Friday, September 26, 2008

Chapter 5 Breakfast

“It’s pretty rude of you to keep staring at her like that, don’t you think, Luis?” Saint said as he quaffed off the dregs of his second cup of coffee and chewed absently on the grinds. The crew, minus Storm and Mr. Lynch, sat around the long breakfast table. The kid was getting on his nerves.

Luis shot him an irritated look and gave Lily one last glance before staring back at his fried eggs. Lily blushed bright red. Saint warily watched as she refilled his cup, imagining how a scalded groin would hurt if that shaky little grip missed and gave him a lapful. He reached out and grasped the pot handle, gently dislodging her hand with his and setting the percolator down on the table.

“You ladies sit down and eat, eh?” He knew she was trying so hard, trying above all else to make a good impression on them all. The poor girl was a nervous wreck. She wasn’t much like Jesse at all, at least as far as he could tell. Jesse was brash and liked excitement. His sister Lily, however, seemed sweet and quiet and endearingly bashful. A fragile little thing that seemed like she’d seen a bit more wear than she should have had to have seen. No wonder Jesse was worried about her. If I were Jesse, I’d tell me to stay away from her, too.

His gaze traveled discretely up her arm as her hand slid off the pot handle and took inventory on their way to her face. Slim, but, as Luis had correctly commented, strong enough. Her arms below her rolled-up shirtsleeves were a little sun-browned from her travels. Her neat apron hung from a trim waist, and her slight build swelled girlishly beneath her calico bodice. Open, readable face, her cheeks flushed with warmth and self-consciousness, and her clear grey eyes, hiding behind a pair of frumpy little spectacles, were honest and guileless. Her light brown hair was piled on top of her head in roll, wisps escaping in slightly unruly tendrils. She wasn’t the fiery beauty that Fiona was, but she was quietly pretty, and Saint found her gentle face appealing. She wasn’t the sort of girl he was used to dealing with in town, that was for sure.

“Sit, Miss.” He insisted, smiling reassuringly at her. “We’re big boys. We can help ourselves.”

She sat stiffly across from him, at the end of the bench beside Wash.

“S’, lass,” the Irishman said amiably, grabbing the spatula from the serving platter and sliding a couple of eggs onto the plate before her. “Fiona tells me y’ made the biscuits! I love ‘em. You lasses know how to turn out some chicken fixin’s, that’s f’ sure.”

“Thank you.” Lily smiled, her voice small and her eyes looking everywhere but across the table at Saint.

She’s afraid of me. Saint’s eyes narrowed. Good grief, what the devil has Lynch...and Jesse... told her about me?

"So.” Luis perked up as he thought of something to say that would allow him to continue to stare at the New Girl. “Jesse tells us he’s s’pposed to find out about some deed or something while he’s gone. You got land somewhere?”

“Yes. Well, no." Lily answered. "I have this deed my Uncle left me.” Lily eagerly made eye contact with Luis, relieved to have something to take her mind off her shyness. “It’s not worth anything, really. But I thought, since it’s near here, I’d try to find out more about it. I’ve had it for years without ever having seen the land it says I own.”

Fiona spoke up. “How did you come by it?”

“Well.” Lily gave a sheepish smile. “My uncle won it. In a poker game. He gave it to me for a birthday present three years ago.”

Saint smiled at that. Lily continued, warming. “ I just never got a chance to go there and find out before he was….” Her smile dropped almost imperceptibly. “Before he passed on.”

Luis leaned forward, interested. “You gonna go see what’s it about?”

“I’d like to, sometime.” Lily smiled. “I’m just curious. You never know. Anyway, it’s supposed to be near one of the relay stations Jesse will pass through, so he’s going to see if he can find out anything.”

“Well,” Tommy said, “Probably, he’s already found out something. He’s due back today or tomorrow, so likely he’s talked to somebody days ago.”

“I hope he comes soon.” Luis said, feigning innocence and cutting his eyes to Saint. “If the Yarl boys come after Saint because of that fight, he'll want to be here.”

Saint felt all the muscles around his spine tighten. How the hell does the little punk always, without fail, know exactly where to stick in the needles?

“Luis….” He snapped, feeling embarrassment creep into his guts. He put down his fork and glared across the table.

“Aw, come on, Saint. You should be proud, you took on both the Yarl boys and won." He gave Saint a sly, predatory smile and turned to Lily. "Saint Broke Rob Yarl's nose and stabbed Levi Yarl with a busted bottle! Blood everywhere! Jesse aint' gonna want to miss the next one! ”

Fiona frowned delicately. “I hardly think this is proper breakfast conversation, Luis.”

Saint winced as the unfamiliar heat of self-consciousness flooded his face. He glanced involuntarily at Lily and was horrified when their brief gazes collided in an awkward, mortifying train wreck. In the breath of a moment before they both frantically tried to avoid being caught looking at each other, Saint read the look on her face. It was the same look a person might give a grizzly bear they weren’t sure was sleeping or dead. I am going to kill that little git.

Dammit. “Luis, you need to be quiet. Right now.” He hissed, trying very hard to not sound like the kind of person who bloodied up saloons. Although, truth be told, he felt very much like he might bloody up the bunkhouse or barn if he caught Luis there anytime soon. "Uh...look, wasn't like that." He mumbled lamely.

"Well, actually, it..," Tommy started.

Wash and Saint both cut him off. "Tommy."

“Oh.” Luis said innocently. “Si, of course. Sorry. I shouldn't have said nothing. I'll be quiet now. ” He took a long sip of coffee. Tension-filled silence hung over the table like a thick fog. Luis waited until it reached maximum awkwardness before shattering it.

“I s’pose I better, eh?" He quipped cheerfully. "Hate for Saint to use me to bust a table in half with like he did with Rob Yarl.”

© 2008 Regina Shelley

Monday, September 22, 2008

Chapter 4: The Fine Art of Being Subtle

Lily carefully set the oil lamp on the long, bench-flanked table that dominated the room. The sun hadn’t risen yet and the kitchen was silent and dark. She quickly lit the other lamps that variously hung and stood around the room as Fiona grabbed the large ewer from the stand by the door. Her heart was hammering hard in her chest and she self-consciously smoothed back the strands of hair that always seemed to find their way out of her long braid just when she wanted to look nice. Today, she was to meet the men and boys she’d been hired to care for. Today, they would be sizing her up, making their opinions of her. Most likely, they’d end up talking about how her biscuits were dry or how worn out her clothes were. Fiona had been chattering away at her, and she could barely hear her over the roar of nerves in her own ears.

“How did you sleep?” Fiona inquired, picking up a pitcher and peering inside for vermin. “Your first night in a new place, you know. Were you comfortable?”

“Uh, I was fine. I’ve never slept in such a fine bed before, but I think I can get used to it.” She smoothed her apron and shivered in the pre-dawn chill, thinking about how the whole main house was intimidating, far finer than what she was used to. She was used to living in a rough, two-room cabin with a grizzled, middle-aged bachelor. “I was probably more comfortable than I have been in a long time. I still can’t believe I’m gonna be staying here.” She smiled happily at her new friend.

Fiona’s red curls were a gleaming, fiery mass as she leaned toward the nearest lantern, tilting the ewer forward. “You know, I think there’s a crawly in here. Well,” she looked up at Lily and gave her an affectionate look that partially soothed Lily’s jangled nerves. “I can scarcely believe my luck either. We shall be wonderful friends, Lily, and I am so glad my uncle finally hired a girl my own age to talk to! Do you have any idea how utterly desolate it can be out here? Oh, dear.” She turned the ewer out onto the floor and made a face of disgust as a large brown centipede crawled across the rough-hewn planks of the floor.

“I reckon it’s a good thing that isn’t going to end up in Mister Lynch’s coffee.” Lily lifted her skirts gracefully and stepped on the offending insect with an unsettling crunch. “Well, Fiona, I get the feeling Mr. Lynch had less to do with hiring me than you did.”

“Now, now, you were perfectly qualified....”

Lily set about lining up flour bins and tins of lard on the wide worktable that lined one wall, desperate to start doing something familiar. “Maybe, maybe not. I guess we’ll find out by and by.” Seein’ as how you talked Mr. Lynch into hiring me and all, and right there on the spot, I sure hope I don’t let you down. She mused grimly. I get the feeling Mr. Lynch didn’t get much say in it.

Fiona had to the sink with the now insect-free pitcher, and was working the pump handle to wash it out. Lily was cutting the flour with lard by the time Fiona got the water going and came back to the table, bearing the now-heavy pitcher on her hip like a toddler. She set the vessel down on the table, then went over to the wood rack, choosing some likely pieces to use as kindling.

“So, “ Lily said, roughly mixing the crumbly biscuit dough on the workbench. “How many folks in all work here?”

“Well, let’s see...” Fiona struck a match inside the firebox and blew on it carefully, watching the fire catch and tentatively creep over the kindling. “There’s Uncle Erastus, and my Aunt Genevieve, who is away right now, Luis Santana....”

“Yes, I’ve met Luis...” Lily smiled fondly, remembering the puckish Mexican boy who’d carried her bags upstairs for her and who’d given her such kind words of encouragement. I reckon if it weren’t for that sweet boy, I think I might just have lost my nerve and bolted. I mean, Fiona opened the door, and here was this beautiful, fancy-talking Lady in this fine, fancy house. Almost thought I was in the wrong place....

“Tommy know, I believe he’s a Mormon.....George Washington Monahan, he’s an Irishman.” She fed a few sticks of tinder into the firebox. “He tells marvelous stories! And...well, of course you know Jesse...there’s Peter Bari. Oh, I wish this fire would light! It’s cold in here.” She blew gently onto the flames again. “They call him Saint, you know, but his name’s Peter.”

“Jesse told me about him.” Lily bit her lip, embarrassed as she remembered her brother warning her about this particular rather… colorful…co-worker. “Um…why do they call him ‘Saint’?”

“I’m afraid to ask. He’s a bit of a rowdy.” She picked up a neatly split log quarter and set it atop the growing fire. “And Lights The Storm Peltier.”

“I reckon he’s an Indian, then, with a name like that?” Lily smiled.

Fiona got up, wiping her hands on her apron. “He’s half Crow. But you’ll get to meet them all today. The only one who’s out on a run right now is your brother.”

Lily’s nervousness returned in a renewed rush. She felt her face flush and heat began to burn behind her ears. Fiona gave her a comforting one-armed squeeze. “Oh, don’t be shy, they’ll love you.”

“I just want to make a good first impression. Maybe I ought to go brush my hair....”

The door opened. Lily jumped. A sweet-faced young man with short, dark brown hair and spectacles stood in the doorway, shouldering a bundle of firewood. “Good morning, ladies.” He smiled amiably. “Wanted to make sure the woodbin was full. I know you don’t like it when it gets empty. I guess we like it even less, considering it means we don’t eat.” He chattered in a breathy, endearing babble. “Ma’am.” He nodded at Lily before loading the bundle into the woodbin, placing the considerable overflow on the floor nearby.

“Well, thank you, Tommy, but Storm filled that up last night after supper as I was tidying up. This is Lily McMillain; she’s taken the other housekeeping job. Lily, this is Tommy Page.”

His hands now free, Tommy pulled his brown hat from his head and held it in front of him. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am, I hope you enjoy working here.”

“Thank you, Mr. Page.” Lily forced herself to meet the youth’s direct, snapping gaze. He had an engaging smile and a boyish face she found comforting. She smiled, relaxing a little.

“Tommy,” Fiona said, a knowing look on her face. “Breakfast isn’t ready. You’re a little early, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, I understand. I was just making sure you had enough wood. I’ll be out in the barn. If you will be so good as to....”

Fiona finished for him. “Yell when we have coffee.”

“Yell...yes, Ma’am.” He nodded sheepishly at Lily, putting his hat back on. “Ma’am.”

“Mr. Page.”

They watched as Tommy sauntered out the door. Lily’s nervousness had partially turned to relieved excitement. Maybe this won’t be so hard after all.

“Uh huh.” Fiona shook her head when he was gone. “Well, that was transparent.”

“What?” Lily frowned, puzzled.

“Oh, nothing.” Here, let’s get the coffee going, shall we? I have a feeling we won’t be running out of wood for a while.” She deftly dumped a scoop of beans into the top of a hand-grinder and gave the crank a number of firm turns. A rich, roasted aroma filled the kitchen as she removed the drawer from the bottom and dumped the contents into the basket of a white-enameled tin percolator. “It’s the gent’s job to keep that woodbin filled. And I don’t nag them -if they want to eat, then they ought not have to be reminded.”

“Do they forget?”

“Well,” Fiona placed the percolator onto the now-warming stove and wiped the stray grounds of coffee from the worktable. “They have, but Storm often brings a load in during the evenings while I’m cleaning up. You watch, though. By tonight, we’ll be stacking the stuff on the porch.” She looked up at Lily, her green eyes twinkling with merriment .

“Surely....” Lily said nervously. “they’re not coming by here to get a look at.....well....”

Fiona tilted back her head and laughed. “Oh, Lily, don’t be so bashful, love! Of course they’re coming to get a look at you! Remember, you’ll be with these oafs day in and day out. You’ll get un-shy soon enough.”

“What if they don’t like me? Lily said, as she hefted a huge iron frying pan off the wall and set it onto the stovetop. She spooned a bit of lard into the pan and smeared it around.

“Don’t be silly. Tommy likes you. And I know Luis does.”

The lard in the pan had begun to hiss. Lily started cracking eggs against the edge of the pan and dropping their contents inside. “Really...?”

The door opened. Lily’s head jerked around, expecting Tommy again… A wiry man with a tousled shock of a deep auburn hair clomped into the kitchen, hefting an armload of firewood. “G’mornin’ to ya, lasses.” He quipped with a Mullingar-laced lilt. He started to dump the wood into the woodbin and stopped. “Whoa, this is already spilling over.”

Fiona stifled a laugh. “Just put it on the floor and come over here and meet Miss Lily.”

Wash carefully let the wood spill out of his arms into a pile beside the woodbin. He stood up and wiped his hands on the back of his trousers, then pulled off his hat. “Ah, you know, that’s really why I’m here!” He admitted cheerfully.

“I know.” Fiona chirped. “Miss Lily McMillain, this is Mr. George Washington Monahan.”

Lily met the man’s vivid blue eyes. “Mr. Monahan.”

“Oh, call me Wash, Miss, everyone does.” He grinned. “I’ve heard a lot about you! You’re brother’s glad you’ve come to work here, and I know the rest’ve us are, too.”

The Irishman’s warmth was like sunshine on chilly skin. Lily’s felt the remains of her anxiety melting away. “I’m so glad to meet you. I know I’ll like it here.”

“Well, good. Then you’ll stay, eh?” His eyes strayed towards the percolator. Look, lasses, I dinna suppose....”

“The coffee is on and we shall call you when it’s done.” Fiona chirped.

“Aye, good lass. “I’ll be in the barn.” He headed for the door, replacing his hat.

"I imagine you'll be in good company out there." Fiona quipped.

“Eh?” The jaunty Irishman turned around and cocked an eyebrow.

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Wash.” Lily nodded quickly, dismissing him before Fiona could make any more wisecracks. Although all the attention was embarrassing her, it was hard not to be infected by Fiona’s mirth.

“See?” Fiona giggled. “It’s not so bad, now is it?

Lily smiled, concentrating shyly on the sizzling bacon bubbling in the pan. “No.” She admitted. She was surprised at how excited she was at the idea of what her life might be like now, and relieved that the people here seemed comforting and eager to accept her. She couldn’t wait for the next new person to walk through the door, couldn’t wait to see who else would be part of her new life. Her fear evaporated like the fragrant steam whispering from the top of the percolator.

The door opened with an abrupt jolt. “‘Morning, England. Coffee ready?”

Lily’s head jerked towards the husky, cranky growl that cut through the morning dimness like a stone crashing through a church window on Sunday morning. She felt her insides clutch with fresh nervousness as she viewed it’s source.

A tall, broad-shouldered man barged insolently through the kitchen, opened a cupboard, and removed a cup. A black hat slouched rudely atop his tousled spill of almost-black hair. He shuffled over to the stove and poured some coffee as if he were on his last legs and here was the Elixer of Life.

It was…. Him. The Hell-raiser. The person her brother had warned her about. The person she absolutely didn’t want influencing her, her brother, or her life.

Fiona glared at him. He took a few casually noisy sips off the top, sighed, and then noticed the overflowing woodbin and surplus of wood. A smirk of knowing amusement crossed his face as he started back towards the door.

“Saint. Peter. Bari.” Fiona cut the name into scolding, annoyed bits. “Did you leave your manners in the bunkhouse?”

Saint turned around, sipping his coffee. He glared at Fiona, his eyes dark slits over the rim of the cup, like a feral dog unwilling to relinquish a bone he was chewing.

Oh, dear Lord, don’t stop him, just let him go! Lily’s mind howled as she felt her face beginning to burn. There were things in this world a body just ought not to try to attract the attention of. Standing here drinking coffee was one of them. She watched with dread as her tiny friend stared up at this tall, wolfish man.

“I know Storm didn’t cut all that wood.” Saint muttered. Lily couldn’t place his accent. He wasn’t local, that much was for sure.

Fiona ignored him. “Peter, I want to introduce you to Miss Lily McMillain. Lily, this is Mr. Peter Bari.”

Lily’s mouth went dry as the man turned dark, smoldering eyes upon her and gave her a searching sweep of regard, a slight smile of what she could only imagine was amusement breaking across his roguishly handsome face. “Ma’am.” He touched the brim of his black hat and nodded.

Lily was fairly certain that what amused him was the fact that her heating face was surely turning pink under his unflinching gaze. Unlike the others, this man clearly hadn’t a shy bone in his rangy, well-muscled body, and didn’t care what sort of impression he made. She realized abruptly she was a more than a little afraid of him. And if coffee might improve his mood, she sure didn’t want to interrupt his drinking of it now. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Bari.” She managed. She self-consciously pushed her glasses up onto her nose with a flour-dusted finger.

He nodded, his lips relaxing into a cocky smile beneath a long, slightly crooked nose. A dimple threatened to reveal itself in his right cheek as his face softened. “The pleasure’s mine, Miz McMillain.” The lightly accented growl of his voice curled strangely around his vowels, and hammered his r’s flat. “You can just call me ‘Saint’, if you like. I...well, I ain't much of a morning person.” He turned to go.

“Will you please tell the other gents the coffee’s ready?” Fiona said after him.

“I always do, England.” He said without turning around. Lily could hear his boots clicking across the stone slab outside the door. She felt herself deflate.

Fiona starting setting the table. “The nerve...”

Lily began transferring breakfast from the stove to serving plates. Her face tingled hotly as she wiped her damp palms across her apron. “You cannot convince me that he came in here…”

“He comes barging in here like that every morning.” She said, to Lily’s dismay. “"Not much of a morning person' indeed! The man isn’t human until he’s had his coffee. He’s awful. Uncle Rast is like that. Anyway, they apparently don’t have manners in New Jersey.”

“New Jersey?” Lily was surprised. She had almost thought he was from another country, with his dark, exotic looks and his different accent. “He sure doesn’t strike me as an Easterner.”

“Well.” Fiona poured coffee into the waiting cups. “”He knows his way around, if that’s what you’re asking.”

This tall, pushy …person... is going to come in here every morning and make me feel like…like…a tiny little bug? Lily felt like someone who had just finished off a delicious glass of fresh milk only to find a soggy fly in the bottom. She couldn’t imagine her fireball brother having to share quarters with this person. Do they get into fights? Everyone else is so….well, nice! She considered the masculine span of his shoulders and his height. Her brother was fairly tall, too, but he was gawky, still coltish in his movements. Saint had a kind of fluid gracefulness about him. “He’s kind of…tall… for an express rider, isn’t he?”

“He’s not a rider. He drives the stagecoach. Never lost a cargo. That’s one reason my Uncle doesn’t fire him on the spot. Uncle Rast doesn’t like him at all, I’m sorry to say, but Saint is reliable driver. The man can handle a team of horses.”

Fiona had removed another cup from the cupboard, poured it, and was stirring a third spoonful of sugar into it as Lily removed the biscuits from the oven. Fiona swept one up, deftly buttered it, and stuck some bacon into it before rolling it up into a linen napkin. Lily began to open her mouth to ask, when the door swung open yet again and a strikingly beautiful young man, with Native features and a jet-black braid hanging to his waist, hurried in. Lily’s eyebrows shot skyward in surprise as Fiona pressed the coffee into one brown hand and the wrapped bread into the other.

“Thank you, Fiona.” He said softly, smiling, then regarded Lily. “You’re Miss McMillian.”

“Yes. You’re Mr. Peltier.”

“Yes.” Dimples appeared in his cheeks. “But to you I’m Storm. Sorry, I have to….” He started towards the door, gesturing apologetically.

“I know.” Fiona said, shooing at him to hurry. “Ride safe.”

He gave Fiona a glance as he hurried back out, an enigmatic whisper of a smile playing across his sculpted features.

Lily cocked her head at Fiona, waiting for an explanation for the royal treatment.

“Well…” Fiona explained, gesturing after him. “He never lets the woodbin get empty.”

© 2008 Regina Shelley

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Poker Game (Prequel 1)

This was written some time ago, before I had the current plan for what I wanted to do with this story. It technically is part of the story, it just takes place about a week or two before Chapter 1 and was originally written as a sort of a fun writing exercise. It doesn't really advance the story, just sort of introduces you to some of the characters on a relaxed night at home. It might be fun to read just as a stand alone tale.

George Washington “Wash” Monahan took the worn deck of cards and tapped it deftly on the stained, sticky, and chipped tabletop. The oily smoke from the lamp coiled out of the sooty glass chimney and mixed with the smell of the fireplace, stale cigarette smoke, and sweat. He reached across the table and turned the flame up on the cracked oil lamp that presided over the bunkhouse poker game, then put the deck down in front of Jesse, who tucked a peppermint stick into the side of his mouth like it was a quirly, deftly shuffled and started dealing for the four of them.

“Allright, lad.” Wash said. “About the fight last week. Talk.” The Irishman leaned forward keenly, his blue eyes eager and the fireplace behind him lighting his tousled reddish hair in a devilish halo.

Saint cringed. Couldn’t they just forget about the damn fight? He'd thought it was funny while the excitment was still on him, but in the cold light of day, the thought of it just made Saint feel tired and annoyed.

Wash continued, “We been waitin’ for ya to get back from your run. All ye said before you left was ‘The Yarl boys are busted up good' and then ya left. We ought to give you a clip round the ear for that.”

Tommy spoke up from where he lay on his upper bunk, not looking up from his dime novel. Another lamp, perched on the bare beam over his head, bathed him in a circle of yellow light and reflected on his silver spectacles. “You ought to give him a clip on the ear, anyways. Luis, this book’s really good. I’ll go back and read it to you when you want to hear it.”

“Gracias.” The swarthy teenager quipped, picking up his cards as Jesse dealt them. “I saw that when Jesse brought it in, an’ hoped it was for us. I've been wanting to hear a new book." He peeled four cards out of his hand and pushed them in front of the tall, blond youth who sat across from him.

“Man trades four has an ace at the door.” Jesse muttered in his twangy Nebraska drawl as he deftly dealt out four more cards to the Mexican youth. The peppermint stick shifted to the other side of his mouth. “What, Saint didn’t tell you all about that fight? It’s his story.” He shot Saint a mock-innocent look.

Saint stretched his long legs out under the table, gave Jesse an exasperated glance, and tossed two cards down before picking up the two new ones Jesse pushed towards him. “Isn’t anything to tell. The Yarl boys decided to act like they normally act. They grabbed me, and I made them let go. End of story.”

“My bollocks, end of story.” Wash quipped, laughing. “I dinna think you’ll pass off that sad offering. We know ye better than that.” He arranged his cards in his hand and glanced at them.

Luis frowned briefly into his hand and stuck an unlit quirly between his lips. “Nah, ‘way I heard it, you near tore the front off the Silver Star. Anybody raising?”

Saint snorted dismissively. “It wasn’t like that.” He mumbled, tossing a half-dime onto the table.
Seeing the coin lying on the table, Luis face fell. He watched Wash meet Saint’s bet with another half-dime, and then Jesse hesitate before dropping 5 pennies onto the pile. Everyone was looking at him. He cringed like his guts were being strung out by dogs, then dropped 5 pennies onto the table.

Jesse grinned at him. “What, Luis? Straight flush?”

“Shut up.”

“Okay, well, this is too good. You remember we went down there to deliver that feed order to Thomasin’s, right?” Getting cranked up, Jesse removed the candy from his mouth and gestured with it as he spoke. "Well, it was kinda warm that day, and we worked up a little bit of a sweat loading that stuff into the warehouse out back. So Saint wants to go down to the Silver Star for a couple sarsaparillas.” His blue eyes had lit up with mirth and the long spill of his cornsilk hair gleamed in the lamplight as he became animated with the fun of the tale.

On the bunk behind him, Tommy had dropped his book beside him and sat up, ducking the ceiling beam and dangling his legs over the side, his attention on Jesse’s story.

Saint rolled his eyes and got up to put another log into the fireplace. Sparks flew up the chimney and clung to the thick black soot coating the firebox. Jesse went on. “I wanted to go down to the main store to pick up some peppermint sticks for Lily and me. And also, the penny press book for Tommy. So I went on back with Thomasin, and Saint went on down to the Silver Star.”

Saint sat back down with a slight look of embarrassment on his face and picked his cards back up, trying to ignore the epic as it unfolded.

Jesse chattered on. “So by the time I got down to the saloon, the Yarl brothers had seen Saint go in by hisself and I reckon thought they might have a little fun.”

“Well, You know those two stupid apes have it in for us. I guess they figured getting one of us alone was about their only chance of having the upper hand.” Saint muttered.

Luis spoke up. “Raise.” He tossed a dime onto the pile.

“Huh?” Wash jerked his head back and glanced at Luis like one would a fly buzzing around one’s ear. “Oh, yeah, here.” Another coin clinked to the sticky surface of the table.

Jesse absently tossed a dime into the pile, and continued with his tale. “Yeah, you know some fun was had.” He laughed. “They stood behind him at the bar, calling him an Injun lover, a Yankee, and an Eye-talian bastard and all. You know, the usual.”

“Well, “ Luis quipped. “‘The usual’ mostly means Storm ends up in jail. This time it wasn’t Storm in the fight, and this time none of us spent the night in jail. So this ain’t so usual.”

“S’anyhow, by the time I get over there, one of ‘em’s got Saint by the front of the shirt. Saint don’t even blink. Hell, he don’t even spill his sarsaparilla. It was like the Yarl boy was asleep or something, Saint just put down his drink with one hand, pulled off his hat with the other, and slammed his head into Rob Yarl’s face. That ol’ boy let go a him and fell back like somebody’d shot him. I mean it was beautiful. He fell fat ass first into a table, busted it in half, and laid on the floor holdin’ his nose, which by now looked like a stomped-on rotten tomato.

Wash’s eyebrows went up and he looked at Saint with admiring approval. “Rob Yarl weighs eighteen stone if he weighs an pint, lad.”

Saint shrugged and held up his hands. “He might be bigger, but he isn’t faster. Really, you guys, it wasn’t any big....”

“Oh, it ain’t even got good yet.” Jesse bit off the end of his stick and crunched for a moment, then pointed the bitten end at Saint and grinned. “So Saint turns around to give some to the other one and damned if Levi Yarl ain’t gone and pulled a big knife on him.”

Luis mouth dropped open and Wash’s eyes got huge. Concern shoved the mirth right off the Irishman's face. “Aw, now, lads, that ain’t something to jest over. Ye could’ve gotten yourself killed!”

“Well, “Jesse continued, munching noisily around his words, “true. So it’s a good thing Saint was drinking a sarsaparilla. He picked the bottle back up by the neck and cracked it against the bar behind him. Pop flew everywhere. All this so fast you could barely see it happen.”

Wash stared at the younger men. The story, at least for him, had lost a good bit of it’s charm.

Jesse went on obviously, enjoying the memory. “Levi Yarl takes a swing at Saint with the knife, right? Saint sideswipes it, scoops up Yarl’s hand with the busted bottle and slams the whole thing, hand, knife, and bottle into the bar.”

Tommy was leaning out of his bunk so far it was hard to believe he didn’t actually fall out of it. Apparently, the story had taken a turn even he hadn’t seen. The paperback lay untouched on the bunk beside him.

“Yarl screams like somebody’s granny with a mouse up her skirts.” Jesse took another loud crunch of his peppermint stick and chewed a few more times. “So Saint just grabbed him by the shoulders of his shirt and heaved him over the bar.”

Saint smirked. “Hell, he was going that way, anyway.” He watched Luis intently. The kid was the only one who’s attention was still on the game.

“You staying in, Saint?” the boy asked impatiently.

Saint studied him closely for a moment more, smiled, and then closed the fan of cards in his hand, placing it face down. “Nope.”

Luis’s eyes narrowed in annoyance and he tossed another half-dime down.

Jesse didn’t even seem to be aware that his own fingers were tossing a series of pennies into the pile as he continued with his tale-spinning. Luis elbowed Wash, who fumbled to drop another half-dime onto the growing heap, his eyes never leaving Saint and Jesse.

“I wouldna tell Lynch you were in a knife-fight, lad.” Wash said grimly. “Where was Jack while all this was goin’ on?”

Tommy piped up, “And Jack is....?”

“The bartender.” Four voices offered in unison.

“Well, “ Jesse said, popping the last of his candy into his mouth, “At that point, Jack had reached under the bar, gotten out the shotgun, and was on his way over. “

“Mainly to make sure neither of those two fools was getting up for more.” Saint commented. “He hates those guys.”

“So he wasn’t mad?” Luis asked.

“Not really. Not at me, anyway. But he did say he was going to make Rob Yarl pay for the table since it was his ass that broke it.”

Luis, sensing the spell was about to be broken, fidgeted nervously. He knew the guys would never have laid down the kind of coin they had in the pot if they hadn’t been distracted. “Anybody raising?”

Jesse and Wash snapped their attention back to the here and now. Wash took in the expectant look on Luis’ face. He studied Saint,who was leaning back in his chair with a smug look on his face, arms crossed and his cards face down before him. He looked at the pile of coins, many of which were his, in the center of the table.

“Call.” Luis quipped happily, revealing three aces. Jesse sat staring, stunned.

Wash fanned out his extremely hopeless hand in front of him. “Dammit.”

© 2008 Regina Shelley

Monday, September 8, 2008

Chapter 3: Reconnaissance

Lights the Storm Peltier steered Luis Santana into the bunkhouse by the shoulders and pushed him firmly down onto the split-log bench by the firebox. He then walked over to the table and sat down across from Saint, who happily helped him stare down the scruffy, waif-like teenager. He was careful not to put his elbows into the semi-permanent gooey patina of coffee rings, sorghum, and tobacco ash that coated its surface.

“Alright, Little Brother, it looks like I’ll get no sleep tonight until you tell us what she looks like.” He said. “Talk.”

“What?” Luis asked innocently. He studied his fingernails, feigning disinterest. Saint couldn’t help but smirk. It was a rare thing when his bunkmates were actually hanging on Luis’ every word and he could tell the boy wanted to savor the moment. He knew Luis liked having them at his mercy. This might be interesting after all. If the little punk played this right, he might have Tommy and Wash begging.

Saint’s dark eyes went to the table’s nasty surface, studying the lonely playing card that lay face down in front of him, a relic from the poker game they played three nights ago. He prodded it with his fingernail, intending to turn it over. It stuck to the table as if painted on. Maybe a new housekeeper around here might be a good thing…

“C’mon, Luis.” Lights The Storm prompted. “The new housekeeper.”

Luis scuffed a boot across the floor timbers, pounding a nickel-sized crumb of limp bread into the wood grain. “I dunno…”

Storm, looking at Luis in weary disgust, held an open palm out to Saint. Saint dropped a freshly rolled quirly into it and Storm tossed it to the stalling youth. Luis plucked it deftly out of the air and stuck it unlit between his lips.

“Hookay.” Luis said, drawing out the moment.

“Wait, wait!” Tommy interrupted him. “I wanna make a bet she’s blonde. Double duty chopping firewood. Any takers?”

Wash eyed him, thinking. “Much as I hate to say it, that’s the smart bet, lads. She likely looks like Jesse. Pass.”

Saint scowled. “Would you two shut up and let him talk?”

“Well, Wash, you missed a chance.” Luis held out his quirly for Saint to light. “She ain’t blonde. She’s got kinda light brown hair. Wears little spectacles like a schoolmarm or something. An’ she looks about Fiona’s age….”

“Fiona’s what? 19? 18?” Wash wrinkled his brow.

“She’s 19.” Storm said. “Quick, eyes, height, whatever. I want to go to sleep.”

“Lessee, don’ rush me. This is important stuff. “I think her hair’s kinda long, she had it piled on top of her head an’ it was comin’ out in little frizzies. Has light gray eyes. Looks like she’s been on the road some, an’ her face is a little red from the sun. She’s about as tall as….” Luis drew himself up to his diminutive height and gestured a couple of inches over his head. “This. About like Tommy. She’s a little skinny, but she carried them bags into the house before I got to her, so she must be strong enough. She’s sweet lookin’. Got a soft voice, too. I liked that.”

Wash smiled and started back with his boots. “I like her all ready.”

“Yeah,” Luis continued, puffing happily. “And she says she can cook, too. S’anyways, Fiona was buzzin’ around the know how she does...all excited that Miz Lily had showed up, and guess what she just had to do?”

Saint picked up his dog-eared novel and stuck his eyes back into it. “She made tea.”

“She made tea!” Luis quipped. “How’dja guess that, Saint?”

“I’m a damn genius.”

“You know if the world ended Fiona would have to have tea about it. She’s fussing around and I walk in and she says to me, in that proper Brit accent of hers, ‘Oh, good, Luis, here’s a cookie, love, please wait here till Miz Lily is ready to send her bags up.’ So Fiona’s already talkin’ about sending Miz Lily’s stuff up before Lynch even knows the girl’s on the property. Then she goes out and I’m guessing she went to Lynch’s office to tell him he had a new hire or else. You know how Miz Fiona’s been complaining there ain’t no girls out here to be friends with.”

“Isn’t that the truth.” Tommy said, leaning back down onto his bunk and settling his head comfortably into the rag-stuffed ticking pillow. “There aren’t enough girls around here by half. She wears glasses, huh? ” He mused happily. “We have something in common already. I would be so perfect if she had some really great…”

“Tommy,” Storm interrupted him in a warning tone, “You say something disrespectful about Jesse’s sister, and I’ll have to thrash you on his behalf. Watch your mouth.”

“Books, Storm! I was gonna say ‘books!’” You’re the one with the dirty mind! “

“I wish you coulda seen it.” Luis went on, warmed up to his subject. “He sat down across from her at the table, and gave her that look, you know, the one where he makes you feel like he can see right through ya and don’ like what he sees on the other side.”

Saint snorted derisively and with his free hand, continued to pick absently at the playing card that was fused to the table. “Bet that scared the hell out her, him with that naked skull and that beaky nose. He looks like some sort of deranged buzzard staring down something that ain’t quite dead yet.”

Wash laughed out loud, dropping his boots to the floor and wiping the grease from his fingers with a rag. “Oh, don’t ya know it. Talk about coming face to face with Grim Death....”

Luis took another drag on his quirly. “So anyways, Lynch looks her over, and there she’s sitting, just sweating bullets, right? He’s got this trapped, glassy look in his eyes, like he’s having some sort of conversation in his head that he’s losin’. Finally, he just sighs and goes ‘So, Miz McMillain.....a lot of cussin’ bother you?’”

Luis paused, correctly anticipating the gales of laughter broke out in the bunkhouse.
“You jerkin' me?.” Saint looked up from his book and stared at Luis, a grin of amazement stretching his face. “He really asked her that? You’re pulling our legs....”

“Nope. I swear. He asked her that.” Luis waited for the last bit of the bunkhouse chortling to die down before going on.

“So then she says, ‘Well, no sir, but it says right here on the contract there ain’t no swearing, drinking, or fighting allowed, so surely that doesn’t happen here.”

Again the bunkhouse exploded with howls. Luis took the opportunity to enjoy a couple of uninterrupted drags on his quirly. Gradually the snickers and snorts became a few isolated giggles, as Saint waved everyone into silence. Even Storm was listening, a dimple giving up its hiding place on his brown cheek. Luis raised his hand, as if swearing in at a trial.

“Okay, so Lynch hears that and he just stares at her like maybe he didn’t hear her right, and then finally he says ‘Oh, that’s right. My employees don’t do any of those things, swearing especially. What was I thinking?’ At that point, the room got so quiet that the only noise was me eating my cookie…so I stopped. That’s when Lynch turned to me and asked me to take her bags upstairs, so I’m guessing she was hired.”

“That was it?” Tommy raised an eyebrow. “‘Does a lot of cursing bother you?’ That was all he asked her?”

“Well, what else was he gonna ask her?” Saint smirked, abandoning the card and roaching back the tousled strands of hair that fell over his eyes. “Can you imagine him telling Fiona he wasn’t going to hire her? I’m surprised he even bothered to meet her first.”

Tommy frowned. “So, how come her last name’s McMillain?

Saint shrugged. “Jesse told me the two of them have different fathers.”

Lights The Storm gave a sigh of finality. “Great. Thanks, Little Brother. I’m sure we are all satisfied now. Everyone ready to shut up and let me go to sleep?” He stripped his pants back off and collapsed onto his bunk. “Good night, guys.” He said firmly.

Luis tossed the butt of the cigarette onto the rough timbers of the floor and ground it out under his bootheel. He got up and walked quietly to his bunk, pulling off his shirt as he went.

Saint blew out the lamp on the table and flopped down on his bed.

In the lamp, a small bit of wick flickered with a few vestiges of flame, rebelling against the walls of night that surrounded it. Swirling around in the smoke, it bounced against the glass of the lamp, refusing to accept its fate. Silent seconds ticked away until finally all of the burning embers had surrendered to the deep blackness of the bunkhouse.

Saint cringed as Tommy’s voice cut through the quiet darkness. “So, do you think she likes younger men?” He quipped. “I can’t wait till breakfast.”

© 2008 Regina Shelley

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Chapter 2: Spring

Lily McMillian sat down carefully onto the blue quilted coverlet on the bed, almost afraid to touch anything. A handful of fragrant crocus, freshly picked by her new friend and co-worker, Fiona, wafted a welcoming scent through the crisp new bedroom from their vase on the little writing desk. A whippoorwill called from somewhere near the river, it’s voice sweet on the night air outside the window.

So this was to be her room. This was to be her new life. It made her a little sad that her brother Jesse had to be off on a mail run the evening of her arrival, but at least he would be able to maybe find out about the deed while he was gone. Knowing he was coming back, and that his things were just outside in the bunkhouse, had made the huge weight she had borne for months lift itself from her narrow shoulders.

She sighed, and walked over to the window, looking out over the neat yard from her view on the second floor, and gazed down the worn, dusty road she expected her brother to return by, and hopefully soon.

She sat down at the writing desk and pulled the lamp over closer as she turned the worn paper over in her work-callused fingers. She’d been carrying this old, dog-eared thing with her for years. A deed to a piece of land I’ve never even seen, that someone I never met gave to Uncle Chet to pay off a poker debt.

He’d said the land wasn’t worth much. Just some played-out, used up stake. But someday, he’d said, maybe she could build a little house on it if she wanted. So three years ago, he’d given it to her for her 16th birthday, apologizing because he didn’t have anything better to give her.

When she thought of Uncle Chet, the year-old loss of him hit her like a pang. He was her strength and her salvation after her father’s death, and they had been friends as well as family. Her world had seemed to stop in it’s tracks when her father died, and then it had seemed to shatter when he died many years later, succumbing to a lifetime of drink, cards, and hell-raising. The experience of coming home to find him dead amidst a ransacked house was something she’d carry to her grave. She’d had enough. She’d hoped for years Jesse and she could get a fresh start, away from that lifestyle. If Jesse were to get caught up in that, she doubted she’d survive the inevitable blow. He was all she had left. All that mattered, anyway.

She moved to put the lamp out, stopped, and then instead placed it carefully near the window. Ride safe, Jesse.

© 2008 Regina Shelley

Monday, September 1, 2008

Story Background

Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company runs a stagecoach line connecting Missouri to Utah. In 1860, the company hires a team of riders to man the new Pony Express mail running from Saint Joseph to Sacramento.

In a stationhouse in the east end of the Nebraska territory, life's about to get a whole lot more interesting.


So, when I finally get fired from my job for, you know, not working, someone's gonna ask me what all this is about. They're gonna say, "geeze, you couldn't just write this stuff out and send it off to some romance publisher like normal people do?"

I've thought about it. Nah. Nothing about that process appeals to me. Besides, while I've learned all about romance stories and how to write them, I'd like to try something a little different with the story flow. I'd like my stories to branch out more, to be a bit more adventuresome and sprawling.

I just want to tell stories. I have all these people crowded into my head, all these stories. I just want to let them breathe, let them feel a little wind in their hair. And if anyone else decides to come along for the ride, then that's awesome, too.

Hold on tight, my boys ride fast.

Chapter 1: Welcome to Green River Station

Howdy! If you are a new reader and just joining us, I have migrated most of this story over to Wattpad. Now that the book series is published (Book 3 is in the pre-release stages right now, so it will be out by the end of this summer (2016), sending traffic over to Wattpad is making it easier for me to reach current and potential readers. 

I absolutely can still be reached on this site. All comments go straight into my inbox, and I will still be responding to them. 

I will be removing parts of the story from this site, as earlier announced. Again, I really would like to encourage traffic over on Wattpad. The artwork, extras, fan contributions, etc. will remain here. 


Nobody knew what she looked like, but they all had opinions. And Saint had been hearing them, over and over, for the better part of the evening. Blathering on like idiots about the newly hired housekeeper. He ignored them as best he could, turned up the lantern wick, and tried to read his threadbare hardback. No use. The chattering voices flying around the warm dimness of the bunkhouse buffeted his concentration like a dust devil kicking up in his face.

Saint sighed and shook his head, half in amusement and half in exasperation. He genuinely liked the men and boys he shared the bunkhouse with, but he had to admit to himself a little peace and quiet would have been nice on occasion. Since the Company had hired a bunch of very young men to man the brand new Pony Express mail service, the bunkhouse had gotten a bit more crowded and a lot more noisy. With the new additions, Saint and Wash were the oldest men the bunkhouse now. Still, sharing quarters with a pack of youthful, noisy mates was not anything new to him- coming from a large family, he had quite a few siblings back east.

“She even has a pretty name. Lily. I bet she’s blonde.” Tommy offered wistfully. The young, brown-haired Pony Express rider lay staring dreamily into the dim shadows above his bunk, no doubt seeing some statuesque Nordic goddess hovering in the rough-hewn rafters. “Jesse’s blond, and she’s his sister, you know. I bet she has hair like his. Only clean.”

“Nah.” Wash snorted in his light Irish lilt, sitting on the edge of the bunk beneath Tommy’s, and rubbing grease into the seams of his worn work boots. “Nah, she ain’t blonde. I’m bettin’ she’s got black hair, dark, like secrets and magic. And bonny blue eyes.” He held up his hands, one with the greasy rag in it and the other wearing the boot and outlined the dream girl’s form in the air with exaggerated curves.

Tommy smiled happily. “Well, I don’t really care, long as she can cook…”

Lights-the-Storm Peltier rolled over in his bunk and stared across at Tommy, his black eyes popping open in an exasperated snap. His long fall of blue-black hair draped across his face like a shroud, and he apparently didn’t see fit to brush it aside. “That’s the first intelligent thing either of you’ve said all night.” He mumbled through it’s sheltering darkness. “Will you two shut up already?”

“Ha.” Tommy’s hazel eyes gleamed with merriment at his bunkmate. “Listen to you. You aren’t fooling anybody. You’re just as curious as the rest of us. Admit it.”

Lights-the-Storm’s direct gaze and sharp cheekbones gave him an air of seriousness and authority that the younger riders respected…usually. Tonight, however, his eyes were dulled with exhaustion and annoyance. He glared at Tommy, clearly wishing the boy would go to sleep.
“Go on. You’ll feel a lot better.” Tommy dug.

“Go to sleep.” Lights-the-Storm shushed him, closing his eyes. “We have work tomorrow.” He blew out his candle and fell silent. Saint hoped the rest of the riders would follow suit.

“So. Saint Peter.” Tommy continued, ignoring Peltier and focusing his attention where it was nearly as unwelcome.

Saint sighed, dragged into the conversation against his will. Tommy is a lot like a cat, he thought silently. Always wanting to sit in the lap of the least willing person available. He reluctantly peered over the top of his book and fixed the young express rider with what he hoped was a dark, forboding glare.

The boy continued, obliviously, “What do you think she’s like?”

Well, so much for that tactic. The rangy stagecoach driver blinked his eyes before tucking them firmly back into his book.

“C’mon, Saint. Aren’t you Eye-talians supposed to be experts on women and such?”

“Hell, Tommy, I don’t know.” He finally growled, his northeastern accent curling heavily around his words. “I hear she’s got six nipples. Alright? And teeth under her skirts. How ‘bout that?”

Lights-the-Storm snorted in disgust. “Oh, that’s a hell of a thing to say.”

Wash put down his boot and picked up the other one. “Miss Lily McMillain might as well have teeth under her skirts, eh, lad?” He laughed. “The lot of you should’ve heard the threats and oaths Jesse warned Saint with before he went on his mail run. ‘Don’t mess with my sister. I’ll kill ya if ya mess with my sister.’ It was almost funny, it was.”

“He sounded like Old Man Lynch warning us off Fiona.” Saint smirked, remembering his boss’s tirade. “First day on the job, we have to hear the boss going on and on with ‘ My niece is the housekeeper here and I’ll kill the first one of you sumbitches that messes with her. Blah blah blah. Geez, you’d think we were in the House of the Vestal Virgins or something.”

“It would be great if she was about Fiona’s age, too...” Tommy mused, ignoring him. “Or even younger! What if she was my age?”

“I am up before dawn tomorrow.” Storm snapped, swinging his legs down out of his bunk and dragging a pair of pants after him. “I am just going to ask Luis, alright? He was here when she showed up. He needs to turn in anyway, and maybe then you’ll all shut up and let me sleep.”
He shrugged into his trousers and shuffled out the door, muttering.

© 2008 Regina Shelley