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Valentine angel, p.2

Valentine Angel, page 2

 

Valentine Angel
 


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  “Hurts,” he mumbled.

  “I’m sure,” returned Mary sympathetically. “We tended to the bullets, but you will still need a doctor—”

  Just then, another woman moved into view. She sighed as she drew close. “Thank God,” she said, “he’s awake.”

  The first woman—Mary—smiled. “Yes, and he’s coherent. But one of us will need to go and fetch Dr. Whiting, sooner than later, I fear.”

  “Well,” responded the second woman, “when Samuel arrives, he will know what to do. He has to get here soon,” she added. She was clearly distressed. And though she was undeniably lovely—this second young woman—it was Mary who intrigued him. He turned back to her and tried to sit up again, feeling as if he didn’t move soon he’d be stuck forever. “Up,” he muttered.

  “Okay,” she said, nodding. “Let’s see if we can’t get you up and then moving. I do believe that’s what must come next—” Her words trailed off as she slipped one arm under his.

  He bit his lip against the radiating pain. But he had to move. He had to get up. He had to get back on his horse, and he had to—

  “Agh!”

  Mary gasped. “I am so sorry!”

  “Okay,” he whispered. “Okay.”

  She smiled in relief and gently helped him move his legs around as the second woman held him steady by the shoulders.

  Finally sitting up, he leaned back against the wall, fighting the pain in his shoulder.

  Mary knelt beside him, her hands on the edge of the cot. “We are not nurses, but my sister and I will do what we can.” She turned. “This is Sarah. And you are Jake—what?” she asked, her dark eyebrows raised, her eyes bright in the dull light.

  “Jake—Morris,” he whispered, suddenly wishing he could touch Mary’s sweet face. Illuminated by the hint of light coming in from the kitchen, she appeared almost—angelic…

  Mary continued, “You’re a deputy?” She glanced down at the badge still pinned to his vest, which lay on the floor beside him. Obviously she’d removed it when she doctored his wounds. He’d already noticed that there was very little left of his chambray shirt and jeans.

  “Sheriff. Crook County.”

  Mary nodded. “Well, Sheriff, can you tell us what happened? Do you remember anything? We found you in our woodshed.”

  Jake studied Mary’s face as he tried to recall the details of the last few days. The memory was fuzzy. “Gunfight. Then I fell, off a ridge. Into a rocky streambed.” He closed his eyes as he continued to recover the memories. “Rainstorm. On foot.” He opened his eyes. “That’s all,” he said. “I don’t remember the woodshed.”

  Mary’s face narrowed into a dark frown. “Okay.”

  Sarah, standing in the doorway, asked, “Was it Billy—? He’s the outlaw? On your wanted poster?”

  Jake nodded. “Yes. Billy Sykes,” he said, remembering. “I tracked him. Found him.”

  “But did you kill him?” asked Mary. “You and he—you had a gunfight. He hit you, but did you hit him?”

  Suddenly, Jake understood the question. These women could be in danger—because of him. “Don’t know,” he said. “Don’t know.”

  Damn, if only he could remember what happened next.

  ****

  The day passed slowly, Sarah sitting in the parlor waiting for Samuel, Mary in and out of Jake’s room while tending the roast that Sarah had all but forgotten.

  As the sun set, the girls ate supper in silence.

  Later, Mary stood on the front porch, inhaling the cool damp air. The storm had finally passed. Perhaps Samuel would come now, she thought, frowning. And if not, how would they get word to the doctor? She couldn’t leave Sarah alone—

  Sarah had not said a word, but Mary knew her sister was fretting over Samuel’s late arrival. She’d fallen so madly in love with him, she appeared to move as if in a dream most of the time. Mary couldn’t wait until the two were finally married.

  Of course, having never fallen in love, she knew she lacked the proper understanding of the aching need her sister obviously felt for Sam. Life had been too full of obligations, and she’d decided to forego the luxury of falling for some cowboy or no-account. And now—well, it was probably too late for her.

  Not that Samuel was a no-account. He was a well-respected captain, newly discharged from the army with a promising career in banking.

  He had been on his way home after his discharge a year-and-a-half ago when he was introduced to Sarah and Mary at Mill Creek’s Harvest celebration, only four months before Papa’s terrible fall. Mr. Lipkowitz had introduced them, adding that Samuel was in line for a job at his bank.

  Sarah’s voice startled her. “There’s no point in sitting up any longer tonight, Mary. I don’t think he’ll be coming now.”

  She smiled. “I was just remembering Papa. It seems he’s been gone for so much longer than a year.”

  Sarah agreed. “It feels like ages. And every time I think that he won’t be here for my wedding, it feels like we’ve lost him all over again.”

  Mary nodded and sighed as she closed the door and locked it. She was still worried about the possibility that Billy Sykes might be on the hunt for Jake Morris. If he could track him here…

  The thought sent a chill down her spine. If only Samuel would arrive, she’d feel much safer, for certainly the sheriff was in no shape to defend them.

  ****

  Mary got up from the chair where she’d fallen asleep and stretched. It was morning, but a far cry from daybreak. Jake Morris had slept restlessly earlier on, but he appeared to be resting comfortably now.

  A relief, to be sure, thought Mary, still praying she’d not be the one responsible for his dying.

  She picked up her shawl, which had fallen to the floor, and wrapped it around her shoulders. She entered the kitchen. Sarah was seated at the kitchen table, a cup of strong coffee on the table beside her. “You’re up early,” she said.

  Sarah shrugged. “I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking that Samuel should arrive and then I wondered if maybe something might have happened to him.”

  “Oh, I’m sure he’s gotten side-tracked is all. After all, he’s leaving the army and with this new job, maybe he had other matters to take care of before he could devote his time to you.” She smiled.

  “You’re probably right. I guess this whole Mr. Morris thing has me nervous. I mean, we know that this Sykes fellow might still be out there somewhere, right?”

  Mary nodded as she removed a cup from the sideboard and poured herself some coffee. “But we are taking precautions, and chances are he won’t come here. He’s going to be looking in all the obvious places.”

  “I’m just being a ninny, I guess.”

  “No, you’re a woman in love. Dangerous condition, I’m thinking…can’t keep your mind on anything but that handsome man of yours.”

  They both laughed.

  It felt good to laugh, thought Mary. It’d been a tense twenty-four hours. She glanced at the box of firewood that sat by the door. “We’re going to need more kindling before long,” she said, setting her empty cup on the table.

  Sarah jumped to her feet. “Let me get it this time. You’ve been doing the lion’s share of work.”

  Mary nodded. “Thanks. I’ll check in on our friend, maybe make up a plate of cold roast and potatoes. He must be getting hungry. The bit of broth I gave him last evening won’t hold him for too long.”

  Sarah removed Papa’s old wool coat from the coat hook near the front door. She and Mary often used it when they were heading out into the cold. She turned to Mary who had followed her into the parlor. “Lock the door behind me,” she said to Mary, “and I’ll come through the back door. No sense in leaving ourselves open to intruders, right?”

  “True,” said Mary, following her to the door. She locked it and watched through the front window as Sarah headed round to the woodshed. Hopefully there was little to fret over, but they would have to keep their eyes open.

  She headed into the kitchen
and prepared a plate of food for Mr. Morris. He probably wouldn’t eat much, so she sliced only a few thin slices of meat off the roast then spooned up some cold mashed potatoes.

  She carried the plate and spoon into Papa’s room. It really was a sorry space, she thought, wishing they’d have realized it before he’d passed on. He’d insisted on using it, saying that he had no need of more space, that his work kept him outside all day and he only needed somewhere to sleep. The girls shared the larger bedroom upstairs that had once been their parents’ room, with its oversized armoire and Mama’s favorite rocker, while the smaller second room had been transformed into Sarah’s sewing room. The reworked kitchen provided Mary ample space for cooking.

  Mary sighed. The house seemed so empty without Papa. He had been their salt and their light, she thought, recalling the expression he’d always used to describe Mama. But for the girls, Mama had been gone so long it was hard to remember much about her. She had died in childbirth—along with the tiny brother they’d planned to call Davis, after Mama’s papa. They buried Mama and Davis together, in the same grave down by the creek. It was Mary’s secret haven and she often went there when she was heavy-hearted.

  After Mama’s passing, it was just the three of them. Papa worked the farm and Mary assisted while keeping up the house, and Sarah spent hours with needle and fabric, designing and stitching dresses for a number of ladies in town. Her eye for color and detail made her famous throughout the region.

  ****

  Mary sat down beside Jake who was still asleep. He was hopefully out of the woods.

  He stirred and Mary smiled. “You’ve been asleep for hours,” she said.

  “I’m sorry—”

  “No, not at all,” returned Mary. “You needed rest. You have been through a terrible ordeal. We’re just relieved that the worst is over.”

  He smiled, his eyes flashing their own secret smile, and Mary blushed. She was not accustomed to having a good-looking man take notice of her. She held the plate out and mumbled, “Food?”

  He nodded. “Yes, please.”

  She handed him the spoon and set the plate on the milking stool. She adjusted her skirts and sat back, watching him devour the potatoes.

  “Hungrier than I realized,” he said, and picked up a slice of beef with his fingers.

  She immediately noticed his hands; they were calloused, a reminder of the hours he spent out in the weather and elements. She inclined her head. “We have plenty,” she said.

  They sat amiably for several minutes. Finally, he spoke. “Tell me about yourself.”

  She looked up, startled. “Uh, there’s not much to tell.”

  He shook his head. “Tell me. I want to know all about you.”

  Mary inhaled as she folded her hands together. “Uh, well, my sister and I live here. Papa passed away last year after a bad fall. He was repairing the shingles on the roof and slipped. We told him it could wait till spring, but he was stubborn.” She swallowed. “That left just Sarah and me. Our mother passed on when I was four years old and Sarah was two.”

  Jake had put the spoon down and watched her closely. “No husband?”

  “No husband,” she said and plumped her skirt’s folds. She didn’t have to explain anything to him, she decided.

  “You’re farmers?” he asked, nonplussed.

  “We have a small farm here,” continued Mary, “but we lease most of it to Homer Spier. He’s our neighbor.” She didn’t add that she didn’t trust Homer, that the man was devious and she’d begun to wonder if he weren’t after more than the two hundred acres he’d leased. He had already managed to weasel them out of their buggy after their buggy mare died. The fiend had convinced Sarah that it was in such disrepair after years of neglect that to fix it would be more costly than it was worth, and while she was in town meeting with Mr. Lipkowitz at the bank, he talked Sarah into selling him the rig for a pittance.

  Mary still regretted the bitter retort she’d unleashed on Sarah later that day. It had been too late to change the facts, and Sarah was horribly undone by Mary’s harsh words. Of course, in the end, she apologized for her outburst. Sarah had only done what she thought was best as they were trying to collect enough money to pay on the mortgage.

  “You farm?” asked Jake after another brief silence.

  Mary nodded. “I do what I can. Papa taught me a lot, but it’s looking more and more like Sarah and I will have to sell the place. She’s getting married right away and it’d be too much for just one person. Besides, we owe the bank a lot of money.”

  She turned away then, realizing she’d revealed far more than she should. This man, albeit a sheriff, was a stranger. She stood up, picking up the spoon and empty plate. “May I get you anything else?”

  He shook his head. “A new leg?” he quipped.

  She sighed. “Is it paining you considerably?”

  He shrugged. “Not considerably, but enough to know that I won’t be able to sit a horse for any length of time.”

  “Well, you are without a horse, Mr. Morris, so I daresay you won’t be riding anytime soon at any rate, and our only mare died two months ago and we have not yet replaced her. However, I do believe the blacksmith has a string of horses for sale. Don’t know what kind of mounts they will make. We were going to talk with him ourselves, when we could afford to look at one.”

  “Is there any way to get word to him?” asked Jake. “Ask him about his best animal?”

  “Certainly. But until you see the doctor, you really shouldn’t ride at all.”

  “So the doctor will be my first destination. But I think I may need some clothes before then,” he added, with the hint of a smile. He rubbed a hand across his chin.

  Mary blushed. “Yes, well, there was no helping my stripping away your pants or shirt, Mr. Morris. But I can replace them with some of Papa’s.”

  Jake smiled. “I’m not complaining, Mary. May I call you Mary?”

  “Uh, yes, I suppose so.”

  “Then call me Jake. Mr. Morris sounds quite formal, and I think we’ve gone past being strangers.”

  Mary stammered, unused to calling any man by his first name—except for those she’d known a long time. She’d only just started calling Samuel by his first name after he told her a sister shouldn’t call her brother Mr. Williams. “Well, then, Mr.—Jake—I will see what we have of Papa’s that might fit you. He wasn’t as tall as you are, but they should work, at least until you can get yourself something better. Anything else?”

  He seemed to hesitate.

  “Yes?” she asked.

  He raised an eyebrow. “I haven’t been able to reach the chamber pot. It seems to be just out of my reach?”

  Mary caught her breath. “Oh, Mr. Morris—Jake—I’m so sorry!” Feeling her cheeks burn with embarrassment, she wasn’t sure what to do—whether to run out of the room or get down on her knees and rummage around for Papa’s old cracked pot. She blurted, “I am—”

  “Please, Mary, I wouldn’t have said anything, but—”

  She dropped to her knees, unable to say more, and scrambled around until she found the chipped pot shoved into the corner of the room under Papa’s cot. She dragged it out and, sitting back, looked up into Jake’s smiling face. For a moment she relaxed, but then felt a wave of terror. “Do you—will you—need help?”

  He chuckled. “No, I can manage, if you just leave it right there.” He chuckled again. “I’m sorry for having to ask.”

  “I just never thought,” she mumbled.

  He laughed. “Thank you, Mary.”

  ****

  Jake watched Mary leave the small room. Even though he’d undoubtedly embarrassed her, she’d regained her composure and moved now with deliberate steps, not like most women, he mused, who seem to sway from side to side. Mary’s step exuded a particular confidence, and he liked it. She was a woman who knew her own mind, no doubt about it, although he knew he’d unnerved her when he asked her to call him by his given name.

  He smiled to him
self as he got to his feet. Immediately, he felt a piercing pain shoot through his leg, and he nearly lost his balance. He waited for the pain to subside before taking a small step forward. After relieving himself, he took three steps and grabbed hold of the doorframe separating his room from the kitchen.

  By the time he reached the kitchen, Mary had returned with an armload of folded clothes. “Mr. Morris—I mean Jake—sit down before you fall down!” She let her gaze move up and down his battered body, but she did not flinch at his near nakedness.

  He reached for the chair nearest him. He tried to smile, but he suspected this astute woman could see clear through him. It gave him an odd sense of comfort, as if their relationship was far more intimate than one would perceive from the outside.

  He glanced down at his ragged pants and shirt and chuckled. “Not to worry, Mary. I won’t be going anywhere beyond these walls for another day or two. I do apologize for the inconvenience my presence has created.”

  Mary placed the clothes on the table. “It’s not an inconvenience. I would hope that if any of my family were facing the same kind of predicament someone would be there to help them.”

  He inclined his head. “Yes, absolutely. Still, it’s not as if I’m going to be much help until I get this leg working.”

  Mary looked up at him, her dark brows drawn into a serious frown. She was a handsome woman—perhaps not in the traditional way a man might think a woman beautiful—but a truly attractive woman, nonetheless. She was well endowed, he noted, and her hands were strong, though slender and shapely.

  He felt a rush of unaccustomed heat as he wondered what lay beneath the heavy folds of her modest dress.

  She cleared her throat. “I repeat, Mr. Morris—I mean Jake—you better sit down before you fall down.”

  He carefully negotiated the distance between the chair and the table. “I’ve never been this laid up before,” he said. “Makes a man pretty humble.”

  She sighed audibly. “Funny, Papa said the same thing the week he lay in bed after his fall.” She slid the clothes over to him. “Here are two pairs of pants and a woolen shirt Papa hardly wore. They may fit you a little snugly, but Sarah—my sister—is an excellent seamstress and can remake them for you.”

 
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