Read an Excerpt
The Brides's Prerogative
By Susan Page Davis
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Susan Page Davis
All rights reserved.
Fergus, Idaho May 1885
Gert Dooley aimed at the scrap of red calico and squeezed the trigger. The Spencer rifle she held cracked, and the red cloth fifty yards away shivered.
"I'd say your shooting piece is in fine order." She lowered the rifle and passed it to the owner, Cyrus Fennel. She didn't particularly like Fennel, but he always paid her brother, the only gunsmith in Fergus, with hard money.
He nodded. "Thank you, Miss Dooley." He shoved his hand into his pocket.
Gert knew he was fishing out a coin. This was the part her brother hated most—taking payment for his work. She turned away. Hiram would be embarrassed enough without her watching. She picked up the shawl she had let fall to the grass a few minutes earlier.
"That's mighty fine shooting, Gert," said Hiram's friend, rancher Ethan Chapman. He'd come by earlier to see if Hiram would help him string a fence the next day. When Cyrus Fennel had arrived to pick up his repaired rifle, Ethan had sat down on the chopping block to watch Gert demonstrate the gun.
"Thank you kindly." Gert accepted praise for shooting as a matter of course. Now, if Ethan had remarked that she looked fine today or some such pretty thing, she'd have been flustered. But he would never say anything like that. And shooting was just work.
Fennel levered the rifle's action open and peered at the firing pin. "Looks good as new. I should be able to pick off those rats that are getting in my grain bins."
"That's quite a cannon for shooting rats," Gert said.
Ethan stood and rested one foot on the chopping block, leaning forward with one arm on his knee. "You ought to hire Gert to shoot them for you."
Gert scowled. "Why'd I want to do that? He can shoot his own rats."
Hiram, who had pocketed his pay as quickly as possible, moved the straw he chewed from one side of his mouth to the other. He never talked much. Men brought him their firearms to fix. Hiram listened to them tell him what the trouble was while eyeing the piece keenly. Then he'd look at Gert. She would tell them, "Come back next week." Hiram would nod, and that was the extent of the conversation. Since his wife, Violet, had died eight years ago, the only person Hiram seemed to talk to much was Ethan.
Fennel turned toward her with a condescending smile. "Folks say you're the best shot in Fergus, Miss Dooley."
Gert shrugged. It wasn't worth debating. She had sharp eyes, and she'd fired so many guns for Hiram to make sure they were in working order that she'd gotten good at it, that was all.
Ethan's features, however, sprang to life. "Ain't it the truth? Why, Gert can shoot the tail feathers off a jay at a hundred yards with a gun like that. Mighty fine rifle." He nodded at Fennel's Spencer, wincing as though he regretted not having a gun as fine.
"Well, now, I'm a fair shot myself," Fennel said. "I could maybe hit that rag, too."
"Let's see you do it," Ethan said.
Fennel jacked a cartridge into the Spencer, smiling as he did. The rag still hung limp from a notched stick and was silhouetted against the distant dirt bank across the field. He put his left foot forward and swung the butt of the stock up to his shoulder, paused motionless for a second, and pulled the trigger.
Gert watched the cloth, not the shooter. The stick shattered just at the bottom of the rag. She frowned. She'd have to find another stick next time. At least when she tested a gun, she clipped the edge of the cloth so her stand could be used again.
Hiram took the straw out of his mouth and threw it on the ground. Without a word, he strode to where the tattered red cloth lay a couple of yards from the splintered stick and brought the scrap back. He stooped for a piece of firewood from the pile he'd made before Fennel showed up. The stick he chose had split raggedly, and Hiram slid the bit of cloth into a crack.
Ethan stood beside Gert as they watched Hiram walk across the field, all the way to the dirt bank, and set the piece of firewood on end.
"Hmm." Fennel cleared his throat and loaded several cartridges into the magazine. When Hiram was back beside them, he raised the gun again, held for a second, and fired. The stick with the bit of red stood unwavering.
"Let Gert try," Ethan said.
"No need," she said, looking down at her worn shoe tips peeping out beneath the hem of her skirt.
"Oh, come on." Ethan's coaxing smile tempted her.
Fennel held the rifle out. "Be my guest."
Gert looked to her brother. Hiram gave the slightest nod then looked up at the sky, tracking the late afternoon sun as it slipped behind a cloud. She could do it, of course. She'd been firing guns for Hiram for years—since she came to Fergus and found him grieving the loss of his wife and baby. Folks had brought him more work than he could handle. They felt sorry for him, she supposed, and wanted to give him a distraction. Gert had begun test firing the guns as fast as he could fix them. She found it satisfying, and she'd kept doing it ever since. Thousands upon thousands of rounds she'd fired, from every type of small firearm, unintentionally building herself a reputation of sorts.
She didn't usually make a show of her shooting prowess, but Fennel rubbed her the wrong way. She knew he wasn't Hiram's favorite patron either. He ran the Wells Fargo office now, but back when he ran the assay office, he'd bought up a lot of failed mines and grassland cheap. He owned a great deal of land around Fergus, including the spread Hiram had hoped to buy when he first came to Idaho. Distracted by his wife's illness, Hiram hadn't moved quickly enough to file claim on the land and had missed out. Instead of the ranch he'd wanted, he lived on his small lot in town and got by on his sporadic pay as a gunsmith.
Gert let her shawl slip from her fingers to the grass once more and took the rifle. As she focused on the distant stick of firewood, she thought, That hunk of wood is you, Mr. Rich Land Stealer. And that little piece of cloth is one of your rats.
She squeezed gently. The rifle recoiled against her shoulder, and the far stick of firewood jumped into the air then fell to earth, minus the red cloth.
"Well, I'll be." Fennel stared at her. "Are you always this accurate?"
"You ain't seen nothing," Ethan assured him.
Hiram actually cracked a smile, and Gert felt the blood rush to her cheeks even though Ethan hadn't directly complimented her. She loved to see Hiram smile, something he seldom did.
"Mind sharing your secret, Miss Dooley?" Fennel asked.
Ethan chuckled. "I'll tell you what it is. Every time she shoots, she pretends she's aiming at something she really hates."
"Aha." Fennel smiled, too. "Might I ask what you were thinking of that time, ma'am?"
Gert's mouth went dry. Never had she been so sorely tempted to tell a lie.
"Likely it was that coyote that kilt her rooster last month," Hiram said.
Gert stared at him. He'd actually spoken. She knew when their eyes met that her brother had known exactly what she'd been thinking.
Ethan and Fennel both chuckled.
Of course I wouldn't really think of killing him, Gert thought, even though he stole the land right out from under my grieving brother. The Good Book says don't kill and don't hate. Determined to heap coals of fire on her adversary's head, she handed the Spencer back to him. "You're not too bad a shot yourself, Mr. Fennel."
His posture relaxed, and he opened his mouth all smiley, like he might say something pleasant back, but suddenly he stiffened. His eyes focused beyond Gert, toward the dirt street. "Who is that?"
Gert swung around to look as Ethan answered. "That's Millicent Peart."
"Don't think I've seen her since last fall." Fennel shook his head. "She sure is showing her age."
"I don't think Milzie came into town much over the winter," Gert said.
For a moment, they watched the stooped figure hobble along the dirt street toward the emporium. Engulfed in a shapeless old coat, Milzie Peart leaned on a stick with each step. Her mouth worked as though she were talking to someone, but no one accompanied her.
"How long since her man passed on?" Ethan asked.
"Long time," Gert said. "Ten years, maybe. She still lives at their cabin out Mountain Road."
Fennel grimaced as the next house hid the retreating figure from view. "Pitiful."
Ethan shrugged. "She's kinda crazy, but I reckon she likes living on their homestead."
Gert wondered how Milzie got by. It must be lonesome to have no one, not even a nearly silent brother, to talk to out there in the foothills.
"Supper in half an hour." She turned away from the men and headed for the back porch of the little house she shared with Hiram. She hoped Fennel would take the hint and leave. And she hoped Ethan would stay for supper, but of course she would never say so.CHAPTER 2
From across the street, Milzie Peart watched two women enter the Paragon Emporium. She would make that her last stop before heading home. Libby Adams always let her warm up by the stove, and sometimes she let Milzie have a broken packing crate. Once the store owner had even given her a cracked egg.
She turned away, wishing she had enough money to buy something to eat. Her scant supplies at the cabin always ran low this time of year, but this spring had turned out worse than other years. Bitsy Shepard, who owned the Spur & Saddle Saloon, had given her a biscuit earlier and shooed her off, but it wasn't enough to fill her belly.
As Milzie pulled her woolen coat closer around her thin frame, a button popped off—the last of the metal, army-issue buttons. In the dusk, she saw it roll across the packed earth and under the weathered boardwalk that led to the Fergus jail. She went to her knees, heedless of the dirt grinding into her already filthy skirt, and stuck her hand beneath the edge of the walk. "Now where are you hidin'?"
A door opened, and she jerked her head up to see who was leaving the sheriff's office. A man hurried down the steps ten yards away, leaving the door wide open. Not Sheriff Thalen. Milzie couldn't make out his face in the dusk, but this man moved quicker than Bert Thalen. Not so broad through the shoulders either.
She expected him to come down the walkway, but instead he glanced her way, then slipped around the side of the building. She couldn't say she recognized him. He wore a dark coat and felt hat, like all the men hereabouts.
She shivered. Her joints creaked as she hauled herself to her feet. She would have to improvise a way to keep her late husband's old army coat closed—unless she could get the sheriff to lift the planks and retrieve that button for her.
She looked toward his office. The door still stood open to the chilly May evening. Bert ought to shut it. For the last fifteen years, Thalen had presided over the town's only jail cell. His office also held a desk and a woodstove. Smoke poured out the chimney. Milzie wasn't sure she wanted to ask his help, but she wouldn't mind warming her hands at his stove. Though the snow had been gone several weeks, the nights still dipped to near-freezing temperatures.
She shuffled to the jailhouse and winced as she slowly mounted the two steps. A whiff of cooking food tickled her nose. Baked beans. She peered inside. No one stood on ceremony with the sheriff of Fergus. You wanted something, you just walked in. Still, she hesitated, squinting into the dim interior. The outer room appeared to be empty, but she heard the fire sputtering in the box stove. Its heat felt good, and she eased inside, leaving the door open so she could see by the fading light that entered with her.
No one was in the cell—the barred door stood open. The sheriff must be in the back room. Or maybe he'd gone out and his visitor had missed him.
The tiny back room was smaller than the cell, with a bunk in it. The sheriff slept there if he had a prisoner, Milzie knew. He'd stayed there when he had her husband, Franklin, locked up for disorderly conduct years ago.
She edged closer to the stove. The warmth of the fire lured her, step by step.
"There now." She held out her chilled hands. Her knuckles ached as the delicious heat spread through her.
At the back of the stove, a pan of beans simmered. The smell nigh made her ribs rub together. Before she could stop herself, she grabbed the wooden spoon that rested against the edge of the pan and raised it to her lips. The sweet, hearty flavor filled her mouth and nostrils. Beans cooked with onions and salt pork, mustard and molasses.
She looked over her shoulder. Bert Thalen could walk in at any moment. Reluctantly, she set the spoon back in the pan and limped toward the doorway to the back room. If he was here, maybe he'd find her button and give her a plate of those savory beans.
A stick of split firewood lay on the floor near the doorway. She grabbed the doorjamb to brace against and stooped to pick it up. Her hip ached, and she straightened, panting. She caught her breath, trudged slowly to the wood box, and dropped the stick in. Sheriff ought to take better care of things.
Again, she limped to the doorway. If he was in there, he was sure being quiet.
Golden light from a small window in the west wall of the building illuminated the room. The sun had just hit the horizon, and its last fiery rays streamed in, showing the empty bunk and a small stand with a bowl and pitcher.
Bert Thalen lay sprawled on the floor beside the bunk, staring up at the ceiling. His face was a horrible purple red. Or maybe it was just the reflection of the sunset.
Milzie took two steps into the room and stared down at the sheriff for a long minute. He didn't blink. A dark ooze stained the floorboards under his head. A large, shiny safety pin held his suspenders together on the near side. Milzie stooped and unclasped it. Her aching fingers resisted, but she managed to pin the front of her coat together where the last button had been.
She walked slowly out to the stove again and scooped the wooden spoon into the beans. The sheriff wouldn't be needing those.CHAPTER 3
Libby Adams flipped the bolt of black bombazine over several times, spreading yards of the sturdy fabric on her counter. She could tell from long practice when she had laid out the four yards Mrs. Walker wanted. She could have cut it to within two inches without ever consulting her yardstick, but she measured it anyway, under the eagle eye of the mayor's wife. Mrs. Walker always bought dark colors and practical fabrics.
While Libby folded the cloth, Mrs. Walker browsed the notions counter, selecting buttons for her new dress. Her husband, meanwhile, hovered in the emporium's hardware section. The few groceries they had chosen were already tallied and waiting in a crate, but the mayor usually wound up cooling his heels while his wife shopped for her personal wants. He found rancher Micah Landry eyeing a posthole digger and greeted him with relief. Libby's part-time clerk, Florence Nash, was diligently restocking the cracker and candy jars. A housewife selecting soap and lamp oil was the only other customer at the moment. Well, Milzie Peart huddled near the box stove, but she seldom bought anything. Libby was tempted to ask her to leave. Her body odor, worsened by the heat, kept other customers away from the stove.
Mrs. Walker brought her sundries to the counter and placed a card of a dozen black buttons and a paper of straight pins on the folded length of fabric.
Libby smiled at her. "All set, ma'am?" She'd known Mrs. Walker for years. Their husbands had been friends in the old days. But the mayor's wife kept herself slightly aloof, and Libby never felt herself on an equal footing with Orissa Walker.
"You don't have any new silk floss?"
Libby tried to keep her smile from drooping. "Not yet. I've ordered a better selection, but these things take time."
She hoped her investment in expensive embroidery threads didn't prove a poor one. Only a few women in Fergus had time to fritter away on decorative arts, and she knew she might never sell all the skeins of fine floss she had ordered. Still, some of the girls who worked at the Spur & Saddle or the Nugget were handy with a needle, and they all liked to add fripperies to their costumes. Libby shuddered when some of them entered the emporium wearing scanty dresses, but they were good customers. For them, she maintained one of Fergus's best-kept secrets: a supply of garish satins and sheer muslins stored in the back room. She had even special-ordered ostrich feathers, satin garters, and beribboned, glove-fitting corsets for Bitsy Shepard and her employees. Mrs. Walker would probably die of apoplexy on the spot if she saw the items that Libby procured for Bitsy. In the year and a half since Isaac's death, Libby had been forced to support herself, and that meant ordering merchandise that would sell.
The sleigh bells on the door jingled, and the door swung open. Cyrus Fennel charged in, bringing a blast of cold air. His gaze settled on the mayor's wife.
"Mrs. Walker! Is your husband here? I went by your house, but—"
"I'm here, Cyrus." The mayor stepped away from the wall of hardware. "You wanted to see me?"
Libby shivered. "Shut the door if you please, Mr. Fennel."
Cyrus glanced at her and hastily closed it. "I beg your pardon, ma'am. Charles, we have a crisis."
Excerpted from The Brides's Prerogative by Susan Page Davis. Copyright © 2010 Susan Page Davis. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
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