Lonestar's Lady by Deborah Camp
by Deborah Camp
His name fit him perfectly. It fed every fantasy that Gussie Horton had conjured about Indians and forbidden love. His neighbors whispered that he was a murdering half-breed, which was true. But Gussie believed in second chances, and more importantly, her heart told her to believe in Max Lonestar.
Was she a fool to hitch her wagon to his star? Would he be her one true love or her final downfall?
Not much happened in Pear Orchard, Arkansas. So, when the little gal wearing a tattered, straw hat and dusty clothes scooted off the back of farmer Zeb Watson’s livestock wagon that overcast day in August 1881, folks noticed, and tongues wagged.
Dropping a faded carpetbag at her feet, Gussie Horton glanced around, taking stock of the town – which wasn’t much. Eight buildings on one side of the main thoroughfare and five on the other. Only three of them had a second story. All were nondescript, either made of weathered or white painted clapboard. When she spotted the Sundown Saloon, she issued a snort of contempt. No matter how small and insignificant, every town had a whiskey tavern. Towns could do without doctors, teachers, sheriffs, and even pastors, but God forbid that hairy legged, no-count men would have to travel more’n a few miles for some rotgut.
She brushed hay and trail dirt off her dark brown skirt and light brown and pink flowered blouse, then leaned over and rubbed a spot off the toe of one of her buttoned shoes. She knew she looked a sight, but could do little about it. That’s what became of a girl who rode in the back of hay and livestock wagons. No doubt, she smelled like chickens and goats. But that was the least of her concerns. She’d been wronged – left in Ft. Smith on her own – and she meant to give a certain gentleman a piece of her mind and insist that he honor his agreement with her or she would . . . she would . . . think of something hellacious to do to him. Straightening with resolve, her features gathered into a scowl of discontent, she examined the buildings’ façades. Her blue-eyed gaze latched onto a sign attached to one directly across the street. Black lettering on a white background, grim and stately.
Undertaker, Frank Albert
She picked up her satchel with a grunt and marched straight for the narrow building. Her shoes thumped dramatically on the two steps and boardwalk. A trio of men standing off to the right ogled her and made her pause. One of them captured her attention and her heart beat a little faster. The bold rawness of his dark gaze and the way his black hair feathered from under his hat like raven’s wings stymied her progress for a step or two.
She quirked an eyebrow and pulled her lips into a disapproving moue, which usually caused people to avert their gazes, but not him. He chuckled! Laughed at her! Puffing out a breath of irritation, she glared at him. She wanted to look down her nose at him, but it was impossible because he was too dang tall.
She opened the door and escaped into the undertaker’s office. It smelled so strongly of rubbing alcohol and almonds that her stomach clenched. She left the door open to allow in the outside air. A desk and chairs occupied a corner near the front window and wooden caskets of several sizes leaned against the walls. Crosses and photographs of tombstones were nailed here and there. About what one would expect in an undertaker’s establishment. A white cat strutted in from the back, greeting her by rubbing against her ankles and purring loudly. It was followed by a rail-thin man, who emerged from the shadows and appeared ghostly in his white shirt and long, white bibbed apron. His smile was practiced and oddly impersonal.
“Hello, madam. Frank Albert at your service.”
Hitching herself up to her full five feet four inches, Gussie held out her free hand, only then noticing that her calfskin glove was torn along the seam at the base of her thumb. Ah, well. Such was her life and her luck! “Pleased to meet you. I’m Miss Gussie Horton and I’m looking for Mr. Bob Babbitt.”
He held her hand briefly, but didn’t shake it. “He’s not here, but I’m sure that I can assist you.”
“I don’t think so. When do you expect him?”
“That’s difficult to say.” Suddenly, he couldn’t meet her eyes and preferred to study the uneven floorboards. “He . . . uh . . . that is.” He shifted from foot to foot. “Did you lose someone, Miss Horton?”
“No. I’m not here for that.” She didn’t like the peculiar way he was acting. Or maybe it was her. Could be that her curtness distressed him. Three days and nights of walking and riding in wagons and sleeping on the hard ground had worn her down to a nub. She could hardly even think straight, much less remember her manners. “I want to speak to Mr. Babbitt, please.”
“Are you a relative of his?”
“No . . . not yet.” She rubbed her torn glove against her skirt and wished she could rub the embarrassment off her face. “He sent for me. I’m his intended.”
“P-pardon?” His gaze bounced up to her face as her meaning registered. “Oh, dear. Is that so?” He coughed, covering his mouth with his loose fist for a moment. “He mentioned nothing about this to me. I thought he was courting one of the flower sisters . . .” He waved one of his pale hands and a chemical smell emanated from him. “That’s neither here nor there. Not my business.” His attempt at a laugh fell flat. “As I said, Mr. Babbitt isn’t here, Miss . . . Horton, is it?”
“That’s right. Where is he?”
He motioned toward the desk and chairs. “Would you like to sit down?”
“No, thank you. Mr. Babbitt was supposed to meet me at the train station in Ft. Smith three days ago and bring me here, but he didn’t show.” Something behind her drew the undertaker’s attention and she turned to find the tall man who had laughed at her filling the doorway. The dark-eyed stranger made no attempt to hide the fact that he was listening in on their conversation. His gaze swept over her in an assessing way that made Gussie glance down at her grass-smudged blouse and skirt. She figured he thought she looked a sight. And she did. She delivered a haughty “Hurruph!” before turning her back on him again. “Anyway, as you can see, I managed to get here on my own and it was no joy ride.”
“How did you make his acquaintance, if I may ask?” Mr. Albert probed.
Dagnabit! She didn’t want to answer that, but she reckoned she couldn’t slip out of the noose she’d placed around her own fool neck. “Through correspondence. I’m a letter bride, so we haven’t formally met, but we do have an agreement, which he’s already reneged on by not meeting me at the depot. From his letters, I believed him to be an honorable, respected member of this community.”
“Oh, dear,” the undertaker said again, which didn’t enlighten her or relieve her unease. He stroked his chin, obviously at a loss for words. His gaze skittered past her to the doorway again.
“Babbitt didn’t collect you because he’s in the Van Buren jail.”
Those words, spoken in a deep, soft voice that made her think of a marten’s fur, spun her around. She stared pointedly at the nosy stranger, deciding to get a better look at him since he was determined to butt into her business. Her heart did a little tumble.
He’d braced one arm up on the doorframe to pitch his lean body onto one hip in a lazy pose that was both insolent and wholly masculine. He stood over six feet and the width of his shoulders took up the space in the doorway. Long-legged and rangy, he was dressed in the clothes of a farmer – loose-fitting pants and shirt, suspenders, scuffed work boots, a blue bandana tied around his neck, and a wide-brimmed buckskin colored hat stuck on his head. Nothing fancy, but he sure wore them well. His rolled-up sleeves displayed powerful, deeply tanned forearms. The top two buttons of his shirt were undone, giving a glimpse of taut skin with a sprinkling of black hair.
“Jail?” That word stuck in her brain, buzzing there like an angry wasp, and bringing her back around to what he’d revealed. “Jail, you say? What for?”
He stuck a matchstick between his lips. “Drank too much and tore up a saloon. Got tossed into jail for it.” One corner of his mouth kicked up in a devilish grin. “I’m sure he would have met you at the train if he could have busted out of there. I know I would have.”
Her gaze tangled with his and Gussie had a hard time extracting hers. There was something about him – something daring and intense – that sparked rebellion and recklessness in her. And had he just paid her a compliment?
“He’s right, I’m afraid . . . about Babbitt, that is,” Mr. Albert added, when she sent him a startled look. “And I can’t say when Bob will be released. He must stay there until the judge is ready to hear the charges brought against him. That could take a week. Maybe longer.”
“Ain’t that just my luck,” she murmured to herself, kicking fitfully at her travel satchel. The cat moved farther away from her. Worry squirmed its way through her. “What in tarnation am I supposed to do now?”
“Oh, dear.” Mr. Albert wrung his hands. “There aren’t overnight accommodations here, but there are in Van Buren or Alma.”
She fought back her despair and kept her voice steady. “I can’t be spending what money I have left on a hotel room. I didn’t think I’d have to be paying for anything after getting to Ft. Smith.” At best, she had a couple of dollars in her coin purse. When she’d left her snoring pa in St. Louis, her intention had been to take more than a few dollars off him, but he’d lost almost everything the night before at the gaming tables. She’d stuck four dollars in her pocket, leaving Clem Horton the remaining three.
The frustration, anxiety, and humiliation she’d felt while walking along wagon trails, begging rides off passersby, sleeping under the stars, and being scared most every step she took bubbled to the surface and broke into a boil. Her throat tightened, and tears stung her nose and swam in her eyes. Galldarnit! She would not bawl in front of these two men! Sniffing and swiping at her eyes, she reined in her emotions, holding herself in check – just barely. “What is the nearest town with decent job prospects for a female?” Her voice held a trace of a quiver.
“Uh . . . that would be Van Buren, I suppose,” Mr. Albert said, watching her now with a trace of alarm. He looked past her to the eavesdropper. “Wouldn’t you agree, Lonestar?”
The name sang through her, the romance of it winding around her heart like a treasured verse. When she looked at him again she saw the slash of his cheekbones, the dusky brown of his skin, and the native nut-brown of his eyes. He was a half-breed!
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t say it’s a mecca for women seeking employment.” His lips – fuller than most men’s and beautifully sculpted – straightened into a line of reproof. The matchstick bobbed with each word he uttered. “Seems that Babbitt has left you in a pickle, Miss Horton.”
She twisted her hands together, giving another peek into her inner turmoil. “Yes, so it seems. Mr. Babbitt was drunk, you say? In a saloon?”
“That’s what I heard.” Lonestar looked at the undertaker. “You know any different?”
“No, that’s what happened,” Mr. Albert said. “I’ve warned him before that if he can’t hold his—.”
“Max?” A soft voice floated from outside, and the man blocking the doorway, pivoted to the woman who’d spoken.
“Suze, there you are.” He motioned toward Gussie. “This young lady came here to marry Bob Babbitt. He sent for her. A mail-order bride.”
“Oh?” The pretty, young woman peered in at Gussie and her lips rounded. “Oh!” She looked at Lonestar as if she’d solved a puzzle, then stepped inside, her eyes going wide.
Gussie stared back at the new interloper, not appreciating being inspected as if she were a two-headed calf at the county fair. Step right up, folks, and see the letter bride left jilted at the Ft. Smith train depot! She jutted her chin at a proud angle, refusing to be ashamed, although she was a mite. Well, more’n a mite.
“It’s an honest arrangement with no shame attached,” she said, knowing full well that she was trying to convince herself as much as anyone else in earshot. “I hired a marriage broker and my letter was posted in several area newspapers. Mr. Babbitt answered my request for a non-drinking, productive husband, and sent me a train ticket to Ft. Smith.” She dropped her gaze, disappointment and loathing battling inside her. Her intended had been arrested in a saloon – drunk as a skunk in clover! She dearly wished that marriage broker was standing here so she could demand her ten dollars back and then kick him in his man parts.
“Bob Babbitt sent for a wife? I can scarcely believe it.” The blond looked from Gussie to the half-breed called Lonestar.
Gussie regarded them, realizing that Lonestar must be her husband. For some reason, that didn’t set right with her, but she shoved aside the peculiar disappointment. “I was thinking that Mr. Babbitt might’ve had a bad accident and was laid up, but that’s not the case.”
“Why, you poor thing! You must be dead on your feet.” The woman’s voice was gentle, her expression one of sympathy.
Gussie rocked her weight from one foot to the other, feeling the weariness in her muscles and desperation weighing on her spirits. A thought occurred to her – a thought that did nothing to bolster her. “Bob Babbitt is your business partner, right?” she asked the undertaker.
“Partner? Oh, dear, no. I employ him when I need him to dig graves and carry the departed to the cemetery or to lift these bulky coffins. He also works at the dry goods store, toting things. loading wagons, and the like. Of course, he hasn’t done much of anything of late. Not since he got that money from his granddaddy’s estate.”
Well, ain’t that grand. She’d hitched herself to a pack mule. Hold up! She hadn’t gotten hitched yet, and from what she’d heard, she had no intention of uniting with Bob Babbitt when he finally showed his face again in Pear Orchard.
The blond gal and her husband engaged in a whispered conversation. The woman said one last thing to him that made him roll his eyes. She snatched the match out from between his lips and tucked it into his shirt pocket. Smiling, she addressed Gussie again.
“My name is Susan Karlsson. We think you should come home with us. You can stay at our farm until you sort this out.” She looked at the half-breed. “Isn’t that right, Max? We can make room for her with no problem at all.” She elbowed him in the side. “Tell her.”
He ran a hand along the back of his neck, his expression bordering on mutiny before he shrugged, letting the woman have her way. “Sure. Why not?” He leaned back against the door frame and gave Gussie the side-eye.
“How charitable of you, Mrs. Karlsson!” Frank Albert brought his hands together in a loud clap that made the cat hiss and scamper from the room. “I assure you, Miss Horton, you won’t find a finer, more respected family than the Karlssons. You’ll be quite safe there while you make the necessary arrangements to – well, do whatever you must do.”
The undertaker was obviously relieved to pass her off. Gussie peeled the delighted smile off his face with a scalding glare. “I’m not given to barging in on strangers. And I’m not anyone’s worry. I’ll take care of myself, thank you all the same.” She grabbed the handle of her carpetbag that held all her worldly belongings, hefted it, and marched toward the door, sliding past Lonestar or Max Karlsson or whatever he called himself. Her body brushed against him and her breasts bumped against his arm, sending tingles through her and warm color to her freckled cheeks.
“Miss Horton! Miss Horton!” Susan Karlsson dogged her heels and wrapped her hand around her wrist to waylay her. “Please, forgive me for being so forward, but my heart goes out to you. The courage it must have taken you to come here to marry Bob Babbitt, a stranger, and then find that he’s in jail and you’re stuck in Pear Orchard with no family or friends to help you!” She made a tsking sound. “I’d be worried sick, if I were you.”
The sincerity in her tone and the kindness of her smile interrupted Gussie’s flight. The woman had certainly described her situation, and hearing it said so succinctly made her reconsider her options. Which were grim. She could sleep under the stars again or take the Karlssons up on their generous offer of a bed and a roof. Her back ached and her muscles groaned as she imagined herself settling down on the ground tonight. Eyeing the gathering clouds above her, she figured a downpour would just be her luck.
Her quick start and stop had jostled her straw hat. It slipped sideways over one ear and she righted it with her free hand. She ought to just take the decrepit thing off and fling it into the street. Let the dirt have it.
Susan reached up and touched the ragged brim, her golden brows dipping over her blue eyes. “What happened to your bonnet?”
“A goat took a bite out of it.”
A deep chuckle whipped her around in time to see the half-breed’s grin before he ducked his head and angled away from her. Anger pumped through her. She wouldn’t go with them and continue to be a source for his amusement!
“Listen here,” she said, facing the woman again. “I’m grateful and all, but I’m not used to taking things from folks. I’ll handle my problems somehow—.”
“No, please!” Mrs. Karlsson tipped sideways so she could look past Gussie and send a narrow-eyed glare to her husband. “Pay him no mind. He didn’t mean to insult you. My conscience won’t allow me to leave you here without some provisions. Spend at least tonight in our home and we’ll see how things look in the morning.”
Gussie let go of a long breath, her resolve weakening. “If I do this, I insist on helping you around the place. Cleaning, washing clothes, whatever chores need to be done. I’m no stranger to hard work, and I’ll not stay more’n a day or two. I’ll figure something out.” She could feel Lonestar behind her. The heat of him warmed her back, and if she wasn’t wrong, the scent of soap and rainwater wafted off his skin.
Susan Karlsson patted her shoulder and smiled with relief, showing off the shallow dimples at the corners of her mouth. “Understood. Let’s load up. We came into town to pick up a few things and we should set off before the sun gets any lower.” She glanced at Gussie’s satchel. “Max, take her bag from her, won’t you, and place it in the wagon.”
He reached for the satchel and his fingers slipped over Gussie’s. The touch was so combustible and startling that Gussie released the satchel as if it had burst into flames. He almost dropped it, but caught the handle and jostled it, testing its weight.
“What’s in here besides an anvil?” He eyed her, up and down, up and down. “You’re stronger than you look.”
For a few moments, her thoughts were suspended like a hummingbird between blossoms. Every place on her body that his gaze had slid over felt aroused, alive, and yearning. She wanted to cross her arms and give herself a big, rapturous hug. Then her sensibility gave her a swift kick and she blinked, realizing that she was staring moony-eyed at him. She hastily retreated a few steps. Susan Karlsson was there, placing a hand on her arm, and bringing her back to earth.
“You can ride up front with me. Max, you sit in the back.”
“No need for that. You sit up there with your husband. I’m used to riding in the wagon bed.”
“My . . ?” Susan’s eyes widened, and she looked at Lonestar and laughed lightly. “Max isn’t my husband. He’s my brother. My husband is at home with our children and I know Erik’s about ready to tear his hair out.” She angled closer to Gussie and lowered her voice. “He’s a wonderful father, but he doesn’t do well with them on his own. They run circles around him.”
Her brother. Susan guided her to a red wagon hitched to a pair of dapple gray geldings. The black and gold painted wheels gleamed and the metal on the harnesses was as shiny as new coins. Bushel baskets loaded with flour, sugar, and feed sacks, as well as apples and peaches, sat along one side of the wagon bed. A tall stack of lumber and a keg of nails took up most of the other side, leaving little room for anyone – especially an anyone with long legs and a wide torso.
“He won’t be comfortable. There’s not much space back there,” Gussie noted.
“Don’t be silly,” Susan admonished. “Help her up onto the seat, Max. My gracious, what is wrong with you? Mama taught you better manners.”
He was at her side in one long stride.
“You’re her brother.” The words slipped out before Gussie could stop them. He nodded solemnly as he gripped her elbows, but his gaze slipped down to her lips as if drawn there like a bee to nectar. In the next moment, she was lifted – lifted right off the ground as if she had grown wings! A squeak escaped her, but in her startled state, her feet somehow found purchase and her hands grasped the side rail. Her backside landed on the padded seat and she bounced. Gasping, she stared down into Max Lonestar’s handsome face. His brown eyes sparkled with mischief and he was having a devil of a time trying not to laugh at her again.
“Half-brother,” he informed her and then looked past her to his sister, sending her a wink. He placed a boot on the front wheel, gave a little hop, and swung up and into the back of the wagon, lithe as a mountain cat.
Yes, Gussie thought. He did smell as clean as rainwater and lye soap.
Squeezing his masculine frame into the space in the middle of the bed, he settled against the tailgate so that he faced the two women in the front, and stretched out his legs.
Gussie realized that she’d turned halfway around in the seat to watch him. She chided herself and faced front. He fascinated her. Probably because he was part Indian. She’d read many stories about Indian tribes. Or maybe it was the liquid way he moved, the rough velvet of his voice, or his unflinching, unapologetic regard.
Half-brother. That meant that he and Susan had either the same mother or father. Had to have been his father who was an Indian. Lonestar. Gussie looked at the woman seated beside her who had taken up the reins. Her imagination sparked with the notion of Susan’s mother sporting with a savage in a loin cloth and headdress! Had she lived in a tipi with him? What had happened to Lonestar’s father? Had he been killed in an Indian massacre, cut down by an equally savage white man?
Susan caught her staring. Gussie focused on the bobbing heads of the horses and searched for something safe to say. “How many children do you have?”
“Only two. So far.” Susan’s bright smile put her at ease. “Brigit is four and Elias is two.”
Gussie nodded, running out of questions about her. However, she had a dozen more about her half-brother.
“Our farm isn’t far. Three miles west of Pear Orchard. It has belonged to our family – on my father’s side – for three generations.”
“Oh. That’s nice. Do your parents still live there?”
“No. My father passed on a decade ago and we lost Mama almost two years ago.” She heaved a sigh. “Doesn’t seem like she’s been gone that long . . .” Shrugging, she placed a smile back on her rosy lips. “We’ve been cotton farmers, mostly, but we’re branching out.”
“Sounds like a good piece of land,” Gussie said, although she knew little or nothing about what made land good or bad. She and her pa had traveled from town to town. They’d never had much of anything except what Pa needed for his work and a few pieces of clothing. Lonestar hadn’t been far off with his quip about her toting around an anvil in her carpetbag. Her pa’s trade was blacksmithing.
“We’re happy with it.” Susan flicked the reins. “Pick up your pace there, Lewis and Clark. So, do tell how you and Bob Babbitt selected each other.”
Gussie fidgeted with the loose threads along the tear on her glove, telling herself not to be ashamed. Not every woman could find a suitable husband without resorting to drastic measures. “My letter was published in newspaper matrimony columns. Mr. Babbitt’s was the first missive I received from willing suitors. I liked that he had a business and was a landowner.” She huffed out a sigh. “But it appears that he’s a big liar. I put in my letter that I would not tolerate or consider any man who drinks liquor.”
“Bob isn’t a bad man,” Susan said, drawing out the words as if she didn’t really believe them. “But I’m certain that you can do better for yourself. Even right here around Pear Orchard.”
Gussie regarded Susan’s confident smile. What was she up to? Something was afoot that Gussie hadn’t quite caught onto yet. “There are a lot of eligible men in these parts?”
“There are a few.” She glanced behind her. “My brother, for one. He isn’t married. Yet.”
“Suze . . .” The man spoke, his tone a growling warning to his sister.
Susan laughed lightly. “Hush up back there, you! We’re having us some girl talk up here.” She rocked her shoulder against Gussie’s. “Max has turned more than a few feminine heads. He’s quite good looking, I think.”
“Is he a whiskey drinker?”
Susan’s expression became as somber as a Bible-thumpin’ preacher man’s on Sunday morning. “No. Absolutely not.”
Gussie felt her brows lift with surprise and delight. He was as tempting as sin and he didn’t drink! What were the odds of that? Should she even believe it? So far, everything Bob Babbitt had written to her had been lies. Why should it be any different with Susan and her half-brother?
“I do believe we might have a remedy for your dilemma,” Susan said, her tone chipper.
“What’s that?” Gussie’s hackles rose, her sixth sense telling her that she should be on guard.
“We’ll explain it all when we get to the farm.” She turned her happy smile on Gussie again. “Bob Babbitt being in jail could be most fortunate for you, Miss Horton.”
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