced her voice to a confident tone.
“Yer face is pale, not like the paint Zelda wears. Except when ya blush,” Quinn answered. “Ya know, I didn’t take ya for a whore on the trail. But ya was pretty busy last evenin’.”
Trish cleared her throat, trying to think her way out of this one. “I wasn’t busy last evening. I had a headache. I’m not a whore, Quinn. Not for Old Curly, not for you, not for any man.” She reveled at the touch of his hand on her leg. Her mind danced to lascivious thoughts. If only he would hold her, caress her, love her, make her worries go away. Trish closed her eyes briefly, biting her tongue, knowing she couldn’t verbalize her thoughts. She exhaled slowly, pushing her delusion of intimacy away.
Quinn wondered if he would ever figure her out. First, she had surprised him that very first night. He’d never known a woman to fight her way out of captivity with the venom of a rattler. Women, in his experience, existed as shallow creatures. They apparently wanted either a family or the distinct opposite, to live in a whorehouse. This woman didn’t seem to fit into either of those categories. Yet she spent time with Zelda as if they were close friends, she even stayed at Pierre’s saloon but she claimed she wasn’t a whore.
Maybe she stayed at Pierre’s for the drink? Did she drink herself into oblivion when she said she’d had a headache? If she did, yet another woman in addition to Zelda would prove a disappointment to him. And still, Pierre had said she hadn’t touched the whiskey since she’d arrived. She appeared well rested this morning, not a woman whose bearing reflected a generous amount of drinking. She just didn’t seem the drinking type to him. She proved so different from the women he had known. She intrigued him.
He knew he didn’t understand women in general, not even specific specimens. He wanted to get to know her. He relished rescuing women but until this weekend he hadn’t recognized that not every woman needed rescuing from everything. Zelda certainly didn’t. Unlike the ladies of the South he had known growing up, Zelda, and now Trish, could provide for themselves, not the way a man would, but adequately. This new breed of self-sufficient women threatened him while intriguing him at the same time.
He didn’t know her. He didn’t know anything about her except for the secret they shared. He believed she intentionally misled him with her living arrangements and friendliness with Zelda. She claimed she wasn’t a whore. So who and what was she?
He had asked her questions about her past, including where she was from, and she had sidestepped it. Would she answer this time or would these moments of waiting in silence prove female manipulation? He hated female wiles; they most always got the better of him. Like when Zelda used him to get out of San Francisco, she'd used him and continued to do so-- until yesterday. He had paid a price for her the other night.
He touched the wrap on his arm where broken glass had cut his flesh. It hadn’t remained merely a fistfight. The wound across his forearm from the whiskey bottle as it broke had gone deep. That fight and almost losing the use of his arm for the past two days had made up his mind. No woman would ever prove worth losing his arm over. He wasn’t proud of that night or the damage he had inflicted. He wondered if Kueter had died trying to get across the desert for help. He may have killed a man, but might never know for sure.
Zelda’s sweet interludes were not worth the price it had nearly cost him. He had believed her motives mirrored the Southern ladies in his mother’s circle. They wanted a man to protect and provide for them. Not Zelda. Even though he had offered, she had refused him repeatedly. He had grown used to the idea of marriage. He even believed he wanted marriage. Women. A man needed them.
“So ya ain’t a whore. Leaves a man to wonderin’. Maybe ya don’t remember yer past, but what do ya remember?”
“It’s common to see a lot more of a woman’s breast.” She undid another couple of buttons.
Quinn felt his pulse jump a notch at her revelation, but kept control of his growing hunger.
“I’m trying to adjust to the way Penelope and Lucinda insist I dress here, but when I’m alone, I do what I’ve always done. Don’t look at me so surprised. I’m still trying to figure all of this out too.”
Quinn evaluated the woman astride her horse. She was definitely pleasing on the eye, like a young horse needing to learn man could be trusted. She possessed a smoldering and yet wild disposition. She fascinated him, every tendril of her reddish brown hair, every curve, every expression that crossed her features. He knew the possibility of marriage to Trish was a huge jump from rescuing her, but damn modern convention. He would remain patient this time, as if gentling a wild mustang. He would take his time, no matter how much she fought him or his gentle convincing. She would be his.
The realization of what he wanted surprised him somewhat. Impulse must give way to perseverance and what better cause than to win a woman’s love, especially when they shared a deadly secret.
“So do ya remember where yer from, exactly?” he asked in an effort to shield his feelings. He hadn’t realized until this moment that his desire for her went beyond the physical. He wanted to know everything about her.
"Still working on that. If I figure it out, I might-- maybe, tell you. Are you sure you want to know?"
Quinn watched her blue eyes, expecting her to bat them flirtatiously, proving to him that a little of a wanton woman existed behind the fiery self-preservation. She didn’t even blink. Instead, she smiled. His gut flip-flopped. Unpredictable. He liked that in her.
“Yeah, I wanna know if I shouldn’t a helped ya on the trail.”
“You mean you would have let him rape me?”
“Don’t think it woulda got that far.” She may have been able to defend herself without his help.
She stared at him. “I think I’ll be leaving now.”
Quinn stepped back. Apparently, she hadn’t appreciated his compliment. She clucked to her horse, reining him around and rode away. He followed around the house and stood watching as she turned toward the river and disappeared in the trees.
She had put a spell on him. Her presence consumed him and he found himself wanting her. He forced the desire aside. He had work to do.
Trish heard arguing as she approached the livery, the horse brush in one hand and Yedi’s bridle in the other.
“…this is going to be my town, mark my words.”
“Over my dead body,” Albert thundered back. “You’ll not tell me how or where to run my business.”
Trish cringed; she hated getting caught overhearing conversations, especially heated ones. She remained just outside the door, barely able to see Albert. His bearing reflected a measure of anger, his hand gripped tightly around one of the many hand tools of his blacksmith trade.
The man stormed past her without a nod of courtesy, his face red under his scowl. She flinched, sensing the animosity emanating from him.
She watched him storm away, climb on his buckboard and, using the whip, drive away. She paused before entering the livery.
“Albert, what was that all about?” she asked contritely.
“Nothing for you to worry about.” Albert quickly regained his calm composure. “Guess I need Quinn standing close by, getting all hostile if I want to handle Milton with a bit more composure. I’m sorry you had to hear any of that.”
"Milton is --" Trish's curiosity heightened, her legal mind on alert.
Albert had resumed his task, muttering. “Hum?”
“Milton, is he always so angry?”
"Milton is a harmless man. Likes things his way and when he doesn't get it-- he frets. He tries to throw his weight around and he yells. But he's harmless. Misguided, but harmless."
Trish leaned on the table between them. Pierre reclined against the back of his chair, much more at ease.
“I don’t know. The fellers are already lining up for your favors.”
“But I’m not a whore.”
“Woulda been helpful if you gave us that information when you got here.”
“Lucinda introduced me to Zelda. I’m sure she didn’t say I was a whore.”
“Maybe not, but she did say she couldn’t put another one of Quinn’s girls up at her place.”
“And that means I’m a whore?”
“You wouldn’t be the first whore Quinn’s brought around here. He has a mighty good eye for horses and whores.”
“I’m not a whore and you can’t make me.”
“But are you a dancing girl?”
“I didn’t say I’m a dancer. I said that if you had a piano I could sing and maybe try my hand at dancing.”
“So you were a singer before you came here.”
“No.” Trish stopped, seeing Pierre’s disgust. “I don’t know, but I’d be willing to try.”
“All right. You stand right there by the bar and sing.” Pierre motioned to the bar expectantly.
“Now?” Trish gasped.
“Now’s a good time. Ifn’ you can’t sing for Zelda and me, how you gonna sing to a bar full of fellers that think you’re a whore.”
“But I need a piano to sing.”
“Piano’s are expensive.”
“I’m sure you could buy a secondhand one in Eagle Rock.”
“She’s sure I could buy one in Eagle Rock,” Pierre reiterated to Zelda who sat close by. He leaned forward, his hands on the table. “Maybe you think I have a gold mine out back too. You’ll sing and you will sing tonight. A right pretty songbird you will be, ‘cause I don’t run a charity house here. You will pay for that room you have up there. I don’t much care how. You can sing for your supper and keep the boys comin’ back for more drinks or you can do it on your back.”
Pierre pushed his chair back. It grated on the floor.
“If you don’t care how I make my way, can I sweep the floor and wash dishes?”
“That too. I’m in business to make money. I’ll give you one week to prove I ain’t losin’ money with you stayin’ here and you can stay. But mind you, I better see more money coming in or you’re out.” He stalked out of the saloon by way of the back kitchen, leaving Trish very few options.
“Come on.” Zelda invited as she moved toward the stairs. “Even a singing girl has to have clothes that these boys will look at.”
“I better get to the dishes and the cleaning.”
Zelda chuckled, “That old mule, he’s already done the chores of cleanin’ in here and I washed the dishes. So thank you for taking that chore off my hands. Be sure to dry the spots off the glasses but until the fellers start drifting in, we better spend the time finding you somethin’ to wear. Those schoolmarm clothes just won’t make peace with the fellers. They want to see some shoulders and a little leg.”
Trish stood at her door, watching Quinn amble across the stained floorboards. The lone curl of smoke from a gambler’s cigar added its fumes to the stale odors of tobacco, liquor and foul body odor. She listened, hearing Quinn order a whiskey at the bar before he turned around, hooking his elbows on the lip of the bar while waiting for Pierre to pour the shot. She continued to watch Quinn, feeling slightly obsessed.
“Wasn’t sure I’d see you around for a while,” Pierre ventured to open a conversation.
“Nothin’s changed,” Quinn drawled, glancing up. Trish darted inside her room and shut the door before hearing his next question.
Several minutes later, she reemerged wearing some of Zelda’s clothes. Unlike Zelda, she dared to wear the vivid red against the purple jewel tone of the camisole with its ruffles along the deep neckline. A carefully drawn black line of ashes mixed with Zelda’s grease paints imitated the line of silk stockings from the 1950’s. It wasn’t the right time period, but Trish refused to wear used stockings. She wore Zelda’s black lace up boots. To finish the look, Trish wore a purple feather in her hair.
Trish leaned on the banister, the conversation below catching her attention.
“No, I’m concerned about Milton Moore. The cad has come by again. He’s upset that the homesteaders are settlin’ closer here than up yonder to his place. He fancies himself as building a town around his stake and reckons the three of us are takin’ all his business.” Pierre spoke to two men, Quinn and a man Trish hadn’t met.
“But Albert is a smithy, he doesn’t have anything to do with my mercantile or the saloon up at Moore’s.” The smaller of the three men swirled his drink as he spoke.
The snippets of Moore’s threat surfaced in her mind. Had they heard other threats or had he threatened them as well?
“If it is Moore’s saloon and mercantile that are suffering, shouldn’t he be upset with all three of us?” Pierre asked.
“You would think so, but here in the West, a blacksmith sets up shop and the rest of the town just gathers. I know the livery and the smithy are why I built where I did.”
“An’ the two businesses are why I built the saloon here. Can’t imagine building up by Moore now. It ain’t our fault we thought ahead to the stage stop down the river a bit. ‘Course the bridge don’t hurt none when the rivers runnin’ high like it is.”
“Albert’s a smooth talker, I’ll give him that but Moore won’t see the truth. He just won’t listen to reason anymore. He threatens Albert, but what can Albert do? He is not a fightin’ man, those days are behind him.”
“We can run ‘im outta town. He wouldn’t be the first man on a rail this week.” Quinn scoffed, throwing his whiskey back. It was at that moment when Trish realized he had spotted her. His posture changed and now he watched her.
“Boys, Root Hog way deputized a sheriff over that.”
Quinn set his glass on the bar, watching her and yet he spoke to his companions. “We got a hen perched up there’s.” He indicated Trish. A wave of heat raced through her. He had caught her eavesdropping. They all had.
Pierre glowered at her. “Well, songbird, ya got our attention. Sing.”
Pierre’s demand caught every man in the room’s attention and threw it all on her. A blazing white spotlight couldn’t have done a better job. Trish stared at Pierre, then at Quinn saving a more wide-eyed look for the rest of her audience.
“…wider than a mile.” Trish choked. Had she even started at the beginning? What would she change by singing a song that hadn’t been written yet? She slowly descended the steps. “I’m crossin’ you in style…”
Whoops and hollers drowned out the following stanzas. Trish decided the social drinkers demanded a more frolicking number. She shifted vocal styles and did her best to belt her efforts over the rowdy crowd.
“Come on down here, little bird, and sit on my lap.”
“She don’t wanna sit with the likes of you,” another man interrupted.“Missy, holding this chair just for you.”
Trish doubted they heard a single word so for her third number, she shifted to a little ditty she had prepared for a competition. It didn’t matter that she didn’t know the words, the melody would be lost on the mens’ tone deaf ears and they would most likely be too drunk to remember the words.
“If ya wanna see me tonight, ya gotta treat me right…”
A man grabbed her about the waist. She squeaked through a key change before she managed to disengage herself.
“Monday night, treat ‘em right, Tuesday do the same. Oh, Wednesday’s wicked game…” Did it matter that she was poking fun at the situation? She glanced at Quinn. His scowl told her he was listening close. She stumbled through a garble of words, knowing they didn’t make any sense. She’d need to come up with a better repertoire before the next show. Another hand snaked around her waist. This time she froze. She smiled at the offensive man and removed his hand. Taking a deep breath, she walked to the bar. She could feel every eye in the room on her. She turned her back to the bar and placed her hands on it at either side of her hips.
“Gentlemen,” she looked at Quinn. Did she need to spell it out for him? No one moved. “Some assistance, please.”
Quinn moved forward and just stood there.
“I’d like to sit on the bar.” She glanced at Pierre, “If that is all right.”
Quinn didn’t wait for Pierre’s response. He placed his hands at her waist and lifted her. A sweet jolt ran up and down her spine. The heat of his hands on her waist burned with a delightful pleasure. Her breath caught. Did he feel the jolting heat? Or was she imagining things? She looked away from his face, fearing he would see what she was feeling. She sucked in several deep breaths allowing her smile to broaden. She had planned to sing to Quinn, but she couldn’t now. She turned to Pierre and began.
“You are my Sunshine, my only Sunshine. You make me happy…” The men grew quiet as she continued. With her voice being the only sound in the room, her confidence increased. Second verse, she couldn’t sing it to Pierre, the patrons would think her a whore, especially working here. She leaned over to sing the first words to the third man in Pierre and Quinn’s discussion, then slipped off the bar and kept moving. Every man in the saloon received her momentary caress as she finished the song, every man but Quinn.
Trish wondered if her embarrassment of the previous evening would ever fade. She couldn’t remember the nineteen-twenties ditty that she’d made up the words for and hadn’t repeated it again. Apparently, the cowboys didn’t mind the same three songs sung repeatedly off key, but she did, especially when she was the one off key.
She swung her leg over Yedi’s back, intent on leaving the saloon, its foul odors and vividly crass memories behind her for as long as possible. She had to find a better solution if she was going to stay here a whole week.
She turned Yedi toward the river at an easy walk. The sun felt pleasantly warm, the air fresh and clean. She pulled him up long enough to let her hair down, wanting to feel it move in the light breeze. The ride along the riverbank relaxed her. Birds lectured her as she disturbed their solitude. A Killdeer flopped to and fro, its warble that of a dying bird, trying to draw her away from the nest. She paid it no mind.
The swimming hole greeted her, just as it would over one hundred years in the future. Its surroundings existed in pristine order, immune to the changes history might hurl at it. The swinging tree was probably one of the young seedlings so it lacked its modern throng of boys with their daring feats. Some trees offered more shade and others less but the bushes remained undamaged by the traffic of careless youth. She smiled at the memories that danced there amongst the greenery and running water. Listening closely, she thought she could hear the laughter of young girls from the flat sun rock that already lay in its place.
Trish left Yedi ground tied, going to the flat rock first. From there she could see the entire swimming hole. She noticed the changes of current as indicated by the sand bar. Removing her blouse and skirt, she settled herself to contemplate her past, today’s future and her current adventure.
She longed for home, for the familiar comforts that she had always taken for granted—
running hot and cold water, a seemingly unlimited supply of a variety of foods, paved roads and cars to traverse them. It surprised her that she didn’t miss her cell phone. She realized that habits of a workaholic had crept into her life. She truly missed the demands of school and the office even if she liked the quiet of this time.
Splashing from the swimming hole below broke into her thoughts. Curious, she scooted to where she could see the surface of the pond. A man swam the length of the swimming hole. His strokes were not schooled but they were smooth. She stared. Was he dressed? Why on earth would someone swim fully clothed? He swam to the downstream end of the pond and stood to wade to shallower water. He pushed his hair away from his face and pulled off his shirt, throwing it to the lower branches of a bush.
As he turned, her breath caught. If she hadn’t been drawn to Quinn before, she certainly was now. Every inch of him, at least the part she clearly viewed, echoed the man of her dreams. Unlike the man of her dreams, this man stood very real and not that far away. Quinn’s hair appeared longer and almost black. She smiled, appreciating the solidness of his build, and shimmied back from the edge of the rock, not wanting to be seen.
Trish rolled to her belly and snaked forward to where she could see him again. He had apparently left the water and was now returning, his pants in hand. Once in the water, he retrieved his shirt and moved more directly under her perch on the rock. She inched forward, straining to peer over the edge and watch him. Below her, Quinn scrubbed at his clothing, plunging it into the water to rinse, inspecting it and repeating the actions. His scrubbing grew more vicious, his plunging of it into the water seeming almost desperate. She couldn’t help herself from becoming increasingly mesmerized by the rippling of shoulder muscles as he scrubbed, plunged and scrubbed again.
The horses whinnied at each other a short distance away. Trish froze, as did Quinn. Fearing that he might catch her watching him, she scooted back away from the edge. Hearing more splashing, she dared to crane her neck to see his actions. While she had retreated, he had advanced toward the horses. Instead of watching him creep out of the water to see who was about to invade the swimming hole, she took advantage of the distraction to gather her clothes, put on her boots and flee.
Two yards from the rock, leaving by way of what was known in the future as the ‘escape route’, Trish discovered that she was cutting a new trail. Trish bit her tongue to keep her expletives of frustration at bay as current bushes and brambles snagged at her arms and legs. Once, the thicket won, clutching at the fragile cloth. She twisted and pulled herself free, effectively shredding the left leg of her borrowed underclothing and tearing the sleeve from her shoulder. Free of the current bushes, she whistled quietly, hoping Yedi would respond. He didn’t disappoint her. By the time she had her blouse and skirt on, he was standing nearby, waiting for her.
She mounted and heaved a sigh of relief, believing she had escaped without Quinn finding her. Riding in the speckling of sun and leaves, Trish relaxed and let her mind wander. The image of Quinn’s bare flesh drew her thoughts back to him.
Sure, Quinn was a nineteenth century Adonis, but did her feelings for him run so deep? She didn’t think it at all unusual that she appreciated his muscular physique and even his rescuing her. It even seemed acceptable that she admired his strength, but to be attracted to him? That might prove a bit extreme. It couldn’t be any more than a physical attraction. Of course, his touch engendered a tingling excitement that left its effects in her belly as well as on her skin. Her body had reacted to his touch, even through her clothing.
A relationship with Quinn couldn’t possibly evolve. If it did, by some small miracle, where would they live? Here? She wouldn’t survive much longer, and there? She couldn’t even fathom him there. She chastised herself.
She hadn’t had a decent date in her recent past, but did she find him irresistible because he seemed unattainable? Maybe the lure of the impossible made rejection less painful. Surely fate would not let her love a man in this time and place. She debated with herself, knowing that her feelings felt real. Though innocent now, what if somehow he reciprocated them? She shook her head. It would never happen. She must focus on her dilemma, not her dream.
The sun warmed her and she drank in the fragrances of the wildflowers along her way. The sounds of nature surrounded her, soothing her troubled mind. She’d gone to the swimming hole to solve her problem of how to survive without being thrown out of Pierre’s saloon and instead been chased out of the area. Maybe she could find an alternative to singing at the saloon. She didn’t dare try to cook over an ancient cook stove. It might as well be an open campfire. The food could burn just as fast.
It surprised Trish to find the heavy doors on the west end of the livery closed. The “ping tap” that had rang out this morning no longer filled the air. Albert didn’t respond with his usual welcome as she pulled the heavy door open. Surely he wouldn’t leave the livery unattended. She held the door, allowing for the careful balance of hinges to keep it open.
The forge sat quiet, its embers cooling and growing dark. She tied Yedi and began to rub him down. Yedi, usually calm and relaxed under her hand, danced with jittery impatience. The musky smell of horses mixed with that of fresh manure and something else Trish couldn’t identify. She realized as she brushed Yedi that she hadn’t heard the familiar whicker of a horse welcoming one of its own. Something didn’t feel right. Yedi grew increasingly jumpy. She found it necessary to keep a hand on his flank to remind him not to kick her.
Yedi’s flighty unpredictability made it wise for her to do less than the thorough job of a rub down. He pranced and danced as she led him to the pasture. She returned to the dark coolness of the livery to hang Yedi’s bridle.
Trish brushed against the heavy door, upsetting its balance and causing it to slowly arch closed. She thought she saw something near the forge just before the heavy doors eased shut, blocking out most of the light. When she looked in that direction a second time, she could detect nothing.
A cold chill ran up Trish’s spine. Her mind must be playing tricks on her. She didn’t want to stay here anymore. Something wasn’t right.
Where was that infernal lantern? She pushed the heavy door open to allow the sunlight in again. Then she saw it—the westerly sun’s light glinting off broken glass. She pushed the door open as far as it would go, willing it to remain open against the breeze that threatened to close it. If only she could get it to stay open long enough to get a log or stick from the woodpile. She hurried to the pile, the door arching closed behind her. Three steps from the pile, she continued forward before stepping on something.
“Ugh, a rat!” She grabbed a thin log from the pile and hurried to the door. Wedging the wood against the door, she turned back. The livery was still too dark to see on the far side. She would have to open the far doors. That would help clear the stench as well. She hurried across the dirt floor, tripping near the forge.
“Dang it, Albert. Why aren’t you here?” She reached the east doors and pushed one open, pinning it open with the antique hook and pins. A bone button, with its threads and some fabric hung, snagged on the doors edge. She pulled it off, taking a moment to examine it. It was probably from Albert’s coat. She dropped it in her pocket, thinking she would return it to Lucinda to mend his coat. With the door securely pinned, she turned back to the dimness of the livery, moving forward with slow, deliberate steps.
Cautiously, she moved toward the forge, peering around the livery. An awkward shape lay in the shadows of one of the stalls. Her intake of breath shuddered. She inched forward to get a better look. She tripped, falling to her hands and knees. A choked scream escaped her lips. The texture beneath her hand felt gross. Sticky mud, a sickening copper-sweet odor mixed with more pleasant smells of horses and manure. The horse in the stall stamped, rearing back.
Her body shook. She released a breath she’d not realized she held and tentatively reached out to the solid mass that had tripped her. Her hands touched fabric. She relaxed a moment too soon. The form moaned. Her hands trembled. A macabre curiosity argued with her fear.
The eerie whisper of wings taking flight overhead rushed against her senses, producing a pinpoint sharpness. She rolled the body over, catching a glimpse of Albert’s face. Grimacing, she fought through her gathering tears to pull his body to her.
“Albert, it can’t be! Albert, I’m so sorry.” Struggling against her shaking, she pulled his head and shoulders onto her lap. Had she not heard his breath, she knew she’d flee. She’d been here only a short time. One man dead because of her, another in need of help to remain in mortality. Albert’s breathing changed to that of a death rattle. With a final sigh, he faded, giving his soul to immortality.
She lifted and turned his head as if she could will him back to life. No! One of her fingers sank into a divot in his skull. Her stomach cavorted and she pulled her hand away. The sickening sweet coppery smell filled the air, her hand stained with blood. Cold reality seeped into her soul. Shock immersed her in its empty grip as moments flew, turning to minutes slipping by. She didn’t belong here and now she had watched two men die. Quinn had kept her first secret, but who would keep this one? She couldn’t be found with the body. She didn’t even have a good character witness.
She eased Albert to the dirt floor, frantically searching her mind for clues as to what traces of herself she left behind. A horse approached outside. She had no time to hide her tracks. She scampered to her feet and hurried to the East door. Releasing the pin, she raced for the saloon’s back steps. It wasn’t until she reached her room that she realized her clothing was soaked with Albert’s blood.
Quinn rode his horse through the open livery door, expecting to find Albert at the forge as usual. He deserved to know that trouble for both of them, in the form of Ace, had arrived in the valley. The East door swung shut, cutting the light dramatically.
He dismounted in his usual casual style, dropping the rein to ground tie his buckskin. The horse uncharacteristically backed away, ears tight against its head. The horse snorted and flicked its tail nervously. Quinn recognized the fear in the animal. Something wasn’t right.
“Easy, easy,” he crooned. The horse stepped back from his outstretched hand, spun and trotted out of the livery. Turning, Quinn examined the livery, his attention immediately riveted to the inert form.
Quinn profaned rushing to Albert. He shook Albert gently, trying in vain to revive him. “Bert, come on. Breathe… breathe.”
Albert did not respond. Quinn shuddered, the weight of so many different emotions clamoring for dominance. It couldn’t be. Albert had been his brother, his father, his only family for over ten years. They had survived winters in the high Rockies, fought barroom brawls protecting each other’s backs, shared their winnings and covered the other’s losses and when the opportunity to take a large stake had arisen, they had played together. They had won the rich pot of a large homestead, splitting it and settling together. What was his was Albert’s and Albert’s, his. They had shared everything and what he had withheld, Albert, with the intuition of an older brother, had guessed, knowing him as only a brother could.
Quinn’s first reaction was to deal out the necessary revenge for his brother’s murder. An eye for an eye, but the murderer would pay at the point of his knife. He would see to it. Every man had to sleep and when the murderer did, that was when Quinn’s blade would find its mark. Silent and deadly, he would have his revenge no matter what.
Albert would not seek vengeance, nor would he want Quinn to do so. He would seek justice; fair unmitigated justice dealt by the laws of the land. For several minutes, Quinn allowed his will to argue with his brother’s wishes. He relaxed his hunched shoulders, allowing himself to calm down.
“Albert, if you’re …” Carl called as he entered the livery and stopped. “Quinn, I tied your horse out front of my place. Seemed too flighty to stay ground—”
“It’s Albert. He’s dead,” Quinn whispered. An unspoken understanding passed between them. Carl went to the lantern and lit it before he kicked the log loose that propped the door open, pulling the door shut. He took a firm hold on the door, barring further entry from outside, the lantern swinging in his free hand.
Quinn hadn’t considered the how—only the finality of death.
“He musta fought. There’s a bunch of blood here.” Holding Albert’s head, his fingers felt the unusual divots at the back of his skull. Curious, Quinn explored the marks with his fingers. Albert had always held his own in a fight. Would Ace have changed his modus operandi? Quinn swallowed back the bile building in his throat, coming to grips with the reality of Albert’s death. “His head’s bashed in.”
“You see who did it?”
“Been busy in back with the inventory. Maybe Penelope saw something.”
“We don’t need women in the middle of this. Ya ask Penelope and she’ll tell Lucinda. Lucinda don’t need this.”
“She’s gotta be told,” Carl said.
“Not yet.” Quinn’s tone took on a tone of finality. Women and their tears, he had no patience for the one, leaving little patience for the other. As if tears could bring back the dead. He knew his mother’s tears aided little when his sister had suffered. Tears had done even less after her death. He had been fourteen, Albert seventeen.
Quinn eased Albert’s still body to the dirt floor. The sickening coppery-sweet smell of blood and death filled the livery. The mare in the stall stomped and neighed.
“Get Albert’s carriage horse out of here,” Quinn instructed Carl. Carl complied, leading the horse, being urged faster by the flighty mare.
Quinn looked around the livery for something to cover Albert. He located a saddle blanket draped over the rail of a stall. He retrieved it, laying it over Albert’s face.
Quinn retrieved the lantern.
On the far side of the forge rested a larger hammer. By the body lay a bloodstained cross-pein hammer. He lifted it and guessed that it weighed about two pounds. The rounded end could easily match the divots on Albert’s skull. On closer examination of the dirt floor, he could see Albert’s knee prints where he had fallen and the light toe prints of his boots, proof of where the final blow had undoubtedly fallen. The footprints indicated a scuffle, marring much of the dirt floor. Smaller, more delicately heal prints confused the issue. Had a woman been present? Could a woman weld the deadly blow? A week ago he wouldn’t have believed any woman capable of having a hand in murder. A week ago he hadn’t met Trish, if Trish was really her name. Did she have anything to do with this?
Quinn wanted his revenge. He would have it. Someone had taken his only family and they would pay. He coddled Albert, ignoring the blood, its scent, its sticky warmth and everything around him. He needed to hurt something, anything.
Trish dashed up the outside steps and into her room without encountering anyone. She had to get the blood, Albert’s blood, off of her. The skirt she wore and even parts of her blouse were both bloodstained. Reminding herself to remain calm, she peeled off her outer clothing. Blood had soaked through the fabric onto her arms, her legs and even her belly. She needed a bath. Without removing her undergarments, she wrapped a sheet around herself and hurried to the bath shack. Hopefully, no one would be there or see her.
“My, oh my.” Zelda exited the bath shack. “Aren’t we in a hurry?”
Trish scrambled for an excuse. "I -- was hoping to use your bath water if it's not too late." She didn't want to use dirty bath water, but how would she haul water while holding the sheet about her? She'd forgotten that detail.
“It’s not very warm now, but sure.” Zelda chuckled. “Forgot about nobody bein’ here to wait on you, didn’t ya? You empty the tub when you’re done, won’t you? The fellers leave such a mess. It’s a wonder I ever get it clean.”
Trish slipped into the tub with her under things still on. Hopefully the blood would wash out if she soaked. She grabbed the bar of harsh soap, scrubbing her hands and arms until they felt raw. She inspected her nails, finding hints of blood, and scrubbed harder, leaving nail marks on the bar. The action brought Quinn’s scrubbing in the swimming hole to mind. Had he needed to scrub blood off of his hands and out of his clothes? The cold river water might do better than the bath water at lifting the bloodstains.
Someone approached, whistling a gay tune.
“The bath house is occupied,” Trish called out.
“Excuse me.” A dandy peered around the edge of the door jam. She couldn’t be sure but he seemed to be undoing his buttons. “I just saw the other dame leave. Well, actually go up the steps. I didn’t realize the ladies in these parts used the bath house as well. Pierre said I was welcome to it.”
Trish sank into the shallow water, hoping he hadn’t noticed she was wearing her camisole and bloomers in the tub. “You are. I mean, I’ll be done in just a few minutes.”
“Mind if I borrow your bucket there to haul water?” He indicated the bucket Zelda had left for her to empty the tub with. Trish noticed the scarlet of his vest and the ruffles on his shirt on either side of the buttons from collar to waist.
"I plan to use it to bail water, but-- go ahead."
“Hate to see a sparkling clean lady have to bail water. I can do it for you in exchange—”
Trish’s heart jumped with apprehensive turmoil. Would she have to exchange bailing water for sexual favors?
“—for your name and a drink?”
"I-- okay." Trish hoped the heavy exhale of her breath didn't make too much noise. He didn't seem to notice and retrieved the bucket. He paused, looking at her expectantly. She raised her chin, trying to get him to hurry away.
“Bail the water and have the tub clean when I return and I’ll give you my name.”
The corner of his mouth lifted. “You always bathe in your underthings?”
“I do when there’s a man such as yourself about.”
“Ah.” He caressed her with his eyes. “Then you must work at the saloon as well, madam.”
Trish exited the tub and the bathhouse when the dandy had his back to her, filling the bucket with water. The best she could hope for was to get up the steps before he noticed her exit.
She sagged onto her bed, relieved that he hadn’t called her back but knowing she would have to face him again, if not at the bathhouse, then in the saloon.
She looked down at her shaking hands. She must regain her composure before leaving her room. Although dressing didn’t calm her, brushing her hair and carefully coiffing it onto the top of her head did. She took her time, running through the songs she would try to sing that evening. Where the lyrics refused to come to mind, she toyed with alternatives. She felt confident as long as Quinn remained absent.
Quinn-- had he fought with his brother, left him bleeding and fled to the swimming hole to wash the evidence away? She knew he was capable of violence. His knife had dropped Old Curly to his knees. She swallowed, remembering how Quinn had forcefully scrubbed his clothes.
The stench of drying blood filled her nostrils. She went to the window and opened it wide. She must find a safe place to hide her clothes. Burn them? The idea fled as fast as it came. She was an attorney, not a murderer. An attorney without the credentials or even the hopes of pursuing her career here in this Wild West. Wasn’t justice levied at the end of a gun here, or a rope? She hurried to fold and roll the evidence. A knock sounded at Zelda’s door. She froze to listen. The dandy was looking for her. Quickly, she tucked the soiled clothing under her mattress. It wasn’t even close to being a good hiding place, but she’d just run out of time to search for one.
The knock sounded at her door, gentle and restrained. She checked the mirror and hurried to the door. She answered it, pushing her way out of the room rather than allowing him in. He blocked her progress.
“You said a drink and my name.”
“But we’re already here.”
“I’m a singer, not a whore.”
“Sure you are.” He stepped back, indicating she should lead the way in mock gallantry.
Pierre wasn’t in the saloon so Trish positioned herself behind the bar. She poured two whiskeys topping her own off with a generous measure of water.
Quinn walked with purposeful strides toward the saloon. He hated leaving Albert, but he could do no more. Now it was up to the law. Of course the law, in the form of Sheriff Tuckett, needed watching and a helping hand.
Quinn had other business to attend to on this night. He would learn why the treacherous Ace had come to this valley. The pompous Ace owned his own brand, an ace on the front shoulder of his horse. A brand not easily missed.
Quinn pushed the door open to the familiar surroundings of every saloon this side of the Mississippi. The smell of cheap tobacco smoke filled the air, mixing with the odor of tobacco spittle, whiskey and stale sweat from cowboys. When Quinn leaned on the bar, a man moseyed to his side.
“Buy you a drink?”
“I didn’t come to drink.”
“The ‘ladies’ are busy for the moment. A game of cards, perhaps?” Ace offered.
Quinn let his gaze climb the narrow stairs. This would prove easier if Ace thought he knew Quinn’s purpose for the evening.
Quinn nodded and followed Ace across the saloon to a table. They each pulled up a chair. Ace set his whiskey on the table, occupying a chair against the wall as he usually did. He shuffled and dealt.
“What’s your name?”
“People ‘round here call me Quinn.” Quinn held a pair of eights. He carefully made his bets, keeping them small for most of an hour, waiting for a hand he could place a large wager on.
“What brings you ‘round here?” Quinn asked.
“Business with an old friend.”
“Business,” Quinn baited. “What kind of business? Ya don’t strike me as a cattle rancher.”
“No, not cattle, more along the lines of a land grab.”
“Most of the land ‘round here’s homesteaded. I hear there’s still land available further up the valley.”
“No, what I’m looking at is right here. I’ll take three.” Ace dealt himself three cards off the top of the deck.
“Not much of a hand there,” Quinn observed. Such had continued as the casual conversation for most of the evening. Quinn looked tired and worn and took advantage of his haggard appearance. Under the facade lurked a retired gambler.
“I’ll take one.” He fanned his hand, revealing the evasive cards before folding them as he had with every hand. “Now why would a gambler, such as yerself, want land here? No big stakes and few good card players to match yer wits against.”
“There is one, and that is all I care about.”
“And who would that be?”
A commotion on the upstairs landing drew Quinn’s attention. Trish wiggled out from under a cowboy’s heavy arm, pushing him toward Zelda.
“Come on, ladies, I cun do ya both.” The cowboy’s speech slurred with too much whiskey. Trish sidestepped his advances while Zelda led the tipsy cowboy down the stairs.
Quinn pulled his attention back to the game at hand. “Only one pigeon? Doesn’t sound to me like much of a challenge.”
“Maybe not, but he has something I want.”
“Ya said land. A homestead, perhaps?” Quinn shuffled the cards in his hand, just like always.
“I know Bert, quite well in fact.” Quinn used the address that Ace had used. “You could say we’re like family. He doesn’t gamble these days.”
“That’s what he said this afternoon,” Ace responded. Quinn felt the hackles on the back of his neck rise. Ace had seen and talked to Albert. Had they argued? Had the argument escalated to murder?
“Never seen him in here with cards in his hand. Never seen him in here at all, come to think of it. How ya plannin’ to get a homestead?” Quinn kept his expression stoical as he closed his hand to evaluate the bet on the table as well as Ace.
“Haven’t decided yet.”
“Since he don’t gamble no more, assumin’ it’s his homestead you’re wantin’, what if I wager his homestead on this very hand?” Quinn asked casually glancing at the cards Ace had dealt him.
“Why would I wager you for something you don’t own? You his banker or something?”
Quinn shrugged. “Ask anyone here if I can back up the bet. I think they’ll agree that I can answer for Albert Jackson.”
“I know the ‘ladies’ would agree with you.” Ace indicated Zelda with an off-handed nod. “For all I know, you paid ‘em off this afternoon and probably several other times. Quite the fan club you have with these ladies.”
“Actually, I don’t.” He looked in Zelda’s direction. A year or so back, Ace’s comment on Quinn’s business would have gotten a rise from him. Tonight, he merely nodded at Zelda.
She sashayed across the saloon to sit in the vacant chair next to Quinn.
“What is it you expect me to play against such a bet?”
Quinn shrugged, “Why not stake the same? You win, I leave and take the old boy, Bert with me. I win, ya leave and never…” Quinn’s expression intensified, knowing Albert hated Quinn’s ‘Old Boy’ nickname, but he also knew Ace’s kind. Apparently, he had a great fondness for the homestead that spanned the river. “…Never look back at this ‘ere pretty little homestead of his.”
Ace glanced at his cards.
“Is it a bet?” Quinn carefully coddled his words in boredom.
Ace looked around the saloon. “You, bartender, can this man here speak in Bert Jackson’s stead?”
Pierre finished pouring a whiskey before answering. “Quinn has been able to answer for Albert for as long as I’ve known them.”
Ace looked back at Quinn, “All right, I’ll see your bet for the homestead. All of it.”
Quinn thought about it, finding the offer more than he had wanted to gamble. If he lost Albert’s place, he could give his own to Lucinda, including the house he had built. He would clear out, maybe taking Trish with him. His enthusiasm for the bet faltered, his expression growing anxious, before the practiced poise of the gambler settled on him once more.
“I’ll see you. Deal the last card, no more uppin’ the ante.”
Ace nodded as he flipped Quinn’s last card across the table.
“It’s a bet.” He didn’t bother looking at his last card. Instead, he moved straight into the showdown, a full house. A wickedly sure smile spread over Ace’s face as he spread his hand on the table. “I think that beats any hand you’ve had all night.”
Quinn nodded, feeling every eye in the saloon on him. Zelda held her breath, her lips tightly pursed. A different situation and Quinn would have smiled, letting out a snicker at her expense.
“Y’are right. It does… except this one.” He placed his cards, one at a time on the table. He began with the last one Ace had so casually flipped across the table: the ten of hearts. No one spoke, waiting for the next cards. Quinn placed his cards on the table one at a time. His deliberate calm endured the silence, muzzling those who watched: the Jack of hearts, the Queen of hearts, and the King of hearts.
“That’s only four cards,” Ace stated.
“I only got an Ace left.” Quinn placed another heart on the table.
Ace sat back in his chair. “Guess I’m not supposed to ever have that homestead. Good play.”
“I’ve two things to ask of ya, Ace.”
“What would that be?”
“Why were ya at Albert’s smithy this afternoon?”
“You didn’t come here to play poker, did you?” Ace’s tone sounded cool and a bit challenging.
“Answer the question.” Quinn leaned forward and released the strap on his knife.
Recognition spread across Ace’s features.
“I should have known you wouldn’t be far away. How you been, Bowie?” Ace drawled.
Quinn’s voice remained level. He ignored Ace’s question. “Albert walked out of that Denver saloon with the deed to these two adjoining quarter sections fair an’ square. They’re special, just like ya said. Right sweet with the river runnin’ through the middle. Ya know, ya weren’t the only one not knowin’ Bert and I was brothers. I didn’t horn in on that game. As I recall, ya asked for a full game. It ain’t my fault ya didn’t read his tells right. I knew he had a good hand an’ I diverted ya with my bets.” Quinn chuckled but kept his expression stoical. Ace had proven himself a vain man on that night, both in his personal appearance and in his card playing. He had raised the bet higher in an effort to get Quinn and Albert to fold. Neither of them had and when Quinn called ‘Ace’s’ bluff, Albert had laid down the flush, taking the rich pot, including the deeds. “Ya shouldn’t have threatened him back then or now.”
Ace shook his head. “Didn’t recognize you without the ragged beard of a mountain man. That there scruff don’t even come close.”
“Ya gonna tell me why ya were at the livery?”
“Don’t pull that knife, Bowie. I know how you carve and don’t care to be your next statue.” Ace had his hands in the air and moved his chair back from the poker table ‘til his chair touched the wall. “I was simply there to invite Bert to a friendly game of cards.”
“Is that all?” Quinn pulled the knife from its scabbard and turned it back and forth. Light glinted off the razor sharp edge.
Ace profaned, “What’s this all about?” His tone had lost its smooth coolness.
“Let’s just say Albert has played his last hand. He lost.”
“Who beat him?” Ace’s voice regained some of its smoothness.
“Don’t know—yet. You, maybe?”
“I swear on my mother’s grave. I had nothing to do with it.”
"Swear on the piece of land ya just lost-- again." Quinn growled.
“I swear, Bowie. I never pulled a gun—”
“He wasn’t shot.”
The formerly unnoticed quiet of the saloon had developed into deathly ominous silence. Quinn’s hand flashed, the nimble reflex almost imperceptible. The blade turned in the air.
The knife stuck in the wall behind Ace, a slight vibration of the blade’s handle the only proof of it having moved with such deathly speed. Ace hadn’t flinched; if he had, he might have worn a red necktie instead of the black double string tie at his neck.
“Knowin’ how ya hate blood, I believe ya, Ace.”
“You said two things, Bowie. What would the other be?” Ace swallowed, his voice shaky.
"See to it that ya never come back for what ya lost-- twice." Quinn stood and walked around the table to retrieve his knife.
Ace nodded his agreement to Quinn’s request.
Quinn strode out of the saloon wearing a confident air, yet his mind seethed. How could it come to this? It had happened years ago, but Ace had arrived here this morning and Albert was dead. He wasn’t at all sure he believed Ace. How could he find out if Ace had killed Albert? If he had, would revenge prove more satisfying than waiting for the sheriff or the hanging? The question would wait. If Ace had come looking for revenge, he would want the fruits it produced as well. He would have to cross Quinn to get them.
Trish stood on the landing looking down at the poker players. One of them could be the murderer. A cold wave rippled through her.
“That man’s as dangerous as ever,” Zelda said moving toward the bar. “Damned lucky he ain’t bloodthirsty. Pierre, pour me a drink. I need one after holdin’ my breath so long.”
Trish agreed and joined Zelda. For the first time in her life, she ordered a straight whiskey, determined to nurse it most of the evening. The first sip scalded her throat. She coughed.
“You sure about this?” Pierre’s sympathetic voice didn’t match his amused expression.
“Yeah,” she gasped, unable to intonate.
Ace cursed from where he sat. Trish glanced in his direction, watching him flex trembling fingers. He shuffled, the cards scattered across the table. He cursed under his breath, and gathered the cards.
“You goin’ to be able to sing?” Pierre asked, bringing her attention back to her drink.
Trish took another sip and sputtered. Whiskey didn’t alleviate the sickening feeling in her stomach. Every time the odors of smoke and body odor assaulted her, it made things worse. She started to nod but instead shook her head. She was in no mood to sing. The burning liquor gave her the ready excuse. If she could succeed in tending her drink throughout the evening without getting sick to her stomach, Pierre would let her to herself which would let her think. Unfortunately, she would have to remain in the saloon and probably at the bar. The deception would work, if she could avoid being plied with more drinks.
Picking up her whiskey, she meandered to the end of the bar under the steps. Perched on the bar, her back to the wall, she began deliberating facts, her hands silently accentuating the points. Who had a motive to kill Albert? Ace claimed his innocence and for no other reason than her gut instinct, she believed him. He claimed to have come here for the homestead. If he had murdered Albert, then what would keep him from doing the same to Quinn? Yet he clearly knew he was no match for Quinn.
Ace had come here to gamble for the homestead. Apparently, it was a special place. Would Quinn kill his brother for all of it? Her mind jerked to the twenty-first century and the claims of attorneys that such a crime of violence was often perpetrated by an acquaintance of the victim and usually thought out. But she didn’t know what the murder weapon was so how could she possibly support such an argument? Find the motive, she reminded herself—power, money, or greed. Who would profit from Albert’s murder?
Ace? He hadn’t gained anything. If he wanted the land, he now had to cross Quinn. Quinn? Why now? How could any man kill his brother and over what they had agreed to share? It didn’t seem likely.
Two cowboys entered the saloon, sauntering up to the bar. Their conversation reached her in muffled tones. Could Pierre and the other man have anything to do with the murder? With Albert gone, much of the business that his smithy brought to the immediate area would suffer. His death might even cause Pierre to go out of business. No, she quickly threw the possibility away.
She must not overlook the argument she had heard between Albert and Milton Moore. Could Milton have acted upon the ramblings of a spiritualist? A fraud?
What of the cowboy and the threat over his horse throwing a shoe? Had he made good on his threat? She hadn’t noticed his horse at the livery but she wasn’t thinking of the motive at the time. She needed to check on that.
Might someone owe Albert a considerable amount of money? The possibility needed further exploring. It needed to be a great deal of power or gain to commit murder. Ace and Quinn stood to gain the land, but Ace must go through Quinn to get it. Did that mean another murder would be committed? What about Lucinda? Was she in danger? Milton Moore. The man was small in stature compared to Albert or Quinn, but he might feel he had a lot to gain with the smithy out of the valley. Then there was the cowboy, angry over his horse throwing a shoe. No, that only happened in movies. But someone she didn’t know about owing Albert money was a possibility.
Her thoughts settled on the prime suspect. Quinn had a lot to gain, probably the most of anyone. What had one of her professor’s said? ‘Family always sits at the top of the list of suspects in every murder case.’
What if he had fought with Albert, nearly killing him, hurried to the swimming hole to clean up, then returned to find the victim dead? Deceptive and risky, but feasible.
She quickly rearranged her list of suspects and reviewed her list while making plans for how she might discover the truth. She had two days and needed a good night’s sleep.
Trish entered the livery, searching for the young cowboy’s horse. She located Sheriff Tuckett instead. He looked up when she entered. Sheriff Tuckett claimed few, if any, defining attributes. He was a man of averages; average build, average height, and average perception of the obvious.
“Lady, the Smithy’s closed. There’s been a murder. You’ll have to leave.” Tuckett pushed his hat back to a perilous angle.
“Sheriff, I’m aware of the murder. That’s why I’m here.” She quickly and thoroughly checked the stalls for the animal. It wasn’t there. She’d look for the man that spoke to Albert about Curly, but she hadn’t seen his face and she didn’t remember hearing a horse leave that morning. “I’m looking for a young cowboy that rode in here day before last. Have you seen him this morning?”
“This is no place for a woman. I have no time to help ya find him.” He looked her over. Trish cringed. She was dressed in what she had, Zelda’s handoffs. The clothes Penelope had given her were blood-stained or destroyed by Zelda by now.
“But—” she found herself stammering under his male-chauvinist glare. “It might be important to the murder.”
“I haven’t the time for a busy body. Go back to your whore house and leave this to me.” He removed his hat and used it to guide her out.
Sheriff Tuckett would clearly be of little assistance in her efforts to find the truth. She needed to formulate a scheme of just how to investigate without his interference. She knew, deep in her gut, that Tuckett was a liability in this case. Trish left the cool semi-darkness of the livery to find herself face-to-face with Quinn.
“Whoa. What brings ya here at this hour?”
Trish shrugged. The morning nip in the air had recently fled under the bright sunlight. “I—” She avoided his gaze. What could she say, that she suspected him of murdering his brother? Instead, she scrambled for an excuse for being here. “I just came by to get my horse and go for a morning ride.”
Quinn’s eyebrow went up. “Ya plannin’ to ride without a saddle or a bridle and in that get up?”
"No, of course not --" She started shaking, her knees growing weak.
“Ya look plum upset. That Tuckett, he’d accuse his own mother of murder if he thought he could pin it on ‘er.” His gaze seemed to explore her deepest secrets, not just those surrounding the murder but her thoughts and emotions where he was concerned. Her stomach flip-flopped and her heart quickened in response to his nearness.
Trish caught her breath. No, I can’t fall for him.
“Albert was kilt yesterday.” He didn’t suspect her. That was good. She altered her expression and tried to sound unruffled. He wasn’t buying her story of planning to go riding, either. Nervous, she sidestepped away from him and in the process, slipped on a stout stick, twisting her ankle and almost falling.
Quinn reached for her, catching her arm. A look of concern filled his eyes. “Ya okay?”
Trish clamped a firm hold on herself, willing her heart and breathing to calm down and control the impetuous carnal responses of her traitorous mind. She needed to change her game plan. She bent down, rubbing her ankle for several minutes. Time was running out and she needed to find the murderer. The disgruntled cowboy’s horse was gone and that meant the cowboy was too. She didn’t have the time to hunt him down, or a helicopter.
Quinn and Ace had had their showdown over a game of poker. Did that clear both of them? She wasn’t sure, but she hoped so. And the man who knew about Curly? He couldn’t know what had happened to her and yet she couldn’t help wondering what he knew. If he’d been right and Curly had found gold, she had to find him, but who was he? She took a deep breath, calming herself.
“I twisted my ankle pretty bad. Would you help me back to the saloon?”
“Ya gotta get off it,” he answered, scooping her up in his arms. Trish felt like the damsel in a dime store novel. She’d just been swept off her feet, by a handsome man at that. Erotic imaginations tempted her to relish his strength. She clamped her wild imaginings down. Sunday this would just be a dream, a memory of the past, roughly one hundred and thirty years in the past. She didn’t have time. “Ridin’ yar horse ain’t the way yer dressed today. Ya look right invitin’ this mornin’. To the saloon, ya say.”
“If it’s not too much to ask.” She smiled, relishing his compliment.
“Not at all.” Quinn turned and started toward the bridge and the saloon beyond. She used the quiet ride to finish banishing her less than appropriate thoughts and instead develop her plan for solving the murder. His footfalls on the wooden bridge jarred her thoughts to action.
“Do you think you could help me convince Zelda to let me borrow her buggy? Of course, I’d need to borrow a carriage horse, too. Might you have one I can use?”
“We’re almost to the saloon. What do ya want with a horse an’ buggy?”
She smiled wryly, “A lady never tells her secrets.”
He set her on her feet. “Lady’s needin’ favors tell a feller why she’s askin’. An’ since I ain’t a pack mule but a right busy man—”
“I know.” Trish adopted a seductive tone. She delicately rested her hand on his chest but stopped short of caressing his hard muscles. “And this lady appreciates your help. Carry me home and I’ll explain?”
Quinn took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. She persisted, doing her best to look coy. This time as he lifted her, it was without the swoop of the gallant.
“Should toss ya over my shoulder,” he complained pushing the saloon door open.
“You wouldn’t do that.”
“Oh no?” He set her down and picked her up, his shoulder at her midsection. Trish gasped, his shoulder pinching her ribs. “Guess ya want me ta take ya upstairs, too?”
She wanted to thrash, but even her slight shifting caused discomfort, adding to the sick feeling that rushed in every time she smelled the foul saloon odors. Her feet bumped against her door before he opened it. He carried her across the room and threw her on the bed. For a split second she thought and even hoped he would pin her there with his kisses. He towered over her, his breathing rushed but not labored.
“Spill it, wench.” His voice lacked any anger. “Whatcha wantin’ with a horse and buggy?”
Her decision wavered. What if she was wrong? She couldn’t tell him.
“I ain’t at yer beck an’ call.” He turned on his heel and left her room, closing the door behind him.
Trish lay still. Had he just thrown her? The stench of sick-sweet iron drifted to her.
“Ugh,” she grimaced and remembered the blood-soaked clothes she’d stuffed under her mattress. Holding her hand to her nose, she pulled the clothes out. Where would she put them? She should really burn them, but she ought to give Lucinda the button to Albert’s coat. The button. She quickly searched the pockets. She looked at it again. It was too small for a heavy coat. She stuffed the clothes back in their hiding place and hobbled to her door, pulling it open.
“Quinn!” No answer. She hurried to the banister and leaned over it “Pierre, is Quinn still here?”
“What did ya do?” Zelda asked in amusement from her room. “Chase the best John ya had away?”
Trish spun to see Zelda, as close to fully dressed as Zelda ever was, seated on her bed. She wasn’t alone. A boot, attached to a decidedly masculine leg reclined in her one chair just out of view.
“Whatcha needin’ now?” Quinn drawled. “I ain’t been outta yer sight but a minute an’ already yer hollerin’ for my return.”
Trish felt a flush of embarrassment eek across her face. Undaunted, she moved to Zelda’s door, pushing it open further. She couldn’t allow herself to be bested by him.
“Ya forgot somethin’, cowboy. An’ I think yer gonna want it.”
Zelda and Quinn exchanged looks. Quinn didn’t move.
“You want it or not?” She sauntered to her room with a slight limp. She stopped just inside, her back to the door and waited until she heard him behind her. Sure she had his full attention, she pasted her most seductive smile in place and turned on him. He leaned against the door jam.
“What ya got?” His expression seemed reserved, almost skeptical.
“I’m surprised at you, Quinn. You know we women are full of secrets. Maybe you like being told ‘no’, but I don’t believe that’s like you.” She’d had her fun at flirting with him for the moment. He had risen to the bait. It was time to switch to being serious. She sat on her bed, trying to appear confident. “I’m going to tell you why I want that buggy but only if you can keep a secret.” She waited for him to lower his chin as if almost nodding his agreement. “I’m going to Milton Moore’s to ask him if I can work out of his saloon.”
Quinn looked stricken. “Trish, he don’t need no bar maid any more than Pierre. Ya claim you ain’t a whore, but that’s about what yar soundin’ like yar gonna do. Ya can’t,” his stoical expression brought her up short.
“Yes, I can. I don’t plan to take the job, but I need to try this. You can be there to watch my back.” Zelda appeared at Quinn’s shoulder, intent on the conversation.
“It’s not your back that’ll need watchin’.” He obviously wasn’t pleased with her plan.
Trish dropped her chin, looking up at him with a coy smile. “True, would you blame Mr. Moore?”
“No. But there will probably be more than one man at Moore’s saloon. There usually is.”
“That’s why I need you. Zelda, I need your buggy and a promise, too.” Zelda pushed Quinn into the room and shut the door.
“There’s plenty of pokes to go around, but why go to Moore’s when you’re welcome here?”
“I’m not really going to go to work for him. Quinn, you know he’s threatened Albert. I think he killed him.” She measured their responses. Zelda looked unconvinced with a smirk on her face while Quinn remained unaffected. It was a long shot but more of a lead than the mystery man that had spoken of Old Curly. Besides, if she found him, what would he know of Curly’s murder? She couldn’t think about that right now. “And I think I can prove it.”
“How?” Zelda asked instantly.
“With this.” Trish brandished the bone button she’d found.
“Where did you get that?”
“The door of the livery.”
“How do you know it belongs to Moore?” Quinn sounded doubtful.
“I just have to see if this button matches his. But I have to get close.”
Quinn reached for the button. “If the button belongs to the murder, let me…”
She yanked her hand back. “My clue, my investigation.”
He stared at her in disbelief. “There’s gotta be another way for you to do this, Trish.”
“If there is, I don’t know what it might be.”
“Let me confront the man.”
“No,” Trish snapped. Her breath came in raged gasps. Trish sat straighter, gathering her wits. “I can do this. I want to do this. Can I count on you both?” Neither spoke, the silence thick with tension. A pair of magpies squabbled in the nearby tree. “All I’m asking for is your promise to keep this a secret. If I’m wrong, no harm done. If I’m right, we can take our findings to the judge. Agreed?”
Both of them stared at her in disbelief. Why couldn’t they believe her? Why couldn’t they trust her that she knew what she was doing? Vance may have thought she was crazy a time or two, but he usually supported her in her decisions. Life and pursuit of her dreams in the twenty-first century was so much more clear-cut and simple. Of course, it helped that Vance’s dreams ran in tandem with her own.
At last, Zelda nodded.
“Good, I need to look my best. Will you help me?”
Zelda nodded again. Quinn scowled, looking out the window. “Ya shouldn’t get involved. I don’t need a woman fighting my battles.”
“I’m not fighting any battle. I’m just trying to find who killed Albert.” Trish’s thoughts flashed to Vance and their most recent verbal clash. He had used a similar claim to not need her fighting for the training service with a supporting avocation. Vance had conceded only after Trish reminded him, “I’m just trying to use Yedi’s stud service to support our dream.”
Vance checked the last stall, thinking Trish may have put Yedi away after a long trail ride. He found it empty. Where was she? This wasn't like her to be gone for so long. Two- or three-day trips were not unusual, but five and six days, alone? Even she couldn't be that desperate for solitude. Sure, Rhea had shown him the letter with its bad news, but he and Trish had talked about it before that morning. She hadn't seemed overly upset, nothing that a good gallop on Yedi wouldn't fix.
Vance turned on his heel. A tall young man, dressed in the usual cowboy shirt, wrangler jeans and cowboy boots, stood just outside the barn door. Vance eyed the recent model pick-up with its matching horse trailer that stood in the middle of the driveway.
“Morning. Didn’t hear ya drive up. What can I do for you?”
“The name is Andrew Jackson. Most people call me Andy.” He extended his hand. “A mutual acquaintance suggested I look up Trish Larsen if I was ever up this way. Are you her husband?”
Vance guffawed, taking Andy’s hand in a firm handshake. “I’ll have to remember to tell her that one. No. I’m not married and neither is she.”
Andy smiled. “She here? I’ve been looking for an excuse to visit this valley for the better part of this last spring. Some of my ancestors are from up here.”
An uneasy feeling settled over Vance. Trish should be back by now. Maybe this guy could help, but no, Vance wasn’t one to air his business to a stranger. Where was she? He couldn’t afford to look like a fool. He had to buy some time.
“You got family here? What are their names? Maybe I know them or at least of them.”
“It was a long time ago. All I know is the surname, Jackson. Miss Larsen gonna be around today? She isn’t expecting me.”
Vance eyed the horse trailer a second time. “What are you haulin’? Bring her a horse or somethin’?”
“I delivered a horse up the valley a few miles for breeding. Truck’s bench seat isn’t the most comfortable, but I caught a few winks. Couldn’t sleep once the sun came up so I decided to get on the road.”
“No Jacksons in the valley. Ya been on the road for long?”
“Four hours or so.” Andy’s expression began losing its friendly quality.
Vance gulped back his concern for Trish. This guy didn’t need to know she was missing. Vance smiled. “Well, she…Trish has our stud with her and they haven’t returned yet.”
“You have a stud?”
“Yeah, well, Trish owns him.” Vance sensed the need to regain his footing. Trish may be his cousin but they were partners. “But this is our place. I provide the land and she provides the stud service.”
Andy raised his right brow with an unspoken question floating in the air.
“Sounds funny, don’t it?” Vance hurried to explain. Trish was a lot of things but not a loose woman.
“So she’s out covering a mare. Her stud is. Do you guarantee a ‘live foal’?”
Could this unexpected visitor become their first breeding customer? Vance’s heart jumped to his throat. A cash injection from stud service would tide them over on the loan to build the barn and arena. Vance wanted to assure Andy that they did guarantee the service but Yedi was an unproven stud. They had papers and pedigree on him and Trish had won a few trophies, but they had only caught his jumping fences and covering mares earlier this spring. Two that they knew of, and a third that they suspected.
“I couldn’t say. The breeding is her side of the business. The training is mostly mine, but she pitches in when she’s here.” She hadn’t been here much and it was about time she started pulling her weight. “It’s her call on warranting Yedi’s performance. Could be that she’s totally comfortable with that stipulation. If she carried a cell phone, I would call her.”
Vance cringed at the thought of what they might lose if such a guarantee went bad. Women. It was the first time he had ever included Trish in the derogatory sub group of the female species. Where was she?
“I was hoping to meet her on this trip, but it’ll have to wait. I’ll stop in town for a bite and then get back on the road. Here’s my card.” Andy withdrew his wallet and placed the small white card in Vance’s hand. “It has my cell number on it. Ask Miss Larsen to call me about that stud service.”
“I will,” Vance said as Andy climbed into his pick-up.
Vance watched Mr. Jackson drive away, feeling like Trish had let him down by not being here.
“Sayonara, Senor.” Vance vocalized a memorized sound clip from a senseless movie. “Trish, get yourself home soon. We need Yedi to make some money.”
Quinn stared at Trish. Was she really what she seemed? Or was she guilty of Albert’s murder? And if she was, what did he intend to do about it? Would he turn her into the law or take the line to his own hands? If she were guilty of the crime, how did she do it? And why? Could she be selling herself to Albert? No, that didn’t feel right. He knew Albert. Albert was a good man. He wouldn’t hire services, not with Lucinda in his life. But could she have struck him in anger? No, for now he had to assume that she was not guilty.
The woman had to be insane. He watched her expression vacillate between confidence and questioning concern. It seemed that a battle raged within her. He sensed his feelings for her alter. This wasn’t a physical desire laced with his need to have her, but respect that continued to grow from the day they had met on the Pass Creek Trail. This woman survived due to the wide variety of surprises in her considerable arsenal of female stratagem. Yet her ploys did not all consist of womanly wiles but an almost uncanny ability to fight like a wolf over its prey. Just as she had fought for her virtue and survival, she fought for the truth now.
“Ya sure ya want to do this?”
"Yes. You get the buggy and Zelda will help me get ready. Actually, it wouldn't hurt if you came along-- but on my terms."
“It’s a dangerous game ya play, Trish.” Quinn left her room wondering just how her hand would play out and yet knowing he had to cover her back. He walked with purposeful stride toward the livery.
Sheriff Tuckett sat on Carl’s front porch, smoking. He casually tipped his hat.
“Quinn, sorry for your loss.”
“Whatcha gonna do about it?”
“I’ll telegraph the circuit judge just as soon as I know who dun it.”
“Ya mean ya don’t have a clue?”
“How am I supposed to know? For all I know, you killed him and when Carl stumbled in on your mess, ya told him a yarn.”
“That ain’t no way to conduct an investigation, accusing Albert’s family.”
“Are you denying it?”
“Yes,” Quinn answered emphatically, bristling. “And I’ll not have you spreading such lies around. It ain’t right, or maybe ya need a reminder of good manners?”
“Is that what you call the beatin’ you gave Albert yesterday? A reminder?”
Quinn felt his anger boil. Tuckett needed to remember that the badge on his chest wasn’t a license to slander. He needed proof to accuse a man of murder. Did the man have any idea of how to find it? Quinn fought to curb his outrage.
“I did no such thing.”
“He told you not to bring more whores to town and you fought. Is that it?”
“No. I didn’t and I wouldn’t raise a hand against my brother, but you on the other hand seem to be needin’ just that.”
Tuckett stood, throwing his smoke down. “You wouldn’t dare. I wear a badge now.”
“A tin star ain’t gonna stop me.”
The memory of the night he had last confronted Tuckett flashed through Quinn’s mind in the moment it took to draw his knife from its sheath and sink it deep in the beam high over Tuckett’s head.
Tuckett slipped the buckle of his gun belt loose, but instead of dropping it, he swung it, catching Quinn on the cheek. Quinn blocked Tuckett’s second swing, wrapping the leather around his forearm, yanking it away. Blood oozed from the fresh cut. Tuckett fought dirty, flinging a handful of dirt in Quinn’s face. Dust rose from the ground at their feet. Quinn dodged Tuckett’s intended blow to his face. He sidestepped and landed a blow to Tuckett’s chin. Quinn took a hit to his ribs, arching sideways. An answering punch to Tuckett’s gut sent Tuckett’s subsequent blows wild. An uppercut landed on Tuckett’s chin, a stiff jab to his gut.
Quinn held the advantage of reach and experience. His fists remained constant as Tuckett’s blows slowed until, at last, he sagged to his knees. Quinn hoisted Tuckett to his feet by his collar.
“Ya learnt yer lesson, or do ya need some more learnin’?”
Tuckett raised his hands in surrender. “No more.”
Quinn dropped him to the ground and retrieved his knife. His strides to the livery belied the sharp pain in his side. Moving the buggy to where he could hitch Albert’s buggy horse left him breathing hard. He wouldn’t give Tuckett the pleasure of knowing he’d been injured. The low-down dirty yeller belly didn’t deserve the pleasure.
Quinn would have normally basked in seeing Tuckett lick his wounds but after this fight, he drove the buggy to where his horse stood tied near the fight scene. He took a shallow breath to steel himself and climbed down to tether his horse to the rear of the buggy. Sending a sneer Tuckett’s direction, he reined the buggy horse toward the saloon and his feminine cohort.
Quinn didn’t want either of the women to see him in pain or exhibiting the slightest weakness. He went straight to Pierre.
“What can I help ya with today?” Pierre asked in greeting.
“Ya got some bandages?”
Pierre eyed him ruefully.
“Just bring ‘em.” Quinn followed Pierre to the back rooms and eased himself onto a chair.
“Whatcha gone an’ done now?”
Quinn pulled his shirt out. “Nothun’, don’t want the women folk knowin’ ‘bout this.”
“Fight over ‘em again, did ya? I swear ya got a blind spot for the ladies. Why ya bring ‘em here ifn yer sweet on ‘em?” Pierre returned with a torn sheet in his hands.
“I don’t got no blind spot.” Quinn pulled off his shirt and gently probed his side. His own touch caused him to wince.
“Got a plum nasty bruise growin’ there.” Pierre tore the sheet into long strips before he tore off a smaller section and went to the bucket of water standing near the door. Quinn examined the bruise as best he could while Pierre submerged the cloth, wrung it out and handed it to him.
“Damn Tuckett, one lucky punch an’ he broke my ribs.” Quinn laid the cool, damp cloth on his skin.
“Ya been coughin’ blood?”
The sound of feminine voices drifted to them. “Do me a favor, Pierre? Keep ‘em busy while I doctor this.” Pierre willingly obliged, leaving Quinn to his own devices. Sparing himself only the slightest of pain, Quinn wrapped the torn sheet tight around his ribcage. He had his shirt on before Pierre’s line of defense fell.
Trish hurried up the steps from the bath shack. Her escapade could prove enlightening or deadly. A fingered murderer might strike a second time, costing her more than she was willing to pay. She wasn’t as strong as Albert and he had lost his fight. Would she lose hers? The possibility of her own murder set her nerves on edge. She’d invited Quinn along, but would he be willing to step in a second time? She wasn’t sure. And what if he were the guilty one? What if he had killed Albert instead of Moore? Her stomach fluttered, causing a wheezy lightheaded sensation. She grabbed at the stair railing for support, taking a deep breath to calm her racing heart. Her mind made up, she launched toward her perilous mission.
Zelda helped Trish with her transformation into a ‘lady of leisure’ looking for a place to open for business.
“Wear this, Trish. It’ll do the trick. It always has for me,” Zelda insisted, holding a red and black dress toward Trish.
“I don’t think I have the bosom to fill it out quite right,” Trish argued.
“Here, put this corset over it. We’ll lace it tight,” Zelda answered with a knowing look. Her black corset fit well on Trish, once laced tight over the camisole, her bosom almost spilling over the top. Zelda raised her eyebrow when Trish pinned the matching red satin petticoat a bit higher with a hairpin to show off her shapely leg. Trish wore Zelda’s new black stockings and her heeled boots.
“How do you ever have the time to undo and redo all these lacings?” Trish asked, lacing the boots.
“I don’t. Most of the fellers are usually in too big a hurry,” Zelda chortled adding a touch of rouge and powder to Trish’s face. She handed Trish her pale kid gloves and plumed hat with its matching parasol to complete Trish’s ensemble.
“Take a look.” Zelda encouraged, guiding Trish to the cheval mirror.
“Wow.” Trish hardly recognized her reflection at first glance.
“Told you before, you should join me. Between the two of us, we could make a right profitable business. Just remember, no freebies, and that includes a wanderin’ hand!”
The two pushed past Pierre and his diversionary small talk to where Quinn waited in Pierre’s grubby kitchen. Trish wanted to get right to her objective before she lost her nerve. She watched Quinn from under her lashes, pleased to find it difficult for him to hide his rakish inspection. She smiled, winked at Zelda and sashayed outdoors to the horse and buggy. When Quinn swallowed hard and kept his eyes averted, Trish knew she had his full attention.
He drove the buggy with his horse tied along behind without a single word, careful to not brush against her in any way. He reined the carriage horse to a halt in a thicket within one mile of Moore’s saloon.
Quinn stepped down from the buggy and turned back to appraise her. His gaze traveled from the laced boots up her shapely legs. It seemed that his gaze hiccupped to the bare flesh of her bosom, then her painted face and wildly coifed hair. He shook his head, took a deep breath and shrugged his shoulders as if to shake his conclusions off.
Trish carefully hid her amusement to his reaction. Her pulse raced, knowing he reacted as she hoped. His response buoyed her and gave her confidence that other men would react similarly. She would have to replicate this costume for a Halloween party when she returned home.
“Ya sure ya wanna do this?”
“It’s the only way to find out if I’m right.”
“Did ya have to go all out like this?”
“Do you really think that if I dressed like a schoolmarm, anyone would take me seriously?”
“You’ll be taken too seriously as ya are,” he commented, untying his horse from the buggy.
“Trust me Quinn, I know what I have to do.” She took a deep breath to settle her nerves before she tapped Quinn on the shoulder with her borrowed parasol and smiled confidently. “Besides, you won’t be far away.”
With a snap of the reins, the chestnut carriage horse moved the buggy toward Moore’s saloon, leaving Quinn to watch her drive away. Trish knew that every head turned as she stopped the open buggy in front of the saloon. She took another deep breath before stepping over the threshold. Unlike Pierre’s saloon, this one lacked the stench, probably from the doors being open.
Milton gave her his entire attention as she entered. She glided across the tobacco-stained floorboards, watching him from under her lashes.
“Are you, kind sir, the owner of this establishment?” Trish asked him in her best French accent.
Milton eyed her with interest. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Would you be interested in a business proposition, I wonder?” She batted her lashes as she leaned her elbow on the lip of the bar, knowing that her accent needed improvement. She smelled of lilac water and knew he smelled the sweetness too.
“What kind of proposition?” he asked, his eyes following her cleavage.
She placed the tip of her borrowed parasol under his chin, drawing his eyes to her face. The next time his eyes left hers, she would use the opportunity to study his vest. She glanced around the saloon. There wasn’t a single customer, other than herself, present.
“Well, sir, I believe your establishment is just a bit slow this afternoon.” She shifted her ribcage in what she hoped was a suggestive manner.
“Ain’t you the new whore at Pierre’s Place? Too many soiled doves for the likes of you? ‘Course maybe yar lookin’ for a better class of clientele. This place’s got that.”
Milton’s eyes wandered and she took advantage of his animal lust. It would require closer examination to be completely sure. The top button seemed slightly off from the rest of the vest. It didn’t fit the button hole as well as the others, maybe because the tailor wasn’t quite up to par?
“Pierre’s saloon seems to have plenty of business each evening, and early afternoons, too. Maybe you need more of a draw than whiskey?” Her French accent remained intact as she smiled and used her parasol yet again.
Milton’s expression turned to a hard glare. She feared she had committed an unrepairable blunder. Had it been her reference to Pierre, his booming business or the whiskey? She allowed her visual distress to play in her favor.
“Maybe the nearby store has a room,” she coaxed, putting her concern aside. “But I’d rather donate funds to one proprietor rather than two. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Quinn entered the saloon, sauntering to the bar. He made a show of noticing her, visually raking her over. Was his interest real or purely an act? She didn’t think he was that good of an actor. She felt keenly aware of his constant gaze, especially when he didn’t order a drink.
Trish batted her lashes, shifted her weight to one hip like a cheerleader and squirmed inside her laced corset. The laces had loosened slightly, allowing her to writhe just enough to feel sexy and keep a man’s, attention, especially Milton’s. From her peripheral line of sight, she noticed Quinn turn to watch her. She inhaled, filling the top of her lungs and causing her bosom to rise dangerously to the edge of the boned corset and camisole. She smiled seductively and flirted with Milton, drawing him out while he could see an immediate interest from a customer.
“I’m a business woman. If it is the price of my presence here in your establishment, we could discuss it further.” She allowed her lips to remain parted, adding to her implied invitation.
Milton shifted on his feet. He glanced Quinn’s direction and asked, “How much?”
“That would depend on the accommodations, would it not?” Trish dangled the possibility in front of Milton.
“Pour you a drink?” Milton fired the question in Quinn’s direction without moving away from Trish. Milton appeared interested in more than her business proposition.
Quinn nodded in response to Milton’s question.
Trish watched the two men silently measure one another, knowing that each wondered—if she had a choice, which man would she entertain first? The saloon owner with a measure of wealth or the handsome rough cowboy?
“One private room is all I need. Show me a room and then we can discuss the money possibilities. Even a successful bartender can use a bit more money in his pocket.” Her pulse raced. Would she be able to pull this off?
Milton poured two whiskeys, setting one in front of Quinn. The other remained closer to her. Trish smiled, batting her lashes again and wishing she had mascara to put on them, maybe even some falsies. A hint of fear jumped to her throat. Maybe she didn’t know how to use her feminine wiles well enough. She had never believed herself successful of doing so in her past.
“I rarely drink. It makes my head all foggy.” She smiled, knowing she sounded like a silly woman, drunk on champagne. “I like to remember what my ‘john’s’ like. What do you like?”
Using her parasol, she caressed Milton’s ear, then traced the edge of his vest with it in an unsuccessful attempt to turn it even slightly. How much further would she have to pursue her mark? A bed? She hoped not, for several reasons. She couldn’t give up yet and continued to press, seeking his verbal acknowledgment that a whore would prove a distinct advantage to increasing his business. She needed to establish his motive, if he had one.
"Well-- business is slow. But my wife-- she wouldn't approve of a sporting lady here at the saloon."
Trish pouted, “But I came all this way. There will be the horse and buggy to pay for.”
“Sorry ma’am, I wish I could help you. The money would always be welcome, but I have no rooms, not even one.” Trish’s stomach dropped. She had failed. Milton seemed to reclaim his backbone when he mentioned his wife’s disapproval.
Quinn stepped closer. “Moore here may not have a room, but I know a place that does. I’ll make it well worth yer trip.” His invitation included an all-too-knowing appraisal of her.
“For a fair amount, I’d be happy to get to know you.” She smiled, arched her brows briefly and batted her lashes. This time a twinge of yearning accompanied the hopscotch bounce of her stomach. Only her discomfort at not knowing his true intentions kept her from playing her part any better.
Quinn offered her his arm and escorted her to the open buggy. She soothed her nerves and arranged her thoughts while he tied his horse to the buggy once again. He climbed up beside her, snapped the reins, and without a word, headed to his own homestead. They broke through the trees near his homestead before she spoke.
“Thank you. I wasn’t sure you were going to step in.”
“Said I would.” Silence descended once more.
“That’s it? No friendly banter? For a minute there, I was afraid he’d take me up on my offer. Glad he didn’t. I don’t think I could’ve gone through with that. I mean, I’m not a prude or anything but Milton’s not what I’d call the least bit good-looking and a man needs to bring at least something—”
Quinn’s brow furrowed for a brief moment, stopping her. What had she said? What had she done? She removed the hairpin from her skirt and repositioned the fabric over her knees, waiting for him to say something. Silence. His jaw tightened. He seemed to tense, his fingers tightening on the reins.
“You played your part quite well, Quinn, maybe too well. Does the way I’m dressed disgust you that much?”
“Nope.” He seemed to fight for control of his emotions.
“So.” She arched an eyebrow, curious as to why he wasn’t saying much. “You seemed quite at ease with Zelda.”
Quinn brought the buggy to a halt and stepped down before he changed the subject. “Did ya find out what ya needed?”
“Not really, but I won’t know without closer examination.”
“You going back like that? Moore is a married man.” Quinn sounded wary as he untied his horse.
“I know. Do you actually think I would let him bed me?” Trish’s gut twisted in abhorrence at the thought. She felt torn between reacting defensively and her hurt that he wasn’t truly interested in her.
His lack of interest burned deep in her heart. She’d always valued her virtue, fighting for it, defending it with as much ardor as she did any court case. It shouldn’t matter. She was going home the day after tomorrow, but it did. It mattered what he thought of her. He had helped her win her struggle for her virtue as no other man had and because of that, she respected him like no other.
“I guess a tramp don’t have no morals when it comes to survivin’.”
Trish gasped. She had told him she wasn’t a whore. Didn’t he believe her? Now she wasn’t just a whore to him, but a tramp? Zelda had warned her that tramps in this country were worse than rustlers. The cruel disgust in his eyes made it clear.
She snapped the reins, driving the buggy much too fast, tears blinding her. She had, in one afternoon of doing her job, done what she had apparently done all of her adult life… driven another man away. She had wanted Quinn to find her attractive ever since he had lifted her to the bar. She couldn’t forget his touch. This afternoon she believed that because she dressed like Zelda, the woman he’d expressed interest in, he would find her irresistible, but her plan had not only backfired with Milton’s rejection but it had imploded with Quinn’s. She would return home because it no longer mattered who had killed Albert. She would spend her remaining time here swimming and making a complete fool of herself with her off-keyed rendition of songs… and then go home.
Quinn found it impossible to understand the woman. He stretched out, allowing himself to float. One moment Trish needed rescuing, the next she needed no man. There seemed to be an inexplicable quality about her. He refused to believe her to be anything but what she portrayed and yet she didn’t fit the mold of a whore. Why would she go out of her way to find a murderer? Did she care about others that much? About him and his family, for that matter? She constantly changed and with every frustrating change, he found himself wanting her more. Earlier today, she had flirted with him, inviting him into her room with those batting eyelashes and come-hither smile. It had taken a great deal of self-control not to take her then and there. He felt his body react to his thoughts despite the cool water. Today she had wanted his help only to thrust her whoring ways in his face at Moore’s saloon.
A submerged branch feathered his arm, signaling him that the rivers current had carried him the length of the swimming hole. He rolled and swam over to check on the gelding.
He’d known his share of women and even rescued one or two, including Zelda. Trish didn’t fit the mold. He had to admit she could handle herself. He had no doubt that she very possibly could have finished Old Curly without his knife in the old coot. When Moore had leered at her, she had kept him in line, a line that Quinn hadn’t felt was wise to cross. Oh, he wanted to, at one point, he even needed to, but he wanted something else more… her respect, her friendship and her love. He swallowed hard. Had he actually used the word love?
The gelding he trained for Noble shied, pulling at the bit and squealing. Quinn put his feet under him, standing waist deep in the water. Trish approached the gelding. She no longer wore the red and black with matching parasol and kid gloves. Now she wore a shirt, more like Lucinda and Penelope did, but she’d tied it high, just under her bosom, revealing an off-white under garment and one of Zelda’s old skirts, a faded red one without ruffles and lace. Her whole ensemble, even her hair, seemed to have a red tint to it.
She approached the gelding, her horse’s reins in one hand, her hands extended. When the gelding stood still, she reached for the pile of sweet alfalfa just beyond his reach.
“Move that feed an’ I’ll tan your hide.” She spun around, jerking her arms close to her beautifully shaped form, alert and searching.
“But he’s hungry,” she called.
“He’s more thirsty than hungry, but he’s gotta learn. Tie your horse where he can drink.”
He shook his head in amusement and took a step back into the deeper water. She wasn’t as upset as he’d believed, not if she came to the swimming hole, his swimming hole. His gut didn’t twitch with excitement, yet his whole body came alive knowing she was near with his current lack of clothing. He watched her do as he told her. Her horse dropped his head to drink of the fresh, cool water. Satisfied that she wouldn’t intervene with the gelding’s training, he paddled to where the sun danced on his bare skin. From his station he continued to watch the horse. The gelding pulled at his reins and squealed, then stood still, quivering.
“Quinn, that is so mean,” she complained, coming closer.
“That’s trainin,’ it ain’t pretty, but he’s got to learn to stand and not wander when ground tied. Your horse stay put when ya ground tie him?”
So, she had noticed. Would she stay? “Wearing my ‘no nothuns’ while the clothes dry.” He motioned toward his array of clothing hanging on several branches. He treaded water, moving out of the sunlight to hide his arousal. Despite his physical excitement brought again to a pique with her arrival here, he held his tone flat. She didn’t respond. Quinn rolled and stroked toward the far end of the swimming hole, knowing that she watched him. He ducked under a fallen log, one he’d stripped most of the bark off. He came up on the far side and draped his arms across it to watch her. The sound of breaking twigs and rustling of bushes let him know she was headed for the flat rock above the pond.
Surprising that she should know it was there. It was only visible from the middle of the swimming hole. He could only see her shadow as it played on the water’s surface. Apparently, she sat down. She remained a mystery to him…a beautiful, unpredictable creature, capable of surprising him in so many ways. It would require time and patience, maybe even a lifetime to completely understand her. He might never accurately predict her moods or her decisions. The possible continuation of mystery tantalized him, providing additional fuel to his burning attraction.
Her wanton behavior proved tempered by caution. He smiled, wondering how cautious she really was. What more might he find hidden behind her unpredictability? He decided to find out.
He swam to the middle of the swimming hole and paused, treading water. “Ya come to sit on that there rock or swim?”
She scooted closer to the edge, peering down at him. “Actually, I came to relax.”
“So ya ain’t planning to wash yer clothes neither.”
“Didn’t bring any soap.”
“I got soap over here in a tin.”
"Thank you, but-- I came for a swim."
“Alone?” His pulse thundered in his ears. He clamped down on his desires.
“Yes, please. I need to think. I hope you don’t mind.” With the sun at her back he found it impossible to read her expression and decided to fold to her wishes.
“Then I’ll—” he indicated he would leave and instantly wished he hadn’t.
“Thank you,” she murmured.
He swam to the edge near where his pants were drying and pulled himself out. Knowing his backside was bare to her view sent his senses reeling. His body reacted. He took a deep breath and exhaled, lifted his pants from where they hung and pulled them on, one slightly damp leg at a time. Experience told him this would not be a comfortable ride home.
“You got a bit of a sunburn.” He jumped. He’d been so engrossed with regaining control of his desires that he hadn’t heard her approach. She stood five feet away. He buttoned his pants while she came closer. Her fingers touched his shoulder. A tingling quiver shot through him, overshadowing the burning sensation. Her touch, so delicate and soft sent a shiver down his spine, settling in his groin. His shoulder rose with his deep breath, bringing more of her fingers into contact with his skin.
“Thought ya said you wanted to swim alone.”
“Changed my mind. I better do some wash or Zelda will stop letting me borrow her clothes.”
Quinn’s heart dropped. Her touch had been no more than a disinterested touch. “This pond’s good for washing if ya don’t stir it up right below the sun rock. There’s a tin with soap in it there by the willows ifn’ you wanna wash yer dress.”
“Where?” She craned her neck, dropping her hand from his shoulder.
He moved back to her and stood behind her. Placing his hands on her hips he guided her to where she could easily see the tin hidden amongst the willows. “See it now?”
Did she really sway into him or was he just imagining it? The thin fabric may hide her delicate shape to the casual observer, but standing this close, his hands on her hips, he could feel a definition of her body that surprised him. Standing this close to her, her fragrance tantalized his senses. He breathed deep, wanting to inhale all of her.
“Won’t the animals get it?”
“No.” He smiled. “I don’t leave it here. The critters would carry it off. But it don’t hurt to come prepared.”
“Oh, then you better take it with you.”
“No. You use it.” Quinn knew he’d just been dismissed. He stepped away from her. At the water’s edge, he pulled his shirt on and glanced at her. She stood there, straight and refined. Her fingertip wave nudged the door on his emotions closed. She had no interest in him. He apparently had none of those qualities she required in a man.
Trish took Quinn up on his offer to wash her clothes. Following his example from watching him earlier in the week, she wore her camisole while scrubbing her skirt and blouse until her fingers hurt and still her things were not as clean as she would like. She gave up, wringing them tight before draping them over the same branches Quinn had used.
She knew she had no idea how to flirt with Quinn. She had tried with a smile and tentative touch. That had failed miserably. Maybe she should have undressed. She shook her head. No, that just wasn’t her. Now she could only swim in the waters he had. She’d competently snubbed any and all advances for the sake of pursuing her career. Now she’d given up on it only to find she lacked the ability to seduce or even lure a man. It shouldn’t matter; she was going home…
She found the organic smells of the swimming hole mixed with the singing of the birds relaxing. The quiet flow of water whispered peace to her stretch existence, allowing her to meditate. She returned to the rock and closed her eyes, vanquishing the stress, her past and Quinn. The smooth surface of the rock, so unyielding in the winter cold, now soothed her with its warmth. She lay back, the sun dancing on her skin. If she didn’t need to take Yedi with her, this would be the perfect place to let the talisman dance and take her home. Minutes melted into hours in the warm sunlight and it was only when the retreating sun dipped behind the trees that she roused herself.
It almost seemed a shame to leave for the stale rooms of the saloon. She rode Yedi at a lazy walk, wanting to absorb as much of the peace as she could. She returned to the livery, taking the time to brush Yedi thoroughly.
“Excuse me, ya seen the blacksmith ‘round here?”
Trish jumped and recaptured her racing heart. “Do you mean Albert?”
“That no good smithy. I’ve told ‘im before he better do the job right or else.”
Trish turned her attention to the cowboy, feeling her heart skip. His vaguely familiar features and six-gun slung low at his hip weren’t what caught her attention. He wore a brown vest under his oilskin. Could it be missing a button? She righted her stare, dropping her gaze to the ground.
“Ya daft, girl? Ya know where I can find ‘im?”
Trish swallowed and gathered her wits. Assuming he had murdered Albert, he wouldn’t ask for the dead man, much less return so blatantly to the scene. But if he had attacked Albert and assumed he had survived the attack, that might prove a very different story.
“Actually, I do.” She gripped the horse brush in her hand. It wouldn’t prove much of a weapon, but the closest thing to defend herself if the necessity arose.
“Well, where is he, girl?” the cowboy demanded.
“He’s up the hill a ways,” she answered, her mind racing.
“Damn him, that means I’ll have to wait.”
“What will you do if he finds you here?” Trish managed to keep her voice steady.
“Show him I mean business. He’s cheated me for the last time.”
She sensed the cowboy’s watchful glare as she set the brush in the tack box before leading Yedi to the pasture. The sound of his spurs followed her to the livery door. At the pasture, she dared to glance back at the livery. He stood, his hand on the large door, watching her. A smidgeon of fear wormed its way up her spine. The heel of a six-gun could break her skull open as easily as Albert’s. She pulled herself up short. She didn’t know that for sure, but it was plausible.
“This is silly, Yedi. Of course, he’s watching me. What else would he do? It’s not like he has a radio to listen to or a TV to watch. I’m letting my imagination get the best of me.” She glanced at her clothing and rubbed Yedi’s nose. “Besides, Zelda dresses like this to draw attention. It wouldn’t be the same at home, but I guess she knows best because he’s still watching. Oh heck, why can’t I be dressed like Lucinda or Penelope?”
“I know but it’s blood-stained and that would draw a lot more attention, the kind I don’t ever want. Hang in there, boy. I’ll get us home soon.” She inhaled, letting it out slowly and returned to the livery to hang Yedi’s bridle.
“You one of Jackson’s customers or is he one of yorns?” The cowboy drawled as if wanting to engage her in conversation.
Trish turned to face him, knowing she must learn the truth. Now seemed as good a time as any. She shrugged and wriggled to get the neckline of her camisole to drop over one shoulder and took a deep breath, pushing the warning in her gut aside. He hadn’t recognized her…yet.
“Not exactly. What job was the smithy supposed to do for you?” she asked in a honeyed tone.
"He keeps puttin' shoes on my horse that don't stay on. He's gonna do the job right this time-- But this trip jus' got a bit more interestin' with you here." He smirked, revealing tobacco-stained teeth.
Trish knew the situation could become dangerous but smiled her best coquettish smile. “Maybe he does the job the way he does for a reason.”
The cowboy eyed her. “And what might that be?”
“I don’t know,” she sashayed closer to him. The ruffle on the bottom of her skirt bumped against her legs as she moved toward him.
“You lookin’? I’m buyin’.” He stood his ground but dropped his jaw as though he presumed it a seductive pose. His expression changed from one of frustration and anger to animalistic interest as he puffed out his chest.
"I wouldn't say what I'm looking for-- exactly." Her heart flipped to the pit of her stomach, warning her of impending danger. Her hand wavered in mid-air just long enough for him to grab her wrist.
“That bed of straw suits me just fine.” He raked her over, making Quinn’s similar appraisal feel like a gentle caress.
Trish hesitated, "I-- this isn't exactly what I had in mind."
‘Ya sayin’ ya’d rather have yer own bed. Nice and soft like,” the cowboy snarled.
Trish acted quickly, pulling the oilskin aside as she stroked the cowboy’s chest.
“Not exactly.” Her answer lacked any hint of flirtation.
“Like those words, doncha, missy?”
“Not exactly.” Trish moved her free hand up his chest to his shoulder.
“What do ya like?” He yanked her closer with one hand; his other firmly cradled her buttocks.
She hadn’t expected to get manhandled. He smelled bad. She knew she couldn’t get much closer. Looking down, she found that the vest had not lost a bone button. She stiffened, pulling back. He yanked her to him again, smothering her with a stale tobacco-laden kiss.
Never before had Trish appreciated the ability to throw her knee over a horse’s back. Her knee came up hard, catching him squarely in the groin. He howled in agony, releasing her, clutching the pain as he dropped and rolled to his side.
“Not that. Exactly. Albert is dead, you swine.” She hurried to leave the livery.
Trish shook her head. The cowboy hadn’t recognized her any more than he had taken Albert’s advice to have his horse shoed properly.
Trish hurried to the saloon and its friendly faces. She had things to do if she planned to return to her previous life, a life over one hundred years from today’s future. Tinkling sounds of an out of tune piano brought her steps to a stuttered stop. Someone needed to learn how to play notes that resembled more music than the screeching of a barn owl. She scowled and decided to climb the outer steps to her room, hoping the noise would cease before she had to occupy the same room as the musician wanna-be. She eased the door shut, finding her stealth mode completely unnecessary. Caterwauling now accompanied the barn owl screech.
“For the love of—” Zelda stormed out of her room, bumping into Trish. “Good, yer here. Pierre went to a heap of trouble to get ya those ivorys. But ol’ Granger needs to give ‘em a rest. He’s plumb roostered. Ya better put a wiggle on an’ save us.”
Trish gasped. “I didn’t say I play the piano. I said that a piano would help with the entertainment.”
Zelda snorted. “We, you an’ me, are the entertainment. Don’t look at me. I ain’t touchin’ that tinkling tombstone.”
"I can't play-- I mean I don't--"
“If that don’t take the rag off. Pierre’s takin’ a likin’ to ya. Lettin’ ya get off with not takin’ the pokes and now getting ya the ivorys. Albert’s murder done put a spoke in the wheel and Pierre an’ I are plannin’ for ya to save the place. I’ll get Granger off the ivorys, but ya better be quick about comin’ down.” Zelda bustled down the stairs, the feather in her hair bouncing with every step.
Trish slipped into her room and sagged back against the door. “What have I done?” Trish mourned behind her cupped hands. She slid to the floor, shaking her head. The screeching stopped. Trish wondered what bait Zelda had employed to draw Granger away. It didn’t matter. What mattered was getting through an evening of involuntary entertainment by a three-year piano student and an out of tune piano.
She didn’t pay close attention to her toilette. She instead drilled her memory bank for chords and tunes that had yet to be written and scored. At least no one would notice as long as she just kept playing. At least she hoped they wouldn’t notice. Pierre better be pouring a lot of whiskey tonight.
Clenching her fingers repeatedly, Trish stepped out of her room and into the spotlight of the evening. She couldn’t have felt less prepared. Her feet stalled on the upper landing. Her stomach jumped wildly around in her rib cage, crashing against her heart. Her breath stalled, caught in her throat. She scanned the waiting drinkers, hoping she didn’t recognize any of them.
A smattering of clapping anchored a couple of catcalls. Trish felt the heat in her cheeks. Zelda stepped away from the bar, placing her fingers in her mouth and letting loose a loud whistle. Trish sensed the heat in her cheeks explode into a wash of color. Shaking knees hindered her descent to the saloon.
Trish looked up from the ivory keys, not to see who watched her but trying to remember yet another tune, wishing she played by ear. Of course, being able to play by ear meant she needed to remember what a particular piece of music sounded like without the guitars, synthesizers and drums.
“Ya play right nice, Trish. Don’t recognize the tunes, but nice just the same.” Quinn’s compliment should have earned a smile. Instead, her fingers stalled and she scowled.
“Leave ‘er be. Play that little moon song again,” a regular complained from the poker game. Trish modulated the chord, playing what she could remember of “Moonriver” again to satisfy the request. She didn’t sing this time, knowing Quinn listened. For some reason his being here, watching and listening, unnerved her.
“Yer audience commands. Maybe ya’ll let me buy ya a drink?” She didn’t answer Quinn, choosing instead to watch her fingers to the end of the song.
“A drink sounds good. Maybe Pierre has something harmless.”
Quinn escorted her to the bar, his hand at her elbow.
Pierre met them there, his brow raised as if questioning them. “Are you done playin’ for the evening, or just takin’ a break?”
She watched the silent communication between Pierre and Quinn, suspecting it regarded her. She tapped the bar nervously, glancing from Pierre to Quinn and back again.
“This here songbird needs to wet her whistle.”
Pierre reached for two clean shot glasses.
Trish put her hand up. “No whiskey for me.”
“There’s buttermilk in the back.”
“You’ve got plenty of customers to take care of, Pierre. I’ll get it myself.” Trish smiled at her employer.
“Looks like yer customers ain’t takin’ too kindly to Quinn here cuttin’ in.” Pierre indicated a couple of cowpokes watching them intently.
“They’re not my customers,” Trish corrected.
“I’ll walk with ya.” Quinn dismissed Pierre with a friendly nod and again guided Trish by her elbow. The rival cowboys scowled at Quinn as the two of them weaved their way to Pierre’s private quarters. The little room had even less light than the saloon. Quinn struck a match, lighting the lantern that always occupied the shelf near the door. Long shadows threaded from the chairs and table to the far wall, marking eerie paths.
Trish eyed the pitcher of buttermilk that sat in half a pail of water, wondering if it was even safe to consume. She knew it wouldn’t be wise to drink milk and then sing. The milk would coat her throat and cause her to croak like a frog.
“Ain’t ya gonna have some milk?” Quinn asked when she took a cup from the table and turned her attention to pumping water. Trish didn’t answer, instead lifting the handle and thrusting it down several times to prime the pump. At last, clear water ran and she filled her cup.
“This.” She lifted her cup. “This is what I’m thirsty for.”
“Women,” he said shaking his head.
“What? You never drink water?”
“Never know a man to pass on a whiskey for water.”
She filled her cup again, offering it to him. “There’s always a first time. Drink?”
He eyed the cup warily and took it from her hand, his fingers capturing hers for a brief moment. Holding the cup, he glimpsed at the contents as if expecting to find the frog she’d avoided by not drinking the buttermilk.
“Really, Quinn, it won’t hurt you. It tastes quite good, in fact. Here.” She stepped closer, cradling his hand and the cup in her own. Slowly, she guided the cup to his lips. “Just one sip. It isn’t poison.”
Quinn allowed her to press the cup to his lips, but there his tolerance waned. His free hand went to the small of her back while the cup in their hands found its way to the table. Trish stood her ground, unwilling to let him draw her closer.
She gazed at his eyes in the dimly lit room, wishing her own shadow didn’t block the light. What did he intend? When he eased the pressure at her back, she slipped away. Moving toward the back door of the small living space, she pushed through it, inhaling the clean air. Quinn followed at her heels.
“Yer a flighty one tonight.”
“I’m sorry. I just—” Words failed her. Her thoughts jumbled, tripping over themselves. She wanted him to kiss her. She wanted him to love her, but not as a whore, not like this. Would he believe her if she told him the truth? That was about the only alternative to letting this continue as she had. She turned to face him. The early moon shared little light. The night birds called, filling the night’s stillness with their floating song. He touched her hair, loosening the hairpin slightly. His touch traveled at a sweetly slow pace from her hair to her ear lobe, then her cheek, yet the sensation of tingling delight traveled much faster, reaching her toes before retracing its path and settling in her stomach. She felt the calluses of his fingers glide across her chin bone.
Almost without thought, she moved closer to him. Her hands went to his chest, feeling the solid mass of muscle. His muscles were not those of modern men, sculpted and tightened to chiseled sharpness, but no doubt just as strong. She raised her eyes to his, seeing tenderness she didn’t expect. Recognizing his warmth frightened her. She drew back but he didn’t let her pull away.
“No, ya don’t.” He drew her closer.
A pair of drunken footsteps staggered around the corner of the saloon. "Whatcha doin' out here with the ta-art?" Granger staggered toward them. "The pia-- the pia--nos in there's," Granger sagged into them. Trish almost fell while trying to get out from the pinch of booze, sweat and grime. A whole week living in a saloon and the stench still turned her stomach. At least Quinn never smelled like he'd had too much to drink. She staggered away to see Quinn right the man.
“The privy’s over there.” Quinn corrected Granger’s course.
Granger sagged back into Quinn while fumbling with his pants. Trish couldn’t bear the sight and hurried around the corner, planning to race up the steps.
The steps were no shelter. Zelda and her latest john stood at the door at the top of the steps. “Come on, honey. I didn’t mean anythin’ by it.”
“Honey,” Zelda retorted. “You just take your shanks mare on down those steps. I ain’t takin’ that from no poke at any price.”
A pair of boots with the spurs attached hit the ground several feet away.
“Zelda, honey, whadda do that fer?”
“Take your spurs to some bronc, not my hind side.” Zelda’s voice lacked its usual humor. The offender scampered down the steps barefooted. Trish shrank back into the shadows. The cowboy raked his boots off the ground and, hopping on one foot then the other, managed to get his boots on.
Trish waited and watched from her hiding spot. She could never do what Zelda did. Quinn wore spurs. Could that be where their differences began?
The crowing of the rooster nearby woke Trish before sun up. She sat up rigidly with a gut-wrenching realization. She had figured wrong. Today was the day she had to return home if she planned to, not tomorrow. And she had no idea where the clothes she’d worn that very first day were. She couldn’t leave them here; leaving the chance of changing history. She must find them and that meant facing a grieving widow. She hadn’t seen Lucinda since being turned over to Zelda and her capable friendship. What would she say to a woman whose husband had died in her arms?
Trish tiptoed down the saloon steps dressed as conservatively as Zelda’s clothing allowed, the talisman tucked securely between her breasts. She trudged step after step toward Lucinda’s. Every step seemed to bring another fear. What would she say? Did Lucinda know Trish had held her dying husband in her arms? Had the local law, in the form of Sheriff Tuckett, formally filed Albert’s death as a murder? Was he capable of finding the truth? Did anyone suspect her? Had anyone seen her enter the livery? Had someone seen her leave? Had they seen the blood on her clothing? She should have burned the clothes. Why didn’t she burn them? Did it even matter?
Her feet stopped a yard from Lucinda’s door. She swallowed hard, trying to summon her courage. She stepped forward, her hands shaking and knocked…once, twice, three times. The door swung open. Lucinda’s smiling face, though appearing tear stained, greeted her.
“Good mornin’, honey. I didn’t expect to see you this mornin’.”
Trish felt the corners of her mouth pull for a brief smile. "Morning, Lucinda. I--" Her thoughts raced, torn between being polite and the need to keep this painfully short. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry and-- I need to get my things. There's really no need for you to have to worry about them."
Lucinda stepped back. Trish wondered if she’d said too much yet knew she hadn’t said enough.
"I'm so sorry," Lucinda apologized. "Things--it's been so-- They're right here. I really did plan to bring them down to you."
“It isn’t a problem. I know it’s been a difficult week for you. I’m so sorry about Albert.”
A smile tugged at Lucinda’s lips. “Thank you.” Silence pierced the air between them as the bundle of clothing passed from hand to hand. “Trish?”
"What? I mean you have some-- What where those tiny blue things?"
Trish felt the color in her cheeks explode. "Um-- underclothing."
“Lucinda, I really hate to be rude, but I need to be going. I just didn’t want to inconvenience you any longer.” Trish hurried to the door.
“It was no trouble.” Lucinda sounded like she had a thousand questions. Questions Trish knew she shouldn’t answer.
“Thank you. I better be going.” Trish sprinted for the livery, sliding to a stop to open the heavy door. Her forward motion carried her into the door as someone pushed it open. A startled squeak escaped as her head met the hard wood. She crumpled.
Quinn’s emotions over his brother’s murder still raged as he shoved the livery door open. The door collided with something. A feminine squeal cut short. The door stalled. He peered around the door in time to see Trish go limp, the packet she’d carried causing a tiny dust cloud to spurt around it.
“Trish.” He dropped to his knee. As gently as he could, he tried to right her limp form. He patted her cheeks with the back of his hand. She didn’t rouse. Cradling her in his arms, he gathered the rag doll, stood and carried her to the softest place close at hand, a bed of loosely packed hay. Sickening guilt filled his frame, anchoring in the pit of his stomach. She, of all the women he’d known in his life, carried his interest to its peak. He wanted to know her, not just in the Biblical sense but learn what she couldn’t remember or aid her in building a new life. Would it be possible for them to build a life together? He pushed the idea aside. Now was not the time. He dipped his hand into the water bucket, again patting her cheeks.
“Come on. We cain’t have two murders here in one week.” A lump the size of an egg formed on her forehead. “Damn my hide. It just ain’t right fer ya to pay for my orneriness.”
He considered her clothing, the red film of cloth spilling out over the neckline edges framed by the familiar violet of Zelda’s saloon dress. Zelda never wore it like this. She always let it hang over one shoulder in a rather intoxicating manner for a man starved for female attention. Trish wore the sleeves over her shoulders, unlike last evening. He slid his hands over her ribcage, checking for the firm boning of a corset. He found none.
“Guess ya don’t need laces loosened. Right practical of ya. Come on, wake up.” He dipped his hand in the water again, letting the water splash lightly across her face and noticed the silver chain about her neck. Curious, he lifted it, pulling it loose of her cleavage. “What’ve ya got here?”
The talisman dangled from his fingers, dancing in the dim light. A wicked smirk filled his features. He considered her bosom.
“Never expected ya to hide a trinket like this. Wonder where ya got it.” The flickering of her eyes drew his attention. He watched her gain consciousness. Her eyes focused on the trinket and she reached a shaky hand for it. He let her grasp it but didn’t relinquish it to her.
“Let me have it,” she whispered.
“Pretty. Ya had it long?” Quinn couldn’t let this moment get away from him. She was helpless, or had been. The smell of her had lingered even after they parted and now she was close. They were alone. They wouldn’t be interrupted by a drunk this time.
She pushed herself to a more upright position, bringing her bosom tantalizingly close to his hand. “Please. It was my grandmother’s.”
“Yer granmother’s? Looks like a bump on yer head has been good for you. What else do you remember?”
“Anything?” He queried again.
“Just that she had it a long time. I cherish it. Please, may I have it back?”
He released the trinket, letting the back of his fingers graze her skin. His breathing grew irregular. He watched her lift the trinket to her full lips, kissing it gently. His gaze remained on her lips while she tucked the trinket back into the relative safety of her bosom. She wavered, seeming to lose her equilibrium. He caught her shoulders, steadying her.
“Ya all right?” He moved a hand to cradle her head, looking into her eyes, trying to tell if she was okay. He needed her to be okay. He wanted her and his want harassed him incessantly.
“I need to go home.” Her voice sounded distracted.
“If ya can stand, I’ll help ya back to the saloon.” If she preferred the comfort of a bed, it was her choice. If only he could bear to wait any longer. He made no move to stand. She gazed into his eyes.
“No, I need to go home.” She sounded more confident.
“Ya need to rest for a few minutes. When ya can stand, I’ll take ya home.” She smiled and took his hand in hers, laying her cheek in the palm of his hand. His pulse raced.
“You’ve been so good to me. Thank you for your help with Old Curly. I’m sorry I’m running out of time.” She kissed the palm of his right hand. A tempting tingle raced up his arm. The longing to have her intensified. He traced her lips with his thumb, testing their firmness. “I’m sorry about Albert. I didn’t—”
“Shh, ya couldn’t have changed it.” He searched her eyes for the hard acceptance he’d seen in Zelda’s. It wasn’t there. Only a soft imploring met his gaze. Last night he hadn’t been able to see her eyes in the darkness. The aroma of aged hay mingled with earthy scents of horses and leather. Albert’s carriage horse stamped and blew. The loose locks of Trish’s auburn hair became entangled with his fingers.
He pressed a gentle kiss to her full lips. Her breath smelled sweet, her lips welcomed his. He kissed her a second time, his fingers intertwining in her hair, loosening her hair pins. The curls tumbled down, hiding the strength of his hands.
She pulled away to gaze into his eyes. Slowly she shook her head, her loose curls sliding across rough hands and her smooth skin.
“Quinn, I can’t. I have to go home.”
Her denial stole his breath. Finding the strength to recapture it, it rushed in, threatening his existence.
“You remember somethin’, don’t ya?”
“No. Yes, oh why now? I can’t stay here. I want to. But I can’t.” She pressed her hand to his cheek. He turned his head, kissing it. Hogtying his emotions and his desire, he stood and offered her his hand.
“I ain’t the kind of man ta stand in yer way.” No sooner had she gained her feet when she swayed sickeningly, her knees buckling under her. He gathered her into his arms. “Guess I ain’t standin’ in yer way, but carryin’ ya. Come on.”
She leaned out of his arms. “My clothes—”
Quinn turned to see the packet. “I’ll get it.”
With the packet tucked into her arms, he carried her like a little child to the saloon. Unlike the previous time he carried her up the stairs, this time he cradled her up the steps and to her room. Quinn unfolded the swooning Trish onto her bed as gently as possible.
“Damn, woman. That’s twice I’ve carried you home. Those steps are right steep with you in my arms. Ifn’ I do it again, you’ll be conscious of the effort.” He tugged at the bed sheet. A wad of fabric tumbled to the floor and he ignored it, instead taking the time to drape the sheet carefully about Trish. Satisfied that she was comfortable, Quinn gathered the rumpled clothing, both the packet Trish had insisted he not leave behind and the haphazard pile on the floor.
“Ain’t how I’d expect a lady…” The stiff fabric caught his attention.
A gentle breeze stirred Trish’s hair about her face, tickling her nose and eyes. Echoes of a sharp headache reminded her of her collision with the livery door. She slowly opened her eyes. A man stood at her window. How long had she lain here? The sun no longer streamed through the window as it did until midday. She blinked and squinted, forcing her bleary eyes to focus. “Quinn?”
He turned slowly and she noticed he held something. Fabric. Her clothes? “My bet is that this ain’t your blood. No woman bleeds like this.”
Trish tried to sit up, a wave of dizziness making her head spin pulled her back down. Swallowing hard and refocusing, she pushed herself upright. Her stomach pitched and rolled. A herd of mustangs thundered in her head. “Blood? What blood?”
“Found these bloody clothes. Ya had ‘em tucked under your mattress. Whose blood is this?”
Trish stared at him, wishing his back wasn’t to the light. She couldn’t make out his expression. How much did he suspect? His tone was as level as it had been at the poker table with Ace. Usually his tone held a vibrant quality, even when training a young horse. Not now. What, if anything, could she deny?
“You rifled through my things?” she asked, trying to stall long enough to gather her thoughts.
“No. Answer the question, Trish. Whose blood?” His tone, though still quiet had an edge to it.
Trish struggled with how to answer, her words rushing out without the usual care of an attorney. “I’m sorry, Quinn. I couldn’t save him. He died in my arms. I didn’t kill him. You’ve got to believe me.”
Quinn’s chest expanded with his deep intake of air, yet his words remained calm. “Whose blood?”
Trish shook her head, the pain rolling from side to side as the tears she’d held back fractured her teetering resolve. “Albert’s,” her voice cracked. “I didn’t—”
“Why didn’t you stay with him?”
“I did.” She swallowed, trying to regain her composure.
“No. You weren’t there when I found him,” he said, his words accusing her.
"I did. I just-- I heard someone coming and realized how it would look if they found me with him. You have to believe me I didn't kill him."
He took a menacing step closer. She shrank back. “And the blood? Why?”
Trish kept her hands close to her chest, but raised them defensively.
"I found him there, bleeding, when I arrived. I held him in my arms and tried to comfort him. I lost it. I didn't know what to do. The horse was stamping. The scent of blood-- ooh..." She managed to close her mouth before the profanity slipped out. Her hands flew to her face, covering her tears. "So much blood-- I tried to stop the bleeding and it just kept coming."
Sobs drowned out her words. She shuddered, wishing she had done more. Wishing she’d never been there. Wishing she had never come here. Wishing he believed her.
Quinn stepped to the bed, dropping the stained clothing between them, his expression unyielding. “Ya should have stayed.”
“I didn’t know it was you. I thought the murderer…”
Quinn sank to the bed. The bedsprings groaned under his added weight, but he didn’t touch her. “Ya should have stayed and told me who murdered him.”
“But I don’t know who did it.”
Quinn glowered at her. “Tell me. No more lies. No more tears.”
Trish stared at him in silence. She couldn’t tell him. Her precious lies had to continue protecting her.
“Damn it, Trish.” His words sounded tortured. He pushed her back on the bed, seizing a handful of hair, constraining her. She closed her eyes, trying to pull away, but couldn’t. His abrupt hold with a roughened hand on her chin forced her to face him. His kiss demanded she yield herself to him. At first she fought him, but she stilled as tears again formed in her eyes.
For most of a week, she had dreamed of his kissing her here. Her dreams had warmed her with excited anticipation. This was not as she had hoped. Tears of abject horror to his forcefulness replaced earlier tears of sorrow over Albert’s death. The pressure of his lips bruised hers and yet his hands remained in her hair and against her chin bone. When he stayed his hands, she dared to hope the moment would end. Quinn eased the pressure of his lips, holding her head still with his forehead on hers, his breath whistling through clenched teeth.
He shook his head and moved away, turning his back to her and breathing hard. “No more lies, Trish. I can’t—I won’t stand for your driving a man insane. The truth. All of it.”
She remained prone on her bed where he had left her. “I told you,” she whispered.
He pulled the sheet up to cover her, pinning her shoulders with it for a minute. “Why did Curly have you tethered?”
“I guess because he was sick. I certainly didn’t deserve it.”
“He wasn’t your pa?”
Trish gasped. “No!”
“Were you giving your—your body to Albert?” He sounded like he might choke on his words.
“No!” Trish struggled free, rolling away from him, coming to a sitting position. “Never, how could you think that?”
Strong hands reached for her pushing her back to the mattress. “Woman, I am through playing games with you. Tell me the truth.”
She stared up at him, willing him to believe her. She shook her head, fresh tears spilling from her eyes, marking fresh trails to her ears. “I can’t.”
He let go of her only to flick his bowie knife free, placing it at her neck. “The truth.”
“I would never offer myself to Albert,” she whispered. “I couldn’t.”
She swallowed and answered, “Because I’m—.”
“He didn’t want your body so you swung the hammer at his head in jealous anger. Is that it?” Twisted distaste wrinkled his handsome features.
“No,” she gasped. “I’m not a murderer.”
“But you kilt Old Curly.” Quinn glared at her, daring her to lie.
"That depends on how you plea and your defense attorney. Technically, I could plea self- defense and get off while you would be found guilty. I'm only an accessory."
“How do you know that?”
“You wouldn’t believe me.” He applied pressure to her skin with the knife.
Her eyes grew wide, straining to see his hand. “Put your knife away and pull up a chair.”
He looked around her scantly furnished room. “You don’t have a chair.”
She forced a weak smile, “Details… the knife, put it away? Please.”
With a flick of his wrist, the knife disappeared. “It’s where I can get to it if you don’t tell me the truth.”
“Then you better find yourself a really comfortable place to sit and have an open mind.”
Quietly, Trish told him how she hadn’t noticed anything was wrong when she returned to the livery. She’d had her hands full with a flighty Yedi. Quinn listened, his usual calm returning.
"I heard someone coming and panicked. It was like I'd never--" her hand went in the air as if her next words would make complete sense-- "studied a murder case before. I went into survival mode and ran."
“Whoa. You study murder?” He scowled at her, his eyes flashing.
“Murder cases, felony cases, misdemeanors. Yeah, I had to.” Her words trailed off. She took several deep breaths. “That doesn’t sound good, does it?”
“Murder.” Quinn’s eyes burned with fury, his posture stiff.
Trish reached for his arm, touching him lightly. He stared at her hand but didn’t move. “I’ve gone to school to study law. It’s my dream to be a defense attorney.”
“This is what you’ve pretended not to remember?”
Trish grasped the partial truth, reminding herself to only answer his questions. No more. “Yes.”
“Then you know who killed Albert.”
“No. At least not for sure.”
“What ain’t ya tellin’ me? The truth, Trish.”
“That is why I went to see Milton Moore. I heard them arguing.”
“You went to Moore to see if he wanted what Albert didn’t,” he sneered.
“No. To try and find proof I only have the button. It could have come from any coat or vest. I have to find the vest that matches the button and the threads attached.”
“Then find them, find the murderer.”
“I can’t. I tried and failed. All I did was rule out who it wasn’t or that Moore wasn’t wearing that vest.”
“You have to help me find the murderer.”
“I don’t—” Trish couldn’t bring herself to deny him. He looked so hopeful and yet determined. A contrast to the deadly approach he’d taken earlier. “I will if I can, but I don’t even know how he was murdered.”
Quinn’s lips twitched. “I do.”
The jangle of spurs, Zelda’s coarse laughter and a drunken bumping across Trish’s door caused her question to wilt on her lips. She froze. This wasn’t a conversation that either of them could afford to have eavesdropped upon. Her attention flashed to the door before returning to Quinn. She held her breath as Quinn stood, tiptoeing across the floor to the door. He pressed his ear to the door. Seeming satisfied, he moved to the wall adjoining Zelda’s room.
“Hand me that glass,” Quinn whispered, pointing at the bottle of whiskey and the single glass on her small table. Trish rolled over the bed, causing the springs to announce her movements before gaining her feet and reaching for the glass. “Quiet!” Quinn hissed.
She chuckled and sauntered over to him, taking her time before handing him the glass. “This is as close to a brothel as it gets. A certain amount of bed springs creaking and—” She cleared her throat, handing him the glass. “Other sounds are expected.”
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than such noises from the next room announced Zelda’s activities with her companion. Trish watched Quinn place the glass against the wall and his ear to the glass. He stood stock still to listen.
She watched his eyebrows raise before extending her hand for the glass.
“May I pour you a drink? Your turn to answer a few questions. But instead of using a carving knife, I’ll offer you a drink.”
Quinn’s glare warned her that he didn’t care for her abrupt attitude change or her teasing to lighten the tension in the room. She took the glass from him and poured it half full before offering it to him. He shook his head, refusing it. She pressed the glass with the cool liquor to her pounding forehead.
“What I wouldn’t give for an icepack right now.”
Quinn stared at her.
“I know.” Trish did her best to cover her foible. “It’s May and the snow is melted, but even a handful of snow sounds good right now. You know, for this bump on my head.”
Apparently, her ploy worked because Quinn relaxed and moved to the bed to sit down. The springs creaked.
“Make yourself comfortable because I need answers.”
“I’ve still got my knife.”
“And I could scream. Neither of us would come away satisfied.” She carefully rolled the glass across the goose egg on her head. “Tell me how you think Albert was murdered.”
Quinn scowled at her, clearly not liking her nonchalant way of furthering their discussion. “With a crosspein hammer.”
“It’s a hammer with a cross at the top that Albert uses at the smithy.”
“And you know this—how?”
“I felt the holes in the back of his head.”
Trish paced the floor once and asked, “How do you know the holes were caused by the crosspein hammer?”
“‘Cause I gave it to him, right after I fashioned a handle out of leather fer it to keep it cool and so’s he could grip it tight.”
Trish stopped mid-step, turning to face him. She peered at him intently. “You gave it to him. When?”
Quinn shrugged. “Last month fer his birthday.”
“Did anyone ‘see’ you give it to him?”
“Lucinda, maybe. Why?”
“Who knows you gave him the hammer?”
“Couldn’t say. Don’t know if’n he told anyone I gave it to him. He used it right regular. Said it was the best tool in the smithy. Unique and with lots of things to use it for.”
Trish turned to the open window, staring at the barely fluttering leaves in the trees for several minutes. A squirrel scurried across the ground. The possible murder scenario played in her mind. It was entirely possible that the brothers had fought. It didn’t matter over what.
She encouraged the scene to play out in her head. Quinn and Albert argued. Quinn grabbed the hammer and hit Albert. Seeing Albert fall, Quinn got on his horse and rode to the swimming hole. Maybe that was why he scrubbed his clothes with such a vengeance. At the time she couldn’t tell if his clothes had blood stains or not. Feeling guilty, Quinn returned to the livery to apologize. His apology came too late and Albert was already dead.
It fit. She closed her eyes, trying to envision Quinn with a crosspein hammer raised in anger at Albert. She only succeeded in envisioning Quinn as she had seen him earlier that afternoon, without his shirt and pants. She let her mind linger, lifting the corner of her mouth. If only…
She shook her head. No, those imaginings had no place here now.
Maybe it would help if she knew what a crosspein hammer looked like. Her pivot toward Quinn stuttered. Her head continued to throb from her collision with the livery door. Her knees buckled but Quinn caught her, easing her to the bed. The room went black.
Trish dragged her eyelids open to a darkening room. The high pitch staccato of a poorly played piano begged for understanding… or a shotgun. Trish grimaced.
“Well, well, she isn’t dead. Welcome back, Gardner style. Damn, I wish he’d stop. Been stranglin’ that cat for best of an hour.”
Trish held still, recognizing a familiar tune amidst the flat sharps from the saloon. “Actually, I think he’s getting better.” She carefully pushed herself to a sitting position. “How long have I been out?”
“Too long. It’s mid-afternoon, I expect.” Quinn pushed the chair he’d managed to find back on all fours. “Ya done droppin’ like a fly? Ya could probably use some food and a stiff drink.”
Trish grimaced and tested her forehead for a fever. “I could use some cool air, maybe even a cool bath. I think I have a fever. Are you up to helping a damsel in distress?”
“A bath would draw a whole lot of attention. But ifn’ you’re up to it…” A smirk crossed his features.
Trish watched him, noticing sincere concern replace his teasing. “You are right on both counts, but maybe a stroll to the livery would do me good. We could stop and put our feet in the water?” she coaxed.
“I’ll help ya down the steps ifn’ ya gonna sit and wait while I find some vittles for ya.”
Trish sat on the bottom steps of the outdoor stairs and closed her eyes to the soft breeze, willing it to lift her hair off her neck. Two cowboys rode up and tied their ponies to the hitching rail while she waited for Quinn. He returned with a packet of food tucked inside a relatively clean bar towel.
“It ain’t much, but it’ll do in a pinch. Ya feel like walkin’ now?” He offered to help her to her feet. Trish leaned on him as they strolled toward the bridge. “There’s a right nice spot just this side of the livery, if ya don’t mind that we often water the horses there. They leave some right deep holes sometimes.”
“If you can keep me from falling and if there aren’t a lot of flies buzzing around, it sounds good.” Trish smiled.
“Cain’t guarantee nothin’ but I’ll do my best to keep ya on yar feet.” Quinn guided her across the bridge and along the river bank. At a fallen tree, he stopped and with a wide flourish, indicated nature’s seat. “Here’s the place.”
They sat side by side on the tree, Trish nibbling at the biscuits and cold chicken Quinn had gathered from Pierre’s kitchen. “Ya ain’t eaten much,” Quinn observed.
“I’m not really hungry,” Trish explained while swallowing the sickness in her throat. “I think I have a concussion.”
“Ya be okay for a minute?”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Quinn stood and walked toward the river, taking his shirt off as he went. Trish smiled, feeling a delicious shudder in her belly at the sight of his physique. He may not have the use of the modern gym but it didn’t matter. His shoulders were wide and well-muscled, his hips narrow, and in her opinion, the perfect specimen in any century. At the river’s edge, he knelt and submerged his shirt in the rushing water.
Trish inhaled a breath of fresh air, enjoying how his muscles rippled in his shoulders. If only she felt good enough to act on the attraction his naked body ignited.
He returned to her, his shirt still dripping in his hands. “Hold this,” he commanded.
She managed to contain her reaction to the hair on his chest. Hair she hadn’t been able to make out at the swimming hole due to the distance and the shadows. She took the dripping shirt, holding it away from her body while he gathered the food to set it aside.
“It ain’t a bath, but it’ll cool ya off.” He took the shirt from her and stepped up on the tree trunk behind her.
She looked up in time to see the water that he wrung from his shirt shower her with cold drops of water. “Uhhh,” she gasped, scrambling to her feet in an effort to get away.
“Stay put or I’ll hogtie ya,” His voice held a generous amount of mirth while he chased her, continuing to wring the shirt’s water onto her.
She stumbled, falling to her knees. She remained on her hands and knees, not sure whether to laugh or cry while he squeezed the last drops on her head.
Quinn bent over her, unraveling the shirt, and pressed a cold sleeve to her forehead. He held it there for several minutes.
Trish sank back on her heels and breathed deep, her hands going to the cool damp cloth. She pressed it to her hot face and neck.
Quinn lifted her hair off the back of her neck while holding the shirt out of the dirt. “Ya ready for another sprinklin’?”
“No. I’d rather wade right in.”
“River’s too high and yer too weak. ‘Fraid ya’d plumb wash away. Here, let’s get ya outta the dirt for another—”
“Quinn? Help me to the river. I don’t care if I fall in. I’ve got to cool off.”
“I got a better idea.” He draped his wet shirt around her shoulders. “Stay right here.” He retrieved the food, pressing it into her hands. Minutes later, he led his horse to where she remained in the dirt. Taking the food to tuck in his saddle bags, he then helped her mount and swung up behind her. With his arm secured around her waist, he clucked to the horse.
At first, the cold of the shirt had chilled her, but it wasn’t long before the heat of his chest warmed her back. She sank back against him as they rode, basking in his nearness, and the hard muscles of his chest.
“Swat the mosquito on my arm,” Quinn instructed, lifting it to where she could do so easily.
The insect stuck to his arm. “Quinn, you’re being eaten alive.” Guilt flooded her. She had his shirt and he rode behind her with his back and arms exposed to the hungry mosquitoes. “Stop. And I’ll give you your shirt back.”
Quinn wrapped the reins around the saddle horn between her thighs without stopping the horse. A luscious sensation rushed through her. No, she argued, I can’t, I’m going home. Her traitorous heart skipped a beat. Excitement burst to a full gallop. It stuttered, her heart skidding to a stop before racing on. Quinn lifted the shirt from her shoulders and pulled it on. His hands went to the saddle horn, retrieving the reins. Delicious shudders broke into a succulent wave deep in her belly.
She glanced at the sun and its distance to the horizon, measuring the time she had left. I’m going home, I’m going home, she reminded herself. He doesn’t love me, he was just trying to scare me into telling him what he thought was the truth.
They picked their way through the trees, coming to a halt near the swimming hole. Quinn climbed off the horse, turning to offer his assistance. Trish swallowed the longing for his touch, trying to chase the desire away, unable to slow her heart.
Quinn waited for her to accept his offer to help her down and flinched when she ignored his outstretched hands. She climbed down using the stirrup. It was almost as if she pushed him away. He clamped his foolish impulse to help her aside. Damsel or not, she didn’t want him or his help any more than another man’s.
“The current ain’t real strong here. Will ya be okay if I leave ya?” Leaving her alone was the last thing he wanted to do. The feeling of riding behind her, her body safe in his arms lingered. How vividly he remembered the velvety smoothness of her skin at the bath shack. He wanted to wrap her in his arms again and ravish her… this time with the hungry tenderness he felt for her and without his knife at her neck. He would never have really hurt her with the blade. He’d taken great care to hold the dull edge to her skin, but she would never know that. It had been a stupid ruse and now he’d missed his opportunity to do more than simply question her.
Blast his mother and her teachings to always be a gentleman. A gentleman always finished last and never with the woman in his arms for long. “I’ll stay close.” He dropped the reins, ground tying the horse and turned to leave.
“Okay,” she stammered.
“Ifn’ ya need me, just holler.” Quinn walked away from her, wishing things were different. At the mahogany tree he veered right. Maybe he could work his way back to the flat rock to keep a watchful eye on her. He’d have to break trail through the berry bushes with their thorns, but at least she would be safely within his view. He stopped short.
The current bush showed signs of breakage. Alarms thundered in his head. Why would an animal crash through such wicked foliage? There were easier ways to get to the water. Could it be possible that his pond wasn’t as protected from danger as he’d believed? He examined a broken branch. This was a trail leading from the swimming hole, not to it. He wet his finger, testing the wind. It was possible that a deer or an elk had wandered to the pond for a drink. The thicket would be a good place for either to bed down, unless a grizzly caught their scent.
Quinn turned back, hurrying to his horse for the rifle he kept in his scabbard for protection from wolves, bears, and occasionally to hunt. Reaching the horse, he could hear Trish. She quietly sang while gently splashing but she didn’t sing one of the songs she belted out over the drunken din of the saloon. This melody was distinctly different. The notes flowed smoothly, the melody enchanting with its poetic strains. He wouldn’t disturb her and yet he needed a higher vantage point to protect her from danger. He hiked through the foliage to the flat rock that overlooked the pond. From this vantage he could survey the surrounding area. Slowly, methodically, he scanned the trees and bushes searching for a predator.
“Quinn,” she called from the water below. “What are you doing? If you didn’t…” her voice caught, changing abruptly. “What are you doing with a gun?”
He casually lifted it, his hand wrapped around the barrel. “I thought this would be a good place to keep an eye out.”
“For what?” Was it just his imagination or did she sound frightened? How would she react if he told her the truth? He watched her search the bushes, treading the water.
“Just a gut feeling. Wouldn’t want a varmint to scare ya.” He shrugged, trying to sound unconcerned.
“If you are concerned about my being scared, I’d feel much better if you were down here… and without the gun.” She paddled to the far side of the only bush stretching its branches across the water. He could no longer see her completely.
A wicked grin tugged at the corner of his mouth. “The damsel in distress again,” he drawled.
“Yes, but not the way you think.”
He watched for her to return to where he could see her. She’d grown silent.
“Trish?” No answer. “Trish, you alright?”
A shadow crossed the water, disappeared, changed direction. He started and set the rifle down. Something was in the water. Would it harm her? He pulled at his boot, hopping on one foot. Splashing from the end of the pond near his horse drew his attention. He turned to see a flash of bare skin disappear behind the bushes.
“Damn,” he muttered under his breath, grabbing the rifle. He hurried down the trail, rifle in one hand, boot in the other. He found Trish struggling to dress, the dry clothing dragging at her wet skin.
She turned to face him, her skirt on. Her hands stilled at her bodice, protecting her heart with nothing more than a layer of fabric. “I didn’t kill him,” she said, shaking her head.
“Kill who?” Quinn stopped, bending to lower the rifle to the ground, butt first. “Trish, ya aren’t thinkin’ that I… Woman, I would never.” He stood, leaving the rifle on the ground at his feet and lifted his hands as if in surrender.
“You brought me here.” He could hear her ragged breathing as it whipped across her teeth, fear etched lines on her face.
His attention lingered on her parted lips. “Hurting you is the last thing I would ever do. You have to believe me. I saw a trail leading away from this here pond and thought it might be that of a predator. I got my gun to kill ‘em ifn’ they’re still here or at least scare ‘em away.”
“Protect me. You mean like you did this afternoon with your knife to my throat? I told you what happened. Don’t you believe me?”
Did he believe her? It didn’t matter whether he did or not. He could never hurt her. He loved her. If only he could tell her. If only she would believe him.
“My knife blade was never at your throat.”
“Right. And you didn’t have that rifle in your hands, either.”
“I did, but…” Her narrowed eyes told him volumes. She didn’t believe him. Slowly, he reached for his knife. She backed away, her foot slipping in the mud. She nearly lost her balance. One hand flew away from her breast to right herself.
“This pond makes a nice place for a murder.” She clenched her jaw. “I guess it wouldn’t help for me to beg for mercy. But I promise, if you let me go, I won’t tell anyone and I’ll leave. I’ll leave right now and never come back. I promise.”
“You don’t need to promise.”
Her blue eyes darted to his side, the hilt of the knife secure in his hand. She sucked at the air, taking another step back. Her skirt floated briefly, capturing air under it before dragging in the water. She looked like a Tennessee belle, her collarbone bare and velvety smooth except for the silver chain shifting with her every breath. Wet hair hung in a confusion of heavy curls on her shoulders.
He flicked his wrist, flipping the point of the blade to the heel of his hand and back again. She flinched.
“The blade is deadly sharp. I could cut a generous lock of your hair, even though it’s wet with a flick of my wrist, but Trish, I didn’t put this blade to your throat. I wouldn’t, I couldn’t. Here, you can check it for yourself. But be careful, it is very sharp.” He offered it to her, showing her how to slide her thumb against the blade without cutting herself. Another flick of his wrist and the blade disappeared in his hand, the hilt toward her.
She shook her head, a sniffle belied her composure. “Then why? Why did you threaten me?”
“I had to know. Albert was my brother. Someone killed him. Sheriff Tuckett is a no good, low down of the worst sort. He ain’t gonna find the murderer. If I don’t, the murderer will get off. I can’t let that happen. I’d rather die than hurt you. Trish.” He stuffed all the emotion, all the feeling he could into his words. “I believe you when you say he was already dying, that there was nothing you could do. You don’t have to prove it to me.”
He flicked his wrist, returning the knife to its sheath and stepped toward her. “You’re cold.”
She swallowed, nodding. “It feels good. But Quinn…” her words faded as she sagged.
Quinn reached for her, barely catching her. He stood in the mud of the pond, her limp frame in his arms. He glanced around to find a place to put her down. Finding a dry place free of branches and thorns, he lowered her to the ground. Her head rolled against his shoulder.
“Damn lucky for both of us there ain’t no stairs.”
Flowing water trickled and danced at the edge of Trish’s consciousness. She fought past her nausea to listen intently. Birds chirped nearby but what held her attention was the soft rhythm of human breath. Warmth. She scooted closer to it, craving its comfort. She repositioned her head on the unusual pillow. A familiar scent filled her nostrils, tickling her memory with pleasure with its musky aroma. In the background of scents, damp leaves and foliage mixed with the musky human scent, the scent of a man so very close, without the odor of cologne. Quinn. She dared to allow her eyelids to flutter open. She made out his chin and jawbone so very close then the curl of brown hair behind his ear. This was a cozy spot, despite a few prickles under her side. She didn’t fear him. He’d claimed that he hadn’t pressed the blade to her throat and if it were as sharp as it appeared, she believed him. She shifted, hoping he would keep her close.
He pulled away from her, causing her head to slide down his arm, catching her with her eyes open. “Awe, the damsel wakes. Ya okay? Ya warm enough?” His voice carried a warm cadence.
“I fainted again, didn’t I? If I didn’t know better, I’d almost think I was—” she stopped herself.
“Ya did, but ya didn’t finish your sentence. What is it you’re thinkin’?”
Trish didn’t answer, instead, she silently willing him to continue playing with her hair.
“Come on, Trish. I could coax it outta ya.”
She scooted away, allowing her head to slide down to his wrist, getting a better look at him. “You said you’d never hurt me.” Her tone held a tentatively confident quality.
He wrapped a drying tress of her hair around a finger of his right hand, drawing it taut.
“There’s ways, other than a blade, to get ya to talk, ya know.”
She huffed. “Like what?”
He gently rolled toward her, positioning her on her back. She watched him gaze at her from under her lashes, her heart skipping a beat.
His attention went from the wet tresses atop her head to her shoulders and settled on the bare flesh at her collar bone. Her breath caught and she quickly gathered her blouse in her hands before she realized his attention was no longer on her bust, but her lips. His musky smell filled her, yet she didn’t dare breathe. The lengthening shadows of late afternoon caught her attention. She struggled to her feet, swaying slightly.
“Whoa, woman. What has ya all stirred up?”
“I have to go.”
Quinn smiled to himself, so she was being shy. He could deal with that. “So we’ll get a moseyin’ along soon enough.”
“No. I have to go now.” She grabbed the packet of clothes from where she’d dropped them and turned, racing to the nearest patch of sunlight. He watched her dangle the talisman with one hand. It danced in the golden rays of sunlight. She flicked it with her free hand, sending it spinning.
Trish seemed to expect something to happen. When nothing did, her brow furrowed. She checked the suns long rays, repositioned herself, holding the talisman in a long sunbeam and flicked it again. She looked about herself, a semblance of alarm darkening her appearance.
He stepped tentatively forward, his hands extended to her. “Trish?”
Trish focused her attention on him. Her features clouded before growing childlike. “It didn’t work. It’s supposed to work. I should be home now.”
Concerned for her, Quinn adopted the same tone he used when training horses. “What didn’t work?”
She looked up at him, her voice dismayed. “The talisman, it should have taken me home. I caught the sunbeam. I know I did.”
“Trish, you’ve had a nasty bump.” Her bump today, combined with her amnesia, had certainly had a hallucinatory effect. He needed to keep her calm.
“The talisman was supposed to take me home,” she argued, her tears surfacing.
“Yes, yes.” He gathered her into his arms, wondering what more he could do. “Let me take you home.”
Trish clapped her hands to her face, covering her eyes.
“I was so sure.” Her breathy words were becoming hysterical. “Quinn, I even remembered to get my things from Lucinda.”
“Shhh.” Quinn tried to soothe her. He started moving an unwilling Trish toward the horse. “You need to rest. It’ll all look better in the mornin’.”
“If I don’t go home today, it may not be there tomorrow.” Tears streaked her cheeks. “Seven days. Today is the day I had to go home.”
He put her on the horse and took her to the saloon. Her babbling came to an end, replaced by stilted silence. An owl hooted in the distance. Darkness was falling fast.
The eyes of half a dozen men watched him guide a dejected damsel across the tobacco-stained floor. Their ravenous watchfulness bore witness to each man’s willingness to trade him for their evening’s business. Quinn glared at each. He planted his foot on the first step when Pierre spoke.
“She gonna be coming down to sing later?”
Quinn glanced at Pierre. “Not tonight. She’s had a rough day of it with being sick an’ all.”
Pierre nodded, “You’ll be carin’ for her then?”
Quinn nodded and continued assisting a disheartened Trish up the steps. Once in her room, Trish drooped while Quinn lighted the lantern. He guided her to the bed and when she sat, he bent on one knee, unlacing her boots and pulling them off one at a time. What had happened? Her actions weren’t right and her silence was even more baffling.
“Do you want me to help you to bed?”
Shaking her head, Trish lay down.
Quinn knew her clothing was damp. She may not want his help but he couldn’t let her catch her death of cold. She didn’t oppose his actions as he disrobed her to her camisole and bloomers. She lay there as if inviting him to do as he pleased. He shook his head in an effort to dislodge his desires.
The lantern light danced on her silken smooth skin, highlighting delicate curves in need of a broad expanse of gentle caresses. He wanted her, his body even ached for her, but her, the Trish that exhibited so much spirit, not this feminine shell before him. With a heavy sigh, he pulled the sheet and blanket over her.
“You shimmy out of those wet things while I hang these to dry.” He hung her things about the sparse room, over the edge of the small table and over the brass footboard of the bed. He had his task complete and yet Trish hadn’t moved.
“I won’t have you like this. I know yar upset about not goin’ home. That ain’t no reason to give up hope.”
She still didn’t respond. In frustration, he went to the far side of the bed, sat down, pulled off his boots before lying next to her and pulling her to him. Every nerve in his body demanded he love her. It required great effort to lie still, ignoring his needs and concentrating on her emotional state rather than her body. His battle waged a valiant effort until at last he felt able to control himself.
“Are you still awake?” No answer. “Trish, I have no idea what it’s like to not remember home, yar family and the likes, but I do know what it’s like to not be able to go home. The ones ya love move on and you have to, too. You have to find a reason for livin’ everyday, a reason to get up in the mornin’ and get somethin’ done. You’re a fighter. This isn’t you to lie down and die.”
Quinn figured he’d said about enough, but she still didn’t move. He touched her cheek. It was warm. “Ya warm enough then?”
A night bird’s call penetrated the silence in the room, intensifying its heaviness. How was it she was so silent now, when before he got her on the horse she was almost raving, babbling on about home and seven days? Seven days for what? His mind grasped at the only thing he could. In six days, God created the heavens and the earth and on the seventh, He rested. So a week is seven days. Why not say a week?
“Seven days are a week. One week, but the Sabbath comes once a week on Sunday. Monday is day one, Tuesday is day two…”
Trish sat straight up in bed, staring at him.
“Sunday is day seven. Quinn, do you know what that means?” The energy and spirit that had vanished hours ago filled her whole being.
Quinn allowed the corner of his mouth to curl and shook his head. She was amazing and so appealing when she was excited like this. So much like yesterday. He reveled in her excitement. This was part of why he loved her, the excitement, the fight, the needing to be loved and assured. He’d learned to appreciate a woman able to fight for herself. When his mother and sisters had been too deeply steeped in being ladies of the south to defend against wicked men bent on ravishing not only their land, but the feminine beauties of his family, he’d been too young to know how to defend them. Years on the trail, fighting for his own survival, had changed that.
When he had found Zelda, she had been a victim of yet another wicked man, but instead of allowing herself to be killed, she had yielded to prostitution. He had thought to rescue her from the bawdy life, but now it was what she chose.
Trish was not a religious woman as Lucinda, nor a helpless, silly female like Penelope. Trish was a woman that did her best under difficult situations and asked a man’s assistance only when necessary. She didn’t need a man to stay about the house to take care of her. Trish could take care of herself in most situations. Her serious recitation of discovery pulled him back to her.
“That means that I didn’t miss the sunbeam. The talisman wouldn’t transport me today because it couldn’t. Tomorrow. Tomorrow is the day.” She reached for him, lacing her fingers through his hair and kissed him full on the lips. “Thank you, so much. I have to get some sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day.”
She pulled the bedding up to cover her, looking at him expectantly.
The resurgence of Trish’s spirits served to reignite his desire for her. This was the woman he wanted and loved.
“Your fight back for everything?” He allowed his desire for her to etch itself on his features.
“Quinn, I… I can’t. I’ve got to go home. Please understand.”
He scooted off the bed, pausing long enough to put his boots on. She had dragged him around the barnyard, over the haystack and stabbed him in the heart. He needed a drink. His hand touched the doorknob. He should hate her.
Trish sat with her back straight, her arms bracing her at either side. Her hair tumbled over her shoulders in gentle curls. She stared at the lantern across the room, its flame flickering, searching for more than the wick at its base and the oil that permeated it, much like the flames of a simmering campfire. The memory caused an involuntary shudder to chase up her spine.
Trish pulled her knees to her chest, hugging herself. For a moment she thought she saw Curly’s body, the blood-trickling from his head and chest on the stained wall behind the lantern. She scooted back against the brass frame of the bed until the knobs and balls scored her ribs.
“No.” she said, shaking her head. She’d experienced a similar vision while Quinn held her. Then she had been safe in his arms and afraid of revealing secrets she didn’t feel it safe to share. She had remained silent, willing the memories to retreat. For a few minutes they had. She shook her whole body.
The motion dislodged one apparition to replace it with another. This one more real. Albert stepped toward her, holding a small blacksmith’s hammer in his hand. Trish’s breathing was ragged, her heart beating in accelerated bumps against her ribcage. She looked away only to find Albert in her lap, looking up at her as if begging for her help. She scrambled from her bed, a silent scream lodged in her throat. Her legs shaking until like strained twigs, they buckled, dropping her to the floor.
Trish placed her hand over her heart in an effort to keep it from bursting from the safe captivity of her ribcage. The talisman’s familiarity grounded her, calming her soul. Grammy had often spoken of the talisman’s seven-day cycle and Trish had understood it as every seventh day, Saturday one week and Friday the next, then Thursday and so on. The cycle had caused Trish more than a little consternation. Now she needn’t worry. She had taken her pleasure ride on Sunday morning and on Sunday, she would return home.
Missing what she believed to be the talisman’s travel cycle had scared her. Grammy mentioned how she hadn’t traveled on the right day and consequently, she had found herself in a totally different time than she had expected to arrive in. The possibility of that happening to Trish frightened her.
Sleepless hours passed. Trish welcomed the chill of the night air. It kept her awake and if she stayed awake, the phantoms of her memory couldn’t haunt her. They would not keep her here. Curly and Albert’s ghosts would remain here. She would outsmart them, abandoning them for her own time.
At last, the hint of light over the eastern ridge pierced the black darkness, chasing her night demons to the corners. Trish struggled to her feet, pushing the stiffness of cramped joints away. She dressed in the clothes of the twenty-first century in the fading darkness, tucking the talisman under her shirt and slipped down the steps barefoot. Soundlessly, she pulled on her socks and boots. Today would take her home.
Trish exited the cool darkness of the saloon, intending to go get Yedi. She glanced to the east to judge how long until the sun would rise. She hurried across the bridge, not taking the time to notice the water racing beneath it. At the livery, she ducked inside to get Yedi’s bridle and her saddle. In the distance, a rider approached. She watched and gasped. Quinn was on his way to her. He couldn’t see her vanish. She’d waited too long to start on her way. Panic swept over her.
Trish scrambled to get Yedi saddled and ready. She had to reach the trees before Quinn saw her. Then she had to pray that she would find a clearing or at least catch the sun’s rays before he found her.
She led Yedi out of his corral. The slick leather of her boots’ soles offered little traction. She slipped and caught herself on Yedi’s bridle. A fleeting wish for running shoes crossed her mind. Focusing on the line of trees forty yards away, Trish swung her leg up over Yedi and focused her energy on their needed sprint. The first rays of sunlight pierced the morning before Trish reached the trees. She bent low over Yedi’s neck, urging him to go faster and turned around to glance toward the saloon. A quail took flight, bursting from the trees. She saw Quinn glance her direction as he dismounted. He paused, then remounted. He must have seen her. Alarm resurfaced, her heart pounding in her ears. A patch of sunlight came into view. She adjusted Yedi’s course. She had to reach it fast. Her heart thundering in her ears, she wasn’t sure she heard hoof beats that didn’t belong to Yedi. She knew he was coming. She wrapped trembling fingers around the chain at her neck, drawing the talisman to the light. She glanced down. It danced in the sunlight.
“Trish,” Quinn called.
She must do it… she took the talisman into her hands.
Quinn couldn’t believe his eyes. He could have sworn it was her and Yedi that he saw in the trees and he had hurried to her. He had a bit to say to her after last night. If it wasn’t her he had seen, what was it? He dismounted and leaving his horse ground tied, pushed into the thick stand of trees. He found footprints and they could have been Yedi’s. His hopes dashed when he lost her trail. Standing in the flickering of sun and shade from dancing leaves, Quinn called again.
“Trish,” he called. No answer. “Trish.”
Hoodwinked by a filly. Had he blinked? No. He felt like a greenhorn, He so rarely lost a trail, but then, maybe he did and just didn’t realize it. She wasn’t a lost calf or belligerent cow.
Puzzled, he returned to his horse. She was probably still in bed where he’d left her. Yesterday… So much had happened. He rode to the saloon and tied his horse at the hitching rail. Pierre didn’t like folks coming in at this hour, but Quinn pushed the doors open and slunk across the saloon floor boards. At the steps, he paused, looking up at her door. He climbed the steps ever so carefully. He stopped at her door, his hand raised to rap on it and stopped. Had he really held a knife to Trish’s throat? He turned an unsavory oath on himself. No woman could equate such actions to courtship, no matter how rugged the country or the man. He knew better. His sweet mama must have climbed plumb outta her grave and worn a path across the heavens in embarrassment the whole day long.
Ashamed of his crude behavior, he returned to his horse, remounted and turned toward home, using the time on the trail to pray to his beloved mama for forgiveness and a glimpse of the life he should live.
Arriving at home further dampened his spirits. A neighbor, probably Noble, had deposited an ornery little mule at his place in the early morning light. Noble had said the colt needed its best friend to make training easier and Quinn had refused, but the mule stood there in the round pen with the colt, their heads down as they slept. The worst part wasn’t the mule’s presence but the memories its being there engendered. Old Curly.
Could it be that weeks of sleep deprivation tending cattle on a sun-scorched land had brought on his rough and unpolished behavior? Had he killed Old Curly for no better reason than believing he held a woman prisoner? That wasn’t like him to deal out justice without proof.
His actions sickened him. He’d proven his character no better than the lowliest of dogs and even a dog didn’t kill in cold blood.
He dropped his horse’s reins and stood in the morning light, willing himself to remember. Killing wasn’t new to him. He and Albert had killed to protect kith and kin. But now? Had he developed some kind of insane blood lust? He didn’t think so.
And what of Albert’s death? If he couldn’t find proof of the murderer, could Quinn live with himself? Turning a blind eye wasn’t in Quinn’s nature any more than cold blooded murder.
“No.” Quinn found his knife in his hand. He scowled, reacting without thought. The knife flew across the arena, sinking to the hilt in the soft pine timber on the far side. “What is done is done. Curly deserved what he got. Albert’s murderer will too. I swear it.” He sunk to his knees as waves of passion, doubt, and horror at what he had become wracked his soul.
Lightening bolted across the sky as the rain poured down. Trish sagged in her saddle, her shoulders shuddering, her hands shaking. She was home. She shook off the memories of what she’d left behind. The sound of the pickup startled her and she clucked to Yedi to get him to move into the shadows of the lone cottonwood. Why not flag the driver down and ask what day it was? Confused with her covert action, she nudged Yedi out of the shadows and climbed through the barrow pit to the road, turning their feet for home while her thoughts turned to more pressing matters.
Why hadn’t the events of yesterday happened days ago? She wanted Quinn’s attentions if he loved her, but couldn’t stay no matter what his intentions. She had dressed like a whore for most of a week. She couldn’t blame him if he thought she was a whore, but the fact that his advances had come now just before her time to return safely home brought tears to her eyes. For once, she had met a man who had defended her honor, watched her back, and kept her secret. She had found the man she believed she wanted to try to make it work with, the man of her dreams.
But he didn’t know the truth. He didn’t know where she was from or why she had come. He didn’t know and she had known she couldn’t tell him. She had lingered with him when she shouldn’t have. Now she rode to a secluded spot to return home, even if she had misjudged the talisman’s cycle.
She glanced at the sky. Why hadn’t she asked Quinn… Stop. What’s done is done. Time waits for no woman, not even one holding a talisman in her hand. She could, in theory, return to the same time once more, but she would have to wait for a new cycle. The more pressing question was. What would she tell her mother and Vance?
Trish towel-dried her hair, thankful to be home and out of the downpour. She had brushed Yedi before putting him in the corral.
“Here, drink this. It will warm you up. I still can’t believe it.” Rhea set a steaming cup of her own home brew of herbs and lemon in front of Trish. “I swear, I never believed your grammy’s stories. Are you sure you actually traveled in time?”
Trish appreciated her mother’s skepticism. She hadn’t been a true believer, either, until last week. Now she huddled at the kitchen table, thankful for the electric lights and warm home without the draft. The year of 1887 was fine for a visit, but she didn’t want to grow old there. “What I can’t believe is that Yedi went with me. Did Grammy ever tell you stories about taking anything or anyone along with her?”
“No. Are you sure your horse is okay?”
“I’m sure he’s okay. I put him in the corral before coming in.”
Rhea pulled out a chair and sat down, resting her elbows on the table. “You said something terrible happened. Did you change history?”
“A man, Albert Jackson, was killed. I don’t think I caused it, but he did die in my arms.”
Rhea stared at her, “You’re serious.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
“Believe it or not, that isn’t the biggest problem I’ve had to deal with.” Trish began her narration of the last week, complete with the danger, whoring, and awkward moments. She carefully deleted Quinn’s kiss. Her steaming brew had cooled enough to drink it and she finished it before she ended her narration.
“Well, I must say. If you were a child, I’d be torn between lecturing you for your tall tale and praising you for your vivid imagination.”
“You don’t believe me? You think I went on a crazy drug binge for a week and wanted to cover it up so I made all this up?”
“I didn’t say that. But you not passing the bar exam had me thinking you’d done something drastic.”
Trish chortled, reminding herself of Zelda. “Oh, Mom, I did do something drastic. You could even say I went off the deep end or at least the edge of the gulley, but you of all people know I lack the imagination to make this up. You could ask me details and I could answer them. Try me.”
“Okay, what color were the fellow’s eyes, the one that rescued you?”
“His eyes are blue.”
“You said he was dark.”
“I said his hair is dark, not his eyes or even his skin.”
“Well.” Rhea exhaled slowly. “There is one sure way to find out. What year did you say?”
“I think it was 1887. The newspaper I got a glimpse of may have been smudged. It might have been 1889.”
“Okay. Tomorrow we go to the newspaper and check.”
“Do they have papers that old?”
“Sweetheart, Karl may not be a first-rate newspaperman by big city standards but he has often told me his family’s been here forever. He also claims that his granddaddy and his granddaddy’s daddy were the best newspapermen on the planet. Let’s put him to the test first thing tomorrow.”
Trish scrolled through the microfiche until she located May 1888. The space was small and yet Karl had used it to store stacks of old newspapers, making it rather tight quarters. She read headlines until her eyes hurt but found nothing about Albert Jackson.
“Mom, it isn’t here.”
“Good.” Rhea slid the drawer she’d been peering over closed.
“What do you mean?”
“Good, I found the 1880’s, but there is only one spool.”
“Please be there. I’d hate to think it was all in my head.” Trish surrendered the tiny workspace to Rhea who took over with familiar ease.
“I’ll have to remember to bring my genealogy notebook next time. Karl was right, his granddaddy recorded everything in the paper. I dare say a fellow couldn’t buy a new horse without it being news.”
“I don’t care about buying horses. Go to May and see if you can find anything about Albert—”
“Eureka!” Rhea fell silent, reading intently for several minutes.
“You found it.”
"Actually-- oh, I'm looking at the wrong date. But wait."
“Who murdered Albert?”
“I don’t know.”
Rhea lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “A man dies in your arms and you don’t know who did it. What kind of a legal mind are you? Never mind. Here, read this.”
Trish stepped back, giving her mother room to get out of the chair and laughed. “Aren’t you glad we didn’t wear nice clothes this morning?”
“You were right, this is jeans and grubby t-shirt work. Read right below June 13th.”
Trish settled in the rickety chair and scanned the page for June 13th.
Quinn Jackson hung for the murder of his brother, Albert Jackson, on the 21st of May. Jackson was found guilty in a court of law. Circuit Judge Willard Fairbanks elicited the executioner’s confession in an open court of law…
Trish’s throat went dry, her breath caught. “It can’t be.”
“How do you know—” Trish thrust the chair back against the filing cabinet, sending the disarray of books, papers and dust spewing to the floor. She raced for the front door of the newspaper shop, blindly bouncing off the printer, desks and chairs. Reaching the outdoor air, she gasped repeatedly as her tears threatened.
Trish shuddered, her hands and knees shaking even after Rhea guided her to the coffee shop and ordered two steaming cups of herbal tea. It couldn’t happen, but it had already. She’d found a man and fallen in love one day and the next he was dead. At least in her world, he was. Fate was so unyieldingly cruel. She had to fix it. If only she could.
“This will calm your nerves. Now tell me what has you so upset. You knew he’d been murdered,” Rhea whispered so as not to be overheard.
“Yes. But not by Quinn.”
“Sweetheart, everything’s okay. What’s done is done and besides, you said you didn’t know who killed him.”
“I know Quinn didn’t.” Trish snapped out the words, biting them with sure defiance.
Rhea put her hands up in surrender. “Okay. Don’t shoot the messenger. I just showed you how to find out what happened. I didn’t convict him or drop the trap door.”
“You don’t understand.”
“What don’t I understand?”
“Quinn’s the man that helped me when Old Curly wanted to rape me. He’s the man who helped me check out who I thought murdered Albert. And he’s—” How could she tell her mother that she’d finally fallen in love and that the love wasn’t returned and that he was dead?
Rhea took Trish’s hands in her own. “There’s something you aren’t telling me. What is it?”
“I left him at the swimming hole just before I found Albert. He couldn’t have killed Albert. He’s not that kind of a man.”
“You left him. You mentioned working at a whore house—”
“It wasn’t like that, Mom.”
“Okay, I shouldn’t jump. So you’re sure he didn’t do it.”
“Zelda told me how he’s always helping the damsel in distress and that he even fought for her favor. And I know that’s kinda what I was thinking. Kinda like he was fighting over a damsel.
“Albert was married to Lucinda so they wouldn’t have been fighting. I kinda asked him about that and he thought I might be giving Albert favors, but I wasn’t. It didn’t make sense to either of us.”
“So you were together at the swimming hole. Swimming?”
“No. Not exactly. He was swimming and I was… watching.”
“Naughty girl. I thought we nipped that in the bud. But since you did, I hope you learned your lesson. So you say he can kill, then why not kill Albert?”
“Because he didn’t. I truly believe that Quinn’s weapon of choice is his knife.”
“Then why not kill with it?”
“Albert wasn’t stabbed.”
“Then how was he killed?”
“I’m not sure. But you don’t stab a man in the head. It was a head wound, Mom. Of that I am sure. And I’m also sure Quinn didn’t do it.”
“I thought you said he did a fair amount of bar-room brawling.”
“That doesn’t mean he would kill. Fight, yes, but kill, no. I know him.”
“Do you know him? Or did you fall in love with him?”
“What?” Trish gasped, wondering how her mother had guessed the truth.
“You argue his case like you have something to lose. The only thing you have to lose in 1887 would be him. Are you sure he didn’t do it?”
“Yes, there were a lot of footprints which means there was a fight. Fights take time. I left the swimming hole before he did. I know he didn’t do it.” They sat silently for several minutes. Trish stared at the bottom of her tea cup while Rhea sipped her tea.
“Trish, it’s tough to love a man and lose him. I didn’t fight for your father and I’ve been alone all these years.”
“But I’ve been here.”
“It’s not the same. I love you and I loved your father, but when he left that morning, I should have followed him, at least as far as the end of the drive.”
“But Dad died in the mining accident.”
Rhea slid her hand across the table taking Trish’s. “We fought that morning. I was wrong. I should have said I’m sorry before he left. I truly believe that he was distracted that day, worrying about that fight, what he’d said, what I’d said. Being distracted cost him. It cost us. You’re an attorney. You go back to 1887 and fix this mess.”
“Mom.” Trish gazed at her mother, shaking her head. “In 1887, they didn’t have female attorneys. Women’s Rights hadn’t even found Southeastern Idaho. Idaho didn’t even gain statehood until 1890.”
“Trish. You’ve put in your time. You’ve studied and learned about as much as a law student can. You just choke on written exams. You always have. This is your chance to prove to yourself that you can do this.”
“But if I fail, Quinn will hang.”
“If you don’t go back and try, he already has. Wouldn’t you rather spend the rest of your life knowing that at least you tried?”
Quinn swung up on the green broke colt, his mind, was on Trish. He had held her in his arms. He had kissed her and, more importantly, she had kissed him.
Her kiss had an orchestration for something more. Or that was what he had intended. His course led him to the paddock. Maybe she was at the livery getting a bridle. It seemed uncharacteristic for her, having adamantly claimed she needed to go home, to not be readying her horse for travel this morning. He turned the colt toward the livery, expecting to see Trish emerge at any moment.
Not finding her in the livery only caused him to think more about her. She’d never seemed completely at home here, even avoiding her job singing at the saloon. She had a fair voice, but Lucinda’s was sweeter as she sang gospel hymns. Trish seemed to make up the words as she went along, only singing the same song once that he had noticed. He wasn’t a musician so what did he know? She played the piano better than Granger, but not as well as he remembered others playing in Denver, Frisco or Salt Lake.
Something about this morning felt odd. He mulled the events of the week over in his mind. Trish had seemed to fake her surprise over Albert’s murder. The small footprints. Hadn’t he wondered at the time if they might belong to her? She claimed she had found Albert dying.
Had she murdered Albert? It fit. Trish showing up days before the murder. He had unwittingly introduced her to Lucinda and Albert. She had drawn them all in…Albert, Lucinda, Pierre, Zelda and him. The more he thought about it the more it made sense. She could have easily killed Curly without his help. She and Moore could have killed Albert. She could have met Milton there. She could have helped Moore finish the dirty deed. If he was right, he only needed to steer Sheriff Tuckett in the right direction.
Quinn dismounted, tying the colt at the hitch post and sauntered inside Pierre’s saloon. The cool room cradled the stale odors. Pierre entered from his living quarters and the kitchen with a box of clean glasses in his hands.
“Mornin’, Quinn. What can I getcha?”
“Trish around this morning?”
Pierre twisted his lips into a fine line. “Haven’t seen her yet this morning.”
“What about Zelda. Is she around?”
“I imagine so.”
“Haven’t heard anyone come in. Yer the first.” Pierre set the wooden box on the bar.
“You lookin’ for me?” Zelda called from the landing above them.
“Trish in her room?”
Zelda knocked on Trish’s door, waited then opened it. “No. She isn’t here. What you up to this mornin’?”
“Mind comin’ down here? Easier askin’ both of ya this at the same time.”
Pierre started putting the glasses away.
Zelda came down the steps, “What’s this about, Quinn?”
Quinn met Zelda at the bar while Pierre continued setting clean glasses on the shelf. “Has Trish seemed a bit off to you of late? I mean, last evening she was goin’ on about goin’ home a bit more than she was earlier in the week.”
“I ain’t seen her since you and her moseyed in last evenin’,” Pierre said without pausing in his work.
“Lose your touch while ya been wranglin’ cattle?” Zelda teased with a smile. “Figured she was with you most the night. ‘Course ya was a bit quieter than I expected.”
Quinn glared at Zelda, unwilling to discuss the delicate matter of love-making. “Didn’t stay the night. A lady has the right to a restful night’s sleep.”
Zelda’s brow arched questionably. “You think your leaving mighten’ be why she’s gone this morning?”
“I was gonna ask ya round about the same thing. What makes a woman up and leave without tellin’ folks she’s a goin’?”
“She was lookin’ somethun’ awful when I saw ‘er with you. You scare the devil outta her or somethin’?” Zelda asked.
“Did she eat them vittles you rustled up fer her?” Pierre asked.
Quinn stepped back, his hands up in defense. “I came in here to ask the questions. Looks like ya expect me to be holdin’ the answers.” He shook his head. “I don’t have none. One minute we was talkin’ right cozy like and the next she’s tossin’ me out on my ear.” He couldn’t tell them what he’d thought he’d seen this morning. They would think he’d gone plumb loco.
“Well, I’ll be,” Zelda leaned against the bar. “Quinn Jackson, you surprise me. You can rescue any damsel in distress at the drop of a hat, but ya can’t hold a woman long enough to tell ‘er how ya feel.”
“You and the little lady,” Pierre drawled. “That might explain why she ain’t up to turning tricks, Zelda. An’ here you thought she was an unsullied dove when her heart’s been up and tamed by Quinn here.”
Zelda measured Quinn with her eyes. At first her appraisal was cold and teasing until her expression softened. “You ain’t gone and hurt that dove, have ya, Quinn?”
He’d had enough. He’d let them badger him because they were friends. They knew one another’s secrets or at least some of them. He wasn’t about to tell them yet another. “She was fine when I left last evenin’. Just wonderun what the two of you had seen and if she was here.”
“You doubted she was here when ya came in,” Pierre said.
“Well, it don’t hurt ta ask.” Quinn turned to leave. “If ya see her, tell her I’m lookin’ for her.”
“Quinn?” Zelda stopped him. “Women don’t up and leave the man they love for no reason. If she left, she had a reason. Maybe she believed you betrayed her in some way. It may have been somethun simple, a lie, a secret, or even somethun complicated.”
Zelda’s words haunted him. At least Quinn knew he wasn’t crazy. Trish had managed to leave for home this morning without disturbing a soul. Maybe she had crossed the bridge, made her way to the stage stop and caught the first stage out of the valley. She had taken her horse. A horse could cover more ground and in a more direct route. But maybe she knew how treacherous the desert could be. The soulless and snake-infested lava field had taken more than one life.
He had to find her without asking the wrong people his questions. Ask the wrong question of those congenial to Tuckett, or the law in general, and some might think he’d murdered her. Three unsolved murders. He was tied to two and maybe witnesses could tie him to a third if they decided she’d been murdered. He reined the colt toward the bridge. On the far side, he would reach the stage stop.
Old man Meeker tossed an armful of feed into the corral. The sturdy stage horses immediately dropped their noses to feed.
“Morning,” Quinn greeted as he rode up.
Meeker glanced at him then at the sky. “Afternoon.”
“The stage come through yet today?”
“Yup. The Blackfoot-Salmon came through ‘bout an hour ago.”
Quinn’s gut twisted. “Headin’ north or over the desert?”
“Ain’t got the time to flap my jaws, mister.” Meeker went into the barn and returned carrying another armful of hay.
Quinn wasn’t surprised at the way Meeker addressed him. The old coot was blind as a deck of cards. “It ain’t jawin’ I want. North or South? Did it pick up any passengers?”
“North. That stage don’t take passengers when there’s payroll aboard. Too many robberies.”
Quinn knew about the robberies. Everyone did, and he also knew the robbers were after the gold when the stage was headed to Blackfoot, not on its way to Salmon.
“You see a woman about this mornin’?”
“Just the missus, friend. Ya gots lots of questions.” Meeker managed to bend himself between the rails of the corral and groaned to stand upright again before stirring the hay and spreading it for all six horses.
“When’s the next stage?”
“Tomorrow when the Blackfoot-Salmon comes back through. That’s why I don’t got the time ta jaw with ya. This team gotta be well fed and rested.”
“Thank you. If a woman comes here to catch the stage, could ya keep her here and send word to Pierre’s Saloon?”
Meeker stopped spreading feed. “I ain’t no telegraph. The missus and I ain’t got a horse. The smithy ain’t delivered the one he promised last week yet. Just how you thinkin’ we’d do that? Fly like a little birdie?”
The mare Albert had wanted from Quinn. She wasn’t much to look at these days. She could still work if the work wasn’t too hard or too often, but she’d out lived her usefulness to Quinn. He needed mares that he could breed.
“I know the horse Albert promised ya. Ya been a great help, Meeker. I’ll get the mare to ya this week.”
“You just keep that woman here if she shows up.” Quinn turned the colt and headed home. He had a horse to deliver, a green broke colt under him and a woman to find.
He took a deep breath, letting it out audibly. Women, one in particular, were more hassle than they, as a whole, had proven to be worth. Trish had left, claiming she needed to go home, but why now after being relatively content to stay all week? Maybe she was running away, but from what? Old Curly’s murder? That was improbable. No one even knew Curly was missing, but maybe he should make sure the wolves had done their part.
Quinn dismounted, leaving his gelding ground tied. The fresh canyon breeze filled his nostrils, adequately masking all hints of humanity with its fresh musky scent of pine and decaying matter. Occasional deciduous trees dotted the canyon near the rocky outcrop. It boasted shelter from many a storm. He’d camped here and he’d killed here. Slowly he circled the campsite, meticulous in his examination. The wolves had wasted little time in clearing the site. Only because he remembered the Indian blanket with its unique pattern did he recognize part of the otherwise shredded blanket among the rocks. He scrambled over the rocky terrain to pull the remnant loose. A goshawk swooped overhead, landing high in the nearest pine. Birds in the vicinity of the predator fell silent.
He widened his circle from the ring of rocks that marked the camp, searching for more clues to Curly’s demise. He returned to the site of the fire, scrambling the rocks somewhat and mounted his horse, the remnant in hand.
The cliff would be a logical place for the remnant to be. Someone could easily believe that Curly had lost his footing and fallen to his death. He reined his horse in that direction, stopped, and dropped the cloth. With any luck a bird would pick at it for the fibers to build a nest.
At least there would be no hint of foul play.
Trish had a dozen reference books spread across the library table. A thing she could never do in her hometown, that library hadn’t even heard of most of these legal books. At least in Idaho Falls she could read them. If only she could remember enough to make a difference. If only she could save Quinn.
Locating a legal precedence that pre-dated 1887 was proving impossible. Oh, why did libraries insist on destroying books over twenty years old? If they’d only kept one, the right one.
Trish’s eyes hurt when the librarian hustled her out the door. The fresh night air rejuvenated her and yet she knew it wouldn’t be enough to get her home. She drove the car to the nearest corner gas station, filled up, purchased a box of donuts and a supersized Mountain Dew. Hopefully, the sugar and caffeine would get her home.
“Are you ready?” Rhea asked from the bedroom door.
“How does it fit?”
“Perfect. I just hope it fits the time era. You’re a wonder, Mom. And the fact that the tops both go with the skirt is a nice touch. Now I won’t have to borrow a costume from Zelda.”
“Costume?” Rhea asked, coming to straighten the hem of the skirt she’d spent the previous days sewing.
“You know, her saloon get-up.”
“That’s right. Okay, now these buttons are invisible to the untrained eye, but if you button the skirt here and here.” Rhea did two buttons, one on either side of the skirt front. “It hikes the hem up so you should look quite fashionable. I just hope the black is in vogue.”
“It better be. I can only take a limited wardrobe with me. I’ll have to wear the jacket over the corset top for the saloon, just to get it there.” Trish covered her face with her left hand. Albert’s face still haunted her, but she hadn’t had a nightmare recently. She must be insane to try and do this. If she’d had any experience, it would still be difficult.
“What’s the matter?” Rhea sounded immediately worried.
“I just have this sinking feeling that I’m forgetting something.”
Rhea patted her arm, soothing the worry away. “We’ve spent most of the past week getting you ready for this. You’ve studied and read everything you possibly could—history, newsprint and legal journals. And I have scoured the Internet for clothing of the time period and taken into account the history tidbits you have shared. Together we’ve merged everything we can think of. I’ve done the absolute best sewing job on the planet to make one dress work as two with this jacket. We can’t do any better than this.”
“I know,” Trish answered, still trying to push her anxiety away. “Thank you so much, Mom. I couldn’t do this without you and your support. It means so much to me that you haven’t told me I’m crazy and that you believed me right from the start.”
Rhea pulled Trish onto the bed to sit beside her. “It’s the least I can do. I owe it to Grammy. She sacrificed so much to live out her last years here rather than with the man she loved. It’s a shame, really. I only believed her near the end and then she was just too dependent on her medications. I didn’t dare let her try to go again. I was frightened at what might happen to her in the process.”
Trish couldn’t hide the alarm she suddenly felt.
Rhea noticed and patted her hand. “It’s not the trip with the talisman that scares me as much as what she would find at her destination. What if she managed to land in some situation that in her failing health, she couldn’t manage?”
“I think I’ll be sure to have a good long walk on the other end. That sounds better than misjudging and landing in the privy, or worse.”
Rhea sighed, “I’ll never forget the day Grammy pulled the talisman out from under her blouse, her hands shaking violently. I grabbed it from her and hid it.”
“Mom,” Trish exclaimed. “Do you remember whether she held it upright or upside down?”
Rhea shook her head. “I don’t think I really noticed. Why?”
"She may have been trying to go forward in time-- To when they have a cure for what she had."
Rhea stared at Trish. “She never told stories of the future.”
“She may have had a reason,” Trish answered. They fell silent. Trish felt tears well up in her eyes. Grammy, though over ninety when she died, had the health of a woman half her age, except for the strange disease the doctors could never diagnose. She even looked younger.
“What if she went forward in time and found a fountain of youth or an elixir that kept her young? What if it was time travel that eventually killed her?”
Trish’s head whipped around to face her mother, her breath coming in short shallow gulps. “Mom, what are you saying?”
“Maybe it’s just the cautious soul of motherhood. I just remember that every doctor we took her to, every specialist could never agree on what was wrong with her.”
Trish felt some of the color drain out of her cheeks. “Do you think traveling back and forth in time will kill me?”
“Twice, we know you’re here and okay. But time after time might not be so wise.”
“There’s another possibility that we haven’t thought of.”
“What?” Rhea looked like she had when Grammy had died.
“What if she went forward in time, caught whatever disease it was that killed her and came back in time, hoping the earth’s atmosphere was safe enough that it wouldn’t ever find her to kill her.” Rhea’s expression lacked any clue to the answer. “Mom, how do we know for sure?”
Quinn swung off his horse, tying him to the hitching post. This wasn’t going to be easy. He and Tuckett had proven opponents in almost everything from land ownership to saloon brawls to just plain decent manners. Quinn stepped up to the boardwalk in front of the jail and pushed the door open.
“Well, I’ll be plumb sniggered. Never expected you ta come here right peaceable.” Tuckett dropped his feet from his desk to the floor boards.
“Tuckett, don’t make this into no fight. I come ta ask ya what ya know about Albert’s murder.”
“Well,” Tuckett drawled, taunting him. Tuckett casually skirted the desk. “Plenty nuff to wire the circuit judge.”
Quinn stuffed his interest down. It was possible that Tuckett was just baiting him. He squared his shoulders, moving to the center of the room just in case he needed to move fast. “And?”
“Cain’t say.” Tuckett inched to Quinn’s left. Quinn, refusing to give Tuckett the benefit of his weaker side, repositioned himself.
“Cain’t or ya don’t know nothun? Wouldn’t be the first time ya got old Fairbanks off his porch fer yer own entertainment.”
“What ya wanna know for, anyway?”
“He’s my brother. I deserve to know.”
“An’ as his brother ya had the best motive. I have half a mind ta lock ya up.” Tuckett sidled closer to the front door of the jail, blocking it. Quinn recognized his error in judging Tuckett.
“I didn’t murder my brother.”
“Says you. I figure ya got jealous of his livery, his land, an’ his wife.”
Quinn bristled, clenching his fists.
Tuckett continued, “Right pretty thing, that Mrs. Jackson. You got an itch for her?”
“You tryin’ to get me to fight? Here? I ain’t that loco.”
Tuckett’s sneer broke into a chuckle. “That depends on yer perspective, don’t it?” Tuckett bellowed, keeping his eye on Quinn. “Come on in, Jed.”
Jed pushed his bulking frame through the door behind Tuckett. Had he been anyone other than Jed Turner, Quinn would have lunged at Tuckett, knocking both men to the floor before bolting out of the jail. Jed stood six-and-a-half feet tall, his shoulders as wide as an oxen’s with the strength to match. A silver star dragged the dirty fabric of his shirt low over his heart. He had little need for the Winchester in his hands. Hands so big they made the rifle look like a child’s toy.
“Quinn here just saved us the trip of chasing ‘im down. Came in right peaceful. Take his knife and lock ‘im up.”
Quinn gawked at Tuckett in surprise, only raising his hands away from his body when Jed jerked his head.
“What’s this all about?” Quinn demanded.
“Sorry, Quinn, gotta foller orders.” Jed apologized while herding Quinn into the only cell.
“Careful, Quinn. I got plenty of evidence. Maybe not for one murder but ya got to admit. It’s perty near strange fer a feller to go missin’ about the time of a murder. Add to that the fact that that there new whore’s gone missin’ as well.” Jed handed Quinn’s knife to Tuckett. Tuckett held the knife, blade up and tested its sharpness with his thumb. Quinn glowered. Maybe he’d cut Tuckett’s throat with it. Tuckett sauntered around the desk and opened one of the deep drawers. He bent over depositing the knife and still rambling. “Bailey, ya know Bailey, don’t ya.”
“I’ll take care of his horse,” Jed interrupted before exiting the small jailhouse.
“Right good tracker, that Bailey. He came down Pass Creek this mornin’ with this.” Tuckett withdrew a tattered remnant of faded reds and browns from the same drawer he’d placed Quinn’s knife in. Had Quinn not already been practicing his gambler’s façade, his expression would have broken into stunned surprise. Instead, he placed his dangerous reaction with the rest of his emotions, hidden deep in his soul. “Don’t look like much, does it? But Old Curly wore it around town here for quite a while this last spring. Was right proud of it, in fact. But ya wouldn’t know ‘bout that, would ya? Naw, ya was over in Little Lost workin’ cattle.”
Quinn’s knuckles went white as he clenched the cell bars. He mentally relaxed, hoping Tuckett wasn’t observant enough to notice. “What’s that got to do with me?”
“Nuthun if you aren’t a tracker.” Tuckett eased his frame onto the desk chair and put his feet up on the desk. “You gotta love Albert. Best smithy I’ve ever had shoe a horse. Bit arrogant when it came to his own horses, though. Always had to make ‘em shoes just a bit different for his animals. Guess you made it clear in the saloon awhile back that what’s his is yorn and what’s yorn is his. So he likes to stamp a shoe for his horses while it’s hot. Ain’t never seen no other smithy do that, but then Albert ain’t any ole smithy. He does a right perty job on hooks and hinges. Put one of them there designs here in the desk handle last fall. Bit much for shoes, don’t ya think?”
Quinn refused to give Tuckett even a hint at his concern over Tuckett’s assumption. He and Albert had talked about needing the unique mark due to the horse rustling in the valley last year. They intended to have proof should one of their horses be stolen. “Yer a ramblin’.”
“Bailey didn’t find a single hoof print of that mule of Curly’s anywhere in Pass Creek. Found a few tracks with Albert’s special touch, though. You and the little lady sell one of yer horses? She didn’t seem ta think so. But ya already knew that, didn’t ya.”
Jed pushed through the door, carrying a horseshoe in his monstrous hands.
“You get that horse taken care of?”
“Sure I did. An’ this is one of them shoes.” Jed handed the shoe to Tuckett. Tuckett turned it over.
“Yep. This one like the rest?”
“Nope. The others don’t have no marking on them like that one.” Jed indicated the shoe in Tuckett’s hands.
“Good. You see, Quinn? I got all the proof I need.”
“Pullin’ my horse’s shoes don’t prove anythin’.” Quinn squinted at Tuckett, wishing he’d pulled the shoes when the horse thief had been hung.
“It proves ya were the horseman that Bailey saw at the bottom of the cliff a couple days back. I got all the proof I need.” Tuckett chuckled, slamming the drawer shut and dropping his feet to the floor. He stood, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. “Finally, I win one. It’s well past time. Jed, ya better start gatherin’ supplies for buildin’ them gallows.”
Trish stared out the dirty pickup window, deep in thought. She loved Quinn. She even loved him enough to try to save his life, but did she love him enough to risk her own? Rhea had taken her silence to mean that was precisely what Trish intended to do. She wasn’t so sure. She counted in her mind the different stories Grammy had told her. It was a safe bet that there had been at least a dozen, maybe more. How many of them happened during a single trip? It was hard to say.
Rhea turned their pickup off the road to follow the track left by Jen’s tractor to the stack yard. The pickup bounced along the rough road, dust rising behind it.
“It doesn’t look like Jens has any hay in his yard. But I guess you knew that when you asked me to bring you here.” Trish remained silent. “Trish? Are you okay?”
Trish shook herself, returning her thoughts to the present. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just trying to decide whether or not this is really worth doing.”
Rhea cut the engine. “You can always come back. You’ll have the talisman.”
“What if it was the actual shifting in time that eventually killed Grammy?”
Rhea gave her a ladylike snicker. “Grammy lived well past her ninetieth birthday. She lived a good life, full of adventure and a generous amount of living. If I knew I’d live that long and be that healthy, I’d borrow that talisman in a heartbeat and never give it back.”
“Really? I mean, I don’t even know if he cares about me.”
“Men may have changed in the last hundred years or so, but, in my experience, a man that saves you from being raped, takes care not to rape you himself, carries you, watches your back and kisses you has feelings. What they are, I’m not one to say. But Trish, when was the last time you even considered saving someone’s life? Grammy gave you the talisman, and not as a toy. Maybe she knew you had to do this. Have you thought about that?”
“You mean she might have lived in 1887, in that community?”
Rhea smiled, letting a short laugh escape as she climbed out of the pick-up. “You might want to pay a little attention to the people you come into contact with while you are there. You never know. I have no doubt that Grammy traveled to more places than you can imagine. Now, off with you before the sun stops shining and cuts off your chance.”
“I love you, Mom.” Trish leaned toward her mother, giving her a hug.
“Get going before someone notices this isn’t Jen’s truck.”
Trish walked away several yards. Taking a deep breath, she pulled the talisman out from under her 1880’s costume. She smiled at her mother, giving her a finger wave, and flicked the talisman, making the inner scrolls spin.
Time sped past her. Trees appeared, then shrunk in reverse of their growth pattern, giving her a regressive perspective. She fell back, pushed aside by a stout bramble bush. She stumbled, her breath knocked out of her as she hit the ground. Then everything stopped. Birds chirped in the trees overhead. A squirrel stopped to lecture her for her unexpected arrival.
She shook her head. Why had this trip been different from the last? Could it be the difference in the mass traveling through time? Last time, she’d been on Yedi. This time she had come alone with just the clothes on her back. Of course, Yedi had spooked and crow-hopped dangerously the first time.
Trish glanced around to get her bearings. The swimming hole was upstream. She knew that its location hadn’t changed much despite the difference in years. Quinn’s homestead was across the river. She peered through the trees searching and finally located it slightly upstream but much closer than the swimming hole. She studied the structure, looking for any hints that it was different than it had been last time. She saw none and released a huge breath of air. She pulled herself to her feet and dusted herself off. She had a good walk before her. She smiled, thinking of an Irish redhead that would call it “a good stretch of the legs.”
Most of an hour later, Trish walked past Lucinda’s, wishing she had built a friendship with her. Maybe it was for the best that she hadn’t. Her jacket hung open, letting a little cool air circulate and lift the sweaty heat off of her skin. If she didn’t have to pass Penelope’s in a little while, she would take the jacket off, but she didn’t need the exposure. She chuckled. The exposure, like returning to the saloon, wouldn’t be exposure enough.
Trish reached the saloon tired and footsore. She slid her weary body into a chair at the poker table, thankful that no one was there. Was this normal for a Friday?
Pierre entered the saloon from his living quarters and stopped short. “Trish?”
“Hey, Pierre.” Trish sounded tired even to herself.
“What happened to you? You were here and then gone. Now yer back again. You plannin’ to stay this time?”
“Pierre.” Zelda bustled in from Pierre’s kitchen and living quarters, dryin her hands with a towel. “You goin’ plumb loco? I thought I heard ya talkin’—”
“Look who’s here.” Pierre didn’t sound too excited to see Trish.
Zelda stared at Trish before hurrying to her. “Honey, I thought the worst. You okay?” She laid her hands on either side of Trish’s face as if looking for clues to answer her question.
“I’m tired from a long walk, but I’m fine.”
"We thought you ran away with Quinn. Well, not for long when he said he couldn't find ya. He said ya disappeared. Where'd ya go? It's been a week. And look at ya -- You look like ya stepped outta Wards book. Right nice. You gonna stay around?"
Trish gently pulled Zelda’s hands away, noticing how sweaty and smelly her own were next to the watery clean of Zelda’s. Trish shrugged out of her jacket, relishing the coolness that sifted across her skin. “I’m fine, really. Just thirsty for a tall drink of water.”
Pierre hurried from the saloon with a “Don’t ya tell everythin’ or I’ll make ya tell it again.”
Trish smiled at Zelda, thankful to have a few moments to collect her thoughts as to just what to share with her friends.
“Don’t listen to him.” Zelda waved Pierre’s request aside. “You went home, didn’t ya?”
Trish weighed her answer carefully. She couldn’t afford to reveal the truth any more now than before. “Sort of.”
Zelda studied her. “Don’t look so surprised. No woman leaves the man she loves to go anywhere but home, even if he lied to her. You should probably know Quinn’s in jail.”
Trish mentally let the impromptu news wash over her, hoping to look appropriately stunned. The dryness in her throat helped her cough sound more surprised. “Why? What for?”
“Who knows what for? Tuckett’s had it in for him ever since I got here. I swear those two lock horns over nuthun an’ everythun’. Latest shoddy prattle is that Quinn kilt a man. I don’t give Tuckett no never mind, but he wears a badge an’ it ain’t lookin’ too good for Quinn.”
Pierre returned with a mug of water in each hand. He handed one to Trish and set the other on the table. He pulled out a chair to sit down just as the first of the evening’s customers burst through the door, clamoring for whiskey and women. Pierre abandoned all intentions of relaxation and hurried behind the bar to pour drinks.
“Honey, if yer here to work, ya better put a wiggle on.” It was all Zelda had time to say before a lanky cowboy draped his arm around her, making his intentions clear.
Trish ducked away from another cowboy with a smile. “I better get changed and give you boys some decent entertainment. Drink up and I’ll be back down to sing you the sweetest song you’ve ever heard.”
She had her trip up the steps, the few minutes of throwing her jacket on the bed and hitching her skirt higher with the buttons to decide that tomorrow she must visit Quinn, even if it meant a long walk into Root Hog. Clearing her throat and vocally running a single scale, she descended to the saloon. She paused briefly to finish one mug of water and carried the other to the piano should she need it later.
Trish shook her head at the nag that stood hitched to Pierre’s aging wagon. She couldn’t decide which was in more need of replacing. It would be better than walking the long miles to Root Hog. She climbed onto the wagon seat and snapped the reins.
The nag was only too happy to stop when they reached the jail, dropping its head to search for absent fodder.
Trish brushed the dust from her skirts as best she could. Zelda had insisted she wear the blue suit, saying it looked better on Trish than it did her. Trish took a deep breath and pushed the door to the jail open. She stepped inside, her skirt dusting the rough wood.
“Mornin’ ma’am.” A freakishly large man towered over the desk, reminding her of a pro football player sitting at a kindergartener’s table. She pulled her eyes away from him in search of Quinn. Seeing him behind bars, she straightened. At least he was okay. She kept her eyes on him. “Good morning.”
Quinn’s head jerked up, surprised disbelief flooding his expression. For a moment, she thought she caught a smidgeon of pleasure but it faded, arresting the delicious shudder in the pit of her stomach. His expression spoke volumes, telling her he had his doubts.
“May I visit with him?” she asked the brawny man.
“Tuckett didn’t say nothin’ about visitors.” He looked at Quinn, then at her. “You ain’t got a knife, do ya?”
Trish laughed. “Certainly not, or any other kind of weapon.”
“Go ahead an’ visit, but I gotta stay right here.”
“Thank you.” Trish smiled. Knowing both men watched her, she walked to Quinn with deliberate steps. “Are you okay?”
“Where did ya go?” Quinn’s question was barely more than a whisper.
“Home.” A wave of distrust burst across his face. She pushed on. “Why do they have you in here?”
He squinted at her as if divining her true intent. “Ya don’t belong here.”
“Quinn, I’m here to help you.”
“I don’t need yer help. What I need is ta get out of here.”
She lowered her voice, hoping Jed couldn’t hear her. “I know that wasn’t fair to do to you, but in my defense, I couldn’t afford the luxury of explaining. And here is not the place. What if I figure out who killed Albert and prove it? Would you be willing to trust me?”
“Tuckett’s plumb set on me killin’ the lot of ‘em.”
“The lot. Who?”
“Old Curly, Albert, an’ you.” A wry smile tugged the corner of his lips. “Least wise with you showin’ up he won’t pin yer disappearin’ on me.”
Trish gripped one of the bars in an effort to keep from sagging to the floor. They’d found Old Curly? She set her jaw, biting back an unexpected nervous chattering of her teeth. She felt sure she knew he hadn’t killed Albert, but she needed to follow the same process as if he had hired her as his attorney. “Did you kill Albert?”
“No.” Quinn visibly bit off his curse that no doubted accompanied his vehement denial.
She studied his features. “Who do you think did?”
“You seemed to think ya had a good lead the other day. Do you know who dun it?”
“A lead is not proof. I don’t have proof yet and I still have to work out how I’m going to go about getting it. What about Curly? How does Tuckett have you linked to that mess?”
“Don’t ya worry ‘bout that. Bailey saw me up there a few days ago.”
“You returned to the scene of a murder?”
“There ain’t no proof. That there blanket remnant couldda come from anywhere.”
“Remnant? He has physical evidence?”
“Just a tattered piece he claims was Old Curly’s.” Trish’s mind spun. Could he be talking about the ragged Indian blanket Old Curly had draped around his shoulders?
“And how about you? Do you think it could be Curly’s?”
“Don’t care a continental if’n it is or it ain’t. Tuckett don’t, neither. He’s got me where he wants an’ is sure to see me hang.”
Trish stared at him. “You can’t be serious?”
“Plumb serious. This ain’t no game for ya. Good to see you right as rain, but my range days are gone. Thank ya kindly fer stoppin’ in.”
She knew she’d just been dismissed, but she couldn’t let it go. “You are not going to hang for a crime you didn’t commit. Not if I have anything to say about it.” Quinn shook his head and moved away from her. She turned to the oversized deputy, knowing 1887 was different than the twenty-first century. The question was whether or not this deputy liked Quinn. “Quinn mentioned evidence. May I see it?”
The deputy watched her, seeming to weigh her request. At last, he opened the drawer. Trish steeled her expression. Now was not the time to reveal any of her secrets. The remnant and horseshoe were placed on the desk without regard for the papers littering the desktop.
Trish stepped closer to the desk. "May I-- I mean, is it okay if I look at these things?"
“Don’t think Tuckett would like that seein’ how you’re friends with the prisoner and all.”
She smiled, knowing he just might be risking more than his boss’s disapproval. She reached out, nudging the horseshoe aside to see the design of the Indian blanket. It certainly could be the one Curly’d had, but she couldn’t be sure.
“Pulled that shoe off Quinn’s horse,” Jed volunteered.
“Tuckett said he needed it to match it to the hoof prints they found.”
“And did it?”
“It sure did.”
“So Quinn’s horse had all its shoes pulled.”
“Nope. Just the back ones.” Trish stared at the deputy.
“Why just the two?”
“Guess just in case Quinn takes a fancy to runnin’.” The deputy wrapped the horseshoe in the remnant.
“So, if he runs, his horse will most likely go lame before he gets very far.”
“Yup.” The deputy returned the evidence to the drawer.
“I don’t see a cast here. Did Sheriff Tuckett have one made?” The deputy’s expression registered his befuddlement. “A mold… of the imprints… found wherever it was that Quinn was supposed to have been.”
“Don’t think so.”
“I see. So when is Tuckett expecting the judge?”
“Judge Fairbanks ain’t supposed to get here until midweek.”
“Wednesday or Thursday. Thank you, you have been very kind.”
Trish returned to the aging conveyance. She allowed the old nag to pick its way home, the wagon wheels turning ever so slowly, echoing the plans in Trish’s mind. She had three days at best to prove her case and get Quinn off. If Judge Fairbanks was an open-minded and just man, it might work.
Quinn’s apprehensive gaze searched the courtroom for a friendly face as Sheriff Tuckett escorted him into the courtroom. For a moment, he believed he’d located Trish seated near the aisle until the woman turned her gentle face toward him. She and Trish could have been sisters. He chided himself. What right did he have to hope for her to be here?
Still, he searched faces, whether in full morning light or shadow. The courtroom boasted large windows on either side to the east and west. The windows allowed a sharp glare on the gallery this morning. The west windows would mirror the same effect mid-afternoon plus a generous amount of heat. The judge’s podium appeared well-polished even though in shadow to the north. The jury box wasn’t yet finished but chairs had been lined up in two rows.
Just before he reached his appointed seat, he found her. His heart beat faster. Trish sat on the front row of the gallery. She appeared very different than he expected. The black of her skirt and fitted jacket complimented her in an austere way, seeming to make her untouchable and even deadly in a mystical way. It suited her even more than the blues of Zelda’s clothing that she’d worn the last time he’d seen her.
He turned his attention from her to the matter at hand. He was an accused killer and although innocent of the crimes currently accused of, he wasn’t so naive as to believe his past crimes would never catch up to him. One man’s death or another’s. Did it really matter which one he stood guilty of? Sheriff Tuckett may be a poor brawler, but Quinn knew he stood little chance in a court of law when Tuckett had his uncle at his back. Fairbanks had a reputation for being fair, but the family always, under any and all circumstances, protected each other’s backs.
Quinn exhaled, waiting to catch Trish’s eye one more time. When he did, he gave her an approving smile as he considered the woman he found himself in love with. She was an independent woman on every count. She rode alone and usually without a saddle. She fought for herself, scorning the assistance she proved unnecessary. She emulated a damsel in distress for some things while proving herself more than able in others. There was also a wanton display of the burlesque side of her nature as well as one firm in moral code. And now she exhibited the refinement of a lady as she smoothed her skirts. Could he, in all his wild imaginations, credibly conceive such a complex creature? He didn’t know anyone even remotely like her.
She smiled at him in the unscripted moments before the bailiff called the trial to order. The jury filed in, taking their seats. Twelve men in their Sunday best settled themselves into composed, expressionless listeners. Wearing handcuffs, Quinn occupied his seat with a straight back at the small table in full view of the jury. Sheriff Tuckett gloated at his side, proud that he had his prisoner under control.
“All arise, the Honorable Judge Willard Fairbanks presiding.” Leslie Powell, a deputy, also serving as bailiff and recorder, spoke in a lofty voice. Quinn, with Sheriff Tuckett at his side, stood first, his movements silent. The occasional chair scraped the wood floor, long skirts rustled, and spurs jingled as the gallery of observers arose. A portly man with graying hair combed across a generous balding head and rosy cheeks entered the room from a door behind the judges’ bench. He wore glasses and the musty wrinkled black robes of a judge. The chair squeaked several times as he seated his bulk.
“You may be seated.” The courtroom filled with a muffled rumble as seats were taken once again.
“This court of the great state of Idaho is now in session.” Judge Fairbanks brought his gavel down. “Sheriff Tuckett, what say you?”
“Oh for crimes sake Unc’. Can we just forget all of the high flute’n words and get on with it?”
“Get on with it, then.” Judge Fairbanks nodded his acceptance.
“Albert Jackson was killed. His brother, Quinn musta’ done it.”
“Do you have any proof?”
“Proof! Ya always taught me to follow the money an’ Quinn here gambled all Albert’s land the same day he killed him. Ain’t that proof enough?”
Quinn shook his head. Tuckett hadn’t changed in four years. How could a man of Tuckett’s caliber survive for very long as the sheriff? Of course, the family had its social appearances as legal aficionados to maintain. Obviously, no one else wanted the job of sheriff. Not that Tuckett did much in the way of solving crimes or keeping the peace.
“The court’s gotta have more than that, son,” Judge Fairbanks reproved.
Tuned into Trish even now, Quinn noticed her take a deep breath and let it out slowly. He sensed her determination rather than saw it. “Don’t be stupid, Trish. Let Judge Fairbanks handle this,” he muttered more to himself than anyone else.
Trish stood with deliberate calm. “Your Honor, may I speak?”
Quinn’s throat went dry.
“You got something to add to this trial, young lady?”
“Yes, I do, if I may?”
“By all means, a pretty lady would make my trip here worthwhile,” Judge Fairbanks said with fatherly kindness.
Trish smiled at the judge, carrying saddlebags to the narrow table just below his bench. “Your Honor, I believe that I can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Quinn did not murder his brother, Albert Jackson on May twenty-first.”
“Can you, now?” Judge Fairbanks leaned back in his chair and rested his arms on his ample middle.
“Your Honor, if you will permit me, I have evidence to support what I have to say.”
“Tuckett, you haven’t brought this evidence to the court. Why?” Judge Fairbanks raised his eyebrow at Tuckett.
“She’s a woman. You gonna take her word over mine?” Tuckett shook his head in a dismissive manner. Quinn bristled at Tuckett’s innuendo, scowling angrily in his direction.
“This is a court of law, son. Not a family arena for hypothetical situations. A man’s life is at stake.” Judge Fairbanks exhaled, sounding frustrated, before turning his attention to Trish. “Ma’am, let’s do this right. Get her a Bible and swear her in.”
Leslie Powell, the baliff, carried a worn black Bible to her. She placed her right hand on it. “Do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
“State your name, where you are from and then continue.” Judge Fairbanks’s warmth toward Trish held an obvious contrast to his disapproval for his nephew.
“My full name is Patricia Melissa Larsen, I am from . . .”
Quinn held his breath. What would she say?
Trish paused for a moment, “Arco, Idaho.”
Quinn couldn’t help but wonder. Did she have proof? Assuming she did and daring to believe this a reality, had she lied to him all along? What of her amnesia?
“Never heard of it.” Judge Fairbanks dismissed her claim. “Now, tell me what you know. But mind you, I want facts, not ideas.”
“Yes, your Honor. On the evening in question, I was at the livery. It was I who found Albert Jackson.” Audible gasps of surprise rippled through the courtroom. Quinn stared at her, unsure as to why she would reveal this. The scene played across his mind. A knot formed in the pit of his belly. The jury sat straighter in their chairs.
“Do you have any proof?”
“Yes.” Another wave of surprised murmurs filled the courtroom, including Quinn’s. Jurors appeared to analyze her in a different light.
“Miss Larsen, are you aware that your admission could bring this court to further inquiry and possibly your trial for murder?”
Quinn stared at her. Could she really be willing to put her own life on the line for him? He’d never understood women and knew this one had more secrets than she shared. Why else would she fight Curly off just to go to work in a saloon? According to Zelda, Trish had never turned a trick, instead entertaining the boys with songs. She traipsed into Moore’s saloon under the guise of looking for work only to disappear. Now she returned to throw herself on the mercy of the court. What game could she possibly be playing?
Trish hadn’t counted on the judge stating the possibility of her guilt in open court. She must find a way to convince him and the jury not only of Quinn’s innocence, but her own as well. Thoughts of doubt at her own ability leaked into her consciousness.
“It appears that way. Yes, your honor.” Trish knew she tread on dangerous ground. But if hanged, would she still be born in 1985? She didn’t have the luxury of time to debate the possibility.
“Do you wish to continue?”
“Yes, your honor, I would, with your permission.” People who represented themselves proved to be fools but she knew she must press on to save Quinn.
“Even a condemned man is allowed to speak.” The courtroom filled with murmurs. The gavel slammed down, not once but three times. “Order, I will have order in my court!”
Trish’s exterior of calm belied the nervous fear inside. But she stood firm. This unexpected turn could still prove favorable. She must think with nimble clarity.
“Continue,” Judge Fairbanks said, his compassion for her evident.
“Thank you, your honor.” She took a deep breath and opened the saddlebag. She withdrew the cross-pein hammer, handling it gingerly. Its balance surprised her, not an unwieldy tool she concluded, despite its bloody appearance.
“Your Honor, I believe this is the murder weapon. The wounds to the deceased’s head matched the shape here on this end.” She hadn’t examined Albert. She knew it unwise to lean on a witness’s testimony and hoped Judge Fairbanks didn’t call her bluff, but she recognized the hair color and tissue stuck to the balled end. “If you look closely, you can see hairs that are matted in the dried blood.” She handed the hammer to Judge Fairbanks to examine.
Judge Fairbanks handed the hammer to the bailiff to pass before the jury to examine, pulling his invisible veil of judgeship over his features.
Bailiff Powell returned to the bench and placed the hammer on the table. Judge Fairbanks didn’t seem too happy about this and exhaled loudly, as if to delay her continuing.
“Your honor, I would like to ask for the court’s indulgence.”
Judge Fairbanks deliberated for a moment before nodding his consent.
“I would ask that all the men here in the courtroom that are wearing a vest or coat to please stand and line up here on your honor’s right.”
“Young lady, it is only because I don’t cotton to hangin’ you or any woman that I’ll oblige you. Don’t you be wastin’ this court’s time.” Judge Fairbanks gave her a stern look. For a moment, she wondered if she might wither away on the spot. “You heard her, gentlemen. Come stand here.”
A mixed rumble of voices and chairs scraping on wooden floor planks sounded as men stood and gathered near the front of the courtroom, including two gentlemen from the jury. Trish stared at Sheriff Tuckett, motioning that he join the others. His loud exhale revealed his displeasure as he stood to do so.
“If it pleases Your Honor further, I would like to examine these gentlemen’s coats and vests, and share with the court my findings.”
“Gentlemen, make a straight line, hands behind your backs. Miss Larsen, I expect you to be a lady,” he added gravely.
“She’s not a lady. She’s a whore!” Milton Moore blurted out.
Trish stopped in her tracks when Moore uttered his vehement accusation, realizing that the contrast of clothing from that of a harlot to a well-dressed lady hadn’t disguised her.
“Sir, you will do as the lady asks, and apologize.”
“I will not! I’ve stood for as much of this as I’m gonna.” He moved to return to his seat.
“Sheriff . . .” Judge Fairbanks began.
Trish stepped to the bench with raised hand.
“Your Honor, it’s okay. When first I met Mr. Moore, I was dressed as a ‘lady of leisure’, thus he has a reason to believe such. If he would remain, though?” Murmurs grew loud as surprise filled the courtroom. One juror seemed to have already made up his mind, his expression one of complete disdain for her.
“Order, order!” Judge Fairbanks brought his gavel down several times. “What a woman wears is not the issue here, and she will not be judged by your biased opinions, especially you of the jury. I warn you to keep open minds until we are finished here.” His voice roared through the courtroom, no longer one of quiet regard.
“Mr. Moore, get back here!” he thundered. Then, with a polite tone to Trish, he said, “Continue… as a lady.”
Trish approached the line of men, careful to remain at least a full arm’s length from each as she examined the coats and vests. When she spoke, it wasn’t to the men but to Judge Fairbanks.
“Please excuse these four. There is no need for them to remain.”
“You heard her, gents.” Judge Fairbanks’ proper manner slipped for the moment.
Six men remained, including one juror, standing less at ease than they had before.
Trish knew she must use care as she moved forward from this point so as not to give herself away.
She could see Judge Fairbanks in her peripheral vision and knew he watched her every movement as she slowly considered each man a second time. Her evaluation failed in its completeness, knowing that one wielding more legal power evaluated her motives to extreme degrees. She wondered what he perceived. Did he see through her to the truth as she attempted to reveal it, or did he perceive a wicked, devious nature in the woman before him?
Quinn watched her examine each man’s vest, knowing more of what she looked for than the judge. He glanced at Judge Fairbanks’ finding a formidable poker face. While one comment from Judge Fairbanks seemed to reside on Trish’s side, the next sounded ready to condemn her without further proof.
His attention weighed and measured the other men in the room. How many could handle themselves in a hand-to-hand fight? No six-guns were allowed except for Tuckett and Powell. He carefully considered the possible escape routes. He would first try to help her prove her innocence. If that failed, he would try to prove her mentally insane. Of course, he knew he could be insane for considering such a course of action, but he couldn’t help it. As a last resort, he must prepare to fight for their escape. Would she help him? Or would she stand firm, a martyr for insanity’s sake? His or hers?
Trish returned to the table and reached into the saddlebags. She seemed to fish to the bottom and when she removed her hand, clutching a small item, he knew she held the button. She kept it well hidden in her hand until she placed it on the judge’s bench, keeping her hand over it. On tiptoe, she leaned in to whisper to Judge Fairbanks.
Quinn caught the last words, “—would you mind keeping it under your hand until I require it?”
Judge Fairbanks nodded, granting her request. He appeared to like Trish, for now. She held his full attention.
“Bailiff, swear these men in.”
Bailiff Powell did so, one at a time.
Quinn sat in quiet admiration. He had thought that he knew her, but here she showed yet another side of herself. She seemed fully capable and willing to take risks, her own innocence in the balance. It reminded him of a card game that proved not only exciting to play, but exciting to watch. What would she do next? She surprised him, proving herself a gambler, one he would relish to play against. He studied her, looking for her tells. She failed to exhibit any nervous habits, but occasionally, she would look at him and take a deep breath before diving in for the next round of intrigue. He made note for future reference should they both get out of this together.
This time she didn’t take her usual deep breath. She stepped in front of one of the men who also served on the jury.
“Have you met me before?”
“Have you seen me before today?”
“Would you tell the court where?”
“Pierre’s saloon a few days ago.”
Quinn almost expected Moore to burst out with his expletives once more. He remained silent, but his vindictive accusation was apparent. “You sing right nice, Miss Trish.”
“Thank you. You were wearing your vest then too, were you not?”
“Well, it’s the only one I have. I always wear it.”
“Your honor, notice that his vest has lacings to tie it closed if necessary. I’d like to excuse this man to return to the juror’s box.”
Judge Fairbanks nodded his approval and the cowboy returned to his seat in the juror’s box with a sigh of relief.
“Mr. Leavitt, I believe we’ve met as well. Would you tell the court where, please?”
“Yes, ma’am, I met you at the spiritualist’s meeting a week or so back. Albert was a good man and friend.”
“I agree. You’re a rancher in these parts?”
“How many of your cow hands wear vests?”
“Most of them, probably eight or nine.”
“I see they are not all present today. Can you tell us where they were on May twenty-first?”
“Well, those that weren’t in the saloon getting a drink that evening were on a cattle drive out across the Oregon parts a few hundred miles. They should be returning in a day or two.”
“You’re sure that there was no way that any of those men could have been here or at Pierre’s on the day in question?”
“My boys make that drive every year about this time. I usually go ‘long, but my wife asked that I stay close to home, she being sick and all this spring. They woulda killed the horses it would take to get back here. All my horses are accounted for.”
“So you can vouch for all nine of your men?”
“Well, except for Slim here that you already excused. Yes.”
“And where was Slim?”
“He has a thing for the ladies, so most likely with Zelda.”
“You’re sure of your hired hands? None of them were drunk that night?”
“If they get drunk, they lose their jobs.”
“I see. I notice that your vest has wooden toggles. Is this your only one?”
“Yes, ma’am. I gave my old one to Dakota last year. Gettin’ a bit too fat off my own beef.” The room echoed with appreciative laughter, especially from Slim.
“Thank you. Judge? Excuse this man?”
“If your beef’s that good, I wouldn’t mind a steak before headin’ home. You’re excused.” Judge Fairbanks seemed to return to his usual nature.
“I’ll see to it that Humphrey has a right tender cut of steer for your supper tonight, Your Honor.” Wes nodded at Judge Fairbanks.
Trish smiled at the next man, a handsome man with a quick smile.
“Sir, you wear a very nice brown leather vest. I believe it is lined. Isn’t that a bit difficult to come by?”
“I bought it out in Carson City this spring.” The cowboy appeared visibly affected by her closeness.
“What took you to Carson City?”
He cleared his throat. “I was on my way here from Frisco.”
Trish paused for a moment. “I see. It looks very soft. May I?”
He allowed her to touch it, obviously enjoying her nearness as she explored its smooth softness. Quinn knew she checked the buttons and how they were sewn on.
“Thank you. Judge, I believe this man can be excused.”
The cowboy let out his breath, dropping his head in a brief bow to Trish before returning to his seat. Quinn smiled, recognizing the effect she apparently had on most the men, if only in the audience as she sang at the saloon.
The next man Trish focused her attention on stood tall and lean, his features dark, though his hairline receded dramatically. Quinn had never seen the man before.
“This is a nice vest. Is it lined with wool?”
“Actually, it’s sheep skin. The wool is from the critter that grew it on the hide. It ain’t sewn in,” he boasted.
“This is cow country. Where did you find such a vest?”
“Got it just last week in Wyoming.”
“Isn’t that cattle country?”
“Most of it, I guess.”
“Did you trade your old vest for this one?”
“No, ma’am. Ain’t never had a vest before.”
“You knew Albert Jackson?”
“No, ma’am. We just got into town yesterday. Saw lots of people coming in here this morning and thought I’d come in and have a look see.”
“Anybody here know this man or seen him before?”
Quinn craned his neck around. No one stood up for the man.
“Didn’t expect to be part of the proceedings, did you?” Judge Fairbanks chuckled.
“No sir, but this has been right exciting!” His young enthusiasm bubbled out of him as it would a schoolgirl.
“Go sit down,” Judge Fairbanks instructed amid the light laughter.
Trish looked at Tuckett and Moore still standing where instructed by Judge Fairbanks, then at Quinn, taking her telltale breath.
“Mr. Moore, we have met before, correct?”
“Yeah, you come into my saloon a while back, looking like a ‘sporting girl’.” The courtroom remained silent. Everyone watched Trish.
“Indeed, I did. And do you remember our conversation?”
“How could I forget it? You wanted to know if I would let you use my saloon to solicit ‘johns’.”
“And anything else?”
Milton looked at Quinn. “No, I told you I wasn’t interested,” he sneered.
“Did you have a particular reason for not accepting such a proposal?”
“My wife. She doesn’t approve of such ‘ladies’.” A low rumble of masculine laughter filled the room.
“Would it be fair to say that you are largely influenced by your wife’s approval or disapproval?”
"I see, then she wouldn't approve of your interest in a particular 'sporting girl'-- even in passing?" This question caused a verbal reaction from Mr. Moore's wife.
“Milton Moore, you wouldn’t dare!” She bellowed, jumping to her feet.
Quinn shifted around in his seat to see her. The masculine rumble seeped across the courtroom, causing Moore’s features to flush. It seemed that only the man seated to Mrs. Moore’s right remained unsurprised. He merely glanced her direction at her outburst.
“Woman, be seated! This is a courtroom not your house. Browbeat him there if you must, but not in my court.” Judge Fairbanks restored order and silence from the woman.
“I seem to recall the afternoon a bit differently, but I’m not the one being questioned. What else happened?” Trish brought the attention back to the matter at hand.
“Nothing.” Moore shrugged.
“Surely there was something else that you aren’t telling the court. Come, Mr. Moore, I have no secrets here. Tell us.”
Milton muttered under his breath obviously unhappy with the situation. “A man invited you to get to know him better.”
“And is that man here in the courtroom today?”
“Yes.” He paused, seeming unsure if he should go on. “It was Quinn Jackson.” The courtroom broke into astonished rumblings.
Quinn warily watched Trish. Maybe it was Trish that was mad.
The gavel pounded in loud protest.
“Order! Order!” A reluctant hush came over the galley. “This court is not for bearing your promiscuity, young lady,” Fairbanks warned.
“No Your Honor, it is not. Would you ask the aforementioned why he behaved so and what happened?” Her voice seemed hardly audible by the men closest to her.
Quinn’s thoughts bolted. Should he tell the truth? Would it prove more likely to ensure her safety? Would an honest answer convict them both?
“Mr. Quinn Jackson, please rise.” Quinn arose to stand in his casual manner. He shifted his weight, wondering what her next play would be in this dangerous game. Should he lie? It could prove a cog in her guilt or innocence, depending on how he phrased it. What of his own defense? If he accused her or managed to shift the guilt in her direction, he might get off but the possibility existed that they could be accused of being in on it together. Of course, he could blatantly lie, accusing her of moments of extreme insanity. She still hadn’t shown her hand. No one, not even Trish, would bring saddlebags to court just to carry the cross-pien hammer and the small item she’d given to Judge Fairbanks. He considered each possibility in those few seconds, at last settling on what he would say.
Trish turned her back to Quinn, looking at Judge Fairbanks. She studied Judge Fairbanks, trying to decide just how far she would have to walk this dangerous path to prove who had murdered Albert. She found his expression stoical, without a hint of positive assumptions.
She wanted to turn away but couldn’t afford for anyone, not the jury and especially not Quinn, to read her expression. He might interpret the look in her eyes as a request that he lie for her. And lying for her, he must not do. She would move forward with her plan. Even if it cost her her life. She approached the bench.
“Judge, in the interest of getting at the truth, would you care to interrogate the witness on this matter?” she asked.
“I prefer to listen objectively. If you skirt the facts, I’ll ask the questions, but it will go far with this court if you are thorough in your questioning.”
Trish nodded, appreciating Judge Fairbanks’s apparent interest in fair play. If she asked the questions, she could feasibly guide the answers in a manner that might prove less incriminating.
Trish took a deep breath before turning back to face Quinn. She must hide her feelings deep.
“Quinn, how long have you been acquainted with me?”
“A few weeks or so. If ya count the time ya been gone.”
“Would you tell the court of the first time we met?”
Quinn shifted on his feet. “I found ya up Pass Creek a bit when I came through that way.”
For a moment, she thought he wouldn’t answer. Her throat went dry. He had to tell the truth. “You were in need of assistance. I stepped in between you and what I thought might harm ya. We came down the canyon the next mornin’.”
Trish allowed her gaze to linger on his expression. He apparently had no intentions of throwing her guilt in front of the court, nor his. She rubbed her temple as if in thought. In truth, she needed to stall to find another way to throw only one of them under the wheels of justice. It had been her plan to reveal the truth of Old Curly’s death. Now it didn’t look like that would happen. She must resort to the other plan, the plan that could cost her the ultimate price. She swished her saliva over her teeth, swallowing her apprehension with it.
“Have we had occasion to associate since that time?”
“Yes, on several occasions.”
“Would you say that on the night you found me, or since, that I have behaved as a less than reputable woman?” Some of the cowboys scoffed.
“If a woman ain’t to be judged by what she wears as Judge Fairbanks has said, that would cut out your singing and entertainin’ at Pierre’s saloon. So just once, other than that.”
“And when was that?”
“That day at Moore’s saloon.”
“Would you care to tell the court of that afternoon?”
Quinn accurately related the events that took place up until they had left the saloon but didn’t mention the details of why such plans had been made.
“What happened when we left the saloon? I will remind you that you are under oath. There is no place here to spare the sensitivities of the women present, including myself.”
“I drove ya to my place and we talked. Then ya left.”
“We talked. Nothing more? Are you absolutely sure?”
“Yes, we talked… maybe argued, but nothin’ else, I’m sure.”
“Did you infer, by direct means, or hint… at bedding me?”
Quinn dropped his gaze. When he looked up, Trish noticed the pain etched there.
“Yes, I did invite ya to my bed.”
“For money?” Trish ignored the murmurs and pushed on before her resolve faded.
“No.” His features wore a tentative apprehension. Lucinda gasped.
“Didn’t you indicate that you would make it ‘worth my trip’?”
“Yes, but it was a ploy to cover your actions,” he defended.
Judge Fairbanks shifted in his chair.
“Is this a ploy now?” she asked.
“I don’t think so, no.”
Trish wanted to press him further but her wanting to know how deep his feelings for her ran had nothing to do with this trial.
“Thank you, Quinn. Your Honor, I am through questioning this witness but request that I have the right to recall him.”
“Mister Jackson, you may be seated.” Judge Fairbanks sounded impressed. She wanted to believe that it was because of her courtroom manner.
Trish turned her attention back to Milton Moore, ignoring Tuckett who still stood at his side.
“Mr. Moore, that is a very nice vest that you wear.”
“Thank you, my wife makes most of my clothes.” Moore’s pride in his fashionable appearance, although homemade, seemed to outweigh his previous discomfort.
“Your wife? She must be a very competent seamstress. Forgive me, I know she is here, but could you point her out to me so I can give her my compliments?” Trish knew where the portly woman sat. Her earlier outburst had given her away. Trish cast her eyes about the courtroom as if in search of the seamstress. This needed to appear spontaneous on her part. She gave a start as her eyes fell on a familiar face. What would she be doing here?
“She is there.” Moore pointed at his portly wife on the back row.
Trish turned back to him and reached to touch the vest. “May I?”
Moore nodded, somewhat uncomfortably.
“Oh my, this feels like satin brocade. Is it?” She now had her fingers over the edge of the fabric.
“You’d have to ask my wife.”
“May I examine it more closely?” Trish did her best to seem to have lost her focus, the vest becoming the center of her attention. “Please, humor a woman who finds such skill a matter to be praised and admired.”
“Uh … sure.” Moore, although appearing surprised by her attention, seemed flattered that, a she would notice his apparel even if he had a marked distaste for her. Trish’s own attire spoke of a woman of eastern fashion, thanks to her mother’s able seamstress abilities. He removed his coat and handed it to Tuckett before unbuttoning his vest, removing it and handing it to her.
Trish examined the article, seeming to become enthralled by the smooth yet intricate design and workmanship as she walked down the aisle toward Mrs. Moore. Behind her, she heard what she assumed was Mr. Moore retrieving his coat.
“Is this satin brocade?” Trish asked again, making sure her voice carried to Judge Fairbanks and the jury.
“Yes, yes, it is. It came from New York,” Mrs. Moore boasted.
“You do all of the sewing and mending for your family, or do you send it to a neighbor to be done?”
“It’s just Milton and me. I do it.” Mrs. Moore’s tone held a distinct dislike for Trish, but she, just as her husband, sounded proud of their apparel.
“Nice, very nice.” Trish ran her fingers over the fabric and spoke as she returned to the front of the courtroom. But she didn’t return to Mr. Moore. She felt genuinely impressed. The hand sewing appeared intricate, the stitches small and even. “Mr. Moore, you should be proud of your wife’s abilities.”
Judge Fairbanks took his time before reminding her to return to the case before them, his tone brusque. “Miss Larsen, this is a court of law, not a seamstress shop.”
Trish glanced up to catch a glimpse of his admiration at her nimble manipulation of the witness. She allowed a smile to tug at the corner of her mouth but otherwise pretended not to notice.
“Oh my, it is lined in a nice brown satin too.” The courtroom broke into laughter at her apparent rapture.
“Give me my vest.” Moore’s concern exploded across his features.
She exchanged a knowing look with Judge Fairbanks.
“I’ll have my vest now, you whore.” Moore reached for Trish and the vest in her hands. His coat nearly fell to the floor.
“Tuckett, do your job and keep that man in line.” Judge Fairbanks seemed unruffled at Moore’s abrupt change in demeanor.
Judge Fairbanks lifted his hand to look at what lay beneath it. He nodded slightly at Trish.
“Oh, Judge, you really should look at this more closely.” Trish spoke as a woman still lost to the art of the workmanship in her hands.
Judge Fairbanks examined the vest that Trish placed before him on the bench, raising his brow. He moved the gavel aside.
“Notice that this button—” Trish indicated the top button on the vest. “Is a slightly different color than the others, but the button, Your Honor, matches perfectly.” Judge Fairbanks lifted his hand and set the button on the vest.
“And what do you make of these spots? They aren’t on the rest of the vest, just here in this area.” He indicated the area with his finger.
“Blood spatter, your Honor.”
“Show the jury what you have shown me.”
Trish carried the vest with the button resting on it to present to the jury. She moved slowly, allowing each man to compare the buttons.
“Sheriff, hand me Mr. Moore’s coat.” Sheriff Tuckett retrieved the coat from Moore’s unwilling hands and handed it to Judge Fairbanks. Fairbanks examined the coat, turning it this way and that to see it more clearly.
“There isn’t any blood on his coat,” Judge Fairbanks said, as the last two jurors looked at the buttons and vest.
“The blood spatter was probably so heavy on the coat that it had to be destroyed or used as a chore coat.” She knew that in the future, court would be adjourned until a search for the coat was made.
“But maybe there wasn’t very much blood.” Judge Fairbanks sounded skeptical.
“Your Honor, there was plenty of blood. It is my understanding that fatal head wounds bleed profusely before death occurs, I could be more specific, but there are ladies present. Let it suffice that it is not a pretty scene.”
“You can prove that?”
Trish reached for the saddlebags, retrieving its contents. She placed the skirt on the table and began to unfold it. “Your Honor, this clothing is what I was wearing on the day of the murder.” She held the skirt and blouse in her arms and showed them to the jury. A woman seated near Lucinda on the second row swooned.
Judge Fairbanks looked at the stains. “Hand me that skirt.”
Trish handed him the skirt and he examined it, looking at both sides of the stiffened fabric.
Trish caught sight of Lucinda burying her head between her hands in her peripheral vision.
“You were wearing this when you found the deceased?”
“He was still alive when I found him.” A sob escaped Lucinda’s lips.
“Tuckett, do your job and arrest Mr. Moore.” Judge Fairbanks issued the order.
Trish noticed Mr. Moore’s subtle inching toward the door.
“What the hell?” Moore roared as loud as his tenor voice would allow. “But I’m not guilty. She lies. I didn’t do it. You heard her. He was alive. She is the one who killed him. She came here to do it.”
Trish turned to Judge Fairbanks. Her stomach dropped. The amicable facade had evaporated. In its place settled the practiced consideration of his position. Trish had sat in too many courtrooms to not recognize the stoical manner. She knew Judge Fairbanks weighed the matter before him, as did the jury. They had listened attentively. They must now deliberate over the guilt of three suspects, one with nothing more than an accusation against him, one with bloody evidence, and the other having admitted being at the scene.
A life lay in the balance. Judge Fairbanks dropped the gavel, decimating Trish’s confidence.
Trish refused her lunch, having lost her appetite with the realization of what she had done. She had not proved Quinn innocent beyond a reasonable doubt, as she had planned. Judge Fairbanks had made her point mute by his introduction of her possible guilt. She had instead scrambled to present another possibility and in the process placed her own innocence in question. It remained entirely possible that she would not only fail to prove who murdered Alber, but to hang for the crime herself.
She mulled the trial’s proceedings over, time after time. She knew that the jury might decide against her. A good lawyer could sway their decision. She had seen it done countless times but knew that defending herself could prove risky. The fact remained. Would the jury feel her speaking up was a trick or an effort to get at the truth? Fear gripped her. It wasn’t a fear of death, or a fear of the indignity of hanging, but fear of the unknown. Her logic no longer bore out that she would exist in the future, but what could she do at this point?
“Trish, are ya okay?”
Trish jumped when Quinn spoke. Unlike Moore and Quinn, she didn’t occupy the jail’s single cell. She sat on a chair between the cell and the potbelly stove that heated the one-room jail, her hands shackled in her lap. Tuckett had taken his lunch outside and left the door ajar to keep an eye on his prisoners.
Quinn reached out to her, putting his hands through the bars to touch her. Instead of moving in his direction, she pulled back. A decision to protect him was instantaneously made. Should she hang, she wouldn’t take him with her. The decision, made almost without thought, brought tears to her eyes. What he meant to her seared through her heart. Try as she had to deny her feelings, she loved him, possibly more than her own life.
“What’s wrong? It’s all but over. Y’are bein’ here is just a formality.”
“Hobble your lip,” Moore yelled from his corner of the cell. “Just ‘cause ya bedded her ain’t no reason to plot to see me hanged. I ain’t takin’ the noose for either of ya.”
Sheriff Tuckett pushed through the door. “Stop yer catterwallin’ Moore.”
“But they’re over there scheming to see me hanged,” Moore whined.
Tuckett laughed. “It ain’t up to them, ya fool. It is up to the jury. If’n it were up to me, I’d hang the lot of ya.” He leered at Trish. “A course I ain’t above bein’ bribed by a skirt, hey, girlie?”
The hair on Trish’s neck bristled.
“Why, you dirty dog,” Quinn snarled. “Ya lay one hand on her…”
“And you’ll what? ‘Case ya missed it, yer the one behind bars. Well, one of the ones. I’m a free man, and that means I’m free to do as I please.”
“I don’t think your abuse of a woman is what your uncle had in mind.” Trish gathered herself, ready to defend her virtue. She glanced at Quinn, seeing him swallow hard.
Sheriff Tuckett reached for the door behind him, pushing it shut. He stepped toward her, leering hungrily at her. “Looks like I’ll finally win one over you, Jackson,” Tuckett chortled. “You can be sure that I’ll take right good care of her. She won’t be cold or lonely. She might even find she likes it.”
“You animal.” Quinn strained against the cell bars, obviously ready to fight.
Moore cowered in his corner, saying nothing.
“You wouldn’t dare.” Trish warned, “I’ll press charges and have witnesses to back me up.”
“Dead men tell no tales.” Tuckett sneered, towering over her.
Trish sprang from her chair in the direction of Quinn and the cell. In spite of the bars separating them, he was her only safety here. Her motion did nothing to slow Tuckett’s advance. A wicked smile curled the edges of his mouth, making him more than ugly. He reached for her manacled arms, pulling her toward him.
“Tuckett, you do and it will very well be your last mistake,” Quinn warned from his incarcerated side of the room.
Fighting, Trish retreated and Tuckett let her go. She stared at him, unwilling to scream, and took another step backwards. She could go no further. She trembled in the corner, the jail wall at one shoulder and the cell bars at the other.
The courthouse bell tolled, calling jury, accused, and galley to return to court.
“Your lucky day, Jackson.” Tuckett turned his sneer to Trish, letting his features take on his brand of wolfish debauchery. “This ain’t over. There’ll be time later. You can count on it, darlin’.”
Trish relaxed slightly. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”
Jed pushed through the door. “Ya want me to help ya, sheriff?”
“You.” Tuckett pointed at Trish before unlocking the cell door. “You in front. Moore, you follow ‘er at Jed’s side. And you, yeah, I’ll parade you all the way to the courthouse, Jackson. I’m gonna enjoy it, too.”
Trish watched Quinn glower, shouldering past Tuckett before she stepped through the door to lead the procession to the courtroom.
She paused before stepping off the jail’s thin porch to smooth her hair and stepped into what might prove the last walk of her reasonable freedom. She walked slowly, knowing both Moore and Tuckett hoped the jury would find her guilty.
Trish found herself seated next to the other accused parties directly in front of Judge Fairbanks with Jed between Milton and Trish, and Sheriff Tuckett between Milton and Quinn. Tuckett removed her handcuffs with calloused insensitivity, bruising her wrists. The formalities of the trial resumed without preamble.
Judge Fairbanks got right to the matter.
“Miss Larsen, your comments this morning have been rather insightful. Thank you for your presentation.” Judge Fairbanks glowered at his nephew before turning to the jury. “I’ll not tell you how to decide this case. Mister Quinn Jackson has had no real evidence presented against him. Jackson, you are excused but required to remain here for the time bein’. The court apologizes for Sheriff Tuckett’s error.”
Quinn glanced at Trish before taking a seat in the galley.
“Now, as I see it, we really only have two possibilities. Either Milton Moore is guilty of this crime or Patricia Larsen is.” Fairbanks turned from the jury to address the defendants. “Mr. Moore, Miss Larsen, you are still under oath. I will ask the questions and you will answer.”
Trish nodded, sensing that she might now stand at the executioner’s door. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, hoping that somehow she would emerge from this with an assurance of her continued life. Never had each breath lingered with such bitter sweetness. For the first time, she had an understanding of what the innocent, falsely accused, must feel. Now she understood the absent look on their faces as all hope for justice fled.
Fairbanks continued, “Miss Larsen, was Albert alive when you found him?”
“Yes, he was alive, but just for a moment. There was evidence…”
“Thank you. You are no longer at liberty to offer more than a simple answer.” Judge Fairbanks uttered his curt warning.
“How long was he alive?”
“Not more than a minute.”
“What did you do when you found the deceased?”
“I gathered him into my arms and held him.” Her gaze lowered to the table. Her vision glazed, taking her to that ugly scene of darkness and blood. She knew the stench and Albert’s final gasps would haunt her memories. A cold shiver slithered up and down her spine.
“You didn’t go for help?”
She shook herself, but didn’t look up. “He was gone so fast. I meant to but there was no way to help him.”
“And how do you know that?”
Trish took a deep breath. If she mentioned the future, she knew she would hang. A future she knew would be forever changed with her haunting memories. “There was too much blood and he died almost immediately.” The courtroom grew ominously quiet.
“I see. Why are you here?”
She knew that pausing too long to answer might bring ghastly results for her. “I came here today to prove Quinn Jackson is innocent.”
“Was Albert Jackson special to you in some way?”
“No sir, no more than a friend.”
“And his brother, Quinn Jackson?”
Her heart sank. If she divulged the truth, she would hang. Was it worth lying? Would a political trick succeed in court? In 1887? “I only want justice.”
Judge Fairbanks didn’t respond, allowing her words to linger in the stagnant air. “Is there anything else you would like to add to these proceedings?”
“Your Honor, there was evidence of a scuffle and the button was found hanging by a thread on the east doors of the livery. If I were guilty, would I have come forward to shift the court’s findings from one innocent man to myself?”
“Who found the button?”
“I did,” Trish answered quietly. A few mutters filtered through the gallery. She ignored them, knowing it only mattered whether or not Judge Fairbanks and the jury believed her. She doubted they did.
Judge Fairbanks nodded. “Mr. Moore, where were you on the day in question?”
“I—was at my bar.”
“Can anyone collaborate that?”
Moore seemed to rack his brain for several minutes. “No, my bar was rather slow that day.”
Judge Fairbanks analyzed his answer. “Can you explain why your vest has blood on it?”
“I — there was a fight at the bar.”
“And who was fighting?”
Moore seemed temporarily stumped. “Just a couple of customers.”
“Names, Mr. Moore.”
“I don’t know, just a couple of drifters.”
“What were they fighting about?”
“I don’t know. I try not to get involved.”
“Yet you got involved enough to get blood on your vest. Do you have anything to add in your defense?”
“I didn’t do it!”
Judge Fairbanks shook his head. “It is still early. We will adjourn until the jury comes to an agreement and shares its findings.”
The gavel came down again.
Trish found herself returning to the jail from which she had come. She had succeeded in saving Quinn from the hangman’s noose, but what of her own neck?
Trish sagged to her knees instead of sitting on the chair near the potbelly stove, utterly dejected. The hangman’s noose would have satisfaction. She had fought the greatest battle of her life for the man she loved, placing everything she had on the line, even her life. It had unfolded without precursor or notice. Quinn had regained his freedom. She had stood before her potential executioners without flinching, fighting for truth and justice. The cry for help had come silently across time and space, and she had answered. Truth had won only a partial victory. She didn’t dare hope for more. Doggedly, she had placed herself in compromising situations without thought of the consequences. She had come to 1887 to save a man’s life. She had done so, but at what price?
She made her choice to defend another. A choice she almost regretted. But in her heart of hearts, she knew she would make the same choice again if given the opportunity. She had chosen years before to study law. A decision firmly rooted in her aspirations that justice and mercy reach to the accused, in spite of their respective innocence or guilt.
Trish didn’t have a timepiece to measure how much time passed. The jail became stuffy, causing her to feel weak. She yearned for Quinn to hold her. If the jury found her guilty, would she have the opportunity to convince him of her love? She doubted it. Tuckett would never allow them even a minute of privacy. She had done what she knew she must, but fear of what might come mingled with fear of her uncertainty, choking any tears that tried to surface.
The bell tolled again, its tone deep and foreboding. Trish listened to the vibration on the stagnant air. The cold bars of the cell reverberated, echoing the hollow tone. She stood to walk to the courthouse for the final time. Sheriff Tuckett walked at her side, his expression that of wolfish anticipation. Jed and Milton Moore followed closely behind them.
The courtroom filled while Trish sat beside a man she had no respect for. She turned to the gallery, searching for the man she loved, had always loved, would always love, without finding him. She regretted her moment of weakness. Quinn’s absence offered her little hope—he must consider her unworthy of his affection.
Tuckett smoothly released Milton Moore’s handcuffs but seemed unable to do the same for her. As he looked up from his task to someone directly behind her, she followed his gloating gaze, swiveling her whole body. Quinn occupied the seat, returning Tuckett’s glare with one of his own.
“The defendants will stand.” Tuckett yanked Milton to his feet by his coat while Trish stood on her own, unwilling to allow him to touch her. The courtroom settled to ominous silence.
“Bailiff, bring me the jury’s findings.” Bailiff Powell stepped forward to retrieve a slip of paper from the jury’s chairman. His spurs jangled, marking his steps as he returned to the bench and handed the neatly folded paper to Judge Fairbanks. A woman whispered behind her gloved hand, drawing the attention of those nearby. Judge Fairbanks seemed to require an indeterminable time to read the script on the paper.
Trish noticed her knees shaking but summoned her courage and stood tall. The jury had made their decision. It no longer mattered if one stood in opposition to the others. They had at last agreed. The time for debate had passed. The time had arrived to learn if truth prevailed.
She studied Judge Fairbanks’s features, knowing it useless to try to interpret his expression. He read the paper, looked up at the defendants, then at the jury. He shook his head and read the paper again.
“We the gentlemen of the jury find Milton Moore guilty of the murder.” Moore bellowed in disbelief and tried to sidestep away from Sheriff Tuckett, his angry words unintelligible. When Trish’s knees buckled, a strong hand steadied her from behind. Without looking, she murmured, “Thank you.” The courtroom erupted into chaos.
“Order! Order! Everyone sit down. The findings of this court are final and you will stay seated until this case is closed.”
Trish let her knees buckle, dropping to her chair in relief. Muzzled silence descended on the room again.
“Mr. Moore, you are to be hung by the neck until dead, just as soon as the gallows can be built. Case closed.” The gavel rang out again.
Moore became frantic in his struggle as Sheriff Tuckett handcuffed him. Mr. Moore’s expression of guilt mixed with disbelief at what had occurred. He clearly had thought that he would get away with this murder.
Unwilling to watch Moore’s continued battle, Trish pushed toward the door, winding her way through the crowd, ignoring derisive comments as well as kindly remarks. She burst through the outer door, inhaling deeply of the fresh air. She stared at the kindly woman watching her with pointed admiration.
“It’s time to go home, dear. Rest, you’ll need it.” The woman Trish had seen before and recognized smiled and walked away.
Trish nodded at her, knowing the woman was right. She was free to live her life, free to love if given the chance, free to return home.
She descended the steps with more than one decision to make. And she would be wise to make it before tomorrow. She must choose where to live and what kind of life she wanted, one of continual adventure or one of a relatively slow pace. Had one adventure been enough? Or was she more like Grammy, craving the excitement of the unknown?
Hearing Quinn’s voice in conversation behind her, Trish felt her countenance drop. He would remain here. She would go home alone with no way to contact him. Not that he would want her to. After all, she had skirted a direct question concerning him under oath. It didn’t matter that her reason revolved around staying alive or protecting him. Her heart broke. She would walk alone through the portal of time and space with nothing gained except her experience. An experience laced with memories of love and murder. How could she push those memories away? If she could, would she really want to? Quinn was an intricate part of her time here. It was his silent call for help across time that had drawn her here. She needed a quiet place to examine her thoughts and feelings.
Maybe she could catch Pierre or Zelda and get a ride to her temporary home and the relative comforts of 1887. She hadn’t noticed them in court, but Zelda had promised to come. Trish turned toward the gathering of buggies, threading her way through the remains of the crowd.
“Whoa, woman,” a strong hand grasped her arm, spinning her around. “Where ya off to in such a hurry?” Quinn’s expression wasn’t that of a spurned lover, but a concerned friend.
“I’m going home.”
“Without a horse?”
She touched her forehead in anguish. What should she say? The words tumbled out. “Zelda will be waiting for me with the buggy…”
“She already left. Why don’t you let me give you a ride?”
Why shouldn’t she accept his offer? Because she didn’t have the heart to say good-bye. “But Tuckett saw to it that your horse’s shoes were pulled.”
“You really think that I don’t know how to shoe my own horse?”
“Jackson, you’re under arrest.” Tuckett’s browbeating demand interrupted them. He waved his six-gun at waist height. “Come along right peaceable.”
Quinn and Trish both spun to face the interloper. “Arrested for what?” Trish asked, aghast.
“Old Curly’s disappearance.”
“You know Old Curly tends to go into the high country for months on end with no one nowhere seein’ him,” Quinn defended.
“Tell it to the Judge.”
Quinn bristled, taking a defensive step in Tuckett’s direction. “You’ll do anything to see me hanged or imprisoned, won’t you? Of course, a varmint like you can’t fight yar own battles so ya gotta have yar uncle do it for ya.”
Trish laid her hand on Quinn’s forearm. “I’ll come with you.”
“Trish, there ain’t no need for you to get involved in this. Tuckett and I’s got a right ripe grievance. Don’t we, Tuckett?”
Trish didn’t wait for Tuckett to answer. “I want to come.”
Tuckett cackled with an ugly sneer. “You’re a gamblin’ man. Might as well add the skirt to the pot, aye, girlie?”
“I won’t be your prize. Not now, not ever.” Trish slid her arm over Quinn’s.
“Two fer the price of one.” Tuckett waved his gun. “Get movin’.”
“Put the gun away or I, for one, will not join you in your psychopathic, malicious game of Blindman’s Bluff.” Trish straightened her shoulders.
“Quite the first class Ace, ain’t ya, girlie? All that fancy jargun’s gonna land you in the hoosegow, right next to Jackson.”
“And you’re a blowhard,” Trish retorted. “The gun. Or would you prefer I go on my way?”
Tuckett holstered his gun with a scowl.
“Shall we?” Trish urged Quinn forward without making more of a scene. Quinn escorted her to the jail as if out for a Sunday stroll with Sheriff Tuckett trailing behind. Trish felt a wry smile tug at the corner of her mouth. Did Tuckett look as foolish in reality following them as he did in her mind?
“Ya don’t have to do this,” Quinn said.
“What kind of woman would I be to let you take him on alone? If you remember right, I was there.”
“He don’t know that.”
“No, he doesn’t. But I came a very long way to see that you don’t hang. If there is even the chance of that happening, I have to step in.”
“I don’t need ya fightin’ my battles.”
“I’m not fighting, I’m defending. Judge Fairbanks will listen to me, just as he did in court. He’s a reasonable man with a fine legal mind, even if he is slightly calloused by this particular era.”
“You talk like you know the future.”
“I do, to a point. If you make smart decisions that aren’t ruled by your ego.”
“I don’t have an ‘ego,’ whatever that is.” Quinn paused at the step to the jail front, offering her his hand.
“You do. And a rather healthy one in most regards, except when it comes to our illustrious Sheriff Tuckett.”
“He’s a little man.”
Trish glanced over Quinn’s shoulder in Tuckett’s direction. Quinn wasn’t referring to Tuckett’s stature so he must be referring to an overall opinion of the man. “That may be true, but I’ve seen you gamble. You can beat him at his own game. We keep to our original arrangement to get out of this. You keep your poker face and let me deal with Judge Fairbanks.”
Tuckett wore his wolfish sneer as he ushered them into the cell, clanged the door shut to lock it and threw the keys on his desk. “Brought ya some company, Moore.”
Trish stood at Quinn’s side as Judge Fairbanks entered the jail.
He nodded their direction before firing a rather calm interrogating question at his nephew. “What are they doing behind bars? They were found innocent, if you recall.”
“Jackson has been arrested for the disappearance of Old Curly.”
“And Miss Larsen?”
“She insisted on coming along.”
Judge Fairbanks turned back to the two behind bars raising an eyebrow. “You have illegally restrained an innocent woman and the man you’ve arrested has a knife on him. Ya put ‘em all in the same cell. I’m surprised the prisoners haven’t become violent in view of the trial we just finished. You set up a right dangerous situation for yarself, son.”
The color drained from Tuckett’s face. “He coulda kilt me right here.”
Fairbanks stepped to the desk. “Son.” His reprimanding tone brought a rush to Trish’s belly. “This is shoddy law practice. What is it you are hoping to accomplish?”
“Jackson deserves to hang.”
“And the reason?”
“He killed a man.” Tuckett sounded more like a school boy reciting his lessons than a lawman.
“Bring yar chair over here, son. Let’s invite them to sit so as to separate the guilty from the accused.” Fairbanks reached for the chair Trish had occupied hours earlier, bringing it to the center of the small jail. He positioned Tuckett’s more comfortable desk chair next to it and seated his bulky frame on the edge of Tuckett’s desk. Tuckett sneered at the prisoners but said nothing as he opened the cell door. Quinn offered Trish, Tuckett’s chair while taking the other.
Tuckett took up his position at one end of the desk, allowing his uncle the larger portion. He visibly flicked his tongue over his teeth as if making sure no remnants of his dinner remained.
“I guess ya gotta get it out of your system.” Judge Fairbanks sighed. “This isn’t a court of law. Mister Jackson, would you kindly remove your knife? You are welcome to set it on the floor so to pacify my overzealous but narrow-minded nephew.”
Trish wasn’t at all sure Quinn would comply with the request. Did she want him to? His having his knife had given her a sense of safety despite being incarcerated with Moore again. Quinn seemed to think about it before releasing the strap on his sheath. Slowly, he removed the knife, setting it on the floor.
“Judge, you’ll understand how under the present circumstances, I’d prefer to protect the lady and myself.”
“Very well. In the interest of fair play, Miss Larsen, would you care to act in the accused defense?”
“Of course, thank you.”
“Quinn Jackson.” Judge Fairbanks exhaled a heavy breath. “Apparently, you are accused of being responsible for the disappearance of… who did you say, Francis?”
Tuckett’s given name was Francis? No wonder no one called him by his given name.
“Old Curly,” Francis answered with a scowl.
“Old Curly.” Fairbanks completed his statement. “Francis, do you have any proof?”
Tuckett reached into a desk drawer and set the blanket remnant and horse shoe Trish expected him to present on the desk. “This is what is left of Old Curly’s blanket. Jackson was seen in the area and his horse’s hoof prints were also found.”
Fairbanks nodded. “At least ya got evidence this time. Miss Larsen, you care to say anything?”
Trish stood. “May I see that remnant?”
“Just like any other piece a cloth,” Tuckett complained handing it to her.
Trish smiled and examined the dirty rag. “As you said just now. This is ‘just like any other piece of cloth.’ Sheriff, what makes you think a ratty old cloth and that horse shoe are enough proof of any crime? Where did you find these?”
“Up Pass Creek is where Bailey found that remnant.”
“Bailey. I don’t know or see a Bailey here. Do you have more than Bailey’s claim? A sworn statement, perhaps?”
“Bailey swore to me he saw Jackson up there. He even identified the mark on the horseshoe here,” Tuckett defended, pointing at the mark on the horse shoe.
“So that would be a ‘no’ on the statement. Is Bailey here to be called as a witness?”
“Ya see ‘im, woman? No, he ain’t here.”
“I see. So what you are saying is that this Bailey wanders in here, possibly with a chip on his shoulder, and hands you this rag and a right neat story accusing Quinn over here.” Trish weaved her defense.
“He could identify the horse’s tracks.”
“One horse’s tracks are the same as any other, other than the size of the hoof, I presume.”
“Oh no. Jackson and his brother put this here fancy mark on all their horses shoes,” Tuckett said.
Trish turned toward Quinn. “Mr. Jackson, assuming Tuckett has his facts about the horse shoes correct, do you ever ride your horse into town?”
“Yes, how else would I get here?” Quinn answered.
“How else, indeed? And when you come to town, do you ever have need to tie your horse and take care of business?”
“And where do you tie your horse?” Trish asked.
“At the closest hitchin’ rail.”
“So anyone, even Bailey, could lift your horse’s feet to see the mark, or at the very least observe the hoof prints under the animal?”
“Well, sure,” Quinn answered.
“Judge, in all fairness to both Sherriff Tuckett and Quinn, I see this as, at best, a complete misunderstanding. Tuckett’s evidence is circumstantial where Old Curly is concerned. I just don’t see definitive proof to support the accusations and move for this unofficial ‘man hunt’ to come to an end.”
“Miss Larsen, I wholeheartedly agree. Mister Jackson, you are free to go…”
“But Uncle.” Tuckett jumped to his feet as Quinn retrieved his knife.
“Francis. You owe this man and lady, your apology. I will not stand for further shenanigans. The man is innocent. Bury your dislike deep because the next time you accuse him of some wrong doing, I’ll be sorely tempted to release him due to his fine character alone.”
A strangled huff came from Moore’s direction. “You’ve gotta be kiddin’. Judge, clearly the sheriff is insane. I’m just as innocent…”
“Ma’am, Quinn.” Judge Fairbanks ushered them to the door. “Have a nice day.” He lowered his voice. “And just between the three of us, ya might wanna clear out of here. I understand Oregon’s nice.” He shut the door behind them, leaving Sheriff Tuckett to deal with Moore’s ranting.
Trish took Quinn’s arm as he escorted her from the livery toward the saloon. If only she could convince him to come with her.
“Then you’ll be leavin’ soon.” Quinn slowed their pace to let the cowboys on horseback cross the bridge without the hindrance of foot traffic.
“Well, yes, tomorrow in fact. I was hoping you would go with me.”
“Ya ain’t told me where yar goin’.”
She leaned into him. “I’m going home and I’d like you to come with me.”
“I ain’t never gonna leave this valley.” He stopped and turned his attention to the eastern ridge. “Albert and I were the first settlers in this valley. Didn’t take long to fall in love with that ridge and the way the black rock juts out so sharply along there. That whole side will turn blue and purple in just a minute. It’s right pretty when the moon rises between those two crags. Never liked the big black faces overlookin’ Root Hog, but up here is just fine. I owe it to Albert to stay. Someone needs to watch after Lucinda.”
“I thought you didn’t read the Bible or take after its teachings.”
“I don’t mostly, but Albert was my brother. What was his is mine, the land, the livery, and Lucinda. The good and the bad. Now that Ace and his threat are behind us, I’m thinking the future is mostly good.”
Trish dropped her gaze from the crags on the east to the rushing water below them. “This valley will stand firm for generations to come, that’s for sure. It will be safe for the honest man. The river will prove its life-blood.”
She swallowed her tears before they surfaced, feeling their sting. She couldn’t change any more of the past than she already had. No doubt Old Curly would have died somewhere in the canyons without her help. And Albert? She couldn’t be completely sure, but she had once had a school mate so many years ago with the surname of Jackson. The boy’s family had moved, but she couldn’t change that.
Here in this valley, tucked high on the Snake River Basin, Quinn would remain safe. Safe to live out his quiet life, to watch over the land he loved and care for his brother’s wife. The winters would be hard, but spring would come, sometimes late and sometimes early. The gold rush would pass through with its occasional stagecoach robberies. Silver would be discovered without the main vein ever being found up the valley. Farmers would find the secrets of the fertile soil and search for more water to satisfy the thirsty earth, and they would drill wells to find the secrets beneath the valley floor.
Life would go on. Was it this knowledge that had driven Grammy to travel through time? Had she found an era that suited her better than the one she had been born to? Grammy had left her love. She’d never told all of that story.
Trish swallowed her questions, the sting remaining in her throat.
“Quinn, this river is where we need to part. I don’t want to have to find another place to say goodbye. This river, this bridge, this sunset at our backs, it’s perfect. Since you won’t come with me, humor me?”
He took her in his arms. “You won’t stay? What have you got at home that you ran away from to come here, but have to return to?”
“You wouldn’t understand.” Her chest burned with anguish.
Trish stared into the distance, watching the shadow of the westerly mountains flee up the peaks to the east. Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, she made her decision. A decision contrary to the one she thought she had already made.
“I’m from the future, Quinn. A future the Jackson family protects this valley for. The Jacksons were here when I was a kid. Maybe they will return one day. That is why I had to come here. I didn’t know that when we first met, but when I went home and learned that one Jackson hung for his brother’s murder, I had to come back. I had to make sure you didn’t die. Teach your children to love the land. Teach them to care for it. Don’t ever let them sell this land straddling the river. The river will keep them safe, if they care for the land. It won’t matter whether they are farmers or cattlemen. Educate the girls as well as the boys. Send them to the university. Encourage them to be good husbands to their wives, their animals and their crops. These things will keep them strong.”
Quinn’s gut bucked and yet he refused to let it rule his response. If she hadn’t disappeared a week ago without a trace, he would think she was talking nonsense. She’d gone with her horse and not by stage. Meeker had assured Quinn that no female had stopped at the stage stop hoping for a ride when he’d delivered the mare. No one had seen her for the whole week. He’d checked in Root Hog, with acquaintances in the outlying ranches and even at Moore’s Saloon. Then she as unexpectedly returned. “Don’t leave me.”
She shook her head in answer.
He entwined his fingers in her hair, bringing her nullifying response to a halt. Backing her against the bridges sturdy railing, he pressed a kiss to her lips. When she responded, he deepened the kiss.
Tempting quivers titillated her core. The river sang beneath their feet. Night birds called from the trees and still he kissed her. The warmth of his body shielded her from the breeze that seemed to carry the scent of the high canyons, sweet, clean, and honest. The sun set in the west, its rays shooting beyond the mountain ridges reach. He broke the kiss.
“I love you. Stay with me.”
Trish sniffled, placing her finger at his lips to shush him. “It is because I love you that I cannot stay. You belong here.” She shook her head, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I don’t. I wish I did. I wish I could stay, but Grammy…” Her mind raced to the woman at the courthouse steps… Trish gasped, feeling the air knocked out of her. It couldn’t have been, but she knew the talisman’s abilities. It was totally possible that Grammy had shared her stories because she had witnessed this trial. The possible paradox wrapped tenacious fingers around Trish’s soul. The talisman had brought Grammy here to witness and maybe even right the wrong of an innocent man paying for the guilty man’s crime and when Grammy failed, it had brought Trish here. Trish shuddered. “Grammy told me it is time to go home… and rest. I must go home.”
He kissed a tear from her cheek. How could she do this to him again? “But you said tomorrow.”
“And tomorrow it will be.”
“Then come home with me tonight.”
He kissed her temple, sending delicious shudders down her back. “I can’t, Quinn.”
“Yar married.” It wasn’t a question.
“No, not even involved with anyone. I just can’t take the chance of carrying our child into the future. Please understand. A stretched existence such as mine is torture when you have to say goodbye.”
“Then you ain’t comin’ back this time?”
Would she? Could she stay away? If she came back and found him married, what then? At the very least, her heart would break. Leaving without him the first time had been difficult. This time it felt nearly impossible. Next time? No, there couldn’t be a next time.
“No,Quinn, I won’t be coming back.”
Sniffling, she pressed a kiss to his cheek. “But I’ll never forget you.” She pulled herself free of his embrace and ran for the outer steps of the saloon. She didn’t dare look back, afraid seeing him watching her would shatter her resolve.
Trish smiled at the morning sun. It would be dangerous to set the talisman in motion so close to the saloon but the bridge where she’d bid Quinn farewell seemed the perfect place to do the same to 1887. She turned to the saloon, raising her hand and the talisman toward it. Slowly, turning clockwise, she silently bid each tree, wild creature and memory goodbye until she’d completed her circle. The saloon still slept in silence. With her free hand, she flicked the inner scrolls.
Lightening cracked and her mind raced. In that split second before the rain descended upon her and the thunder rolled did she grasp the detail. The bridge no longer spanned the river here in her own time. Trish gulped at the air, hoping it would be enough should the rushing current carry her under.
Quinn awoke while it was still dark.
The filly danced under saddle, ready to stretch her legs in the crisp morning air.
He could only hope he wasn’t too late. Trish had said good-bye last evening and refused his invitation. She’d had her reason and it was a good reason, but if she truly felt she couldn’t leave while possibly carrying his child, he would remedy the situation. Either he would convince her to stay here with him, or he would go with her to whatever strange future she claimed as home.
He’d watched her run up the steps to the saloon without looking back. She’d said goodbyes were torture for her, but what if it didn’t need to be goodbye? What if she just needed a better reason to stay? She’d admitted that she wasn’t involved. Maybe she needed a contract of some kind. He had barely told her he loved her. Maybe she needed a commitment from him. If that was what she needed, he would make it. He would ask her to marry him.
He mounted and allowed the filly to spend all of her energy, urging her to cross the river at full stride. When he reached the livery, he sat back in the saddle. The filly slid to a halt within inches of where he’d cued her, the animal’s energy spent. Trish stood on the bridge, exactly where they had stood last evening. She turned to face the saloon and then she seemed to melt into thin air.
“Noooo.” Quinn dug his heels into the tired animal’s heaving sides. The filly lounged forward. At the bridge, he swung from the saddle before the filly slid to a stop. The bridge was empty. He ran to the middle of its span as if just by being there, she would reappear. Placing heavy hands on the railing, he lowered his head. She was gone. He’d waited too long in indecision. She had said she wouldn’t be coming back. How could he have let this happen? What a fool he’d been. She’d returned to trade her life for his. He had watched her do it and let her. She’d gambled and won and he hadn’t even said “thank you.” He’d told her he loved her but it wasn’t enough to hold her. He had played his Ace too late. He’d gambled that he could stop her and he’d lost.
“Trish, I’ll never forget you and someday, if God is willing, I’ll find a way to you. I promise.”
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Trish took the talisman from around her neck and gently kissed it before tucking it in a box. It had served her well and she was thankful but now it was time to put it away. She wondered as she had every time she’d pulled it out, if Quinn Jackson, with all of his wildness, were there to love her again if she should return to him. Yet she knew that she shouldn’t wonder for she couldn’t return to 1887. She closed the lid and put it in her top drawer. Her cell phone rang and she hurried to pick it up, shutting the drawer as she did so.
“Hello, is this Patricia Larsen?” came the voice from the phone.
“Yes, yes it is.”
“Andrew Jackson, here. I hope it is alright to call you. Vance gave me your number.”
“Yes, of course.” She couldn’t help but wonder what this call was about. Then again, Vance gave him my number. Why would Vance be so bold?
“I’d like to come by and take a look at your stud.”
“Oh sure, when would it be convenient for you?” She felt slightly miffed. Had Vance ventured into her plan for stud service? He hadn’t told her anything about an Andrew Jackson. Of course, she hadn’t been around that much. He sounded young and well, possibly good looking. Oh, for those cell phones that had picture capabilities. Maybe, it could happen with Skpe being so widely used. Maybe she could go forward in time and glean some resources.
“I’m in the valley, so how about I stop by now?” His words yanked her back to reality.
She hadn’t been to the riding arena yet today and needed to go. “Um, sure. I’ll get my boots on and meet you at the arena.”
“I’ll be there in fifteen.” He hung up.
Fifteen minutes. She had better hurry. Tucking in her cowboy shirt, she hurried along. She had just enough time to get there, to heck with grabbing a bite to eat.
Fifteen minutes later, she found herself at the arena at Vance’s house. The yard had a building style enclosure on the north to keep the cold weather at bay and several paddocks attached. The round pen stood opposite the paddocks with the pasture beyond. The arena stood next to the round pen. She checked the water for the horses and watched as a man drove into the yard in a recent model pick-up. He climbed out, looking long, lean, and wide shouldered. He placed a hat over his short, light brown American crew hair cut as he exited the cab. His ready smile beneath his closely shaved beard was disarming. His casual introduction on the phone hadn’t been wrong—he was cute, well, in a masculine way. All thoughts of a long lost love disappeared.
He strode toward her and her breath caught.
“Hello, you must be Patricia.” His tone came out honey smooth.
“Yes, and its Trish.” She extended her hand to him instinctively. Could he get any yummier? He took her hand in his warm hand shake. Her knees weakened.
“Well if it’s Trish, call me Andy.” His eyes danced as he spoke.
“What brings you to our little valley, Andy?”
“Some horses. Is this your stud?” He looked at Yedi. Yedi stood behind her in a paddock.
“Yes, it is. Would you care to see him in motion?”
He stepped closer to Yedi’s enclosure. Yedi snorted and trotted away.
“He’s a bit flighty but won’t warm to you.” She watched him and Yedi.
“I can see that. Yes, I’d like to see him in motion.”
She gathered a halter to put on Yedi, and led him to the arena and turned him out. Yedi sniffed the ground, his dark pigment showing through around his muzzle and his flanks. He started to trot around the arena. She bent over and picked up a gallon jug that lay on the ground and shook it. The rocks in the jug made for a decent rattle. She bent over to climb into the arena. Yedi picked up his heels and trotted around the arena to sniff the bottle. She shook it again and he bolted sideways and kicked up his heels. She shook the bottle again and Yedi answered with several crow-hopping jumps that turned to an all out canter for several strides. She smiled and returned to the side where the young man stood. She stood and watched Yedi, his mane and tail dancing in the breeze. Occasionally she shook the jug, getting him to buck and run.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“He’s put together real nice. How does he take to a saddle?”
“Very well. I ride him most days,” she proudly proclaimed. “But I haven’t yet today. I’ll go after you leave. I’ll probably ride him home.”
“You don’t live here?” his voice tendered surprise.
“No, this is my cousin’s place.” She tucked a stray strand of her auburn hair behind one ear.
“Oh, I wouldn’t have insisted on fifteen minutes had I known that.” His expression took on a guilty air making him all the more attractive.
“It’s okay, really. I usually come over here every day, anyway.” She bumped her toe at a mound in the dirt. She revised her earlier opinion of him. He wasn’t cute, he was downright gorgeous. How could she attract his attention?
“Do you guarantee live foals?”
She dragged her foot in the dirt of the arena. What should she say? She tugged nervously at her cowboy shirt. Yedi had been active since this spring when she’d caught him in the neighbor’s field with a couple of mares, but his foals hadn’t been live as of yet. Would they be?
“I don’t know. He hasn’t sired any foals yet, at least none to my knowledge.”
“I see. So he’s an unproven sire?”
She hated admitting it. “Yes.”
He stepped to the rails and leaned on them as he watched Yedi for a few minutes. She wondered if that was the end of it. Oh great, her first client and she may very well lose him here. Not to mention losing his attention.
She climbed back through the rails and stood there. Setting the bottle down, she moved away from him. Maybe if she gave him room, he would come to her like a fly to ointment.
“What if I just give you a down payment until the live foal is on the ground? Would that be acceptable to you?”
His offer was generous and she appreciated it. A down payment would greatly help their cash flow. He wasn’t asking for her to return the money if the foal were not viable, only a chance to see if it were.
“Yes, that would be fine. When do you want to bring your mare?”
They discussed terms of the stud service for several minutes. As they finished he asked her, “Dinner?”
Dinner? As in an actual dinner date? She stepped back and coughed, reminding herself of her newly resolved mantra. I will become a defense attorney, I will, even I have yet to pass the Idaho State bar exam. Then again she was just recently out of a very real, if only a bit ‘time warped’ relationship. Here he was asking her to dinner. Well, it’s just dinner. No big deal and that will be the end of it. Right Oh, but his eyes…could they be anymore captivating?
“You’re asking me to dinner?”
“Yes.” She answered a little more emphatically than she meant to.
She didn’t know what to say. She had never been asked to dinner. Oh, there were the after work meetings that were more like dinner dates, when she worked in the law firm but never an out-and-out date. She reconsidered him. His eyes where bright, were they brown? The line of his jaw seemed strong. No, she couldn’t. It was too soon, but was it? She had said goodbye to the man of her dreams with a resounding, no. Was trying here and now so bad?