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Spring Creek, Texas, 1902
Ida Mueller pressed a lock of unruly hair behind her ear and rounded the large dining table with a chipped serving bowl in hand. Chair legs scraped against the wood-planked floor as the rowdy lumber-mill workers rushed to sit down for another one of her home-cooked meals. She couldn't help but smile at their enthusiasm.
"Smells good enough to eat!" one of the younger fellows joked.
Ida plopped a spoonful of crisp fried potatoes onto his plate and kept moving as she responded. "You've eaten at my table every day for nearly a year, Carl Walken, and you haven't found reason to complain yet." She reached up with the back of her hand and wiped a bit of perspiration from her brow.
His eyebrows lifted mischievously. "Ain't just the food keeps me coming back." A playful wink followed.
"Ya reckon?" Another of the men elbowed him.
Several of the fellows let out whistles and Ida felt her cheeks turn warm. She scurried to the opposite side of the room and continued on with the chore of feeding the work crew, trying to ignore their usual flirtatious ways.
"None of that now." Her father's stern voice rang out from the head of the table. He always knew how to keep his men in line, especially when it came to his daughter.
"Aw, Mr. Mueller," one of the fellows groaned. "You never let us have any fun."
"Better mind your p's and q's," Ida quipped. "I've got a platter of Wiener schnitzel in the kitchen, but I've half a mind not to serve it."
The men took to hearty grumbling and she returned to the kitchen for the cumbersome platter of meat. For a momentjust a momentshe leaned against the countertop and drew in a deep breath. The south Texas heatwrapped itself around her like a dressing gown.
On days like this, she missed her mama more than ever. Seven years as the woman of the house had scarcely proven Ida worthy of filling her mother's shoes. Papa offered plenty of encouragement, but she struggled daily to keep up with caring for her home, her father and a crew of ravenous workers. And she fought to overcome the grief of losing the one person a girl depended on above all othersher mother. Oh, how she longed for what she could not have.
"I need you, Mama," she whispered. Indeed, at nineteen, Ida found herself in need of a great many things that only a mother could offer. But she had to rely on Papa's manly advice, and cope with the ever-present teasing from the lumber-mill workers, a daily reminder that she, a lone female, resided in a world of men.
"Mama, I don't know how you did it." She whispered the familiar words as she snatched up the plate full of Wiener schnitzel and headed back into the dining room once again.
As she came around the corner, Ida caught a glimpse of her uncontrollable blond hair in the elegant carved mirror that hung above the buffet. Frustrated, she reminded herself to deal with it after feeding the crew. How any of the men could find her attractive was a mystery, to her way of thinking.
Aunt Dinah would never let her hear the end of it if she didn't start taking better care of herself. Ever the proper lady, Ida's best friend and confidant was of the notion that a woman should be able to handle a full day's work, a brisk walk to town to help tend the family store and an hour's Bible reading in the evenings, with time left over for necessary grooming. All in the hopes of acquiring the one thing Ida wasn't sure she wanteda husband.
Ida remained convinced she would never find a man who even came close to the one she held in the highest esteemher papa. He was strong spirited, full of goodness and had a heart like a jewel. No, surely such a fellow did not exist. And if he did, he certainly didn't appear to be seated at this table.
"Thinkin' I'm hungry?" Carl asked. Ida looked down, shocked to see that she had placed five large slabs of veal steak on his plate.
Her father's eyebrows arched as if to ask, Where is your head today, daughter?
She lifted three of the pieces of meat from Carl's plate. "I knew you had a taste for my cooking, is all."
With fork in one hand and knife in the other, the young man dove into the food. The others followed suit and the air soon filled with the sounds of chomping and cutting.
Her father cleared his throat quite loudly and Ida anticipated his next words.
"I don't believe we've thanked the Almighty yet." His voice deepened in reverence. "So you'll be putting down those utensils, gentlemen, or there will be no dinner for you today. Or any other day, for that matter."
They complied with sheepish grins, as always.
Ida noticed that her father's German accent became stronger as his prayer began. "Almighty God, Maker of heaven and earth, we thank Thee for this, Thy bounty. For Thy goodness is everlasting, from generation to generation, and Thy blessings overflow. Be with each of these men today as they seek to serve Thee with their labors. Amen."
"Amen," the men echoed, then tore into their food once again.
Ida slipped away into the kitchen, anxious for another moment's peace. Perhaps here she could think clearly. Once the dishes were done, of course.
She worked at a steady pace, allowing her thoughts to drift until a familiar shrill whistle signaled a train's arrival. The afternoon run from Fort Worth came like clockwork at one-thirty, just as she finished the dishes. Some things could be depended on.
Others could not.
Mick Bradley peered out of the grimy train window and took in his first glimpse of Spring Creek, Texas. Not quite what he had pictured and a sure sight hotter. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dragged it across the back of his neck to remove the moisture. No point arriving in town looking like a vagabond. Not with so much at stake.
As the train crawled into the station, the porter approached, pocket watch in hand. "Just a few more minutes, sir."
Mick nodded in his direction, but said nothing as he took in the sights of his new home. Off in the distance a large hotel with a freshly painted sign greeted him. Sellers Hotel. And to his right, The Harvey House. After locating a barbershop, he'd have to settle on one or the other.
A bustling mercantile appeared to be doing quite a good business. Shoppers scurried to and fro with packages, stirring up dust on the street. A couple of women were about, but for the most part, he only saw men. Hundreds of men.
Yes, the booming little town of Spring Creek must surely need his services.
Mick's brow furrowed as he counted the saloons. He strained to see a bit farther down the street. Three? In such a small area? Their owners would be a source of contention, no doubt. Surely they would seek to complicate his plans to build a new gambling hall.
But he had encountered plenty of trouble when he opened his first place up North. These Texans couldn't be any worse than Chicago's most notorious, whom he'd handled with ease.
At that moment, two men took to brawling in the middle of the street, not twenty feet from the jail-house. The taller, more muscular man clearly had the upper hand. A crowd gathered round, cheering them on. Before long, the two were on the ground, tussling. They went at it, cheek to fist, until one of them was knocked out. With such a large group about, Mick couldn't tell which one had taken the fall, but it must surely be the smaller of the two. That's how life was, after all. The boisterous crowd thinned as it declared a victor and the short man stood and raised his fist in the air with a triumphant shout.
Maybe these Texans weren't going to be so easy after all.
The passenger in the seat next to him stood and gave a polite nod as the train came to a stop. Mick returned the gesture and rose to his feet. His back ached from sitting so long and his cramped legs begged for a good, long walk. How many trains had he boarded over the past several days? Somewhere between Illinois and Texas he'd simply lost count.
The next few months would give him plenty of opportunity to stay put, however. He had his work cut out for him. And before long, he would be the talk of the town.
Probably sooner rather than later.
The afternoon journey to town provided Ida with an opportunity to think about the day ahead. She didn't mind the walk, though the late-spring heat continued to fold her in its sticky embrace. Her skirts, dusty and ragged on the ends, twisted about her ankles as she moved along the tiny, jutted road that connected the lumber mill with Midway, the town's main street.
She looked both ways before crossing the tracks, contemplating the barreling locomotives and the havoc they'd brought with them. Somehow it all seemed exaggerated in the heat. She tugged at the neckline of her dress, and a trickle of perspiration rolled down her back.
Surely Aunt Dinah would scold Ida for her appearance. Ah, well. Nothing Ida could do about that. Nor did she care to. If living among men gave her a tom-boyish appearance, so be it. There were worse things, to be sure.
As she made her way from the tracks to town, Ida struggled with the usual attentions from the railroad men. Many let out a whoop or a holler as she passed by The Harvey House, and still more as she eased her way past Sellers Hotel, which happened to be known for a bit more than rooms to let.
As was her custom, she ignored the men, keeping her mouth shut to avoid giving them a serious tongue-lashing. She would gladly tromp through mud, splashing dirt upon her gingham skirt if she thought it would cause them to turn their irksome attentions elsewhere. Let her hair remain mussed. Perhaps then they would focus on their work and not on her.
"Come on, Ida," one of the fellows chided. "Just one glimpse into those perty blue eyes. They melt me like fresh-churned butter."
She kept her eyes on the ground and continued walking. The irritating fellow reeked of alcohol and pipe tobacco, and his work clothes were in serious need of washing. His scent, coupled with the overpowering smells coming from the nearby livery stable, almost brought her stomach up into her throat. Add to this the foul odor from the outhouses and the lingering stench of cigar smoke and one could scarcely stand it.
Yet this seemed to be her lot in life. Ida longed for a quieter, more genteel existence that did not include such aromas. If only Spring Creek could return to its former statea quaint town with good, wholesome neighbors who greeted one another with pleasant hellos.
"C'mon, honey," the man pleaded, oblivious to her thoughts. "Can't ya give me a wink or somethin'? Some sign that I stand a chance with ya? I'll die if you don't." An exaggerated groan followed, one meant to get the attention of others nearby.
She willed herself not to look up. Why encourage him?
"Aw, yer killin' me." He doubled over and fell onto the road, eliciting a roar of laughter from the other men.
Ida managed to maintain her sense of dignity and simply kept walking.
She made the turn onto Midway and peered up long enough to gauge the distance. If she could just make it beyond the Wunsche Brothers saloon, the jailhouse, the barbershop and the bank, she'd be fine. I can do this.
A minute later, she reached the overgrown lot next to the mercantile and breathed a sigh of relief. Just twenty more paces and she'd be in the store. Dinah would be waiting, as always. Probably with pursed lips, but waiting, nonetheless.
The clock above the bank sounded two piercing gongs. Why is it I can never arrive at a place on time?
Ida picked up the pace and ran head-on into one of the men. With her cheeks flaming, she looked up at the fellow, ready to give him a piece of her mind for not watching where he was going. Why were these railroad men so careless?