Here To Stay (Welcome to Lucky Break, Arizona!), page 1
Table of Contents
Mule Mountains, Arizona Territory
Visit the author...
HERE TO STAY
Copyright © 2013 by PATRICIA FORSYTHE
All Rights Reserved
Cover Design by Sweet 'N Spicy Designs: http://sweetnspicydesigns.com
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
HERE TO STAY
Mule Mountains, Arizona Territory
Demarcus Hill couldn’t decide which was uglier – his mule’s backside or his partner’s face. Right now, though, Frederick DeGrange’s ugly mug had a slight edge over the jackass, who was standing by, innocently swiping his tail back and forth, flicking away the flies. Old Fred, on the other hand, was yelling and waving his arms in the air while standing over a small pile of a white substance.
“That was the last of the flour. Why did you dump it out?”
Demarcus sighed and shook his head. He’d already explained this four times. “It had worms in it. We can’t eat worms.”
“We can if we get hungry enough! And we could’ve picked out the weevils. They’re weevils, not worms.” Frederick stomped away a few feet, then swung around and came back.
Demarcus stared at him in horror. “You would have expected me to touch the worms?” Since they had left Michigan and started out for this godforsaken country, he’d been subjected to one indignity piled upon another. The mere sight of the wriggling creatures in the flour sack had filled him with revulsion. His immediate reaction had been to dump them out and stomp on them. Unfortunately, that meant they no longer had anything to eat – which Frederick had been pointing out to him at some length.
“I never saw a man like you in my life,” Frederick shouted. “You’re the prissiest fool God ever inflicted on this earth. I never saw a man who’s afraid of weevils.”
“I’m not afraid of them. I simply choose not to eat them.”
“Or much of anything else that doesn’t come served on a gold plate!” Frederick grabbed his gun and stomped away. “I’ll go see if I can find something to shoot for our supper. I suggest you stay out of my line of sight. I might mistake you for something worthy of a bullet.”
Demarcus could apologize, but in his mind, Frederick owed him apologies – for lying to him about this mining expedition. The Hill family had put up the money for the two men to hunt for gold – or for silver at the very least – with Frederick’s promises of great wealth ringing in their ears. So far, Demarcus hadn’t seen so much as a flake of gold – but he had seen rattlesnakes, coyotes, and packs of something called javelinas that resembled vicious pigs – and blisters on his hands where they had never been before. Yesterday’s exertions over a promising-looking vein of rock had added a fresh layer of misery, and no gold to their pockets.
Now, on the advice of a couple of prospectors they’d met in Tucson, they had landed someplace where a few stubby trees grew and a miserable excuse for a stream trickled by the base of a cliff. It made for an ideal campsite, if one cared for camping out. Also, Demarcus feared, Apaches lurked just over the horizon.
The only thing that could be said for this place was that the weather was pleasant. The nights were cold, but the days were lovely and warm, much preferrable to early spring in Michigan.
Demarcus’ stomach gave a long, rumbling growl and he looked in dismay at the pile of flour he’d dumped out. They’d planned to have biscuits for breakfast, but even that was to be denied them.
“Maybe Old Fred’s right,” he muttered. “Maybe I coulda pulled out a few of those worms. I’ll have to figure out a way to make it up to him.”
Idly, his gaze lingered over the area, traveling up the cliff face to stop at the sight of a scrubby bush growing out of the rock about ten feet up. He wondered if any part of it might be edible, then his eyes widened as he spied a nest in its scrawny branches. A nest in springtime might mean eggs of some sort – though with his luck, they were probably the spawn of a man-eating buzzard that would swoop down and carry him off to pluck out his entrails.
He would have to chance it.
Squaring his shoulders, he began to march up to the base of the cliff, but his confident stride faltered. With a groan, he limped toward his goal since the heavy new boots he’d purchased in Michigan still weren’t broken in and had raised blisters on his delicate flesh. Reaching up, he snagged a handhold in a small crevice, then found a foothold, then another. Quite pleased with himself, he reached the bush without too much effort.
Extending his hand carefully toward the nest, he discovered it was empty. Disappointed, he grabbed a branch, only to have a sharp sliver drive into one of his fresh blisters. With a howl of pain, he jerked away and tumbled down the cliff, rocks careening after him.
When Demarcus landed, he felt a sharp snap in his upper arm, then passed out from the pain.
* * *
“Demarcus, Demarcus.” He came awake to the sound of his partner’s voice and the sting of open-handed slaps to his cheeks. Groggily, he opened his eyes to see Frederick kneeling over him. “You all right?”
“Don’t think so. Can’t move my arm.”
“Let me see.” Gingerly, he turned Demarcus onto his back and examined his upper arm. “It’s broken,” he said, sitting back and releasing a grunt of disappointment. “I can set it, but that’s the end of our prospecting.”
Demarcus didn’t see how that could be a bad thing. Visions of a real bed and clean sheets back in Tucson danced through his head, but he tried to sound sympathetic. “Sorry, old man.”
Looking up at the cliff face, Frederick asked, “What were you trying to . . . ? Well, I’ll be damned.”
“What?” Demarcus turned his head to see what his partner had spied.
Frederick lifted a shaking hand. “Look,” he said in a shocked whisper. “Gold.”
Sure enough, the spot where the scrawny bush had broken away left a gash between a couple of rocks and in it, they could see the faint flicker of the precious metal.
“You crazy jackass,” Frederick crowed. “You found gold!”
Overjoyed, Demarcus started to sit up, but fell back with a groan of pain. “Found a broken arm, too.”
“It was a lucky break, though. It’s gonna us rich.”
“Whatever you’re selling, we don’t want any,” the cowboy informed Billie Abbott.
He looked her up and down and she almost winced at the annoyance on his face, but she was busy making an assessment of her own. Dusty boots, dusty jeans, sweat-stained shirt, crease line around his forehead where his hat had rested until what must have been only moments ago. His dark hair hung in damp clumps over his forehead. He looked tired, thirsty, and hungry. Her fingers itched to grab her camera and begin snapping pictures right away. His gray eyes were distracted as he gave her a dismissive look and swung the door as if to shut it in her face.
Before the cowboy could say anything more, a crash sounded from behind him and he swung away in alarm, taking off at a loping run down the center hallway of the old-fashioned ranch house.
Billie stood indecisively for a second, then pushed the door the rest of the way open. She knew she was in the right place and she’d been invited, for goodness’ sake. Maybe the Van Peter family hadn’t been expecting her until this afternoon. She had been surprised, herself, that she’d been able to get away from Phoenix so early, and that the traffic had been so light. Of course, her excitement over her first big job had added lead to her foot and she had skirted the speed limit most of the way to Lucky Break.
Deciding to step inside and locate Mrs. Van Peter, Billie ventured down the hallway. A staircase led upstairs, probably to the bedrooms, and two doorways opened off the hall.
Looking to the right, she saw what once would have been a parlor. It had been turned into a comfortable living room with big, overstuffed leather furniture, and a widescreen television. On the other side of the hallway was a dining room with heavy mahogany table and chairs and an enormous sideboard. A swinging door on the far end of the sideboard indicated an entrance to the kitchen. Wainscoting, topped by a chair rail, rose halfway up the walls. No doubt, it had once been stained dark mahogany, but was now apple green. A cheerful, coordinating wallpaper featuring tiny flowers covered the remainder of the wall up to the ceiling. A squat yellow vase filled with tiny white roses sat in the middle of the table and next to it was a spur with a broken rowel. Billie smiled at the picture they made.
The tone of the room was casual and inviting. It appealed greatly to Billie’s artistic eye. She wondered how much photographing the Van Peters would allow her to do inside the house.
The place smelled clean, faintly of lemon polish, but with a desert breeze that blew in from the open back door at the end of the hall.
Curious, Billie followed the cowboy who had disappeared outside. He had slammed the door behind him but it hadn’t caught and had bounced open again. She cautiously eased the door open further and found herself on a large back porch that wrapped around the end of the house. The man stood, hands on hips, head thrust forward as he listened to a string of information from a woman who was leaning, head down, into the biggest chest-type freezer that Billie had ever seen. A rounded bottom and a pair of slim legs clad in jeans were all that could be seen. Sneakered feet dangled inches above the floor. A stack of empty clay flower pots had been kicked over and must have been the source of the crash they had heard.
“. . . spaghetti sauce somewhere in here,” the woman said, shoving containers and paper-wrapped meat packages around with loud thumping and bumping noises.
“Mom, I can manage to feed myself and the men for a week or so. I managed just fine on my own while you were gone to India. You need to get going.” He crouched down until his backside rested on his heels and began gathering up the broken pots. “Katie will be wondering what happened to you.”
“Oh, don’t be silly. She just gave birth to twins. She’s too busy thanking God it’s over to be worrying about me. I have to make sure you’ve got everything you need before I go.” The lady’s voice was muffled as she rummaged. The cowboy continued picking up the pieces of broken pottery and tossing them into a trash can he’d pulled close.
Billie knew she should announce herself. The man obviously thought she had left, but she had a hunch this was Cameron Van Peter and she wanted a minute to study him beforehand.
He looked good – wonderful, in fact. Her photographer’s eye took in the wide span of his shoulders, the width of his back, the easy way he settled on his haunches. She could imagine him crouching to help a wounded animal and hoped she would get the opportunity to photograph him in such a pose.
“Ah, there,” the lady said triumphantly, and launched herself backward from the depths of the freezer, a large plastic container of a dark, frozen substance held aloft. She landed on her feet and rocked unsteadily. Her son reached up with a solid hand on her spine to keep her from toppling over.
Billie was intrigued that the movement was so quick and sure as if he’d done it a million times before. The lady was tiny, barely five feet. Her head, with its hip, spiky blonde hairdo, didn’t even reach to the shoulder of her son, who must have been a couple of inches over six feet. She had gray eyes like his, but hers were lively and without the shadow of concern in his.
“Now, just thaw this out and warm it up in the microwave. Cook the spaghetti noodles al dente,” his mother was saying as she turned. “There’s plenty of pasta. I also saw some containers of chili in there and of course, all those steaks and chops that you can grill, and . . . oh, hello,” she said, blinking when she saw Billie. “Who are you?”
“I’m Billie Abbott.” Expectantly, Billie looked from one to the other of them.
The man frowned. “You just walked right in? I thought I told you we didn’t want to buy anything.”
“Well, that’s good,” Billie said, giving him a bright look. “Because I’m not selling anything.”
“Cam, don’t be rude.” His mother leaned back to look up and give him a disapproving frown. “I’m Doreen Van Peter, and this is my son, Cameron. Have you stopped by for a . . . visit?” Mrs. Van Peter asked, clearly puzzled.
“No, I’m from Abbott’s Photography?” She ended on a question, hoping the name would jog her memory.
Still, nothing seemed to register. Mrs. Van Peter smiled expectantly. Her son frowned. The three of them stared at each other. The world continued to turn on its axis.
Keeping her own smile in place, Billie tried again. “We spoke a few days ago? About the calendar shoot, and . . . .”
Finally it clicked in. Mrs. Van Peter rolled her eyes in consternation. “Of course! Oh, how silly of me. I can’t believe I forgot that, but my daughter just had twins, a couple of weeks early, in fact, and she needs me to come to Phoenix right away to help out. Everything else has completely slipped my mind.” Impulsively, she threw her arms around Billie, whacking her on the back with the container of frozen spaghetti sauce, and gave her a hug.
“Mom, you didn’t,” Cam groaned. “You’re not going to be on one of those stupid calendars the city council has cooked up, are you?”
“Of course not, dear. I’m much too busy.” She stopped at the clothes dryer, jerked the door open, and poked around for a minute, finally pulling out a pair of white slacks and several other items. She started back into the house, dropping socks as she went, hooking an armhole of a tank top on the doorknob. She kept walking until it stretched to its maximum and hauled her back. Never missing a beat, she stopped to unhook it, then knocked over a broom propped against the wall.
Cam scooped up the dropped items and the broom and set it upright again as he dogged her steps. “Well . . . good. I’m glad that you’re at least . . . .”
“What?” he demanded. “What are you talking about?”
Billie, fascinated by the interaction between the two of them, followed right along. Cam rocked to a stop in the doorway and Billie had to screech to a halt, bowing her body outward and shooting her arms wide to steady herself and keep from slamming into him. Cautiously, she backed away.
Doreen looked up at her tall son with an adoring smile. “Sweetheart, you’re so handsome, and you’re such a hero . . . .”
“Oh, for crying . . . . “ Frustrated, he ran a hand through his sweat-damp hair.
“Well, you are,” Doreen insisted. Standing on tiptoe, she peeked around him and craned her neck to give Billie a bright smile. “I told you, didn’t I, that he saved three of his fellow volunteer fire fighters?”
“Not singlehandedly,” he said grimly as if he’d repeated this so many times he was sick of it. “And it’s what we’re trained to do . . . .”
“But you did it so well, darling, and it’s been on the news all over t
“Her job?” Cam swung around and glared at Billie, who tried to appear competent, completely professional, knowledgeable, and sure of herself. Without her camera in her hands, though, she was afraid she might not pull it off.
“The city council has hired me to do the photography on some of the calendars.”
He looked her up and down once again. “You’re kidding.”
He sounded so disbelieving Billie had to grit her teeth to keep from saying something she would regret. She had made a vow that she wouldn’t knuckle under to bossy, overbearing men. She would hold her own and demand his respect.
Okay, maybe she didn’t look the part of a professional photographer. Maybe he thought photographers were odd little men who owned their own studios and took pictures of children dressed in their Sunday best, or snapped passport photos when business was slow. Her area of photography was completely different than this assignment but she knew she could do it. This job was vital for the survival of Abbott Photography, the business founded by her Aunt Portia who had fallen ill and couldn’t do this job.
Cameron Van Peter obviously found her lacking. Maybe it was her looks. She’d been told – and dismissed the suggestion – that she’d fit better in front of the camera than behind it. She was tall, five feet ten inches, with long, curly black hair that she fought to control, deep blue eyes, and full lips. She knew her looks were striking, but she had a pair of good-looking parents to thank for that. It wasn’t her doing. She found it ironic that she actually didn’t photograph well. Her face looked flat and unimpressive in photographs. She didn’t care though. Her passion was taking pictures, not being in them.
“I’m not kidding. The city council hired Abbott Photography to do this job,” she repeated. “And I will do it very well.” She didn’t feel the need to add that the city had actually hired her aunt.