Mail order man, p.1

Mail-Order Man, page 1

 

Mail-Order Man
 



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Mail-Order Man


  A FINE AND DECENT MAN

  “We’ve still got a horse.”

  “Monroe is on his last legs.”

  “He’s better than nothing.”

  “Always the optimist, that’s my daughter and best friend.” They were best friends, and had been for a decade before Skylla’s uncle had married Claudine in 1860. Best friends, mother and daughter, business partners, inept frontierswomen—their bonds were strong.

  Claudine took Skylla’s hand. “Daisy,” she said, using the pet name she’d bestowed upon her at their first meeting, “Let’s sit for a spell. There’s something I need to tell you.”

  The two women made their way to a picnic table under the spreading oak near the house. Seated, Skylla took off her bonnet to brush a wayward lock of dark hair off her face. “What’s wrong, Claudi?”

  “I’ve done something. You may not approve.”

  “Go on.”

  “We need help with this awful ranch.”

  “Please don’t say awful. The Nickel Dime is our only hope.” Skylla had inherited the place upon her uncle’s death. Never again would she, or her kin, be homeless. “This ranch is our promise for the future.”

  “It could be. With the proper help.”

  “Uncle’s cowboys will return to help us,” Skylla said, ever hopeful.

  “A pipe dream,” Claudine said as she poured a snifter of whiskey and set the glass down with deliberate purpose. “I’ve come to the conclusion that a woman in Texas, even if she scrapes the bottom of a barrel, can’t come up with a fine and decent man.”

  “Unless she can tame an Indian brave,” Skylla joked.

  “Forget Indians.” Claudine fiddled with the neckline of her faded gingham dress. “I have a plan to solve our dilemma. I’ve sent for a mail-order husband.”

  Mail-order husband?

  MARTHA HIX

  MAIL-ORDER MAN

  ZEBRA BOOKS

  KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.

  All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.

  Table of Contents

  A FINE AND DECENT MAN

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Acknowledgements

  One

  Two

  Three

  Four

  Five

  Six

  Seven

  Eight

  Nine

  Ten

  Eleven

  Twelve

  Thirteen

  Fourteen

  Fifteen

  Sixteen

  Seventeen

  Eighteen

  Nineteen

  Twenty

  Twenty-one

  Twenty-two

  Twenty-three

  Twenty-four

  Twenty-five

  Twenty-six

  Twenty-seven

  Twenty-eight

  Twenty-nine

  Epilogue

  Author’s Note

  Copyright Page

  Jack and Leslie Bird,

  for making Mother happy and proud,

  this one’s for you.

  Special thanks to

  Gary L. Willmann, D.V.M, & his wife Ann

  for a decade of giving so much

  to the four-legged & two-legged Hixes

  and . . . special thanks to Sharon & Chris

  for helping out while Mama played in Corsica

  and . . . more special thanks to

  René & Eileen Boulogne

  because you are good times and all the fun.

  One

  U.S. Army stockade, Vicksburg

  July 4, 1865

  “We’re in luck.”

  That would be a switch. Braxton Hale, prone in his hammock, scowled between bars at the swaggering, footloose youth who shared the Hale surname. Brax centered on an issue more important than that vague announcement of good fortune. “Where the hell have you been? It’s been three days since I’ve seen the whites of your eyes. Dammit, boy, I figured you got knocked in the head. Or thrown in the Mississippi.”

  Geoff tucked a periodical beneath his armpit, the frays of his sleeve fanning the newsprint. “That guard you cheated in three-card monte wouldn’t let me in.”

  “Why am I not surprised?”

  For a swig of lunch Brax picked up a bottle of whiskey that he’d swindled from the captain of the guards. Something brown and ugly skittered over the lip. Brax muttered a curse, then flicked a roach to the wall of the dank humid cell. The war had reduced better men than Brax Hale, late of the defeated Army of Northern Virginia, to worse acts than drinking after an insect, but he wasn’t that desperate for lunch.

  “Don’t you want to know the luck?” Geoff Hale asked.

  “Not particularly.” Too long, luck had been nothing but snake eyes for the Mississippi cavalryman drafted into the medical corps and the clever half-caste boy, now seventeen, who’d followed him to war. “Did you get that sack of flour to your mother?”

  “Bella got the flour.” Hurt in his light brown eyes, his voice elevating, Geoff said, “Doggone it, Bubba, I’ve been getting us help, and you aren’t even interested.”

  Brax glanced at the door separating this cellblock from the antechamber where Blue Bellies stood guard. “Keep it down, or they’ll hear you.” Beginning to get infected with Geoff’s enthusiasm, though, he whispered, “What’s the luck?”

  “You were wrong. Your friend Petry isn’t dead.”

  “That’s what you call luck? Who gives a damn?” The sissy lawyer was never more than an acquaintance. Until March of 1861.

  “Massa Petry’s got a lively law practice.” Geoff leaned into the iron bars. “Yankees like him. Especially the brass.”

  “That lard-assed weasel is the sort to cozy up to the enemy.” His mind working, Brax ran his tongue over his pearly whites. “But I could use a lawyer to get me free. And to look into the debt Titus St. Clair died owing me.”

  “Sure wish I’d been with you in Texas when you were cowboying for the major.” Geoff snickered. “I wish I’d seen how he let the Indians ride onto his ranch, then let them steal a whole casket of topaz from under his big ole red nose.”

  “The bastard did let the Comanches get to him. But you’re wrong. I wasn’t around for his comeuppance. Dammit.”

  Brax hated Titus St. Clair. Hated him with a vengeance, even though the major was three years in his grave. Some types of hatred never die, and Brax held such an animosity for the supposed friend who’d employed him awhile in Texas, then coerced him into Confederate service . . . only to let him down. Hard.

  “I am going to call in that marker,” he promised.

  “But the major changed his gold to Confederate money.”

  “I know there’s no cash recourse. Petry could write the courts in Mason County, see about restitution, say an exchange of my marker for the deed to the Nickel Dime Ranch.”

  “Speaking of the Nickel Dime—”

  “Hell’s bells, though, Geoffie! It could take years for a deal like that to go through. Even one year is the same as a life sentence to a man itching for California.” Brax sat up in the hammock, planting his worn-out Wellingtons on the floor and his elbows on the knees of his threadbare britches. “What we need is an easy way to get paid.”

  “That’s what I was coming to. Bub—”

  “Hey, youse guys.” Clearly, the speaker addressed his fellow guards. “Want I should bring you some blackberry cobbler?”

  Hunger twisting his gut, Brax called out, “Why, yes, kind sir, my man and I would be mighty pleased to enjoy a couple of bowls of it.” Despite Geoff’s warning extension of his hand, he added, “If y’all can see your way clear for a pot of coffee, we—”

  “I ain’t talking to no dirty Reb gyp-master that cheated my buddy, so
shut up!”

  “My apologies.” Brax shot the bird toward the doorway. “You being a city boy, I doubt you know what chiggers do on blackberry bushes. Say, how are those chigger bites of yours?”

  The Blue Belly slammed the solid door, unwittingly giving the black and white Hales the favor of privacy.

  “I wonder what he’ll have for lunch,” Geoff said, wistful.

  It seemed like forever since Brax had sat down to a real meal along the lines of ham and hominy, turnip greens, pecan pie, and gallons of cool, cool tea laced with sprigs of just-picked mint. “Wouldn’t a nice big bowl of strawberry shortcake taste good right now?”

  “Strawberry shortcake?” Gone was the wistfulness. Geoff’s voice flowed mellifluously, contrary to his age. “Before long the two of us, and Bella, too, will eat the richest and sweetest of pound cakes fresh from the oven, topped with the biggest and juiciest strawberries west of the Mississippi.”

  “Couldn’t happen too soon for me.” Brax stared at the condensation dripping through the patterned mildew on the wall. “Tell me you’ve talked to Petry and he’s parlaying with the provost marshal.”

  “Let me read you something.” Geoff fished for the periodical, anchored it between thumb and forefinger, then set to the unfurling. “ ‘Husband needed. Strong back and good sense of humor required, as ranch work in Texas is expected. Talent with firearms a must. If you are not of excellent morals and attitude, or if you are over thirty, do not apply. Comeliness not a requisite but helpful. Ref—’ ”

  “Oh, I see,” Brax cut in. “You’re wanting a bride.”

  “Not me. You.”

  “I was right all along. You did get knocked in the head.”

  “I’ve never been more sane, I assure you. You’ve got three of the requirements. Strong back. Talent with firearms. Comeliness.” Geoff scrunched up an eye to peer into the cell. “Leastwise the ladies used to think you were nice looking.”

  “Used to?”

  “Ain’t no mo’,” Geoff replied in a voice that had served the two of them in a few schemes. “Massa, you best stay away from da looking glass. You so skinny you’s only gots one side.”

  “That’s not funny. Besides, I’m a year over thirty. And I’m of ignoble character. I don’t qualify.”

  “Stuff like that never stopped you before.”

  True. Brax considered the advertisement, painting a grim picture of the writing between the lines. Giving Texas its due, though, it had primitive beauty and prospects for riches untold, the latter appealing to the hardworking set. Of which Brax would no longer count himself.

  He imparted a stern glare. “Do you have any idea what that ‘strong back and good sense of humor required’ malarkey means? Some woman is wanting a slave in husbandly chaps. Count me out. I’ve done all the hard work I intend to do.”

  “Let me finish reading the—”

  “No. Not no—hell no!” Patience. He’s just a kid, and he means well. “Fetch Virgil.”

  “Soon as I finish this.” Geoff snapped the newspaper open again. “ ‘References demanded. Travel expenses paid. Con—’ ”

  “I like the travel-expenses-paid angle.”

  “ ‘Contact Virgil Petry, Esquire, for interview.’ ”

  “Petry, eh?” The glint in the younger man’s eyes told Brax he really did have something figured out. “Go on.”

  Geoff didn’t. He reached between the bars for sour mash, tilting the bottle up before Brax could warn him off, then wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Mammy, Pappy, and Jeff Davis’s hound dawg Sammy—lawdy, dat stuff shore am good.”

  “Cut the field-hand patter. I don’t like you swilling liquor, either. It’s bad on an empty stomach.”

  Beyond his knowledge of medicine, Brax had bossing rights, even though Geoff had been free since the age of two. It was a matter of family, the youth and his mother being the same as kin. Don’t be hard on him. He’s known enough hell. And he and good-hearted Bella are all you’ve got left.

  Brax Hale, at his pappy’s knee, had learned to live by the credo, Do unto others before they do unto to you, but those two were exceptions to the rule.

  “Did Petry suggest you read me that piece?” Brax asked.

  “No. But he is anxious to get his client married off. He said so himself.”

  Undoubtedly. “What about the woman wanting a man? Do you reckon she’s like Petry’s new chums, from up North?”

  “Nope. I hear she’s from as far south as you can get in Mississippi. She’s a Biloxi belle. You know the kind. All salt air and boiled crabs and ‘Rastus, faster with that fan.’ ”

  “I guarantee she’s miserable in Texas.” Brax snickered. “But why isn’t she advertising for hired help?”

  “The frontier’s out of cowboys. The war, you know.”

  “That’ll change.”

  “True. But that rancher-lady is green enough to hand you her place. She’s our golden opportunity. You can make a marriage, and we can get us a home and a fresh start in Texas.”

  Brax smashed a mosquito that buzzed his leg. “It’s California or bust for us.”

  “Count on ‘bust.’ ” Geoff drew himself up, tatters and all. “You’re looking to do hard time, we don’t have two bits. And me and Bella, well, we’re just two more darkies.”

  Geoff’s frustration and resentment gave Brax pause. How true those words. The coloreds were suffering as much as, if not more than, the defeated whites in the ruins of Dixie. Being on the western edge of the Confederacy, and having hosted few battles, Texas had the best shot at recovery.

  Then again . . . “I’d do anything for you, Geoffie. But I won’t chain myself to a marriage just because you think life’ll get easier. Besides, once we get where the money has value for more than outhouse duty, you and I can run a few grifts.”

  “Who said anything about forever after? Once you marry her, the ranch becomes yours. Sell out. Then take off with the proceeds. Cal-i-for-ni-a, here we come. Bye-bye, Miss—”

  “And who’d buy it?”

  “Carpetbaggers.”

  Squinting, Brax smoothed his upper lip with a thumb and a forefinger. “Not a bad idea.”

  Regardless, he had doubts about the mail-order-man deal, and knew how to make Geoff think twice. “Let’s go for it. Once we get there, when the Rastus-and-the-fan lady wants the cows rounded up and the Injuns gunned down, you can pack the pistols.”

  The youth froze. Recovered, he replied, “I doan know ’bout dat, massa. You know dis boy too dumb fo work.”

  “I doubt the lady would let you nap while her man’s riding the range.” Brax chewed down on a grin. “You know, I think the honeyed aroma of fresh cow patties will round out your education nicely. Did I tell you they have rattlesnakes ten feet long out there?”

  “S-snakes?”

  “By the thousands. Scorpions by the millions.” Brax nodded. “Yes, I do think my marriage is our ticket to the good life.” He pointed at Geoff. “You do the work and the gunning.” He jabbed that fingertip against his own chest. “I’ll keep the lady’s bed warm. Why, I may never want to traipse off to the poker dens of San Francisco—if she’s good-looking, and her biscuits aren’t as hard as the boot heel of Missouri.”

  In just one of war’s cruelties, it had been since Richmond, early ’64, that Brax had known the pleasure of a woman, so he couldn’t help wondering about the advertiser. He imagined shiny dark hair and big brown eyes lighting a porcelain doll’s face. “How did Petry describe her?”

  Having changed his mind about the prospect of frontier life, Geoff replied, “Said she’s hard up, that’s what he said. Sounds pretty bad. Bad as bad can be. She’s desperate for a man. No telling what kind of mess you’d be getting us in to. Why, she might be one of those black widows ready to kill her mate.”

  “Stop exaggerating. And don’t judge things you don’t know anything about. Southern men are dead, by and large, and the women need anything they can come up with to get men.” A pause. “Is she a widow?


  “Uh-uh. She izzzz . . . Isn’t.”

  “Is she young or old? And what’s her given name?”

  The lesson unlearned, Geoff kept the ball of exaggeration rolling. “Young. Very young. Probably not a day older than fourteen. And it’s Skylla.”

  “Sky-lah. Different. Not bad.” Brax smiled. “Sure would be nice to see a woman with meat on her bones. You reckon she’s fat or skinny?”

  “Skinny. She’s gotta be. Probably ugly, too. Teeth all rotted in her head, big old moles with hairs growing out of them. Probably dips snuff and dribbles it in the biscuit dough.”

  “Typical for fourteen.”

  Geoff cleared his throat. “There’s something else. The lawyer’s pretty little washerwoman said the heiress and her pappy and stepmammy were in cahoots with the occupiers of Biloxi. Vigilantes hanged Ambrose St. Clair on the lawn of his oceanfront property and ransacked the mansion itself, but they let the women go. Provided they got out of town and stayed out. So Miss and Mrs. St. Clair took refuge inland, but beat for Texas at the first opportunity. On a U.S. Navy ironclad. I know you hate Blue Belly lovers . . .”

  Brax abandoned the hammock, taking a giant step over to the bars. “What is—? What did you call them?”

  “Blue Belly lovers.”

  “Not that. What’s their name?”

  “St. Clair. Like I told you a while ago, it’s St. Clair.”

  Brax threw back his head of golden hair. Hot damn-my luck’s just changed! “You didn’t say anything about any St. Clair except for Titus. But everything’s tying up, all neat and sweet. I’ve heard of Ambrose. He’s the major’s brother.”

  Geoff shrugged, unconvincing in his nonchalance.

  “You’re afraid I’ll take the deal, and make you work.”

  As weary as Brax from the long walk from Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia to the ruins of Vicksburg, Geoff exhaled. “You’re right. I’m not wanting to face hard work. But you got me wrong, Bubba. I did mean to say Skylla St. Clair is the major’s niece and heir. His only heir.”

  “Titus did mention a niece.” After the first rambling report, dispensed in the early days of his stay at the ranch, Brax had shut his ears. Now he wished he’d paid more attention. Being a head taller than his partner, he bent to eyeball Geoff. “Did you ask Petry if those women have cash on the barrelhead to pay off the marker?”

 
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