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In the 1880s Lucille Martin revolts against men who will not allow women to vote or own property.
“I will win the right to vote! I will win the right to have property in my own name!” Lucille stormed about the big farmhouse living room. She stopped in front of her six-foot father, who stood only two inches taller than she did. “You say I can’t own property or vote here, so I will win those rights in Wyoming!”
“Wyoming? And how will you get there?” scornfully asked her petite stepmother.
No one answered her.
“You earn your keep plenty here,” her father admitted. “We ain’t chasin’ you out. You got your teaching certificate if you don’t like living on the farm.”
“Why would you want such silly things? You don’t need to vote or do those unladylike things. Women shouldn’t control property. They haven’t the ability.”
“Unladylike things!” Lucille gave an unladylike snort. “I can throw hay on a wagon like a man! I’m expected to milk cows for the creamery. Who plows the garden? Me, that’s who. It’s all right to be unladylike for those things, but not a word about owning my own cows, or my own privilege to say what our taxes will be, even though I help earn the income.”
“Why do we deserve this tirade?” Lucille’s stepmother held a dainty handkerchief to her tiny mouth. Lucille considered it like her to put her own feelings first.
“Tirade?” Lucille said between long paces. “What have you done to me? I’ll tell you what. Look at you. Look at Agnes and Agatha. Barely five feet tall, any of you. You make me feel like a big, clumsy old cow. And that isn’t all. When I was skinny and pretty you shoved me in the kitchen so any beaus couldn’t see me. You insisted the older girls needed courtship and marriage first. Look at me now. Five foot ten and four hundred pounds!”
“We didn’t tell you to eat all that pie and potatoes,” Ardith Andrews Martin said defensively. “And especially those chocolates. Why do you want to get away?”
To get away from the simpering, brainless females in this house. Lucille didn’t want to make things worse, so she refrained from saying it.
“I’m sorry, Lucy,” said her father. He, too, paced the floor. “Since you don’t have a husband, you’ll get a share of my estate. Your brother Horace will inherit the farm, of course. He is wanting an advance on his share when he marries Agnes so he can start farming at Hibold’s place. I’m giving him cows and pigs.”
“I’ll take cash,” Lucille said. Somewhat mollified Lucille added, “I’d appreciate cash. Women vote and own property in Wyoming. They don’t here. I can teach and have my own life in Wyoming. I’m taking the train to St. Louis in the morning.”
“I’ll get your money and wire it to the bank in St. Louis.” Her father’s voice sounded weary and sad. “It will be there by the time you are. Are you sure you won’t change your mind?”
“I’ve already contracted with a wagon train out of Council Bluffs to teach for all the children who are going to Wyoming with their parents.”
Hubert Martin drew a big sigh. Lucille caught the fleeting accusation in his eyes as he glanced at his second wife of only a couple years.
“I’m sorry, Pa,” Lucille said. “I just feel I’m destined to be in the forefront of this move for women’s rights.”
“So be it, Lucille, so be it.”
Sparks flew! The big man’s glinting green eyes met hers. Lucille Martin was furious! She marched forward to confront the wretched man. Too late she realized, using her five foot ten inches of height, to chastise this one would not work like encounters with smaller men. Worse yet, she’d come all these hundreds of miles, now this! She couldn’t afford to back off. She resisted the urge to jump up and down in rage like one of her school pupils.
“Outlaw! Renegade! You shot at us! You put holes in my Conestoga canvas and broke the hoop. You could have killed us!” How dare the man sit on that fancy horse, big as a mountain, his curling red hair flowing in the breeze from under that monstrous hat, and stare at her like she was crazy. He acted as if they intruded on his personal territory, when the territory really belonged to her and other members of the wagon train.
“Could have, lady, could have.” He nudged his Appaloosa horse back and forth before them all, ignoring her as he looked out over the Conestoga wagons as though counting them, before returning his attention to her. His beard jerked with the emphasis he put on each word. “We outnumber you folks two to one. If we wanted to kill anybody, they’d already be dead. I want you all out of this valley! I’ll gladly let you go peaceably, and there will be no harm done. There are other places you can settle.”
She stomped her foot and dust flew up in a choking cloud. That hulking brute put an end to all her hopes and dreams for a place of her own. One for which she had already paid good money. Words failed her, for the moment.
Banker Shafer moved up beside her, his head even with her shoulder. His jowls wobbled and his hands clenched. He shook one pudgy fist at the red haired giant. “We have legal title to land in this valley. It’s registered in Cheyenne. You are the one trespassing, sir.”
“Paper doesn’t mean a thing if you can’t hold the land. If you come any farther you will not be allowed to leave.” He removed his big white hat and ran long fingers through wildly tousled hair, before replacing it on his head.
Lucille gasped incredulously. “We’d be prisoners on our own property? Prisoners? I can’t believe this!”
“We’ll not give up our property!” Sixty-year-old Hiram Clovine reached for his gun. A blow to the head from a gun butt promptly struck him down. Lucille rushed to his side, glaring up at his assailant.
“That red haired outlaw is on the Wanted posters,” Martha Adams said softly as she too came to Clovine’s side. “It’s lucky Ben got away, and I think young Shafer is missing.” The two of them helped Clovine to his feet.
“So is the one in the black bowler hat—wanted,” whispered Lucille. The man in the round hat seemed big and broad, and so serious featured he made her frown.
From beside Mr. Clovine, Lucille put shaking hands on her ample hips and stared up at the man on the horse. “You can’t mean to keep us all prisoners!”
“Watch me.” The big red headed outlaw dismounted from his Appaloosa horse and strode right up to her. She drew in an anxious breath, but refused to back down.
“By gosh, you are tall for a gal,” he said.
How dare he look at her as if he was a starving man that had just discovered chocolate cake. The next moment his eyes narrowed and he frowned, then he gazed out over her head and shouted to his men. “Get all those workable wagons to the edge of town in a row like houses. Push the cattle on the range east and north along the river where there’s grass.”
“How dare you order us about like...like…”
“Like so many slaves,” he finished for her. “Or prisoners?” His grin infuriated her more.
“We will not be prisoners.” She put all the sarcasm she could muster into her next words. “I suppose you’ve never heard of the 1877 Desert Land Act.” Emphasizing every word clearly she continued, “We have title to this land, bought and paid for. We each have one thousand one hundred twenty acres, sir. Eight hundred of that we paid One Dollar and Twenty-Five cents per acre. Don’t you dare try to keep us from our land. My house lot is all paid for, and it’s in my name.”
“You may have title, lady, but we’re on it. I have money invested and buildings on town property. Now get your butt up on that wagon with the rest of the women and move along. You give me any more back talk, I’ll personally take you across my knee and paddle your lace trimmed drawers.”
With red hair and long beard rippling in the wind the man strode about shouting instructions and orders while Lucille fumed in outrage. She’d fled Wisconsin because her father and brother had denied her the right to have property in her own name. Now, this oversized galoot intended to keep her from property she bought and paid for with money her grandmother left her. It was more than a modern day woman should have to put up with.
She watched helplessly as armed men stopped by each wagon. Dust from running animals billowed about her in choking clouds. Thundering hooves of more horses deafened her as riders raced past and out of sight. With her right hand, she shaded her eyes from the noon sun. A half circle of outlaws held guns on men from the wagon train. Her own driver had disappeared to safety in the boulder field beside the trail. Thankfully, young Jodie Adams and Tom Shafer, with others on horseback rode into the boulders on the mountainside. Defiantly she lifted her skirt in front with both hands and ran to climb aboard her own wagon. Cora, her female companion, cowered on the wagon seat, right where she’d left her.
Lucille brought a Henry rifle, belonging to her driver, to her shoulder and pulled the trigger as an armed man galloped by. It snicked a disheartening click. She’d forgotten to lever a shell into the chamber.
As more shooting broke out her horses lunged in terror. To keep balanced, Lucille wildly clutched at the broken hoop of her wagon, but tumbled backward from the bench seat. Her voluminous white pantalets fluttered before her eyes as her legs tilted higher than her head. One elbow settled in the slimy contents of an upended lard bucket. The sleeve of her yellow gingham blouse got smeared as she tried to right herself and get to her feet. Her last box of chocolates were crushed.
“Oh, you wretched beasts!” Lucille shrieked. “You dirty outlaws!” Unable to sit upright she rolled to one side, further plastering lard and chocolate from shoulder to hip.
Grasping the wagon’s wobbly corner support, she struggled upright and pitched forward across the seat back. With the heavy Henry in one hand, she grabbed wildly at the brake with the other hand.
“Whoa!” She shouted and shouted at the four terrified, runaway horses. One big black animal stumbled and fell in the traces, bringing others to their knees. The leader tore loose and ran, dragging broken straps.
Lucille stumbled to the ground from the joggling, stalled wagon, holding the big weapon, her only protection. Ahead of her, Reverend Bricker sat straddle-legged beside his overturned covered wagon, his hands raised above his head, facing a young gunman. His wife and daughter skittered about, wringing their hands. Bricker’s young son stood beside his father, staring at the outlaw.
“Chaos,” Lucille muttered despairingly as she surveyed the scene. She hitched her brown skirt from around her feet. She trudged around sagebrush, through the dust, to the wagon of her friend, Bettina Belon. A dressmaker’s dummy stood incongruously intact by the seamstress’s overturned wagon. Lucille found no humor in it. Bettina’s driver had also disappeared.
“Lucille!” Bettina screamed as two well-armed men dismounted beside her.
“Leave her alone! How dare you!” Lucille rushed between Bettina and the two men. Lucille glared at the scrawny man and the shorter, chubby kid, daring them to advance. In one smooth, swift motion, she swung the rifle, making a satisfying thud with the barrel on Scrawny’s head. Her back-armed swing knocked the kid to the ground.
Just let that big galoot try paddling me. I’ll give him a knock side the head, too.
“C’mon, big gal, give up,” yelled the kid on the ground. Lucille stared in dismay down his pistol’s black barrel. She lowered her trembling arms as she realized what she had done. Lucille dropped the gun. Her wobbling knees could barely hold her up. Scrawny nursed a sore head but prodded Bettina over beside her.
“Boss ordered no women shot,” snapped the cadaverous man with the big pistol, “or by Gawd, big gal, I’d put a bullet in thet loud mouth of yourn.”
A new rider, unkempt and toothless, leered at them. He gleefully told the men, “It’s over. There’s a big bank safe in one wagon. Lotsa store goods. We’ll eat good for awhile.”
“‘Bout time,” the kid said. “This tall drink of water done knocked Tede in the head. He ain’t feelin’ none too good.”
“Too bad,” Toothless told them. “Get ‘em to the wagons. We’re takin’ ‘em to town. I wonder how Gorman will control all these outsiders.”
Lucille and the two women stared at each other for a moment before moving toward the wagons. The thick sable brown hair she was so proud of straggled in a dusty curtain before her eyes. Stalking in stiff-legged fury, she moved along. She stopped, pinned up her hair, drew two deep breaths, and moved forward with Bettina and Cora. While trying to straighten her pink sunbonnet, Bettina stumbled, then clutched Lucille’s left arm. Cora sobbed as she trudged on their right.
Lucille breathed in hurting wheezes from the high altitude, unlike her native Wisconsin. She already hated Wyoming’s barren country. Besides that, she hadn’t eaten today. The brown twill skirt caught under her sturdy walking shoes and her clothes were a mess. With squared shoulders, she tilted her head defiantly, refusing to let fall the tears burning behind her eyes.
“Git yerselves aboard those two wagons, ladies.”
Lucille glared at the man called Tede as he spat tobacco juice to one side. She joined the other women, girls and frightened children of wagon train members.
“Come, little ones, face these ruffians like real pioneers.” Lucille urged as she helped the parents calm their children. Men slashed the canvas from the wagon hoops, so they could watch the prisoners. Lucille’s arm stung from being stabbed on the jagged edge of something. Crimson blood stained her yellow blouse sleeve amid the lard smears and she blotted most of it away. The broken Conestoga hoop must have snagged her arm as she climbed down from the wagon. She sat down hard on a wooden chest in the wagon as the resistive horses jerked this way and that.
When the dust settled Lucille saw the banker and Delbert Hack, the storekeeper for their planned town, held in the half circle of attackers.
Big Red rode to the wagons. His long hair and beard showed auburn and gold in the bright sunlight as he dismounted from his colorful Appaloosa horse and strode forward. He looked daring and wild, handsome and arrogant. Standing out against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains, green pines and fresh leafed scrub willows he made her pulse rate zing like bees on a flower. Lucille felt shame at her attraction to him. It had to be fear that made her heart thunder in her chest.
“I am Red Gorman of the town of Gorman. You have invaded my valley!” His shout rang out to every stalled wagon and every remaining wagon train rider. “Your leaders refuse to go back! I have no choice but to keep you here until I decide what to do about you all.”
Lucille shaded her eyes to see better. She stared in fascination. His broad shoulders strained the seams of an expensive looking green silk shirt. Levi’s clung to long, powerful legs and his polished boots shone black in the sunlight. Lucille gave a delicate snort in derision. One knee of those revealing pants had a fray-edged tear. An open buttonhole allowed his shirt to spread apart on his massive chest. She sobered immediately. He looked dangerous.
“These men won’t hurt you if you follow orders!” He removed his big white hat and waved a signal to men scattered among the wagons. Lucille heard their shouts to drivers to move the wagons forward. The slow procession started down the slanted, sagebrush covered, grade into the valley. She looked back at her stalled wagon. The loose horse stood beside the others, waiting patiently by his familiar teammates, now that the noise and chaos had ended. Overturned wagons or those with missing horses were left behind, hers included. To Lucille the valley ahead didn’t look much better than the desolate route they had just come, traveling through sagebrush and the dried grasses of a winter not yet turned to spring.
She watched Hack and Shafer, along with numerous ranch hands, being hustled afoot, like so many sheep, as the wagons were driven down into an immense valley bordered on all sides by rugged hills and snow capped mountains.
“This is supposed to be home?” Lucille said bitterly. In a hazy corner of her numbed mind, she noted the Green River really flowed in greenish cascades as it kinked and tumbled its way over and around huge boulders on its way down the valley. From the rushing current, the river formed a small lake nestled to one side. What would they do now? How could they claim their land?
Wedged together, the women sat silently until Martha Adams whispered, “My husband is missing. I wonder how he got away.”
No one answered, but they gazed hopefully around them into the rugged foothills and scrubby trees along the roadside.
They rode slowly past Red Gorman as he sat astride the beautiful Appaloosa. Lucille felt his relaxed attitude could change in a split second. The green of his deep-lidded eyes met hers for a moment. His eyes crinkled at the corners as he grinned. The rascal had the nerve to wink at her! Lucille hastily averted her eyes and concentrated on scrubbing sticky goo from her fingers with a pocket-handkerchief. Her heart thundered in her chest. Like the others in her group, she was surer than ever she’d seen that face on a Wanted poster in Cheyenne.
Men swore furiously as they plodded in the trail ruts behind the wagons. She heard a commotion. “I hope more of our people escape. This is ridiculous. I haven’t heard any shots, have you?” Lucille said to no one in particular.
No one had.
On a level stretch of trail Lucille stared at a crudely lettered sign reading “Gorman.” The few buildings ahead looked like the usual small town.
On her right, she heard the clang, clang of a blacksmith pounding on metal. His small corral had only three animals in it. As their wagon turned right, down what must be the main street, she immediately looked left. All eyes were on the monstrosity of a house set among towering cottonwoods. Three stories high, with a huge porch on two sides, it dominated the landscape. If this was the main street, then that obscenely big structure sat right on what should have been her town lot. Lucille shuddered as they went on past. Vacant lots were interspersed with rough little buildings on the right. On the left, beyond the monstrosity, a long, low building had two big plate glass windows and a door at the far end.
A new building, long and well built, centered the block beyond a side street that boasted only one small building. This must be where they planned to take the wagonless people.
The titled lands of the Bascom wagon train people included the entire valley and several lots marked off on their map for a town. It didn’t look like holding title to something meant they would get it. The two town streets were covered with businesses and houses. She again heard the blacksmith striking metal.
Miserably dejected, Lucille realized her inheritance had been stolen by Gorman’s men. There would be no fine home. Nor did she see any school building.
“All out!” With crudely phrased orders, the prisoners were shoved into the long, warehouse type structure. Lucille smelled raw wood and saw that high windows lined each side of the room. Plank tables with tall, heavy legs were scattered in the long narrow room, as though ready for store goods.
Families huddled together, comforting frightened and hungry children. Lucille looked out over the crowd, but couldn’t find the banker’s twenty-year-old son, Tom, among the disgruntled people. She knew rancher Clem Adams, his one daughter, and several drovers were missing as well as her own driver
“What have we gotten into, Mr. Clovine?” Lucille asked the eldest man there. “That red haired man is the killer on those Wanted Posters in Cheyenne.”
“Are you sure?”
“Red hair, green eyes, six-foot-four, favors green silk shirts, Appaloosa horses and is fast with a gun. He was labeled dangerous.”
“Damnation, I don’t know. It ain’t likely he’ll let anyone free to tell where he is.”
“I didn’t think outlaws really looked like ordinary people.”
“Well, the size of him ain’t ordinary. Handsome devil. I don’t know anybody fast with a gun unless it’s Ben.” Clovine said.
“Ben isn’t here.”
Hiram Clovine surveyed the wagon train people beyond her shoulder. “Ben will get us out of this,” he told the people calmly. “Mark my words. Ben will do it.” Clovine had a bruise on his high forehead below his shock of thick white hair.
Lucille wondered if he meant to convince her, the people, or himself. She hoped Ben lived up to the sturdy old man’s expectations. According to Bascom people’s assumption, she and Ben were to have had the first wedding in Bascom. Now Ben was gone. He could be wounded or even dead. She clung to the hope he had escaped unscathed and would be back to rescue them.
Lucille turned wary eyes as Scrawny and a man with a big nose entered the warehouse. She was pleased to see the welt she’d put on Tede’s forehead. The men threw rough blankets to the prisoners, along with brightly patterned quilts very obviously from the homesteader’s own wagons. There was no sign of the red haired outlaw. She’d like to see him up closer. No doubt he had scars or warts. An outlaw should not look so handsome. The two men left as quickly as they had come.
She wiped the bloody scratch on her arm with a strip from her white petticoat. She scraped most of the thick lard from her brown skirt.
“Mr. Clovine, your head wound needs to be cleaned properly,” Lucille said. He grimaced as she prodded and wiped at the big bleeding bruise with another bit of petticoat, then wrapped a clean strip around his head.
“I had to let them know I didn’t like what they were doing.”
“I hit that skinny one on the head, but he had a gun. I don’t think they mean to kill us, do you?” Lucille finished the bandage on the old man’s head.
“Hard to say,” Clovine replied. “I wouldn’t aggravate them right now.”
Families picked their own areas of floor space and clung together. As dark descended, Lucille slipped into a fitful doze on the hard floor, using a hunk of wadded up petticoat for a thin pillow. The long, miserable night passed slowly.
In the morning’s chill air, the guards hustled the prisoners outside to the privy. Lucille saw that some of Ben’s stolen Morgan horses were in the town’s corral. A drover she remembered as Forie Drescher, eyed the horses as well.
“You try fer them broomtails, mister, I’ll shoot the next man in line,” a lanky guard told him. No attempts to escape were made.
“If I have to feed you folks until your wagons are organized, you can damn well earn it.” Lucille stared all around but could not locate the unmistakable owner of that deep voice. Big Red arose early.
The male prisoners were prodded across the street, and the women returned to the warehouse. Lucille watched out one window. The men were lined up, nailing boards together for a boardwalk in front of a building. Did he mean to use them as slave labor to finish the building of his town?
Their captors gave them no breakfast. At noon all prisoners were hustled out to the hard, rutted street. Lucille stared around her. To her right was the livery stable where six of Ben’s horses either rolled in the dust or ate from a pile of hay. Closer, and across from the warehouse, stood a gaudy saloon with an upper full length porch, all freshly painted cream and red.
Lucille looked to her left and her heart gave a sickening thud. That monstrous house really did stand exactly where her town lot should have been, toward the edge of town. Before she could stare long at the big, gray painted building they were hustled across the portion of newly constructed boardwalk and to a much older, restaurant type building.
Two big, very dirty, plate glass windows faced the walk. They reflected Lucille’s bedraggled brown hair, smudged round face and angry blue eyes, before she followed Clovine through short, flopping half doors. Inside, Lucille looked around at a small liquor bar in one corner to her right. To the left plank tables and scattered benches filled the space down the long room. In another room, behind a long, wide counter she saw the rusty pipe of a big black cook stove. Her nose crinkled at the smell of burnt and spoiled food.
Scrawny Tede, that none-too-clean oldster, wearing a perpetual scowl and a big gun weighing down his right side, stood behind the long plank counter filled with eating utensils. Thick plates, scorched biscuits, a heavy kettle, big coffee pots and cups were set out. A huge skillet held some kind of dark meat. It, too, had a burnt smell to it.
“Do you expect us to eat that horrible looking, and smelling, food?” Lucille said aloud even though guards glared in her direction. The cook glared at her from under beetling gray brows.
Guards ushered the prisoners into a line by the counter behind Red. Lucille stared at the back of the very tall, broad shouldered man at the head of the line. His brick red hair and beard curled around his face. Red Gorman. Her eyes kept returning to him like humming birds to a red flower. He took one forkful of food and bellowed, “Tede, get your scrawny arse out here! You expect us to eat this scorched, half raw, greasy slop?”
Lucille winced as the cook’s face turned gray. The big man roared, “Gawdamn, I can’t stand your rotten cooking.” He drew his big gun and fired. Splinters flew and a big yellow gouge appeared in the square post at the end of the high counter.
Prisoners and outlaws scattered in every direction. Some went to the floor. Lucille held her breath and stood like a stone statue.
Tede, jumped ignominiously. He threw his thin arms over his head defensively, ducking flying wood splinters as Gorman fired again. “Dammit, Red,” he whined, “Cut it out. Git somebody else to cook.” He looked around in desperation. “Let thet fat complainin’ female standin’ there do it. She looks like she allus et good.” He pointed a gnarled, dirty finger at Lucille.
All eyes looked at her. Her mouth turned dry. She swallowed and gritted her teeth. She stared at Scrawny, who was called Tede, and opened her mouth to protest.
“You cook?” The big man swung around to her.
She stood silently, glaring at him.
“I asked, do you cook?”
“I’m a schoolteacher, not a cook. Anyone can do better than this. And I am not fat!” She raised her eyes up to meet the big man’s green gaze. Stubbornly she glared back, pursing her lips tightly in anger.
His jade eyes suddenly twinkled as he looked her up and down. She stared back. She would not quake before that wretched man.
“No, not fat,” he said, “but a good looking, blue-eyed, plump partridge all the same. I’m Red Gorman, woman. I run this town. If you want your people to keep eating, you better cook until we get these damn land titles straightened out. Either that or put up with Tede’s meals.”
The green lightning of his stare jolted her clear to her toes. She couldn’t look away. Outlaws weren’t supposed to be that handsome, that fascinating or that magnetizing. She set her lips in a disapproving downward curve and finally succeeded in looking at his shirt collar. It seemed the big redhead enjoyed staring her up and down to embarrass her. Plump partridge indeed!
“Woman, you got yourself a job.” He continued to look at her. “Get to that kitchen. I want a decent meal by six o’clock. No watery spuds nor burnt meat. Understand?”
Lucille returned his green-eyed stare in stupefaction, too furious to think of a proper retort. Would he actually shoot her? Where had her schoolteacher discipline gone? Her fellow prisoners were speechless.
“Move it, woman. Don’t wait all day. Six o’clock.”
The murmur of suddenly protesting prisoners’ voices faded as she stomped over into the big room beyond the high counter.
Tede waited in the middle of the kitchen. “Anyone can do better than this,” he mocked in a high falsetto voice. In a lower tone he growled, “Well, it’s all yourn, woman. It’s all yourn.” Yanking off his soiled apron he threw it on the floor at her feet and strode out the kitchen’s back door.
She stared after him as the door slammed. “Well, Lucille Martin,” she told herself, “for a school teacher, you’re stupid. You opened your big mouth at the wrong time again. Now you’ve really done it, like you know all about cooking for fifty people.”
Stiff legged, Lucille turned a slow circle in the dirtiest, smelliest, most unorganized kitchen she had ever seen in all her twenty-three years.
Red turned his back on the kitchen. He took long legged strides over to his friend Stoke’s small bar in the corner of the big dining area.
“Do you think the lady can cook?” Stokes asked. He raised his hard crowned bowler hat and scratched his bald pate, before hanging the hat on a nail. Appearing completely unconcerned he polished a glass with a big towel and set it on the bar in front of Red.
“She can’t do any worse than Tede. Damn, I hate bad food.” He forked a pickled egg from the jar Stokes placed before him.
“Arch, you’re upset over folks trying to take our valley.” The big bartender was one of the few who used his given name. He reached for a bottle under the counter. “Have a brandy and relax. Maybe she’ll do better than Tede.”
“I can’t relax. How did I know titles were issued for this land? We were told to ride in and take it. There wasn’t any Land Act of 1877 then. As long as we could hold it, the land belonged to us.” He grimaced at a second pickled egg but ate it, along with a handful of crackers from a big wooden bowl.
“Making Wyoming a territory could have changed that.” Stokes said. “They haven’t gotten their records straight at the land offices. People get careless all the time.”
“I’m not giving up my town. I worked too hard for it. They can have the damn valley, as long as they don’t try to leave. What the hell do we do now? We still have Ed Hutchins trial to go to court. We just barely got Joe Texas proven innocent. I hate bein’ a wanted man, but Blaine has a family. We have his case to prove yet.”
“What if you talk with that white haired gent from the wagon train? He seems level headed, now that he’s cooled down. Maybe he can reason with the rest of them. He might even be able to get that school teacher to quiet down.”
Archie tossed off the brandy. “Until we come up with answers they may as well earn their keep. They can finish the boardwalk for starters. And we’ll all hope the lady can cook.” He walked to the door of the building.
He spun about and strode over to the high plank counter by the kitchen. He leaned across toward the woman who still stood as though petrified. She looked at him, her blue eyes wide and shooting angry sparks, now that he’d come close. Damn, she had long, black eyelashes.
“I just want to check if your eyes are really as blue as I thought.” He whirled away from her and pounded his heels to the outer door. What the damn hell did he think he was doing? Attraction to a good woman, especially a concerned schoolteacher, could not be. Not until he’d turned his sorry life around, if that ever happened.
“Six o’clock, lady,” he roared from the doorway, as he went out into the early afternoon sunshine.
Six o’clock! How could she possibly find anything in this filthy place to feed forty or fifty people? The most she’d helped cook for was thirty threshers on the farm in Wisconsin. With closed eyes, she shook her head from side to side.
“Aunt Molly, I wish you were here!” She opened her eyes slowly and peeked between rigid fingers. Facing the far end of the room, with an ugly, dirty cook stove at her left, a stained feed sack curtain hung several feet ahead of her. Lord only knew what hid behind that.
“Six o’clock, lady,” his big voice reminded her from the doorway.
“Oh my, oh my.” Lucille turned and faced the dining room. No help could come from that direction. Not one of her wagon train friends remained in sight.
She looked back at the stove. Its grease coated top had rust around the edges. The crooked stovepipe went into a fieldstone chimney beside the same outside door the angry ex-cook had slammed. Lucille shuddered as she took in a very large wooden table with stump-like legs. The top was puddled with water and smeared with food. On the right side of the kitchen, was a long open counter. It divided the kitchen from the dining area. On that counter sat piles of dirty, half-filled heavy pottery plates. The potato kettle sat cold and blackened on the counter’s scarred surface. Lard congealed in the meat skillet.
Dried mud crunched under her sturdy trail shoes as she walked to the counter and looked out into the restaurant’s bare-bones table area. The Bascom prisoners were no doubt still hungry. Poor food was a minor problem, Lucille thought, after all they’d endured in the last few days, but to Red Gorman, food was apparently a major concern. He seemed to want good food. What had he done before they came? She could only guess and felt sorry for the cook.
Most of the Bascom party were prisoners. What would Gorman do about those missing, like Ben Menkin, Clem Adams, the two young people and several of the drovers? They might not even be together since they had fled separately, in different directions. Would he and his men hunt them down?
Her personal disaster seemed nothing judging by that. Her throat squeaked a dry swallow as she surveyed the daunting pile of dirty dishes. She thought of what Gorman demanded, with no idea what he was capable of. He’d sent bullets flying around the previous cook. It scared her half to death; she’d never been shot at before. Why had he returned to look at her eyes? Attraction? Curiosity? Her heart hammered a drum roll on her ribs. Her own reaction scared her even more.
Another circling view of the kitchen revealed a small pile of split wood by the outside door. A barrel of water stood beside it. With a small pail, she filled the big, battered dishpan on the cook stove, then stoked the dying fire with wood pushed through a small door in the firebox.
In a second dishpan, she assembled dirty dishes and bent spoons from the dining area. Suddenly, she saw a very large, bald-headed man standing quietly in the far corner of the outer room, at a small, well-stocked liquor bar.
“Oh,” she said, “Who are you?”
“Name’s Stokes.” He continued polishing bar glasses. His bald pate gleamed.
“Well, I guess we’ll get to share a building.”
“Madam, you stay in your end and I’ll stay in mine.” His black eyes were cold and aloof. He reminded her of the description of old English butlers. Lines in his high forehead deepened as he glared down his large nose at her.
“Yes, sir.” Lucille strode angrily to the kitchen with the load of dishes. A big, gray rat scooted across her feet. Startled, she dropped the pan onto the table. The clatter of plates echoed in the barn-like room.
Lucille looked despairingly at the rusty stove where dishwater steamed. Thick, rancid grease coated another mammoth skillet. On the table an uncovered bowl held what she thought might be biscuit starter. Its edges were crusted and dirty. Rotting onions raised a stench under the table. A rat’s unblinking eyes stared from the cobwebbed corner of the room, before it skittered out of sight. The door blew open and swayed back and forth until she closed and re-latched it.
Shaved soap foamed in the steaming water as she poured it over the pan of messy dishes. She cleaned the battered tabletop and refilled a pan to heat rinse water. The dishes air dried by slanting them every which way. Three hours later she drew a deep, deep breath. At least she had clean dishes and cookware to work with. On a shelf by the grimy window sat a loudly ticking clock that read half past three o’clock. Only two and a half hours remained in which to get a meal for everyone. The stove! She’d forgotten wood in the stove! Lucille lifted the stove lid and groaned. The fire was almost out! It seemed like only minutes ago she had put wood in the stove. Grabbing a butcher knife, she stabbed at a dry piece of wood for shavings and added them to the few red coals in the bottom of the firebox. When they refused to ignite she angrily yanked out the overflowing ash box. By scraping red coals and smoking pieces together the air finally circulated enough so the chips flamed. She added larger pieces gradually. The ash drawer could be emptied later.
Four o’clock. I’m getting desperate, talking to myself.
A knock sounded. Warily she opened the back door a slit and peeked out.
“Forie Drescher,” she said with a smile of relief, recognizing a fellow prisoner. “I was afraid that ornery little cook came back.”
“The big outlaw sent these potatoes, Miss Martin,” said Forie.
“I don’t have much time, do I?”
“I’d help if I could, but he ordered me right back to unload wagons.”
Lucille peeled and peeled the potatoes until the back of her right hand ached and blisters formed on her fingers. Finally finished, she set them directly over the cook stove firebox. With two stove lids removed, it didn’t take the potatoes long to release steam around the warped covers on two large kettles.
The wood was nearly gone again! She rushed out the back door and saw other wagon train women busily scrubbing and hanging laundry. She scarcely had energy to wave to them. At a woodpile were half a dozen pieces of wood. She hurried back inside with them then she rushed outside again, split three big wood chunks into pieces with an ax and carried them inside. She hadn’t done that since leaving home for teacher’s training.
Exhausted, she dropped onto the one hard chair by the table. It crashed in splinters dumping her to sprawl all over the mud-caked kitchen floor. Tears of frustration streamed down her hot cheeks as she hoisted herself to her knees. She looked up.
“Well, you gonna cook, gal, or you gonna lay there an’ beller? Brag, brag, brag.” The wiry cook stood, arms akimbo, his cheeks pouched out and again mocked her. “Anyone can do better than this.” He leaned down, nearly suffocating her with whiskey breath. “Well, fat gal, you got your chance. An’ you ain’t gittin’ no help from me neither.” He left, stomping his heels in echoing thumps across the dining area.
Lucille grasped the edge of the heavy wooden table to pull herself up. She set her jaw and with lips thinned, smoothed her forehead frown lines away with stiff fingers.
“You don’t need to hassle me, you skinny little pipsqueak!” She was furious at him and at herself for letting him bother her peace of mind.
He hastily disappeared.
A leg of ham hung against the wall inside a small burlap curtained area. Half a beef and a small pork haunch hung beside it. She pulled down the ham and within a short time had thick slices on to fry in the cleanest big skillet. Biscuits. You always had bread or biscuits. She wiped out a large blue granite bowl with the cleanest of the rags, and added biscuit starter from a crusted bowl. She scooped flour, adding some of this and some of that. Making biscuits was a habit from home. With arms aching from stirring and kneading, chopping and hauling, she fervently wished Aunt Molly were here for guidance, instead of back in Wisconsin.
“Well, where is it?”
Lucille jumped, held her breath and felt her eyes go wide in spite of herself. Quickly squinting them shut in anger she squared her shoulders and turned. “Not quite ready, Mr. Gorman.”
She watched as Gorman strode to a small corner table and sat down, facing the kitchen. Conscious of him watching, she stacked plates, set the pile of bent forks and spoons on the counter and stirred a kettle of canned peas.
Perspiring from the heat of the stove and nervousness, Lucille rubbed a hand across her forehead. She pushed back the hair tickling about her hot face. She strained the ham slices from the hot grease and loaded them onto huge platters. She sprinkled flour to brown in the skillet, gradually added water and stirred swiftly to make a smooth gravy. She hoisted kettles of drained, boiled potato chunks onto the high counter. Her shoulders ached and her feet hurt. She heard the clatter of feet coming down the boardwalk and into the restaurant.
At her nod, Gorman, two of his men, and the waiting hungry prisoners surged forward to see what kind of meal they’d get. Wearily Lucille ladled tinned peaches into sauce dishes. She hadn’t done this much physical labor since leaving the farm.
The prisoners looked exhausted. The children drooped, eyeing the outlaws warily. Martha Adams whispered, “Are you all right, Lucille?”
“I’m fine, thank you, just tired.”
Martha nodded and hurried down the line of food with her two younger boys.
The food disappeared in minutes. Lucille, very carefully lowered her aching body onto the lumpy cot she’d found at the far end of the kitchen next to the meat larder behind the grimy burlap curtain.
“Where’s my coffee?” Gorman roared from the dining room. Chill goose bumps bounced their way up Lucille’s cheeks. She’d completely forgotten coffee. She surged upright and hurried to the counter, expecting to be shot. She could barely breathe and her knees wobbled. awaiting possible gunshots in her direction.
“The potatoes were good and the ham fried well,” Martha said to the outlaw chief as she faced him. “You didn’t give her much time to find things and make coffee, too.”
Red glared at Mrs. Adams but she refused to look away, daring him to disagree.
In relief Lucille heard him say, “I believe you are right, ma’am. And it was better than Tede’s.” He turned to Lucille with a terse, “Just don’t forget it again.” He strode away with his men, herding the prisoners out ahead of them.
Lucille looked at the clock. She hadn’t eaten. Half a potato remained. No gravy or biscuits. A half cup of cold peas. Exhausted, she ate without tasting a thing.
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