“Because...” Oh, the hell with it. “Come on, son, let’s go to town.”
The trip into Smoke River was one Cord wouldn’t soon forget. Daniel asked so many questions Cord’s throat got dry answering them. And one of them brought him up short.
“You ever been in jail, mister?”
Cord hesitated. “Yeah. A long time ago.”
“For...” He swallowed. “For being on the wrong side.” For getting shot in the leg in the field and then captured because he couldn’t run. It wasn’t something a young boy needed to know.
And the rest of it, spending eight years in a Missouri prison, he didn’t want anyone to know, especially Eleanor Malloy. He was trying like hell to put that behind him, to stop drifting and find some purpose in life, but it was rough. Everywhere he went people wanted to know things about him. That was one reason he decided to go to California, so he could start over.
He clenched his jaw. If he had his life to live over, he wouldn’t even carry a gun.
Smoke River’s main street looked like a hundred small towns in the West except that it was clean and the stores looked spruced up and well-painted. Ness’s mercantile, between the barber shop and the feed store, stood out like a sore thumb with a shiny coat of pink paint. Pink? What next?
Inside, the proprietor lounged behind the counter, bent over a newspaper. Cord read the upside-down headline.
MONTANA GOLD RUSH!
Suddenly the man looked up and scowled at him. “Need some help, mister?”
Daniel disappeared down an aisle lined with men’s hats on one side and boots on the other. “Yeah,” Cord said. “I need coffee, flour, salt and a bag of chicken mash. And some lemon drops,” he added quietly.
“You new in town? I’m the owner here. Name’s Carl Ness.”
“Cordell Winterman. I’m working for Mrs. Malloy a couple of miles out of town.”
The man’s shaggy eyebrows shot up. “Eleanor Malloy?”
“Something surprising about that?”
“Heck yes. Miss Eleanor, she, uh, she usually has her supplies delivered by one of the young men around town. Matter of fact, they have fistfights over who gets to do it. Leastways they did ’til Sheriff Rivera put a stop to it. You puttin’ these purchases on Miss Eleanor’s account?”
Cord nodded. When Carl Ness studied him a mite too long, he couldn’t resist.
“Pretty shade of pink on your storefront.”
Ness’s face turned the same shade. “Blame my daughter Edith for that.” He gestured one aisle over, where two young women stood examining bolts of cloth. “Wants to be an artist, she says. Didn’t know what she’d done to the store ’til one morning all my customers came in laughing.”
“Women can be unpredictable, all right,” Cord allowed.
One of the young women looked up from a bolt of gingham and studied Cord for a moment. Quickly she detached herself from her companion and scooted up the aisle toward him. She was extremely pretty, with blond ringlets that bounced at every step and a yellow ruffle-encrusted dress.
“Ooh, Mr. Ness,” she cooed. “Edith’s been telling me all about...” She gave Cord a flirty look. “Um...all about... Well, aren’t y’all going to introduce me to this handsome stranger?”
The proprietor rolled his eyes. “Fanny Moreland, Cordell Winterman. There, now you’re introduced!” He went back to his newspaper.
Miss Moreland giggled and sent Cord a dazzling smile. “Well, hello there! Fanny is short for Euphemia. Ah’m so very happy to meet you!” She slid her hand into his in a handshake of sorts. “Ah find this county is woefully short of good-looking gentlemen.”
Cord resisted an impulse to roll his eyes back at the proprietor. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Moreland.” He disengaged his imprisoned hand. “Now I—”
“Oh, please, you must call me Fanny.”
“And ah may call you—?”
“Like the man said, my name’s Cordell Winterman. Now, I—”
“Oh, surely you’re not leavin’ already?”
The mercantile owner made a choking sound.
“Yep,” Cord said. “I sure am.” He stuffed a bag of lemon drops and one of caramels in his shirt pocket, hoisted the flour sack onto one shoulder and called out to Daniel. “Think you can wrestle that bag of coffee out to the wagon?”
“Yessir.” The boy grinned, waved goodbye to the girl at Cord’s elbow and bolted out the door. Cord followed him.
The owner came out with the bag of chicken mash over his shoulder, plopped it into the wagon bed and gave Cord a grin. “Kinda entertaining morning, I guess.”
“Not too much, no,” Cord replied.
Carl Ness chuckled all the way back into the mercantile.
The next stop was the feed store, and then the sawmill, where once again Cord managed to raise the owner’s eyebrows. “Eleanor Malloy? Say, mister, you know I could have all this delivered.”
“Nope. I brought a wagon.”
“Miss Eleanor know about this?”
“Yeah, she does. It’s her wagon.”
On the way back to the farm, he fed Daniel caramels and plied him with questions. “How come your mama has all her deliveries made by somebody else? Didn’t your previous hired man bring the wagon into town?”
“Nah. Isaiah was too old to drive it. Besides, people like helpin’ Ma out.”
“Men, you mean?”
“Yeah. Lots of ’em, ever since I was little. Even Sandy, the sheriff’s deputy. The only one who doesn’t bring her stuff is Doc.”
That brought Cord’s own eyebrows up a notch. “Your ma’s been real ill, huh?”
“Yeah. She had pneumonia for a long time. She was real sick. I had to learn how to milk Bessie, and Molly and I cooked all the meals and took supper up to Ma every night.”
“Is she well now? She looks kinda pale.”
“Doc says she’ll be fine, but she’s gonna be weak an’ tired for a real long time. I’m sure glad you’re here, Mr. Winterman. I can’t hardly chop enough wood by myself.”
“How old are you, Daniel?”
“Nine. Molly’s just seven, and Ma won’t let her touch the ax, so I have to do it all by myself.”
The oddest sensation crawled into Cord’s chest. Here he was, out here on the Oregon frontier with no home and no money, trying to stay alive on an apple farm with not one thing that was working right. God had some sense of humor.
“You gonna stay with us, mister?”
“Yeah, I think so. For a while, anyway.” The warm feeling in his chest got bigger. Somebody needed him. Or at least needed his help. It made him feel...wanted. Worthwhile.
* * *
Eleanor glanced up as the wagon rumbled into the yard, a new screen door riding on top of a load of lumber. Oh, my heavens, she couldn’t afford all this, not even after the fall apple harvest came in and she had money in the bank. Her hired hand must have intimidated Ike Bruhn at the sawmill. Which wasn’t surprising, she thought as she watched him set the brake and climb down from the bench. Her hired man was tall and muscular; Ike Bruhn had been over-plump for years.
Mr. Winterman headed for the house with a bag of something—flour? Coffee beans?—over one shoulder. Daniel struggled to keep up with those