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Mattie Idyll shook her closed parasol threateningly at the large yellow dog blocking the boardwalk. Wet tongue lolling, the animal looked at her as if it wanted to play, or to have her for breakfast. "I said, 'Go away!' "
Taking this as an invitation, the dog bounded forward and leapt up, putting its paws on Mattie's shoulders and knocking her off-balance. She dropped her parasol and the basket she carried as she tried frantically to push the dog away and regain her balance. She ended up on her bustle in the middle of the boardwalk.
The dog made a swipe at her face with its tongue, then dodged a slap and bounded out of reach. Mattie glared at the animal as she wiped her wet cheek. The yellow dog stood just out of harm's way, looking at her as if aggrieved and puzzled by her lack of enthusiasm.
Expelling an exasperated breath, Mattie picked up her closed parasol and swung at the dog when the animal ventured close again. She wasn't trying to hit it so much as to just convince the monster to go away.
"Nathan!" Mattie called out to her son. But a glance over her shoulder showed Nathan already halfway to Alma's Boarding House, racing up Main Street as fast as his short legs could carry him. His attention was focused on the long curling rooster feather he held aloft as he ran, the end twirling in the wind.
Other than her fast-disappearing son, the town of Medicine Springs was wrapped in the stillness of early morning. Pale light painted hitching rails and facaded store fronts in fuzzy, soft colors. Shadows of live oaks shaded houses built back from the road. Light from coal oil lamps spilling through kitchenwindows showed people beginning to stir to meet the day.
The livery stable doors were open. In front of the wooden structure, flames danced on the blacksmith's forge as old Joe worked the bellows and readied his fire. It would do no good to call to the huge ex-slave. He was as kind as the day was long, but Mattie knew he was also as deaf as a post.
Well, it looked like, as usual, she was going to have to help herself. She'd long ago learned that there were no knights in shining armor who rescued ladies in distress.
Getting to her knees, she firmly grasped the nearest post then pulled herself upright. And felt her foot sink when a rotted board where the gutter dripped gave way.
Still grasping the post, Mattie pulled. The boot remained stuck as though it had been made into the sidewalk.
The beginnings of tears prickled her eyes. "Damn!"
Normally she didn't use vulgar language. Normally she had no desire to. A lady did not stoop to base commonness, after all. But nothing was normal. No, nothing, she thought bitterly. First, yesterday, they'd run out of firewood and the axe handle broke when she tried to chop down a tree. Not that she was making much headway, anyhow. Usually she paid someone to cut her wood, but there was no money for that now. Then she'd come home from church and found coyotes had been at her hens. She'd wanted to sit down and bawl like a baby.
She hadn't, of course. That would have scared Nathan half to death. He'd never seen her cry. With no father, the boy depended on her to be strong.
But this was just the last straw.
The big dog turned its attention to something behind her and bounded off. Well, that was one problem out of the way, at least. Now for the next, Mattie thought, looking down.
She gave her booted foot an angry yank. To her surprise, the boot came free. To her dismay, the heel felt wobbly when she took a step.
"Damn it all to hell and damnation!"
"Mornin' to you, too, Miz Mattie," drawled a deep voice behind her.
Flushing guiltily, Mattie looked around to find Ty Warburton grinning at her, a cynical light in his ice-blue eyes. Her cheeks burned. Of all the people to overhear her bad language! Ty Warburton was insufferably rude and arrogant and never failed to set her teeth on edge when she saw him strutting about town.
Tall, above six foot, he wore a long canvas duster, denim pants, and spurs on his well-worn boots. Beneath his hat, the wide brim of which had obviously kept much rain from his face, judging by its weathered state, his sandy-blond hair was a little too long, falling below his collar. His face would have been handsome, except there was a hard look about it. A hard look that was somehow accentuated by his smile.
Something in his eyes said he didn't quite trust her. Well, she didn't trust him, either. Because he'd earned his money to buy his spread with a gun, she considered Ty Warburton a common ruffian. In the years since he'd owned the Rocking J Bar Ranch, she'd always gone out of her way to avoid the man. And he'd always gone out of his way to rile her -- showing he'd no breeding at all!
With his thumbs hooked in the belt loops of his denim pants as he lounged against the post, and that insufferable grin on his face, Ty Warburton still looked as dangerous as the first time she'd seen him riding into town with that big Colt Peacemaker strapped to his hip. The gun was gone now, but to Mattie, Medicine Springs's leading citizen still looked more like a bank robber than an upstanding member of the community.
The yellow dog sat on its haunches at his side, the picture of dogly decorum. She might have known it was his.
Ty straightened and moved nearer, the wicked glint in his eyes deepening. "I'm sure I couldn't have heard a'right. Preachers' wives don't swear, or so I've been told."
Mattie stood ramrod-straight and glared up at him past the brim of her black straw bonnet. "Widow. I am a widow, sir. And a gentleman doesn't stand by and laugh while a lady struggles in distress."
"I never claimed to be a gentleman." He grinned infuriatingly.
"Good. At least you aren't a liar, as well as insufferably ill-mannered."
Instead of being abashed by her remark, as she'd intended, Ty's grin widened, showing straight white teeth the likes of which she'd not often seen in a man's mouth since leaving Baltimore. Given the prevalence of tobacco chewing and fist fights among these western men, it was a wonder they had any teeth at all.
He picked up her basket and parasol and held them out to her. "Well, Widow Idyll, I guess that puts me one up on you, as no lady would use vulgar speech like that."
Mattie felt her face flame to the roots of her hair. Grinding her teeth in silent rage, she snatched her things away from him and turned on her heel.
Or tried to. Her boot heel broke completely off and the basket and parasol went flying once again as Mattie fell headlong. Strong hands caught her around her rib cage and saved her.
Ty lifted her and set her back on her feet as easily as if she were a child. But he didn't remove his hands. She was too stunned to speak as they seemed to burn her skin through the layers of black bombazine, her whalebone corset, and cotton camisole. She was fairly certain the ruffian's finger marks were imprinted on her soul.
"Thank you." Mattie bit out the words between clenched teeth. "I can manage now!" she added, as his big hands continued to clasp her body in that most upsetting way.
"I doubt it." One sandy brow rose mockingly. He picked her up again, so that her feet dangled.
"What are you... put me down!" Mattie kicked, to no avail.
Paying her vigorous protests no attention, Ty turned her around until she was facing the same post she'd used to haul herself upright. "Hold on to it," he commanded, then bent and caught her foot and the broken shoe heel.
"A gentleman does not touch a lady's limbs!" Mattie drew in a shocked breath as he pulled her foot up behind her. She tried to kick in protest, but he held her foot firmly. "Did you hear me!"
She caught the post. She had no choice -- it was catch it or be overset as he lifted her foot impossibly high.
"Good thing we already established I'm not a gentleman." He stepped over her leg, straddling it with his back to hers, and held her booted foot pinioned between his knees, just as though he was shoeing a mare.
Another blaze of heat suffused her face as she realized the intimacy of having her leg between his. Imagining how much of her mended stocking was showing to anyone who happened to see, she clutched the post tighter, suddenly unable to catch her breath.
"Don't faint," Ty said as though reading her mind. "I left my ammonia crystals in my other vest." Using the ebony handle of her parasol, Ty tapped the heel back onto her boot. "There. Stomp it a few times, then it should do." He released her foot as suddenly as he'd lifted it.
Clenching her fists, Mattie whirled around. Glaring at him, she stood rigid. Beyond moving. Beyond speech. Never had she been so mortified! Finally, her muscles cooperated and she lifted her shawl higher across her shoulders, pulling it tightly over her breasts.
Ty Warburton made a show of returning her parasol and basket once more. Holding her shawl with one hand, Mattie snatched them from his grasp with the other. She opened her mouth, but only an angry croak issued from her throat.
"You're welcome." Ty chuckled.
Still feeling the imprint of his fingers on her leg, and a little of the strange tingling his touch had sent running up it, Mattie felt heat flood her cheeks again. "Mr. Warburton!"
"I... I..." Mattie began, but faltered as she stared up at him. The mocking glint in his eyes changed to something darker. And much more frightening. He was handsome, the type of man who'd never given her a second look back in Baltimore. But this man was looking at her now, and she took a step back.
"Mama, Mama, Mama!" Nathan skidded to a stop between them and looked from his mother's face to the rancher's, all the while tugging on Mattie's skirt. "Mama, ain't you comin'? Miz Alma's old red sow has a new litter of pigs, and I wanna see 'em -- that sure is a nice dog, mister!"
"Aren't you coming," Mattie corrected her son automatically and caught his collar when he would have gone to the big yellow dog. "Run on to Alma's and I'll catch up."
Giving the dog a wistful look, Nathan hesitated, then ran a few steps down the plank sidewalk and paused, waiting for his mother.
"You are an insufferably rude devil!" Mattie hissed.
"And you are just like the other 'ladies' I've known." The hard glaze returned to Ty Warburton's gaze.
Realizing there was nothing to be gained by dressing the man down, that he would only enjoy it if she lost her temper, she turned and stalked away.
Ty watched her go, the bustle on her black dress jerking from side to side with her quick, angry steps. Rubbing the back of his neck, he shook his head, wondering at his own behavior. He wasn't in the habit of being rude to females. Truth be told, he wasn't in the habit of having much to do with Mattie Idyll's kind at all. There were visits to the girls above the saloon in Red Creek, but he didn't do much talking then. And he was never rude.
There was just something about Mattie Idyll that goaded him. Short and thin, she was no beauty. But he'd never held that against a female. Maybe it was the way she was always so proper, so perfectly mannered. A genuine lady, for what that was worth.
Lyla Beaumont had been a proper southern lady by day and writhed in his bed by night. His jaw clamped. Young fool that he'd been, he'd believed the southern belle truly cared for him. He'd even gone through that sham of a marriage.
Yes, Mattie Idyll reminded him of Lyla. And from the expletives he'd overheard Mattie spewing, like Lyla, her propriety was tossed aside when it was inconvenient.
As Ty watched Mattie's progress, she called to her son as he darted into the square after a gray squirrel. A blue jay must have been making its nest in the big oak there because it took exception to the child and dived at him, squawking raucously and almost striking the small blond head. With a frightened shriek, the boy reversed direction and dashed back to his mother, a blur of flailing arms and pumping legs.
The lad hit her black skirts and burrowed into the folds, and a change came over the stiffly proper Mattie Idyll. As she spoke to the boy and gently stroked his hair from his face, there was a mother's love in her whole demeanor. Ty was too far away to hear her words, but they were obviously the right ones, for the child looked up, then dashed away again, this time running on ahead of her.
Did he dare to hope Lyla Beaumont had been as good a mother to his child?
Lifting his hat and stabbing his fingers through his hair, Ty silently damned the Georgia beauty. She could have told him. Not only had she not told him about the baby, but she'd been responsible for his and his brother's capture and their stay in Andersonville Prison, where his brother died.
Vague scenes from the Confederate hellhole tried to push their way to the surface, like the harsh light of the sun trying to force its way through the foliage of old live oak in the square.
Resettling his hat on his head, he pushed the memories away. It did no good to dredge up the past. It was better left buried.
Ty touched his breast pocket and felt the crumpled letter that had turned his life upside down. How the hell had it found him, anyway? It was addressed to "Major Tyrone Warburton, Sixth Illinois Regulars, U.S. Army" and had somehow made it into his parents' hands. They had forwarded it on.
He wished fervently that they hadn't.
The Beaumonts' lawyer had written for him to come take responsibility for his daughter, now that Lyla was dead.
Lyla dead. He'd once lived and breathed for the woman, but now he felt nothing at the news of her death. Not even relief.
The truth was, it wasn't Lyla he blamed for what happened to him and his brother. He alone was responsible.
More disconcerting was the thought of his daughter. A half-grown child he'd never known existed. A sick feeling roiled his stomach. He didn't want the responsibility, not for another human soul. Not ever again. He'd promised his parents he'd watch out for John, for all the good that had done his brother. Instead, Ty's selfish infatuation with Lyla had led to his brother's death.
He thought about ignoring the letter. Surely the Beaumonts would continue to see to the child's welfare. The girl had to be better off where she was at.
He sighed. He couldn't just pretend he didn't know about her. She was his responsibility. But he couldn't bring her here. He was unqualified to raise a child, and working the ranch often kept him on the range for days at a time. Besides, it would be for the best if she stayed in the surroundings she was used to, where she felt loved and cared for, he told himself.
He'd just send a telegraph and explain. The Beaumonts would see the wisdom of leaving the child where she was and not uprooting her. Satisfied with his solution, he started up the street to the restaurant. He'd have breakfast while he waited for the telegraph office to open.
"Nathan, come on." Mattie sighed as she waited by Alma's picket gate. On hands and knees, Nathan prodded a slug he'd found under a stone. She shook her head in exasperation. The boy was as curious as a puppy and just as filled with energy.
He looked up at her, frowning. "Mama, is he really?"
"Is who really? What are you talking about?"
"You know, Mr. Warbucket."
"Warburton," Mattie corrected. "Yes, it was really him." At his most annoying, Mattie added to herself. She pulled open the gate. "Don't dawdle, sweet."
As if the words lit a fire under him, Nathan rushed past her, disappearing around the corner of Alma's Boarding House. Mattie let go of the gate and it snapped closed behind them, pulled by a weight suspended on a rope between the gate and the gatepost.
She'd always thought the simple device was ingenious. Still furious at Ty Warburton's high-handed treatment, she pleasantly imagined holding his head in the gate and letting it swing closed.
Alma's kitchen was a separate structure connected to the main house by a covered "dog walk," a practical design, considering how often kitchens burned down. Also, having the cooking area separate helped in the sweltering heat of summer.
The sun was just halfway above the horizon and everything was still touched in shades of gray. Golden lantern light shone through the window and smoke curled invitingly from the stovepipe, promising warmth and maybe a hot cup of Alma's coffee. Mattie had come to borrow the eggs she needed to bake the custard pies she'd promised to the Coffeepot Restaurant, so she could have them ready and cooled by lunch. Thanks to the coyotes, she'd have no more eggs of her own for a while.
Nathan ran past the kitchen to the fence by the barn in back of the house. Stretching on his tiptoes, he scratched a Jersey calf behind the ears.
The kitchen door suddenly opened and water flung from a dishpan spread out over the yard. Mattie squeaked and jumped back, narrowly saving her skirt. A dozen or so chickens weren't so quick and took exception to the deluge. Squawking in alarm, they scattered in all directions. One fat red hen on which most of the water landed squawked loudest of all as she flew off into the corner of the picket fence.
The water had scarcely settled over the dirt before the hens were running back to scratch at the puddles for crumbs.
"Sorry, Mattie! I wasn't expectin' company to be outside the door." A grin split Alma's moon-round face as she stood on the top step. "Come on in. You're just in time. Fresh coffee's almost brewed."
"Thank you." Mattie sighed, feeling some of the anger that had sustained her drain out. "A cup sounds like just what I need." Coffee, as much as Mattie loved it, was a luxury. And she hadn't indulged her love of it for quite some time.
As the older woman held the kitchen door wide, she eyed Mattie shrewdly. "Mercy, what's ruffled your feathers? You look more put out than those hens I flung the water on."
Realizing her face had given away how upset she was, Mattie quickly schooled her features into a smile. She was not in the habit of sharing her feelings. There had been too many years when she'd been married to Jonas Idyll when she'd had to hide what she truly felt. Besides, everyone had their own problems. She'd not burden them with hers.
"Come on in. I was just about to start a pan of biscuits."
Mattie put a gloved hand on the handrail and stepped carefully onto the bottom step, in case Ty Warburton's shoeing job didn't hold. The aroma of fresh-brewed coffee found her nostrils, along with fried bacon and other warm scents, and her stomach growled enthusiastically. Oh, Lord, she should have eaten something before she came, but she had stopped eating breakfast a while back.
As it growled again, louder this time, Nathan blew by like a whirlwind, covering the noise with his clattering up the steps. "Don't run!" she scolded, but for once Mattie was grateful for his lack of restraint.
"Hi, Miz Alma!" Eyes aglow, he skidded to a stop on Alma's scrubbed wood floor. "There ain't no school today because the teacher had to go get the school boarded."
Alma chuckled. "The teacher had to attend a school board meeting, but you're right. The important thing for a young'un is that there's this great big Monday with no school to interrupt the important things."
"Where's Tassie?" Nathan asked excitedly. "We just saw the devil, and I want to tell her!"
"Nathan Robert Idyll!" Mattie looked aghast at her son. "We did not see the devil. What put such a thing into your head?"
"But you said he was!"
"I said what? Who are you talking about?"
"That old Mr. Wartburden. He caught your leg between his knees, and you called him a rude devil. I guess other devils is more polite."
"Are more polite," Mattie corrected faintly, eying her son with a mixture of horror and amusement.
"He had your ma's leg between his knees?" Alma's eyes were alight as they settled on Mattie. "Ack! Then he is a rude devil, and they're the worse kind, doncha know."
"Are they really?" Nathan's expression was hopeful.
"No, not really." Alma's laughter filled the kitchen, a rich warm sound. "I 'spect your mother was referring to his devilish behavior, tucking her leg between his knees, an' all. Is that it, Mattie?"
Mattie was certain her face was beet-red. "I, I--"
"Ma, when I asked you by the gate, you said he was! You said!" Nathan looked accusingly at his mother for having supplied the wrong information.
"Oh, honey!" Understanding bloomed. Squatting down to Nathan's level, Mattie looked her son in the eyes, thankfully hiding her embarrassment from Alma as she did so. "I misunderstood you. I'm sorry. I thought you were asking Mr. Warburton's name."
The boy's lip thrust out, and he dragged an aggrieved shoe across the scrubbed plank floor as he considered this. "Buffalo chips! I knew it was too good to be true"
Mattie cringed as she saw how scuffed the shoe was. His toes crowded the end, the little humps etched in white relief against the brown leather. Looking at it, she didn't have the heart to reprimand him for his rude language.
Maybe some lamp blacking would make the shoes look more presentable until new ones could be bought.
And when would that be? her practical side wondered.
Wiping the mirth from her eyes with the tail of her apron, Alma told Nathan, "Tassie should be about through with the milkin'. Why don't you go help her carry in the milk? That new litter of pigs is in the farrowing pen, if you want to take a look while you're in the barn."
"Yes, ma'am." Nathan flew back down the steps at the same headlong pace he'd raced up them.
Alma chuckled as she closed the door. "Ty Warburton, was it? Sit. This might be worth a slice of sweet potato pie to go with your coffee."
So Alma had heard her noisy stomach, Mattie guessed. "No pie, thank you. But coffee would be welcome."
"Yes." Raising her chin, Mattie pulled out a ladder-back chair and sat down at the kitchen worktable, placing her basket and parasol beside her. "Yes. I'm certain." She hesitated. "About Mr. Warburton..."
She broke off, at a loss. There had to be some way to explain what had happened where it wouldn't seem so... improper. But how did she make it sound less improper, when improper was exactly what it was! The nerve of that man, to place her in this predicament!
Remembering his touch on her leg, she felt fresh heat stain her cheeks. She busied herself, taking off her bonnet to hide her discomfort. "The whole thing with Mr. Warburton was... was nothing." Mattie studied the big Home Comfort wood stove as though it fascinated her, just as if she didn't cook on one like it every day. She hoped fervently Alma would let the subject of Ty Warburton drop.
That hope seemed to be answered when one of Alma's light-colored brows rode high, but she didn't remark. She poured coffee into a porcelain cup and set it in a saucer before Mattie. Then she opened a door on the pie safe, a handsome piece built like a display hutch, but more practical. The pie safe had punch-work tin panels depicting pineapples on the top doors, to let air in where pies or cakes were stored, while keeping pests out. A wide work space topped the lower cabinets.
Alma cocked her head back and stood on tiptoes as she peered inside for what she wanted. She took out a china creamer and a small jar of honey and placed them on the table. "I hope it's a good year for blackberries and wild plums. All that honey we robbed last fall is going to sugar. Nothin' makes better jelly than honey-sugar."
Mattie added cream to the steaming cup. "Yes, honey-sugar does make fine jelly. Go ahead with what you were doing. Please. You've probably guessed, I came a'borrowing. I wouldn't want to take you from your work. Your boarders will want their breakfast."
"I wondered what had you out at this hour. Not that I don't like the company." Alma smiled. "Now what be you needin' to borrow?"
Mattie counted herself lucky to have Alma as a friend. Pushing all thought of the irritating Mr. Warburton aside, Mattie took another sip of her coffee and gathered her resolve. Friend or no, she still hated to ask for anything. Most people had just enough to get by, and that through their own hard work. But she needed eggs. "I guess you heard about the coyotes getting my hens."
"A shame, that." Nodding in sympathy, Alma lifted the lid from the flour barrel in the corner. Using a tin cup, she filled a blue granite pan with flour, then expertly formed a little well in the white peak and added lard and milk without measuring either.
Mattie watched the process closely, trying to find where her own biscuits fell short. They never tasted or looked like Alma's.
"I promised George at the restaurant four custard pies a week, and he's expecting two today. I... Well, the money isn't a lot but it helps..." She trailed off as Alma finished kneading the dough and began "choking" biscuit-sized balls off the main roll. She gave them each a little roll in her floury hands and popped them into the waiting biscuit pan.
Try as she might, Mattie could never get the hang of the technique and had to drop her biscuits into the pan with a spoon. When baked, Nathan said they looked like turtles.
"I have an extra dozen eggs in the cupboard. You're welcome to them." Alma dipped a spoon into bacon grease and touched the top of each biscuit before sliding the pan into the oven, which took up one side of the big iron stove. "That will fix you up for today, so you can make your pies for George. But what about later?"
"The old dominecker hen is still there -- you know, the one that's always flying out of the chicken yard. And I have another hen setting on a big clutch of eggs in the henhouse. I guess the coyotes couldn't get through the opening to get at her. With luck, we'll have biddies next week."
"Come back with Nathan at dark, when the chickens go to roost, and he and Tassie can catch you a few grown hens to help out. You'll need chickens for laying, until those biddies grow," Alma said decisively. "I have too many. There have been precious few boarders this winter. Only have two right now. So I've not fried near as much chicken as I expected. You'll be helping me out, taking them off my hands before they get too old and tough to cook. And it'll cut down the number I have to feed." Alma held her white-caked hands over the slop bucket in the corner and rubbed them together, removing the excess dough.
"I..." Mattie wanted to refuse. She swallowed back her pride. She and Nathan needed the steady supply of eggs to help out their table, and she could continue to bake the custard pies for the restaurant. "Thank you. How can I ever repay such a generous gift?" Unable to say more, Mattie raised her coffee cup and took a sip.
"Easy enough to repay. Just tell me how the handsomest man in Medicine Springs came to have your leg between his," Alma declared with a twinkle.
Mattie choked on her coffee.
Copyright © 1999 by Vickie Hillman DuBois
Posted February 5, 2011
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Posted December 18, 2010
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Posted February 12, 2011
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Posted July 26, 2010
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