Newly independent city girl Josephine Whittaker succeeded in heading West, all on her own. But once she set foot in the crude cow town of Sienna, Wyoming, her first inclination was to board the next train back out -- and she would have, if she hadn't lost everything she owned. Suddenly, a job as a ranch cook seemed a good idea -- at least it was better than making money as a dance-hall girl. It didn't seem that important if she neglected to tell her new boss that she'd never so much as boiled an egg....
UNLESS SHE'S IN LOVE WITH A RANCHER IN DENIM AND RAWHIDE.
J.D. McCall knew from the get-go that a pretty lady in the chuck wagon with a bunch of cowboys meant trouble. But he faced mutiny among his ranch hands if he didn't bring home a cook -- and she said fried beef was her specialty. How could he know he'd never want to let her go? J.D.'s own mother had abandoned his father and the harsh frontier life to go back East. Loving Josephine was sure to break his heart...unless this lady proved she had grit, gumption, and what it took to be a cattle rancher's wife -- his wife.
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Everything that Josephine Whittaker owned was packed in the valise at her feet. As she stood on the hard earth platform, watching the Union Pacific No. 35 gain speed out of the ramshackle station, she had the strongest urge to chase after the hissing engine and its cramped string of cars and declare she'd changed her mind. But the notion to flee was a thought too late.
She turned her gaze toward the rutted street empty of a single carriage, not daring to step outside the crudely constructed fence that separated her from the Wyoming Territory town of Sienna. The pungent smell of cow dung permeated the air, and she glanced at a bawling group of the large animals crammed together in a crowded wooden pen next to the depot. Rickety buckboards drove past with rough-hewn men at the reins. A wind-tattered flag hung limply from a pole in front of a saloon called Walkingbars. Though the sun was high and full, the scenery was dull and gray.
The city resembled nothing from the grandiose descriptions she'd read in the Beadle's dime novel. That famed Sienna had elegant red brick hotels -- some four stories tall -- and boasted numerous fine restaurants, even an opera, house touting an extravagant playbill. Arnica Street had been the rendezvous place for Pearl Larimer and Rawhide Abilene, the fated lovers in the Beadle's Issue No. 639, Rawhide's Wild Tales of Revenge in Sienna. The couple had stayed at the Line House Hotel and dined at the Bar Grub restaurant, both of which had been -- despite their less-than-affluent names -- heralded as the finest establishments between San Francisco and Chicago.
From the train station, Josephine could see neither the restaurant nor the hotel, much less a brick building. The structures that greeted her were built out of wood, and not a one over two stories tall. It would seem the book's author had taken some creative liberties.
Josephine worried the decorative collar button at her throat with gloved fingers. The daring prospect of living in the wide-open West she'd read about had given her the strength she'd needed to leave New York. Thus far, she hadn't been disappointed. The train ride -- though she'd suffered indignities -- had been worth the discomfort as soon as she'd gotten her first glimpse of the Wyoming Territory. As the train had clacked beyond the jagged mountains, the dazzling waterfalls, and the spectacular gorges, chugging headlong into the open terrain, a host of prairie dogs had stood in welcome. Meadowlarks sprang from the newly budding trees, and herds of white-faced cattle had run whenever the train sped by.
Sienna was to be the best of all. A town that lived up to its pretty-sounding name and fictitious allure. This was to have been where she would start over. Where she would secure her first employment position. Though she'd been raised in an affluent family and never had to work a day in her life, she'd made a list of all her attributes on the tablet in her calf pocket book. The checklist was ready and waiting for her to read to the glamorous owner of the Line House, who would be aptly impressed and hire her on the spot. Because Josephine Whittaker was willing to do as none of her female peers had ever done before her: travel to the West and seek her freedom.
Out here, she was no longer an extension of the gilded home that belonged to her husband. She wouldn't have to be under the gaze of watchful servants or have to acknowledge the perpetually renewed stack of cards and invitations on the hall table.
When she'd married, she'd been forced to bury her aspirations of spontaneity and daring beneath her husband's sudden single-mindedness. Being Hugh's wife had sucked her confidence and any hope of fledgling independence away from her. She'd lived that grim truth for six years as a model of ladylike repression. But that was before she'd drawn a different conclusion from her wedding vows. Thou shalt not be unfaithful -- to thyself. She realized she had to leave if she wanted to keep her dignity. So with the well-worn and reread copy of the Beadle's novel in her handbag, with its artist's rendition of a western city sketched across its cover, she'd decided on Sienna.
Giving the watering-hole town a grimace, Josephine picked up her wicker valise, and decided to begin here in San Francisco instead.
She made an aboutface and walked into the depot house. The door didn't readily open, and she gave it a slight shove with her elbow. The interior was poorly illuminated by a small rectangular window covered with a rotten roller shade. Furnishings were rudimentary. A single corner desk with pigeonholes and only one bench for passengers to sit. She recognized the man who rose to his feet, hooked a pair of spectacles behind his ears, and squinted at her.
"How may I help you, ma'am?"
"You aided me from the train the just came in, but it seems I've gotten off at the wrong stop. I'd like to purchase another ticket. To San Francisco. What is the departure schedule?"
Today was Thursday. Thank goodness she wouldn't have to spend the night here. She set her valise on the bench. "How much is the ticket?"
Josephine nodded but didn't open her purse. She wasn't so ignorant as to keep all her cash in her handbag. She'd read enough of the Beadle's stories to know that ladies' purses and men's wallets were what robbers absconded with during a train holdup. She was thankful she hadn't encountered any. But just the same, she was glad she'd hidden the majority of her money in her silk underdrawers, safely tucked at the bottom of her valise. All she carried in the way of money in her handbag were some small coins so that she could purchase those open-to-suspicion meals served at the whistlestops.
With her fingers on the luggage clasp, she asked, "What time does the train depart?"
"Two fifty-three," he replied.
Josephine straightened and lifted the lid to her valise at the same time as she faced off with the depot manager. "Two fifty-three? Why, I just disembarked from the two fifty-three train."
"Yes, ma'am. The Number Thirty-five is the connection to San Francisco. It only passes through here once a week."
Josephine lowered her gaze, letting out a shaky breath of disappointment, only to have it solidify in her throat as she stared into the opened valise. This wasn't her luggage!
There had to be a mistake. She wasn't seeing clearly. Closing her eyes for a few seconds to clear her vision, she reopened them and stared hard at the clothing. The garments still didn't belong to her. In disbelief, she rummaged through the layers of drab cotton ladies' clothes, searching for silk underdrawers that had more than five hundred dollars hidden in them. She could find only muslin pantalets, with plain eyelet trim on the hems. A full-blown panic sprang to life in her breast; her heartbeat quickened its rhythm.
"Is there a problem, ma'am?"
Josephine snapped her chin up. "You have to stop the train. My valise has been stolen!"
"McCall, you've got some nerve shoving demands down my throat," Sheriff Charlie Tuttle challenged while tilting on the back legs of his chair after hoisting one booted foot onto the top of his paper-scattered desk.
J.D. McCall paced with agitation in front of the lawman, absently rubbing his fingertips across his unshaven jaw. Pausing to point, he cautioned, "You should be damn glad it's only words I'm shoving down your throat, Tuttle." Absently, he gazed at his raised hand. Its swollen back had two long, deep scratches from busting through bush in search of a cow. Another cut ran the length of his thumb -- a heifer had kicked him when he was milking her out after her calf had died. His palm was marked with deep holes from slivers that he'd picked up trying to remove the bars from the door to the cinderblock shed when he'd been in a hurry to let in an angry cow. J.D. didn't bother to assess his right which was throbbing as if he'd punched a block of rock.
He could use a hot bath, a good meal, and several hours of uninterrupted sleep. But that wasn't to be during calving. His life was organized entirely around the instincts and needs of his cows. Though the majority of cows calved just fine by themselves, on any given day a couple of dozen needed attention. J.D. enlisted the help of every available man he had to keep losses at a minimum. But he was short a pair, no thanks to Tuttle.
"Peavy told me you bagged two of my hands last night," J.D. said, impatient to be on his way. "I want them out."
"I arrested them with just cause." Tattle gave J D. a hard-set frown. "Did Peavy tell you that Rio bought himself a new rope, and in order to stretch it he was roping posts and making his horse pull it to get the kinks out? Whether or not it was intentional, the kid lassoed a big-wig cattle buyer up from Texas who was none too happy to find himself sitting on his cheeks in the street right there in front of Walkingbars. I had to throw Rio in the cell for assault and battery."
Hell, Tuttle," J.D. scoffed. "You didn't have to keep him overnight. I needed Rio first thing this morning to feed and water the horses. That's what I pay him for."
J.D. moved to the door with a barred window that separated the sheriffs front office from the jail cells. Testing the knob, he found it wouldn't turn. "Unlock the damn door."
"Not just yet."
Tuttle seemed dead set on sparring with him, and J.D wasn't in the mood. His hands ached to grip anything, mostly Tuttle's throat. J.D. cued into the fact that the sheriff was holding out for something. This wasn't the first time he and Tuttle had gone rounds over the incarceration of one of J.D.'s cowboys. "What's it going to cost me?"
The sheriff shrugged without mentioning a dollar amount. "That itinerant cook you hired...Mr. Pete Denby." Tuttle steepled his fingertips together, his tone growing fastidious. "He's a mean hombre when he's drunk. He spurred his horse up and down Arnica, popping his pistol while swilling lager. Shattered the front window of the merc and just about scared Zev out of his hide. When I caught up with that cook, he jumped off that piebald of his and took a swing at me." Tuttle, punctuated evenly. "I will not be held accountable for the lump on the side of his head. My fist had a mind of its own."
"What's it going to cost me?" J.D. repeated. "With this drought, I've got to be moving cattle in less than a week. I need Denby and Rio."
Flawed as the two men were, J.D. couldn't afford to be without them. His longtime cook, Luis, was killed in an accident with a bull some weeks ago. It. had taken that long to get a relief man for the kitchen. Initially, no one answered J.D.'s post on the mercantiles wallboard, as all the good chuck-wagon cooks had been hired out as far back as February. When Pete Denby showed up at the ranch yesterday and claimed he was the best cook that ever threw dishwater under a chuck wagon, J.D. couldn't see any way in disputing that without giving Denby a try. So he'd taken him on, mindless of the reservations he had. Everybody in the outfit had been eating creamed corn on toast and bad Arbuckle's belly wash compliments of Boots, and J.D. had been looking forward to a thick fried steak last night for supper. Only Denby never showed.
As if Denby wasn't his only problem, there was Rio Cibolo, his eighteen-year-old, full-of-guts-and-glory wrangler. Rio was hell-bent on infamy with his rope. The kid could catch anything that moved, and more often than not he practiced on live subjects. J.D. doubted the rope throw was unintentional. Rio liked to get people's dander up and joke about it.
After reaching inside his vest pocket for his wallet, J.D. tossed a bill onto Tuttle's desk. "That ought to cover things."
"You can have the kid, but the cook stays." Tuttle lowered his heel, took the money, and deposited it into a cash box. "Drunk and disorderly, public intoxication, defacing property. That's a loaded offense, and I'm not all that convinced Denby's not wanted elsewhere."
J.D.'s fingers balled into aching fists. "I paid Pete Denby his wages for a month just to hold him!"
"That's your hard luck, McCall. Denby stays for five days until I get a reply from a Cheyenne judge."
Sheriff Tuttle got up, slipped his hand into his trouser pocket, and came up with a small ring of keys. Before he could open the door leading to the cells, the street entrance was filled with a woman who, without any preliminaries, uttered frantically, "I've been robbed!"
J.D. was about to jump all over Tuttle's back when his focus veered toward the feminine voice. The lady looked so out of place framed inside the raw-wood doorjamb, wearing her eastern window-dressing clothes, that J.D. couldn't help staring. It wasn't every day a woman laced up like that came into Sienna. From head to toe, she was decked out in pleats, sashes, laces, flounces, and straw flowers. The colors were spring-like, soft shades of rose and a blue likened to the early-blooming forget-me-nots that grew alongside Buffalo Creek.
She wasn't classically beautiful but her face was pretty enough to keep his gaze lingering. Thick, cinnamon-colored hair was braided behind her ears, the coils twisted and pinned, upward beneath a sassy-looking hat sporting dyed plumes. The shape of her mouth was wide, and her cheeks were structured high with a light dusting of cosmetic color. Her eyes were an amber hue, just like the shimmer of bourbon splashed into a sunlit tumbler. She had a pampered figure, the kind that said she wouldn't last five minutes out-of-doors doing anything more than taking a leisurely stroll.
Tuttle said, the keys jingling in his fingers. "Where?"
"On the train." Her voice held a faint tremor, as though she were in serious trouble.
"The Number Thirty-five? Why didn't old man Vernier come tell me?" The keys were put back in Tuttle's pocket, and he grabbed a rifle from the rack. "How many gunmen were there, ma'am?"
Tuttle froze. "But you said you were robbed."
She answered quickly and with a note of alarm. "I've gone over the course of events from here back to Laramie, and I think I know what happened. After we left the last tank tower, we came upon a herd of buffalo. The train stopped suddenly so that those gentlemen wishing to shoot could do so. But with the screeching halt, floor luggage slid beneath everyone's seat. In the confusion, someone handed me what I thought to be my valise, only it turns out that it wasn't."
"Then you weren't exactly robbed."
"My valise had five hundred dollars in it. This valise does not." She motioned to the wicker case in her grasp. "For all intents and purposes, I was robbed," she insisted. "You have to telegraph the next depot and tell them to search the train for my luggage. A terrible error has been made."
"Ma'am, for the next seventy-five miles the rail stations are nothing but cow pastures without a telegraph office to be had. Could be whoever gets off at one of them has your case. There's no way for me to track down each individual. Folks are too spread out in this country."
A strangled cry broke from her throat. "But my five hundred dollars!"
"The best I can do is wire the first town over, which is Tipton," Tuttle said while replacing the rifle, "and see if we can get this cleared up."
"What am I going to do in the meantime? I have no more than fifty cents to my name...no clothes...no...nothing." She rapidly blinked, clearly on the verge of spilling tears.
J.D. folded his arms across his chest and shifted his weight. Crying women had their hearts in the wrong place. A vtrue survivor wouldn't be weeping over her situation, she'd be cursing it. J.D. could see that this one was about as helpless as they came. He didn't have a high tolerance for women who had no guts.
"Tuttle, at least unlock Rio so I can get out of here with one man," J.D. said, resigned to the deal.
The woman looked at him for the first time, her eyes widening. He knew he presented a sight. A week old beard, muck on his Levi's up to his knees, dried blood on the sleeves and edges of his leather duster.
He took her stare for what it was: mortified curiosity. It wasn't the first time he'd been given the up-and-down from some gal. He was taller than most cowboys, and a little too long-legged astride a saddle to be easy on his horses. Most of his punchers were medium-sized; but then again, most of his punchers had come from generations of ranchers. J.D. came from a Mississippi cotton plantation.
"Excuse me a minute, ma'am," Tuttle said, then went to collect Rio.
After the sheriff's departure, a silence dropped on the room as weighted as a bale of hay. The woman turned away, keeping her eyes downcast. If J.D. had been more like some of the good-natured men working for him, he would have offered her his sympathies. But he guessed there were times when he was too much of a son-of-a-bitch, just like Boots.
A moment later, Rio Cibolo appeared, broadly grinning like a jackass coming out of the mess tent after eating a batch of the cook's pumpkin pies. "Hey, boss."
Even at a young age, it was clear Rio was destined to be a lady's man. He was lean, quick, and wiry, with a mane of sun-bleached blond hair, soft mustache, and blue eyes. Though he could be trouble, he was intensely loyal to the outfit and would herd the horses through hell and back and never complain. Knowing this, J.D. never went too hard on him. But that didn't ease the annoyance he was feeling right now.
"You cost me good, kid. I ought to start calling you George again." J.D. rearranged the angle of his low-crowned hat with his bruised hand.
Rio's eyes widened as his gaze shot from J.D. to the woman. "I expect you know how I feel about that."
J.D. did. Rio's real name was George Ikard, but he'd taken to calling himself Rio Cibolo as of winter because he'd claimed a wrangler bound on infamy ought not be saddled with the name George.
"I expect I do," J.D. replied. "Keep your rope off of two-legged animals and stick to them that have four, and I'll forget all about George."
"Tuttle, you tell Denby I'll be back in five days for him." Then J.D. added with caution, "And for your sake, he better damn well be here."
The sheriff waved him off. "Rio, your horse is down at the livery, along with your rope. I catch you swinging that lariat on my streets, you'll be looking through bars again."
Rio disregarded the warning. He was too busy gawking at the lady. Tipping his hat, he offered, "How do, ma'am? Welcome to Sienna."
"Thank you," she replied softly.
"It's not often we're allowed the privilege of such a fine-looking woman in our town," Rio said.
J.D. walked past Rio, went out the door, and called over his shoulder, "If you've got nothing to do but stand around, I reckon you'll be going up the trail to the Shaw outfit to earn your keep."
Every cowboy from here to the territorial borders knew that the Shaw outfit was a tough, gun-toting bunch of drunks. Leaving the sheriffs office, J.D. let Rio ponder that thought.
Seconds later, the kid caught up to J.D., who was walking in a brisk stride. "Now, boss, you have to admit she was as pretty as a thirty-dollar pony."
"I didn't notice."
Rio's deep laughter implied he wasn't convinced of that.
"I'm an excellent hostess with impeccable etiquette and a flair for choosing the appropriate table service for the appropriate party. I know how a table should look when presented for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Also, I'm highly qualified to supervise domestics in a large household." Josephine tried to sound as if she knew what she was doing, but she had no experience seeking employment.
The woman at the hotel counter stared at her as if Josephine were an oddity. A thickset bulldog with a smashed face sat next to the proprietress's skirt. She was certainly not the Adalyn Hart who ran the Line House in Rawhide's Wild Tales of Revenge in Sienna. This woman's name was Effie Grass.
Regrouping her rambling thoughts, Josephine hastily went on. "I have an eye for fashion and extensive knowledge in the harmony of colors in dress." Then, to send her point home, she declared, "Rich colors are for brunettes or dark hair, delicate colors are for light hair or blond complexions."
"You don't say?" Effie's blouse and skirt were sparrow brown. A poor match next to her salt-and-pepper coiffure of two braids pinned high on her crown.
At least Josephine had triggered Effie's interest, which had been bouncing back and forth between Josephine and the runny-nosed dog. She plunged on while she had the opening. "I'm a master at archery. I've held the position of Lady Paramount at the Manhattan Archery Club. I won the title in the Columbia round, successfully parlaying twenty-one out of twenty-four arrows in the bull's-eye mark."
Josephine forced a smile on her lips. She'd gone from "You don't say?" to "Hmm." Not exactly encouraging. Perhaps she should have taken Sheriff Tuttle's offer of five dollars to see her through until he could contact the railroad. But it was a matter of principle for Josephine. For the first time in her life, she was on her own. Despite things being dire, she didn't want to spoil her independence with a handout. She just had to get a job in Sienna to tide her over. She was an educated woman with perfect decorum. Somebody would surely find her invaluable...at least for a week.
"Honey, that's awfully interesting, but I just can't use you." Reaching down, Effie patted the bulldog's flat head. He licked her hand with his drooling tongue
Josephine took the defeat by swallowing the lump in her throat. She wasn't skilled at being aggressive. She had never had to be. Everything she'd ever wanted had always come to her because she'd had the money to buy it.
"Thank you just the same," she said quietly.
Josephine exited the Line House hotel's lobby, stepping outside and squinting her eyes against the late-afternoon sun. She'd already tried the Bar Grub eatery; she'd bypassed the livery and the Walkingbars saloon. She was in serious need of a job, but she wasn't cheap. She'd rather take the money from the sheriff before she dressed up like a floozy and served alcoholic refreshments to rowdy men.
Unbidden, the image of that man in the sheriff's office filled her head. He looked tough and hardened by a life on the range that seemed to demand a lot from a cowboy. She'd gleaned that much from the Beadle's. Men out West had to be as strong as leather. He certainly had been. The bulk of his power had been in his torso, where the muscles across his chest filled out the shoulders of his coat. Open to her view was his blue plaid vest and a pistol with a pearl-like handle which rode in a holster belt lashed around his hips. He was a brawny man, given to few words in Iady's company. Just like Rawhide Abilene. When he'd moved, the big spurs on his boots, made a sound like tin bells.
Josephine carried on to her final destination: the general store. She looked down as she walked, noticing spears of grass had pushed up through the boardwalk. From the larger cracks, yellow-petaled flowers rose to bloom. In the city, the sidewalks were brick and unaccepting of nature's wildly sewn seed. Here the slats of sagging wood buffered her heels and, in places, gave a slight bounce to her steps.
If only she hadn't left New York in such a hurry, none of this would have happened. After the Beauchamps' party, she'd hastily packed her valise rather than her heavy Gladstone trunk so that she could get away faster. If only she hadn't decided to travel in coach rather than first class. But she had had to economize her limited funds because she hadn't known what to expect by way of prices out West. In coach, Josephine had had to be in charge of her own luggage -- a responsibility she'd never in her life had to contend with.
If Hugh could see her now, he'd have a riotous laugh at her expense. She hadn't come to hate him yet. Perhaps in time she would. For now, she could only look back with bitterness and resentment.
She'd been doomed the moment the ink from her signature had wetted the surface of the legal documents Hugh had gotten his lawyer to draw up. After that day, society had insulted and excluded her. The circles she had traveled in existed only in themargins of charmed little lives. Once she'd become an outcast, social pressures and prejudices had been inflicted on her. She'd suffered disgrace and, ultimately, exile. Which she'd accepted with a greater courage and compassion than her destroyers had flung at her.
It was horrible being talked about. However unfounded the charges against her, they were still charges of reprehensible behavior.
Josephine reached the store's door, where, just above, a placard had been hung and scribed: Zev Klauffman, Mercantilist. The picture window to her left had been boarded up, leaving her to wonder what disaster had befallen the glass. Letting herself inside, she gazed at the interior. The space was narrow with a wide aisle that ran from the front door to a rear exit. On the right side, six cast-iron stoves were lined up in a proud display. Behind them, shelves of spices, remedies, flatirons, kerosene lamps, and books. Opposite were barrels of crackers, barrels of undiscernible contents, boxes of shoes, a rack of hats -- both men's and ladies' -- shelves of folded clothing mostly of denim, and a tableful of various fabrics.
The aroma of coffee came to her. Her gaze traveled to the shelf, and she saw large manila bags. Arbuckle's was printed in bold letters across the front, beneath which was the picture of a flying angel in a long flowing gray skirt, around her neck a streaming red scarf.
"May I help you, ma'am?"
Josephine looked up at a man dressed in a frock coat with a black tie at his shirt collar. A white apron was fastened around his waist, and he held a feather duster.
"Yes, you may." She squared her shoulders for fortitude and went into her memorized list of qualities, trying to sound as impressive as possible. When she was finished, Mr.Kauffman merely looked at her with a wan smile.
"That's something," he said with brows raised. "But unfortunately, I don't have need of a clerk with your...background. Frankly, there isn't a single job in the whole town that needs those qualifications."
"Yes...I can see that," she mumbled, her hands clasped together so tightly her fingers hurt. Tears stung the back of her eyes, and she fought them. Humiliation seemed to be her shadow these days. She recoiled at the thought of returning to Sheriff Tuttle and asking him for the money. She just couldn't humble herself in such a way.
Josephine felt a wave of dizziness assail her. She faltered.
"Ma'am?" Mr. Klauffman came to her aid, putting his hand on her elbow to steady her. "Are you ill?"
"No...I'm just..." She was sick at heart. "I didn't eat on the train today. I suppose I'm a little weak."
"By all means, then, sit down." He ushered her to a stool and deposited her in front of the cracker barrel. "Would you like something to eat?"
"No. Just a glass of water, please," she said as she removed her gloves. A shaft of sunlight poured in from the smaller window on the door's right and caught the stones glistening on her fourth finger. Bright dots of reflected light showered the planked floor. Gazing at the ring, she didn't know why she hadn't taken it off in New York.
Zev Klauffman returned with a metal cup filled with water. "Here you are, miss."
She took the glass and sipped the cold water. The liquid cooled the heat on her cheeks. Lowering the glass, she said, "Mr. Klauffman, I'd like to sell you my ring. It's solid gold set with a flawless diamond and six emeralds." She held out her hand for him to inspect the piece of jewelry.
"Why, ma'am, um, Mrs. -- "
0 "No, it's Miss," she quickly corrected. "Miss Josephine Whittaker." Hugh had been so flamboyant in his purchase of the ring, nobody would suspect it was a wedding setting.
"Why, Miss Whittaker, I couldn't possibly buy that."
"I'm not asking for its full value. One hundred dollars would suffice."
"One hundred dollars?" Mr. Klauffman's Adam's apple bobbed. "I couldn't even come close to reselling it for that."
"But it's worth one thousand dollars."
"Miss Whittaker, nobody in Sienna has that kind of money."
Josephine struggled hard against the tears she refused to let fall. "Are you married, Mr. Klauffman?'
"Then you could give it to your wife."
"Where in God's green earth would she wear such a ring?"
"That's entirely up to her. You name your price, and it's yours."
Zev Klauffman shook his head. "I couldn't make you a fair offer."
"I understand that."
"The best I could do would be ten dollars. Now, Miss Whittaker, that would be like stealing it from you. I couldn't do that."
She wiggled the ring free and pressed it into his palm. "I'm sure your wife will be exuberant."
Josephine Whittaker left the mercantile ten dollars richer than when she went inside. She had enough money to get a room at the hotel and buy a meal at the Bar Grub. She spent a restless night, too upset to relax yet too physically fatigued to fight sleep. The next morning, she went to see Sheriff Tuttle, who informed her that her valise had not shown up in Tipton. From there, she went to the depot and asked Mr. Vernier if he could please telegraph the Union Pacific and put in a lost claims report for her.
For four days, Josephine paid visits twice daily to Sheriff Tattle and Mr. Vernier. Each time, she was told her valise had not been returned. On the fifth day, she was nearly out of money.
Discouraged and desperate, on Tuesday she had no choice but to accept that her five hundred dollars and her handsome clothes were gone. The wardrobe in the luggage she'd ended up with was cut a size too small for her. She'd had to wash out her foulard suit once, its grosgrain underblouse and her intimate wear three times. Ironing the spring walking costume with all of its pleats and lapping flounces was impossible for her. She'd paid Effie Grass a whole dollar to press everything.
Earlier in the day, she'd requeried all those establishments she'd gone to before, hoping that one of them had had a change of heart and would give her the opportunity to prove herself. Mr. Vernier still didn't require an assistant at the rail office, nor did Sheriff Tuttle need her archery services. Effie Grass had remained adamant she had no positions available, and so had the postmistress and the man who ran the land office. And nobody at the half-dozen other businesses had had a sudden opening for someone with her talents.
Now, as she stood in front of Walkingbars, she listened to the tinkle of piano music. The saloon had no windows. The concentrated smell of stale liquor and rancid perfume spilled over and under the swinging doors.
A gnarl-toothed old cowboy approached her, spitting a foul juice in the street. "Hey, sugar darlin', come on inside with ol' True. I heard y'all've been lookin' for a job. Billy'll hire you."
"N-no, thank you."
Josephine quickly went on her way. How could she have thought even for a second that she could go inside? But a cold reality had finally set in. She had to have a job. Any job to get the money to buy a ticket to San Francisco. As it was, Thursdays train would be pulling out without her, leaving her hopelessly deserted.
Deep in thought, Josephine crossed the street and was almost hit by a fast-moving wagon drawn by a team of horses. Her heartbeat lurched, and her breath felt cut off. She barely got out of the way, turning her head as her pulse continued its dancing and she glanced at the man holding the reins. Her surprised gaze skimmed over his silhouette. She recognized him immediately as the one from Sheriff Tuttle's office the day, she arrived in Sienna. His eyes momentarily locked on hers, and he appeared as if he wanted to say something, but she turned away before she could make any sense out of his expression or hear his words.
The rugged man unnerved her. She couldn't be sure why. Perhaps it was because she'd never encountered a man so...so larger-than-life off the pages of the dime novels.
Disconcerted, she managed to put the near-accident out of her head as she entered Zev Klauffmans mercantile.
"Miss Whittaker" he greeted in a friendly tone.
"Mr. Klauffman." She felt inside her handbag forthe handkerchief she normally kept butterscotch candies in. She'd been out of the treats for days. It was odd how even that little luxury was missed. Laying out the square white on the counter, she showed Mr. Kauffman a pair of delicate gold-filigree earrings. She'd worn them on the train. "I'd like to sell these, please."
He sadly shook his head. "Now, Miss Whittaker, I can't buy those from you. It's too much already that you just about gave me that ring. I'd rather give you a few dollars."
"No." she broke in. "I can accept money from you that way." Lowering her gaze, she chewed the inside of her lip. "If you can't buy the earrings, then I want to work for you. I know what you said before, ---but perhaps you can reconsider. I could do whatever needs to be done. I'm sure I could manage the feather duster, and I could -- "
"Miss Whittaker, I don't get much traffic through this time of year with all the local boys on cattle drives. I barely have enough to do myself without going stir crazy."
She mutely nodded. "I understand."
But she didnt accept that understanding without remorse. She milled around the merchandise tables, absently fingering the items while trying to think of what to do next. She was seventy-five miles from nowhere without a single prospect of getting even a few feet out of Sienna.
The bell above the store's door bounced against the jamb.
"Zev," came a man's booming voice. "I hope like hell you kept that notice for a cook I tacked up on the board a few weeks ago. Tuttle put his deputy and Pete Denby on the noon stage for Cheyenne. Goddamn," he swore harshly. "Said Denby had a warrant out on him, if you can believe that."
Josephine lifted her gaze from the sewing notions in the glass counter case.
"Well, J.D., Denby did have that look about him," Mr. Klauffman remarked.
The man called J.D. barely paid Josephine any regard as he stepped around her to stare at an almost bare space of wall behind Mr. Klauffman's counter. A few fliers and handbills were pinned up, and promotional literature for something called barbed wire from Washburn & Moen Co. of Worcester, Massachusetts. Straining to see, Josephine couldn't find any advertising copy about work for a cook.
"Where's my notice?"
Mr. Klauffman replied, "I took it down when you hired Denby."
"Dammit to hell, make up another one." J.D.'s voice was so inflamed and belligerent, Josephine started. "I need to be moving out the day after tomorrow if I want to keep my cattle alive, and I'll be damned if my outfit is eating Boots's slop for the next couple of weeks. I need to hire a cook right now."
Before Josephine could think, she blurted, "I'm a cook."
Copyright © 1997 by Stef Ann Holm
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Life was tough in the old west...enjoy
All of Stef Ann Holm's early American Historicals were great. All of them are on my keeper shelves and were fantastic stories. I hope that they will be available for my nook.