Mystic Creek Series
Harrigan Family Series
Coulter Family Series
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Coulter Family Series Historical
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February 2012 (01-31-12)
David Paxton couldn't quite credit that his little town had grown so quiet that he could rock back on his chair outside the jailhouse with nary a care to sour his mood. Over the past four months, since he'd changed his peacekeeping tactics, the barroom brawls and gunfights, common occurrences in the past, had become a rarity. At first he hadn't felt confident that the change would last, but now he was finally starting to believe it would. No more tension, no need to keep an eye out for potential trouble. It had taken him a while to adjust to the change, but now that he had, his job as marshal seemed so easy it was almost boring.
In the early-morning breeze, his shoulder-length hair drifted across his face, making everything look limned in gold before he lazily pushed the strands back. How long had it been since he'd felt this relaxed? At least a year, damn it, or his eyes weren't blue. Being tense and on guard all the time wasn't good for a man's constitution. Feeling certain he wouldn't be awakened by the sound of gunfire last night, he had slumbered deeply. Hell, he felt so good he could swear he wasn't a day more than twenty instead of the venerable thirty that he actually was. It was hard to believe he'd turn thirty-one in only a couple of months.
Old Mose Hepburn, the local drunk and David's only prisoner, was sleeping it off in the cell block, as happy as a grub worm in a rotten log to be snoozing on a lumpy cot. Most times, he had to compete with rats for space in the hayloft of Chris Coffle's livery stable. If the cantankerous old fart kept to his usual pattern, he wouldn't come around until along about noon, and by then Billy Joe Roberts, one of David's deputies, would be on duty to walk across the way to get Mose some breakfast. David sighed with contentment and flexed his shoulders, glad to be slothful for a change and let his mind wander. No appointments, no meetings, and no rowdy cowpokes. His languorous mood was magnified by Sam, his fluffy gold and white dog, who lay beside him, snoring louder than a two-man crosscut saw.
It was a long-missed pleasure for David to watch the town of No Name awaken. And, oh, what a fine morning it was, putting him in mind of his early years, when he'd sometimes had nothing better to do than sit on the back stoop and watch the grass grow. The planks of the boardwalk creaked as he shifted his weight. A fly, the first David had seen since last autumn, buzzed in to cut circles in front of his nose. Sunlight spilled over the roof peaks at the opposite side of Main Street and slanted under the overhang. Butter yellow warmth bathed the lower half of his face where his hat brim didn't cast a shadow and seeped through his leather duster and shirt to make him feel toasty despite the chill temperatures of early spring. Yep, and boy howdy, it was shaping up to be a great day.
Slumped on the tottery contraption of ancient wood he still called a chair, David extended his long legs and crossed his booted feet to study his spurs. He hated the damned things, would never use them on a horse, and felt silly wearing them, but his sister-in-law Caitlin insisted they were "necessary accoutrements" to his new marshal's outfit. Trust her to come up with a big word for every little thing. Turning his ankles, he noted with grim satisfaction that the once-silver rowels were now pewter gray and specked with dry mud. Not so long ago, he would have rushed over to Gilpatrick's general store for some polish to restore their sparkle. Not anymore. He'd learned the hard way that a town marshal who paraded about in a starched shirt, pressed blue jeans, and spit-shined boots was asking for trouble. Now, under the direction of his elder brother Ace, a renowned ex-gunslinger, David dressed more like a roughrider than a peacekeeper, and he sure did appreciate the results. No upstart fast guns had called him out into the street in well over three months.
A loud thump brought Sam's snoring to a halt and caught David's attention. Squinting against the light, he directed his gaze across the way to the source of the noise. Roxie Balloux, the buxom and ever-cheerful proprietress of No Name's best restaurant, had just emerged from the establishment from a side service doorway with a five-gallon slop bucket in each hand. Reddish brown hair caught at her crown in a coiled braid, she looked fetching in a tidy, blue-checked gingham housedress with lacy shoulder caps and a fashionable new bustle that was supposedly more streamlined than its predecessors. To the delight of most men, the effect was lost on Roxie. She was plump in all the right places and needed no posterior enhancement. Hell, Roxie wearing a bustle was sort of like ladling whipped cream over apple pie à la mode, a bit too much of a good thing. Not that any man with blood still moving in his veins could think about food when he admired her backside. Sadly, she would turn thirty-five in August, making her a mite too long in the tooth for David, who still hoped to marry and raise a family.
As Roxie descended the porch steps, Old Jeb, a black dog belonging to Jesse Chandler, the chimney sweep, appeared out of nowhere, barking excitedly and circling at her feet as she upended the buckets over the trash barrel. She let loose with a sigh, audible even at a distance, and gingerly routed through the slop to find the shaggy beggar a treat. She tossed the canine a ham hock generously peppered with what looked like coffee grounds. Jeb wasn't fussy and dropped onto his belly in a patch of grass, still yellow from winter, to gnaw happily on the bone.
Sam, who either heard Jeb chewing or caught the smell, jerked awake and whined. David lowered a hand to his pet's head. "No way, you rascal. Every time you eat Roxie's slop, you get the squirts."
The shepherd grunted and went back to snoring. David rocked, shifted, and went back to lollygagging, his gaze idly scanning the businesses across the street. Next door to the eating establishment, Tobias Thompson, so thin he didn't cast a shadow standing sideways, emerged from his dry-goods store with broom in hand. Same as always, he wore a blue bib apron over black trousers and a white shirt with a turned-down collar that sported a red necktie. Even in the shade of the boardwalk overhang, his bald pate gleamed like polished agate as he bent to the task of sweeping his doorstep.
Watching the man work, David reached under his hat to scratch, hoping to high heaven he'd never lose his hair. He guessed he'd just wear a hat all the time when he got old. He wore one most of the time, anyhow.
The batwing doors of the Golden Slipper saloon creaked open just then. David glanced to his left, expecting to see Mac, the owner of the establishment, stepping out for a breath of fresh morning air. Instead, Marcy May Jones, the newly hired upstairs girl, posed in the doorway. David damned near swallowed his tongue. She wore a pink wrapper— in a manner of speaking— with the sash looped carelessly at her waist, one slender shoulder and most of one breast artfully displayed. David was so taken aback that he couldn't think what to do or say. He was the marshal, after all, responsible for law, order, and upholding the decency codes of the town, but how in the Sam Hill did a man tell a lady to get her pretty little ass back inside where it belonged?
David wasn't the only male on the street who reacted with a start. Tobias froze with his broom in midswing, and his grown son, Brad, the town's newly appointed garbage collector, almost took out an overhang post with the right rear wheel of his fully loaded wagon as he cut the corner from the alley onto Main. One of the mules brayed in protest as Brad jerked hard on the reins to stop.
"Good morning, Mr. Thompson," Marcy crooned to Brad as she caressed one hip, smiled, and tipped her head so that the henna tint of her brown hair flashed in the morning light. "I keep hopin' you might pay me a call one of these nights, and my little heart's just broken that you never come."
Trying to back up his team, Brad turned three shades of crimson and gripped the lines in one hand to tug at his shirt collar, which apparently had shrunk a size between one breath and the next. "I . . . um . . . Well, lands, Miss Marcy, I'm a happily married man."
"I'm partial to happily married men, Mr. Thompson. They know how to treat a lady."
Brad coughed and ran a hand over his face. "Well, um, my Bess— she wouldn't like it if I visited you. No, ma'am, she wouldn't cotton to that at all."
Marcy sighed theatrically. "Too bad. Her bein' in the family way and all, I bet you're not gettin' any at home. If you should start to feel cross and out of sorts, you come see me. I'll cure what ails you. You have my personal guarantee."
Tobias glared at Miss Jones and then at his son's broad back. He was clearing his throat and about to speak when Brad's wife, Bess, a petite and very pregnant blonde, emerged from the dry-goods store. Prior to having children, Bess had been the schoolteacher, and despite her diminutive stature, she still carried herself with an air of authority even though she now had the swaybacked posture common to so many women heavy with child. She stepped off the edge of the boardwalk into full sunlight, circled the wagon, and stood between her husband and the saloon as she met Marcy's gaze. The sparks that shot from her green eyes could have set fire to stone. David realized her anger stemmed from jealousy, which baffled him. Miss Marcy was easy enough on the eyes, he guessed, but she didn't hold a candle to Bess.
"Where is Mac?" she demanded of the prostitute. "I'm guessing he doesn't know his upstairs girl is indecently exposing herself on the town boardwalk in broad daylight!" Bess had perfected the schoolmarm haughtiness that always snapped kids to attention. Chin up, eyebrows arched, she almost made David want to dive for cover. "You'll kindly remove yourself from public view, Miss Jones, or I shall report you to the city council. We do have laws in this town to protect the innocent!" With a fling of her left arm, Bess gestured up the street at the schoolhouse. "Children are out and about, my good woman. I don't believe that Charley and Eva Banks would be pleased to learn that their boy Ralph witnessed this indecent display on his way to school." Bess fluttered her fingers in front of her chest and added with shrill accusation, "Your feminine protrusions are showing."
"They're called tits, honey," Marcy replied drily. "You got so much starch in your petticoats, it's a wonder you don't crackle when you walk."
David was greatly enjoying himself until Bess turned that fiery green gaze on him. He leaped to his feet as if he'd just been prodded with a pitchfork tine. "We do have a city ordinance about appropriate public attire, Miss Marcy," he said loudly, so Bess would hear, hoping as he spoke that ordinance was the proper term. The city council had so many names for laws— appendages, bylaws, and all manner of other shit— that he could never keep them straight. Bottom line, he had been appointed marshal because he was halfway smart and fast with a gun, not because he had a gift with words. "Standing about on the boardwalk in nothing but a—" David glanced at Miss Marcy and, like Brad, had a sudden urge to loosen his collar. Even worse, he plumb forgot what that pink thingamajig she wore was called. It had slipped farther off her right shoulder, and the brown of her nipple was playing peekaboo with him every time the breeze shifted. "Well, ma'am, no offense, but parading about in one's birthday suit, even if it's sort of covered, is against the law. You need to go back inside."
Wearing a jade dress that matched her eyes and sporting a belly as big as a Texas watermelon, Bess pointed a rigid finger at the prostitute. "Immediately!"
"I'm goin', I'm goin'," Marcy replied with a seductive thrust of her hip as she turned away. "Don't get your lacy little knickers in a twist. I ain't never stole anybody's husband yet and don't plan to start. They come of their own free will."
Bess's face turned as red as her husband's. She reached up to rest a fine-boned hand on Brad's knee, and the man jerked as if he'd just been touched with a hot brand. David, who'd been courting Hazel Wright, the new schoolteacher, and was thinking about asking her to marry him, got an itchy feeling at the nape of his neck. If this was any indication, maybe wedded bliss wasn't so blissful. Hell's bells, all Brad had done was accidentally look, and as a result, he'd probably get burned biscuits for supper.
Bess abandoned her husband to march across the rutted street, which was still muddy in spots from a recent rain. As she approached David, he wondered how a perfectly wonderful morning had so quickly gone to hell.
"Marshal Paxton," she said, using a tone that took David back in time to the classroom, when nuns had cracked rulers over the backs of his knuckles when he misbehaved. "We, the citizens of No Name, pay you well to keep this town respectable, yet you sat there on that dilapidated chair doing absolutely nothing while a harlot hawked her wares on Main Street at eight o'clock in the morning!"
David rubbed his whiskery jaw and repositioned his hat. "You heard me tell her to go back inside, Bess. What else can you expect me to do, get her in a headlock and drag her back in?"
"That is not the point!" Bess's lips drew back over her teeth in a snarl so fierce that David cringed. Sam whined and crossed his snow-white paws over his eyes. "The point is that you gawked at her for a full three minutes before you said a single word."
"Gawked? I didn't gawk." Well, he guessed he had, but not on purpose. "I was just taken aback, Bess, and as the marshal, I can't go off half-cocked. I needed to think of an appropriate way to handle the situation."
Judging by the flare of pink on her cheeks, Bess was less than mollified by his explanation. "Mark my word, I will attend the next city council meeting and lodge a complaint. You never hesitate to arrest a man who disturbs the peace, yet you fail to act when the perpetrator is a half-dressed female of ill repute!"
David scratched beside his nose. "That isn't fair. It's different with a woman."
David scuffed his heel on a plank. "Well, when a man breaks the law, I can go to fisticuffs with him if it becomes necessary— or shoot him if all else fails. It's a whole different story with a lady."
"Marcy May Jones is not a lady!" Bess ran a molten gaze from the top of David's head to the toes of his dusty boots. "Not that I'm certain you'd recognize the difference anymore. You used to be a fine, upstanding marshal. Now just look at you! A saddle tramp has better personal hygiene." She jabbed a dainty finger at his duster. "That thing is absolutely filthy! And just look at your face. I'll bet you haven't shaved for the better part of a week."
David put a blade to his jaw every three days now, usually right before bedtime so he could sprout a new crop of whiskers before sunrise. "My duster isn't dirty. I just greased it up to make it look that way."
Bess held up a staying hand. "I've heard all about your reasons for changing your appearance, and it's a bunch of stuff and nonsense, if you ask me. Looking mean and disreputable to keep the peace? Ha. There's more to the job than just dispensing with the riffraff. A marshal should represent our community in fine fashion and set a good example for our children! He should be clean shaven and keep his hair cropped short. He should change clothes every single day! He should—"
"Hold on just one minute," David protested. "I change clothes every blessed morning. And just because I look dirty doesn't mean I am. I bathe regular, and I brush my teeth morning and night." He gestured at his duster, which Ace's wife, Caitlin, had designed and made from soft leather purchased at the cobbler's shop. "You have to admit that there's been no trouble around here for almost four months now. Say what you want about how I look, but it scares off the rowdies."
Bess rolled her eyes. "You have become a disgrace! Your poor mother must be embarrassed half to death."
In truth, David's mother slept better at night now that no upstarts were calling him out. That said, she tolerated no slovenliness in anyone, so she did try to sneak up behind David with her scissors now and again to trim his hair. But he wasn't about to mention that to Bess. "How my mother feels about my changed appearance is none of your business, Mrs. Thompson."
"My husband and I help pay your wages, Marshal Paxton! I guess I have some say."
Bess waddled back across the street. Damn. He'd heard tell that pregnancy made women emotional, but this particular female had become downright ornery. Normally Bess was mild tempered. Didn't she realize that Miss Marcy was no threat? Brad wouldn't look at another woman if he was paid to do it, not willingly, anyhow. He'd been taken by surprise this morning, but that didn't mean he'd liked what he saw. Not enough to be unfaithful to Bess, anyhow.
Sam whined again. David glanced down and saw that the dog had finally uncovered his eyes. "Coward. You kill rattlers without blinking, yet you quake and hide from a pregnant female? Explain that to me."
Sam groaned and rolled over on his back, legs sprawled for a belly rub. David gave him a scratch with the toe of his boot. "You worthless mutt. Bess wouldn't hurt a fly. She's just out of sorts right now. While carrying Dory Sue, Caitlin took offense at every imagined slight and cried all during her last month. Remember that? Everybody had to carry an extra handkerchief to help mop her up."
David had lost his yen for whiling away the morning, but as he started into the office to catch up on paperwork, someone shouted his name. He turned to see a man riding up Main on a sorrel gelding.
"Yes?" David called.
The man guided his horse over to the boardwalk. "You the marshal?"
"That's right." David tucked the left side of his duster behind the butt of his Colt .45 to expose his badge and softly shushed Sam, who growled in warning because the fellow was a stranger. "What can I do for you?"
"If your name's David Paxton, I brung you a heap of mail."
"That's my moniker, but I get all my mail here at the No Name post office."
"Not all of it, I reckon." The fellow had a canvas tote on the saddle in front of him. He tossed it at David's feet. "The Denver postmaster's been holdin' these here letters for goin' on six years. He returned a few of 'em, but mostly he just tucked 'em away, hopin' David Paxton would show up someday to get his mail."
David's brows snapped together in bewilderment. Who would send him letters in Denver? He visited the larger town every now and then, mostly by train to get his cattle to market, but he had never lived there.
"Anyhow," the man continued, inclining his head at the bag, "as you can see, the amount of unclaimed mail is substantial and was takin' up a lot of needed space. Postmaster was about to dispose of it when the sheriff told him the marshal down here goes by the name of David Paxton."
"There must be a mistake," David replied. "You sure there's not another man with the same name up that way?"
"Not so far as I know. And if there is, he ain't never gone to the post office to collect his mail." He nodded at the bag again. "The sender must think you live there. All the letters is addressed to you, general delivery."
David had to admit, if only to himself, that he'd never met anyone outside his family with the surname Paxton, let alone another Paxton with the same first name. "Strange."
"Yeah, well." The other man shrugged. "If you figure the letters ain't meant for you, throw 'em out."
David watched the fellow turn his horse and ride away. Then, after tossing the dregs of his coffee into the street, he bent to pick up the bag, which was weighty with mail. Whistling for Sam to follow him, he carried it inside and emptied the contents on his desk. The letters had been grouped in small bundles and bound together with twine. The return address on one of them sported the name of a gal named Brianna Paxton who lived in Glory Ridge, Colorado, a place David believed was southeast of No Name.
As Sam settled in his favorite spot behind the wood box, David lifted the blue speckled pot simmering on the rusty stove to refill his mug. Then he sat at his battered old desk, drew his knife from his trouser pocket, and sliced the twine on a bundle of envelopes. After cutting the first seal, he settled in to read a missive picked at random, which was dated only a few weeks ago and written in an elegant feminine hand. He was barely aware of the rumbling snores that vibrated through the wall that separated the cell block from the front office.
Darling David: I hope this finds you well and that you have finally struck it rich in the Denver gold fields.
David frowned. Nobody had done any gold mining to speak of in the immediate area of Denver for many years.
I write again, as I have many times before, to plead with you to come for me and our little girl, only this time I do so with more urgency. My employer, Charles Ricker, wishes to marry, and when he takes a wife, he will no longer have need of a housekeeper, cook, or tutor for his sons. In Glory Ridge, there is very little by way of respectable employment for a lady. Our daughter and I will shortly be in dire straits. I miss you dreadfully, especially at night when I recall our brief but delightful times together. If you come for us, I promise that I will be a loving wife and more supportive of your dreams.
David's frown deepened. Who the hell was this lady? He knew no one named Brianna, sure as heck hadn't married her, and had not sired her child. Or had he? Sweat beaded on his brow.
Just then a light tap came at the door and David glanced up to see Hazel Wright stepping into the office. As pretty as a spring morning in a yellow day dress and green shawl, with her honey-colored hair swept up in a fluff of curls atop her head, she smiled brightly as she closed the door, her blue eyes sparkling.
"I just wanted to stop by and say good morning before going to the schoolhouse," she said, fingering the gold pendant that David had given her the previous evening. "We had such a lovely time last night. At least, I thought so." A blush stole into her cheeks, telling David she was recalling their farewell kiss, which had been pleasant and stirring. "How is your day starting out?"
It had started off great, but now David was getting a bitch of a headache, and Hazel, the woman he might marry, was the last person he wanted to see. "Fine." I just found out I may have sired a daughter out of wedlock, but everything else is just dandy. Remembering his manners, he pushed erect, swept off his Stetson, and tossed it on the mail, hoping the hat would prevent Hazel from noticing that the sender of all the letters bore his surname. "Would you care for a cup of coffee? It's fresh, not coffin varnish like Billy Joe always has on hand."
She shook her head, curls bouncing. "I'd love to, but I need to go. The children will run wild if I'm late."
"Well." That was all David could think to say. "I'm pleased you stopped by to say hello."
She pinned shimmery blue eyes on his, giving David the uncomfortable feeling that she wanted him to kiss her again. It bothered him that he felt no urge to hotfoot it around the desk. Hazel was lovely, a well-educated lady, and perfect for him. Her acceptance of the pendant last night also told him that she would be receptive to a proposal of marriage. It was inappropriate for a woman to welcome such an expensive gift from a gentleman otherwise.
David should have felt jubilant. He wasn't the only man in No Name who'd tried to win Hazel's affection. But something— David couldn't pinpoint precisely what— was missing in his feelings for Hazel. He liked her and enjoyed her company. Practically speaking, he should have been as happy as a cow in a cabbage patch that she'd chosen him when others had tried so hard to gain her favor.
So why was he waffling? Maybe it was because he still harbored fanciful notions about finding his one true love. His older brothers, Ace and Joseph, had found the women of their dreams. Sadly, it hadn't occurred for David yet. If he waited around much longer for something magical to happen, he might grow too old to raise a family. He wanted a brood of children. A practical man would tie the knot with Hazel before some other fellow beat him to it.
David circled the desk, grasped Hazel's shoulders, and pressed a chaste kiss to her forehead. "Have a wonderful day. Maybe, if things are quiet around here this evening, I can take you to supper at Roxie's. She serves roast beef on Mondays. As I recall, that's one of your favorites."
Hazel nodded, still searching his gaze as she fingered the pendant. "Last night when you gave me this, I—" She broke off, looked away, and moistened her lips. "Please tell me if I read something more into it than you intended."
"No, of course you didn't." David chucked her gently under the chin. "My intentions are—" David hauled in a deep breath, feeling like he had as a kid when he'd been about to jump into a swimming hole. Crazy. He'd been thinking about proposing for weeks. Giving Hazel the pendant had been his way of testing the water. So why did he feel like a bear with its paw caught in a trap? "My intentions are honorable," he settled for saying. "I, um— just need some time to think things through and do some planning before taking the next step."
Her timorous expression suddenly grew radiant, her smile as sweet and warm as sorghum on hot flapjacks. Going up on her tiptoes, she kissed David on the mouth. Before he could respond, she drew back to leave.
"Supper at Roxie's!" she said cheerfully. "I'll look forward to it all day."
David stared solemnly at the door after it closed. Was this how it felt when a man was in love? Maybe it didn't get any better than this. Hazel stirred David physically. He felt confident that he'd enjoy the intimacies of marriage with her. They got along well, shared a few interests, and hadn't thus far disagreed on any important moral issues. Maybe that combination of things was what constituted love, and he just had his head in the clouds, wishing for earthshaking emotions that would never come to him and possibly didn't even exist.
David turned back to the letters piled on his desk, most of which were still unopened. Brianna. The name didn't ring a bell, but there was no denying that he was the addressee on every envelope. He resumed his seat to continue reading. Because Brianna's more recent letters made little sense— he might forget if he'd bedded a woman, but he sure as hell wouldn't forget if he'd married one— he searched for letters written four or five years ago. Sadly, the content of those made little sense, either, more or less mirroring the more recent missives except that she failed to mention how much she missed him at night. David was frowning over this when he came across a newer envelope that included a note written by a child, the printing awkward and comprised of a few brief sentences. There were no misspellings or errors in punctuation, which made David suspect that the little girl's mother had supervised the composition.
Dearest Papa: Mama says you are far too busy mining to come visit me, so I write to tell you we are fine and doing well. Mr. Ricker has lots of spring calves, and we've got many chicks that will soon be old enough to lay eggs. This morning I am helping Mama make dumpling stew. I hope you will come see me soon.
Your loving daughter, Daphne
David stared thoughtfully at the name. Daphne? There it was, definite proof that he wasn't the child's father. He'd never in a million years curse a little girl with that name. Rose, Iris, or Violet, maybe, but Daphne? Her classmates probably teased her unmercifully.
Sifting through the mountain of mail, David located an envelope that had been addressed to him in that same childish hand. At least the kid had written something halfway interesting in her last note, unlike the mother, who seemed fixated on repeating herself, the recurring theme, "Please come for us."
David's heart squeezed as he began reading Daphne's second offering.
The man at the genrul store gives me pennys to post letters to you now becuz mama has vary little munny. Mr. Charles her boss got mareed and his new wife sed there wasn't enuff room in one howse for too laydeez.
Clearly Daphne's mother had not been present to help the child write this note. The misspellings and lack of punctuation made it difficult to read.
Mama had to find other work in gloree rij. She kleens howzes washiz uther peeples cloze duz dishez and sohs dressuz at nite.
David paused and had to back up where commas had been omitted.
We have a room in the atik at the bording howse but mostly I sleep on a pallut by mamas chare while she sohs until the we ours.
After finishing that letter, which was grimmer in content than the last, David fished until he found another envelope addressed to him in Daphne's handwriting. He paused less frequently now, mentally inserting commas where they were absent and deciphering the child's misspelled words by sounding them out.
We dont alwaze have enuff food but mama sez she iznt hungry and gives every bit she finds to me. I am smart and know she goze without only becuz there isnt enuff for too. Sometimes the food is from peeples garbuj drums but I eat it anyhow becuz there is nuthing else.
The most recent letter from Daphne tugged at David's heart even more.
I gess you wont ever come to see me papa. Mama says you are way to buzy trying to find gold and make us rich. But if you could send me munny so mama can make me a dress, I would be very hapy. I am in school now, and the other girls make fun of me becuz my dress is to short and has pachez all over it. Mama trys real hard to make the pachez purty, cutting budderflize and starz out of scraps but evrybudy can still tell they are pachez. I'm not vary big, so the cloth for a dress won't cost vary much.
David made a good income from his cattle ranch, had plenty in the bank, and also earned wages as a marshal. Even though he felt reasonably certain this little girl wasn't his, he could afford to send her money for clothes. If there were a child in No Name in such dire straits, he wouldn't hesitate to reach in his pocket.
Troubled, David addressed an envelope to Daphne Paxton and slipped in enough money to provide her with a half dozen school dresses, a pair of decent shoes, any other necessities, and food for several months as well. He refrained from writing a note to accompany it. He wasn't the child's father, and he didn't want to kindle hope within her that her papa was undergoing a change of heart.
It was the best that he could do. And, hey, it was quite a lot in the general scheme of things. Many men would send nothing to a child not their own.
A few minutes later, while en route to the post office, which lay at the south end of town between the Chandler couple's combination chimney sweep/ candle shop and the livery, David was haunted by Daphne's last letter. He'd lost his pa at a tender age and knew firsthand about hardships. But eating food from garbage drums? He shuddered at the thought. And it tore him up to imagine a little girl wearing patched, undersize dresses and worn-out shoes that pinched her toes. From the sound of it, Brianna Paxton turned her hand to every kind of work available and still wasn't able to keep the wolves from her door. What kind of man abandoned his family and left them to fend for themselves? Not any kind of man, and it made David ashamed to think anyone of that ilk bore his name.
Incensed, David shoved open the post office door with a little more force than necessary, startling Baxter Piff, the postmaster, a stocky fellow of about fifty with a shock of unruly red hair, a bushy gray beard, and sharp blue eyes that missed nothing. Sam preceded his master to the window. When David slapped the envelope down on the counter, the other man glanced at it and said, "Didn't know you had any other kin here in Colorado, only a sister out in California."
"Oregon," David corrected, dimly aware of Sam settling at his feet. "And this person isn't kin," he added gruffly. "Only a friend with the same last name."
"Hmm." Baxter weighed the envelope and quoted David an amount for postage. "Strange, that. Never met no other Paxtons so far as I recall."
The headache that had been bedeviling David throbbed with increased intensity, pounding like a fist in his temples. "I've never met anybody else named Piff, either. That doesn't mean I won't someday."
Baxter nodded. "Maybe, but I doubt it. My grandpappy changed our name. Originally it was something French, and nobody could say it right. Ain't likely that anybody else came up with the same idea unless they're related to us."
"Well, Paxton isn't French, it's easy enough to pronounce, and it's the last name of lots of folks."
"How do you know it's not French? Ain't like you've traveled the world and seen faraway places, meeting folks with different names along the way."
"I've traveled enough— all the way from Virginia to California and then back here." David's neck went hot. Paxton wasn't that common, but at the moment, he would guzzle kerosene rather than admit it. "You'd argue with a fence post, Baxter. This job doesn't keep you busy enough, and your boredom's showing." He fished in his pocket for coins and plopped them on the other man's outstretched palm. "How long before that letter reaches its destination?"
The postmaster licked his finger and leafed through a thick tome. "Glory Ridge," he muttered. "Hmph. Three days, best guess. It'll go by train partway. Then it'll be switched to a stagecoach for delivery. No main railway anywhere close, and the town's probably too small for a connecting branch like we got."
Until this morning, David had been only vaguely aware that Glory Ridge existed. Now he had reason to hope he never heard tell of it again. He just wanted Daphne to get the money as soon as possible, and then he'd return to his office, discard those letters, and wash his hands of this whole damned mess.
As he left the building and turned north, he saw his brother Ace braking his wagon near the hitching post in front of the marshal's office. Sam gave a happy bark and raced ahead to greet David's family. Caitlin's red hair gleamed like copper as her husband took fifteen-month-old Dory Sue from her arms and assisted her from the wagon. Little Ace, almost three and a half, barely gave his father a chance to release Caitlin's elbow and hand her the baby before leaping from the driver's seat. While catching his son, Ace lost his hat. His jet-black hair shone like polished onyx as he bent to retrieve his Stetson.
David swore under his breath. Not today. He loved his oldest brother and always enjoyed when Ace dropped by to chat while Caitlin took the kids shopping. But this wasn't a good time. There was all that mail piled on David's desk, and Ace, who seldom missed anything, wasn't likely to overlook those return addresses. That would prompt him to ask questions— lots of questions— and right now, David had no answers. Sweat sluiced down the cleavage of David's spine as he strode toward his office.
Balancing Dory Sue on her hip, Caitlin waved, then lifted her blue skirts to gain the boardwalk. "Loafing as always, I see," she accused teasingly, her cheek dimpling with pleasure as she went up on her tiptoes to kiss David's. "And prickly, too," she added with a smile when her lips met with whiskers. "How are you?" She leaned back to study him, her blue eyes filling with concern. "What a scowl! Where's that famous grin I'm so accustomed to seeing?"
David did his best to smile as he bent to peck his niece on the forehead. Except for the jet-black hair Dory Sue had inherited from her father, she was the picture of her mama, delicate of feature, with big blue eyes and porcelain skin. She thrust out her chubby arms, saying, "Unca Day-Day! Unca Day-Day!"
David chuckled and soon found his arms filled with lace-trimmed pink gingham and baby-girl softness. He pressed his nose to the child's ebon curls to breathe in the clean, sweet scent of her. Over the top of her head, he met Caitlin's questioning gaze.
"It's just been a troublesome morning," he confessed. "Nothing serious, and even if it were, seeing all of you is just the thing to take my mind off it."
A flush of pleasure flagged Caitlin's cheeks. She caught Little Ace by the arm as he tried to scale David's leg like a miniature pole climber. "Wait your turn. Uncle David is saying hello to your sister right now." To David, she said, "We're hoping you can join us for lunch at Roxie's. My errands won't take long. I need a few things from dry goods, and then I'm taking the children to the cobbler shop to be measured for shoes." She rolled her eyes. "Ace refuses to order any from Montgomery Ward. He says ill-fitting, mail-order shoes are bad for their feet."
David nodded. "I agree. Even if you specify the size they're in right now, it'll be a few weeks before the shoes arrive." He handed Dory Sue back to her mother and swept Little Ace up to sit on his shoulder. "The way this little pistol is growing, his feet may be an inch longer by then."
"Or two," Ace put in with a smile directed at his wife. "Stop fussing. I know cobbler-made shoes are more expensive, but Shelby can use the business."
"But, Ace, the kids will outgrow them in nothing flat!"
"And when they do, we'll have more made. I'm not a poor man who has to pinch pennies on his children's footwear."
Little Ace chose that moment to grab David's camel-brown leather hat. When the child put it on, his tiny dark head disappeared inside the bowl. When he pushed at the brim to peek out, everyone laughed.
"I think you need to grow some before you steal Uncle David's hat, boy." Ace fetched his son, returned David's headgear, and set the child on his feet beside his mother. "No bargaining with Shelby," he told his wife as he bent to kiss her cheek. "He's a fair man, and the prices he quotes will be fair as well."
Caitlin sighed, caught hold of Little Ace's hand, and smiled in farewell. "You can drink some coffee, but don't you dare eat any of those cookies from Roxie's that David keeps in a tin," she said over her shoulder as she started across the street. "You promised me lunch at her place, and I mean to hold you to it."
Ace grinned and shook his head. To David, he murmured, "Is it my imagination, or is my wife getting headstrong and bossy?"
David laughed. "Now, there's a question I wouldn't touch with the tip of a long-barrel rifle."
"No, truly. If a problem's developing, maybe I should get a handle on it."
David stifled a chuckle. Ace worshiped Caitlin and catered to her every whim. Only her sweet nature saved her from being spoiled and impossible to please.
"What's so funny?" Ace asked.
David held up his hands. "Nothing! She's one of the dearest people I know. If she's getting a little headstrong and bossy, it's nobody's fault but your own."
Ace bent to scratch Sam behind the ears. "So you do think she's bossy."
"I don't think any such thing. Didn't you just hear me say how dear I think she is? Damn it, Ace. Don't put words in my mouth."
Ace straightened from petting the dog. Though David wasn't considered by most people to be a man of diminutive stature, he'd always felt short because Ace, who was actually only his half brother, was so blooming tall. In some parts of the country, there were full-grown trees that hit him below the chin. Big, muscular, and as solid as a chunk of rock— that was Ace. It was mind-boggling to realize that a tiny woman like Caitlin had not only brought the infamous Ace Keegan to his knees but now ruled his every thought, word, and gesture. A tear in her eye filled Ace with panic.
Slapping his brother on the shoulder, David led the way into his office. Sam danced to enter first and find his favored spot behind the stove. As David removed his hat and made to toss it at the hook on the wall, he stopped dead, remembering the mail on his desk. A knot formed in the pit of his stomach.
Ace glanced at the mound of envelopes and took his usual place in the chair across from David's. Rocking back, he crossed his ankles and arms, the very picture of nonchalance except for the tic of his jaw muscle.
"So," Ace said, still aiming for a cavalier manner, "that's a heap of mail from someone named Paxton. Do we have a chatty relative I'm not yet aware of?"
After taking a seat, David slumped his shoulders and looked Ace in the eye. Since Joseph Paxton Sr.' s death, when David had been knee-high to a grasshopper, Ace had been the only father he'd ever known, stern and demanding in many ways, but also David's best friend. He could have more easily cut off his right arm than lie to him. Family honor was a bitch sometimes.
"All these letters arrived this morning," David replied. "The Denver postmaster has been saving them for about six years. They're written by a gal named Brianna Paxton to her husband, David Paxton, who apparently married her, got her with child, and then abandoned her to find his fortune in Denver."
"Well, little brother, that counts you out. You've never been a gold chaser, and I didn't raise you to be a spineless pollywog that leaves a pregnant woman to fend for herself."
Oh, how David yearned to leave it there, to just laugh and say, "You are so damned right." Instead his scalp prickled, and his lungs ached as if he'd run three miles. "In my younger years, I wasn't exactly an angel, Ace. When I went to Denver alone, I did plenty of honey dipping, and I was usually too far gone into a bottle to think about consequences."
There, David thought. I've said it. And with the utterance, he felt sort of nauseated.
Ace rubbed beside his nose. "You ever get so drunk you had loss of memory? I've been there, waking up with no recollection of the previous night, sometimes with a woman in my bed whose face and name I couldn't recall."
David sank deeper into the embrace of his chair, elbows pressing hard on the arms. "I drank heavy. Gambled heavy, too. It was exciting to me back then. Denver seemed like a big city compared to No Name. Still does, only it's gotten fancier. Now that I'm older, it just doesn't hold the same appeal for me."
"That isn't what I asked." Ace sat forward. "Were you ever so drunk that you could have been intimate with this woman and not remembered it the next day?"
David puffed air into his cheeks. "Only if she was a sporting woman, and they always take care of things like that with a sponge soaked in vinegar."
"They try to take care of things like that with a sponge, but it's about as effective as pulling out before the gun goes off. Sporting women do get pregnant. You know that. Sometimes they get rid of it. Sometimes they don't. Many a child has grown up sleeping under the staircase of a whorehouse. Now, I asked you the question, square and honest. Were you ever that drunk?"
David could now pinpoint the source of his headache and nausea, and it had a terrible name: Truth. He closed his eyes, willing it away because suddenly Hazel Wright seemed mighty appealing. David didn't want his nice little life messed up by a child he'd sired with a woman he couldn't remember. "Yes," he pushed out. "There were times when I got that drunk."
Ace made a sound that reminded David of a bellows releasing a blast of air. A creak of wood signaled that he had gone limp and slumped back in his seat.
Finally David opened his eyes. "I don't know what to do next," he confessed. "If this woman used to be a working girl, and I got her pregnant, why didn't she look me up? And why would she pretend to be married to me?"
"It's possible that she didn't realize she was pregnant for two or three months," Ace replied, "and maybe she looked for you in Denver and couldn't find you. As for taking your name and claiming to be your wife, I'll remind you that Christian folks don't look kindly upon an unmarried woman with a bun in her oven. It's possible that she finally left the area and pretended she had a husband so decent folks wouldn't shun her and the child."
Ace didn't take kindly to holier-than-thou churchgoers. He worshiped weekly with Caitlin, sometimes even taking her to Denver to attend Mass, but he drew the line at acting as if he were sinless. He felt that many people lost their way as Christians, and David agreed with him. That was undoubtedly why he'd been hesitant earlier to embarrass Miss Marcy. Her being an upstairs girl didn't make her less of a human being.
"So you think this woman"— David gestured at the mail—"might actually have had my child?"
"It's possible. That doesn't mean I'm saying it's probable."
"Ever since I read some of the letters, I've been trying to convince myself of that," David said. "That it's improbable, I mean. It's the possibility that has my guts tied in knots." In a rush, he told Ace about sending Daphne money. "My gut tells me I've never clapped eyes on this woman, Ace." He broke off and swallowed a lump of guilt. "But my conscience won't let it go. What if I did bed her? She could have been a fancy girl in one of the Denver saloons and mistook me for a gold miner. Back then, before you got the railway connection built, I drove my cattle to market, and I was as dirty as any nugget digger you ever saw when I reached town. How do you tell the difference between a miner and a cowpoke? By the boots they wear? It isn't like I talk a whole lot about myself when I toss a skirt. Fact is, I don't talk much at all, except to say nice stuff, leaving off before I tell a woman I love her." David felt like a ten-year-old again. "Even working girls like to hear nice stuff. Right?"
Ace nodded. "I raised you right. What you do with what I taught you is your business. If you choose to burn those letters, I won't hold it against you. I'm hard put to say I'd do differently. A woman and child, out of the blue? You have your life here in No Name. They aren't a part of it. I guess what I'm saying is, do what your heart tells you to do, David. If you can live with it, I sure as hell can."
David's headache suddenly eased. He pushed at the heap of letters, his fingertips sensitive to the rasp against grained paper. "I can't live with fathering a child and leaving her to eat scraps from garbage drums. If I was once with that woman— if I got her pregnant—" David broke off and released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "Well, if I did that, I have an obligation to the woman and the kid. Drunk or not when he makes a mistake, any man worth his salt takes responsibility for his actions. I can't burn the letters and just let it go."
"I'd feel the same. But let's not jump the gun. It's possible there's another man around Denver, or was a few years back, named David Paxton. I suggest you head up there and scour the area, not only Denver, but all the outlying mining communities, for any trace of a man of that name. If he exists, there should be some record, a signature when he checked into a hotel, a transaction in his name at the assayer's office if he was a miner, a bill at a dry-goods store, something. And if you find evidence that another David Paxton exists, it's my feeling that you have no obligation to hang your hat on this gal's hook."
"And if there is no evidence of another David Paxton?" David didn't know why he asked the question, because he already knew the answer, but for some reason, he needed to hear Ace say it. "Do I go find the woman? Will I know when I see the child if she's mine? Look at little Dory, damn it. Except for your black hair, she looks nothing like you. What does a man do in a situation like this?"
Ace shoved at the mail again, his dark face taut. "He does what his heart and conscience tell him to do. If you decide it's possible this child is your daughter, can you live with ignoring that fact?"
David shook his head. "I wouldn't have much respect for myself as a man."
"Then you need to hop the train to Denver. Do some checking. Hit the saloons, talk to people, see if anyone remembers this fellow."
"That'll take a spell, especially if I visit outlying towns," David mused. He glanced toward the cell block. "It's been pretty quiet around here lately, though. My deputies can handle everything if I'm gone for a few days, I reckon."
"It may take more than a few days if you find no evidence that another David Paxton ever stepped foot in Denver. In that event, you'll have to put your foreman in charge of your ranch and let your deputies do the marshaling while you make another trip."
David nodded grimly. If he could find no trace of another man with his name, he'd be taking quite a long trip to a tiny little town named Glory Ridge.
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