When he didn't answer, she sat down on the steps to wait. It was pretty cold though. By the time he came out of the diner, she was about frozen, shivering and with her teeth chattering and was losing the feeling in her toes.
"What are you doing here?" he said almost tripping over her where she sat.
Hattie jumped up to speak to him, but suddenly slipped on the icy step. Her feet shot out from under her, and she flailed grabbing onto anything she could. It just so happened that she grabbed the sheriff and took him down with her. Somehow he'd managed to roll her over on top so as not to crush her under him, meaning he took the brunt of the fall. As she looked down at him while splayed across his chest, his shock mirrored her own. With her next breath she was scrambling off apologizing.
"Your Chandler's girl, aren't ya," he said with a dark scowl. "I ought to arrest you for attacking an arm of the law!"
"I attacked your legs, nnot your arm, and yyes, I am his ddaughter." She couldn't help it that her teeth were chattering. "I'm looking for my ppa. Haven't sseen him since the ttwenty-third." Her teeth chattering sounder faster than a telegraph operator typing. She had to concentrate on not rubbing her behind where it hurt from bouncing off the icy step. He didn't have the same compunction and was rubbing his backside vigorously.
"Well, I guess you'd better come in and warm up by my stove. No sense in you freezing out here, and we'll see what we can figure out about your father." He unlocked the door, his boots stomping and his spurs jingling while he limped inside still rubbing his back pockets.
She slipped in past him and almost hugged the fire. "You ought to pput some ssalt on that sstep before someone sseriously gets hurtt," Hattie suggested. Her teeth were still chattering.
"How do you know somebody didn't just get hurt bad already? I think I'm more bruised up than bareback breaking a Cayuse with a two inch high backbone. Stand back for a minute while I add another log," Sheriff North grumbled while she chewed her lip to keep from making a smart aleck retort.
"Coffee?" he gruffed.
"Drink this and then I'll put on a fresh pot." He wiped the rim of his cup with his shirt tail that had pulled loose in their tumble, then poured the black brew and handed it over. It looked thick enough for a spoon to stand up in.
"Thank yyou," she stuttered between shivers while wondering about his dubious cleanliness as she stared down at the warm cup blowing off its steam. But oh, my! It felt good to get warmth in her even if the brew was as black as the inside of a mule. Which reminded her...
"Pa's mule came home this morning without him. I checked Brown's Jug, and he hasn't been there since Christmas Eve when he said he was coming home." Finally, she'd stopped her shivers.
"Had he been paid lately for any work that you know of?"
"Not unless the Bar T paid him for breaking another horse for them, but it wouldn't have been that much. He probably spent it at the saloon anyway," she mumbled.
Sheriff North sat looking at her. "Any enemies?"
She looked up and met his blue-eyed stare. "You'd probably know better than me if there'd been any trouble in town."
"Hmm. Not that I've heard. So you were by yourself at Christmas?" He almost sounded kindly.
"Nothing new. I don't remember a Christmas with him staying home since Ma died. He can't face it without her, I guess."
He snorted. "That's a lousy excuse to leave your lil' gal at home by herself," he growled. The man wiped his hand down across his face. "You got any other family?"
"Not that I've met, but I heard once that I had an aunt in Billings," she said shrugging.
"Why don't you stay here and wait while I go search for him. Better yet, I'll set you up at the café to eat and stay warm until I get back, alright?"
"I don't need your charity, Sheriff. I'll just go on home and wait," she said.
"Actually, I don't think that's a good idea. There's a bad storm brewing out there."
She eyed him, wanting in the worst way to be able to go sit down to a good meal cooked by someone else. She'd never been waited on before. Her stomach even growled in agreement, but still she was wary. Keeping to herself, mostly due to the shame of her father, left her uneasy around anybody, the sheriff most of all. But the thought of trudging home in the cold without eating made her give in and go.
He escorted her across the street and two doors down. Opening the door for her, the heat and scrumptious smells from the kitchen won her over. He led her to a table in the back of the narrow room, and sat across from her for a moment. It was enough to make Hattie nervous. She'd never been treated by the sheriff, or any man so courteously. It caused Hattie to wonder what he was doing it for.
Sheriff North ordered a plate for her then got up to leave. "I'll go ask around town and see if anyone has seen your pa. Wait here."
Hattie tucked in the steaming food that was so good she was tempted to lick her plate. Instead, she ran her finger over it and licked up the last bit of gravy looking around to see if anyone noticed her bad manners. Sure enough, there were curious eyes upon her. Her feet were still thawing as she curled and uncurled her toes in her boots wishing she could stomp them under the table to bring the feeling back.
She hadn't come to town for quite a spell. She'd avoided it ever since Shannon McGee made fun of her when Hattie hiked into church one day. So what if her dress wasn't pretty or the latest style. At least it was clean and decent. She still remembered all the glares from those who walked a far circle around her in the church yard avoiding her as if she wore the stain of her pa upon her person. So, from then on she told her pa it was up to him to bring home groceries from town, that she wasn't going there anymore.
"And that means I'm not pulling you out of Brown's Bottle or the jail anymore either!"
He'd only hung his head and grunted, but did as she asked. Of course, it meant that they often ran out of things needed before he remembered to go to the mercantile. Or more like as not, he'd spend his money in the saloon filling his stomach with liquor and leaving her to go without.
Hattie sighed with pleasure at her full stomach now, but also with unease with her plight. She had to make it home before dark, especially when she glanced out the window and saw dark clouds piling up threatening more snow. She couldn't wait on the sheriff any longer, so she headed out.
When Hattie stepped outside, she knew the temperature was dropping. She hurried ploughing through the mid-calf deep snow drifts trying to find the footsteps that she had made on her way to town. The cold stole her breath and made her teeth ache. She tucked her hands under her armpits. Even with her wool mittens, she was losing the feeling in her fingers. Her toes were completely numb so she walked on wooden legs. She had to get home. The wind was making her struggle for each step.
"Miss Chandler!" Someone was hollering her name. Hattie turned and looked back. Someone was coming up on her, but she couldn't see through the sleet that was beginning.
"Miss Chandler," the man called. It was Sheriff North. "You should have stayed in town. There's a bad storm coming on us real fast. Here," he said pulling his boot out of the stirrup, "put your foot in there. I can hitch you up the rest of the way and give you a ride home."
Hattie only hesitated a moment as she was truly scared that she might not make it once the full brunt of the snow front was on her. She might find herself buried in a snow bank like her pa probably was and would more than likely freeze to death.
She was too cold to open her mouth, but the sheriff answered her unspoken question. "No one has seen your pa since before Christmas Eve. Sorry. When this storm is over, I'll round up a group of men to search for him, but I can't risk any lives to go out in it right now. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to find you in time."
That made Hattie wonder why he cared. However, she could already feel the heat of his body radiating to her as he had pulled her up close in front of him in the saddle and was grateful. No telling what would have happened to her if he'd not come along.
Hattie was relieved when her cabin was in sight. She was feeling like the fire had gone out inside her, and the cold had packed deep down. Since there was no smoke from her chimney, no doubt, the stove in her cabin had died as well. So the first thing she'd need to do was to build some log-licking flames from the coals, 'cause she was colder than a hard-packed snowball. Hattie knew the sheriff would have to warm up too before he headed back out in the storm which was about to unleash its fury, if he still could, that is. The grey frozen sky suddenly swallowed them in a squalling heavy snow that just about obliterated the sight of the cabin. It was good that they were almost there.
Sheriff North helped her down and pushed her through her own door as the wind tried to keep it shut by force. Once inside he knelt before the stove and blew on the embers before feeding it kindling. Finally it caught and he was able to load a couple of logs into it. When he stood beside her, they both held out frozen fingers waiting for the burn that came with thawing.
He looked around. Hattie was embarrassed. No one ever had come in except she and her pa. It was small, but she kept it clean. It was spare, but it had all they needed to survive, well, except there was a severe lack of groceries. But she could survive on the flour, cornmeal, dried beans and a slab of bacon she still had in stock, at least for a couple of days. Once she could bend her fingers, she'd make a pot of coffee and rustle up something to feed the both of them.
Her eyes went to him and then darted away to look out the window. "It doesn't appear that you'll be going anywhere right soon. That's a whiteout, and certain to lose anyone who went out in it.
The sheriff looked out as well then asked, "Do you have a stable for my horse?"
"Yes, the other side of the house. Pa strung a rope from the side of the house to it since that time I almost didn't make it back to the house in another storm like this a couple of years ago. It won't help though if you've lost feeling in your hands. You might want to tie a rope over it and around your waist so you won't get lost. That's as thick of a blizzard as I've ever seen. This is more than a pillow fight by a few angels tossing the white stuff down. It's more like they threw down the whole stinking sky-sized feather bed, kit and caboodle, all at once.
He chuckled. "Your right. As soon as I've warmed up a little more, I'll see to my horse."
She threw a pot of coffee on, and it was quiet between them as they listened to the wail of the storm that whipped against the sturdy logs of the cabin. "The mule will be glad for company, I imagine. Two can keep warm better than one."
He looked down at her sharply as if she was suggesting something else, then his eyes darted away.
She felt the blush burn on her cheeks. Who knew that quoting a little verse of Scripture could be so embarrassing?
She swallowed hard and said, "Thank you for coming along and bringing me home. I thought I could out run the storm, but I know now that I wouldn't have made it. I would have perished out there. It's probably what happened to my pa." She used her shoulder to wipe a stray tear. We had a snowing on Christmas Eve, but nothing like this. Still, if he wasn't fully in control of his faculties, if you know what I mean, he might have fallen off somewhere between here and town and not been able to get up." She had no more to say to this man. She didn't know whether he was just scowling more or was deep in thought.
"What kind of man would I be to let a little snippet of a gal go out and freeze to death, no matter whose daughter she was? Well, I guess I'll go out and see to my horse now," he added.
Hattie didn't know whether to think kindly on what he just said or be insulted. Still she replied, "Shoot your gun if you get disoriented, then I'll shoot mine. That was always my pa's advice. He was pretty smart if he put his mind to it..." if he didn't drown his smarts in a bottle first, she meant. "I'll also put a light in the window for you too."
"Thanks," he smiled.
That made her feel a little shivery way deep in her chest, like she had a catch in her breath. Must be the cold, she thought. She'd never thought nothing of him as a person, just as the dreaded man who would put her pa in the jail for disorderly conduct. He had once told her, as if he was the good guy, that he did it to give him a safe place to dry out. She'd doubted that. Her pa couldn't stand the man. That she did know. He'd be incensed if he knew the sheriff was standing here in his own cabin. But when the man stood next to her and she looked up, it was the first time she'd seen his eyes. Always before she looked down in shame when speaking to him, barely able to lift her head. He was younger than she thought., and a right pretty man, in a rugged sort of way.
Once she had poured herself a cup of coffee and drained it dry, she put on a skillet of bacon on the small Franklin stove. She'd make drop biscuits to go along with it, and got out her Dutch oven. He came in when she had her hands in the sticky dough ready to plop them in the iron pan. Even knowing he was coming back, it still made her jump when the wind tore the door out of his hands. She ran over and pulled it shut. With a loud thudding, he dropped an armload of firewood into the bin from the logs stacked up on the porch.
It was like he'd brought the whole storm in with him. The cabin was freezing again. He was covered with snow and melting puddles on the floor as he thawed out. If he'd been pa, she'd have brushed him off, but she left him to tend to himself. They both hovered by the stove until the cabin warmed up again. When he could talk without his teeth chattering, he said, "Fed the animals. Broke some ice to make sure they had some water too."
He went on, "Brr. I'm glad you suggested tying myself to that rope to pull along. Sure enough my hands lost their feeling before I made it back. I don't know if I could have held on or not. It may only be a little below zero, but that wind sure has a meaner bite to it. Lord knows you can't see a thing in the swirling snow. But my Lordy, it sure smells good in here! Mind if I pour myself another cup of coffee?"
"Help yourself. Just cut out the cheap swearing."
He looked aghast at her and asked, "What'd I say?"
"'Lordy,' and I don't think you were praying. My ma always called that cheap swearing."
"Jeeze-Louise! I never heard it called that, not even by my Bible thumping pastor back home."
"There you go again, using Jesus name in vain," she glared. "It's my house, and I set the rules."
"Golly Gee Willikers!" but he stammered to a stop and put out his hands when he saw her rounding on him with a rolling pin. "Darn it all, Ma'am! If you were to hear the language coming out of the mouths of those yahoos I lock up..." and he refused to mention her pa was right smack dab in the middle of them, "you'd think I was using right smart flowery speech around you."
"House rules. Regardless of my pa, I deserve a little respect." She pulled herself up straight with her chin up in the air.
"Yes, ma'am." With his eyebrows up, he eyeballed her like she was an unbroken piece of horseflesh up for auction and was determined to stay away from her rearing hooves.
He may be looking at her funny, but all she knew was that he'd better not bust out laughing at her, or she would send him out to sleep with the beasts in the barn.
There wasn't any butter, but they could put bacon in the biscuits or a glob of jam on them. She got out her last jar of blackberry jam she'd put up last summer. After all, he was company. She plunked down their copper plates and put out a couple of knives to cut the biscuits with.
As soon as the biscuits were done and hot, they sat down to eat. He said, "Mind if I pray?" She was shocked mute but bowed her head and closed her eyes. She felt a warmth as his words melted like butter inside.
"Dear God in heaven, Since you decided to open the vaults of the snow, I thank you that I was able to find Miss Chandler here in time and that we have a warm shelter and good food. Bless the hands that made it. In Jesus name, Amen."
After that though, they ate in silence across from each other at their small table. Neither said a word until he'd eaten most of the biscuits and sat back seemingly satisfied. "Those were some mighty fine biscuits, and that jam was as good as I've ever had. They hit the spot."
She blushed. She hated when that happened, and couldn't look him in the eye. But when she did glance up, Hattie could see him looking over the cabin. It wasn't much. Pa's big bed was in the room, same as the stove, and the table. There was a small crawl space above where she slept. The rope ladder was fastened to the side of the house up to the partial loft. Pa had told her that if any man came ever home with him, to go up there and pull the ladder up after her. She'd do that tonight. But now he was looking at the book she'd been reading and had left on the trunk.
"What book is that?" he asked.
"The Last of the Mohicans," Hattie answered. "It's pretty good."
"Since it looks like I won't be going anywhere, maybe you could read it aloud tonight, that is if you don't mind."
"I don't mind," she said. It'd sure beat sitting around trying to think of something to say to this stranger with a badge. Then she wouldn't even have to look him in the eye either. A faint smile crept to her lips. But when she found him staring at her, she lost it just as fast.
She melted snow for dishwater and was just about ready to collect the dirty dishes when she found him bringing them over.
"I can get those," she said embarrassed. Pa had never lifted a finger to do anything like that. Hattie didn't know what to make of him. She was pretty isolated here. Her only friend was the widow Cooper who lived across the creek and up a ways, but that woman was nearly fifty years old. When Hattie got pretty desperate for someone to talk to, she'd hike to her cabin. The widow had taught her a lot. She loaned her books too. But the sheriff was no Mizz Cooper. Hattie had never gotten around to asking the woman about men and how to act around them.
She hadn't seen the widow since Thanksgiving. Pa had sent over a chicken for her, saying that "the fool woman might need something to keep her alive." That sure surprised Hattie, but she was glad to deliver it. She even plucked the feathers for her first. Mizz Cooper sure enough was glad to have the naked bird. She'd sent home a pie, from the apples in her orchard. Pa had waited until they ate that up before he hit the bottle.
Dishes didn't take no time at all to do up. Hattie took up the book, then scraped her chair away from the table and sat down in front of the fire. He sank into her ma's rocker stretching out his legs.
"Want me to begin again from the beginning?" she asked as she opened the pages.
"Unless it'd spoil it for you to have to go back over what you've already read," he said.
"I borrowed it from Mizz Cooper and usually read a book two or three times before I take it back and get another. She has more books than sticks of firewood. I hope she's staying warm. Pa and I try to go over ever so often. He chops while I stack. Pa always teases her telling her she could burn her books and stay warm all winter," Hattie said smiling. "Of course he's just kidding."
"Mizz Cooper is a nice woman. She brings me a pie oft when she comes to town. She says it's thanks for finding your pa and giving him a bed in the jail as I often do. I didn't know he helped her out though. That's a fine thing to do."
That thought made her mind swim through a sea of confusion. Mizz Cooper grateful for how the sheriff treated her pa? Hmm. Not knowing what to say, she just began reading raising her voice over the storm.
After a couple of hours the words blurred and her eyelids drooped. "I'm going to have to stop now. I sleep up there," she pointed to the small loft, "and you can take pa's bed. Don't worry, I washed his sheets hoping he'd make it home, so they are clean. Good night."
She knew the sheriff watched her as she climbed her rope ladder. She could see him out of the corner of her eye when she pulled it up after her. Shivering on her knees before her bed, Hattie sighed. Snow had sifted down from the cracks in the ceiling where the shingles were missing. Her bed was covered in little white drifts. She gathered her quilt up by the corners and shook it out over the edge of her loft.
A laugh escaped as she saw that she had accidently thrown a snow shower over the sheriff.
"Next time I see you, you'd better look out or I might chuck a snowball at you, young lady," he said grinning.
"I'll watch my back," she said still smiling. Then she her countenance fell. "Sheriff, what do you think happened to my pa? Do you think he's coming back, or is he frozen out there somewhere."
He wiped his hand down his serious face and looked up. "I don't know what to tell you, Miss Hattie, but his chances of being found alive are pretty slim. I checked with any neighbors between here and town in case he bedded down with them. Sorry, I can't give you more hope." He looked sympathetically at her.
"Then what will happen to me?" she said so softly to herself that she didn't know if he'd heard.
He did. "We'll talk that over in the morning, alright?"
She shook her head wiping a tear away, then pulled her blanket back up. Hattie hugged it over her quaking in her bed from the cold and pure misery.
"I figure it must be pretty cold up there if that much snow got in and it didn't thaw on your blanket. I'll sleep on the ground in front of the fire and you can sleep in your pa's bed."
"I can sleep on the floor," she offered.
"No, ma'am. That's no way to treat a lady," he countered.
That stunned Hattie. No one had ever hinted that she was a lady. She'd just been the town drunk's unfortunate chit. Even Mizz Cooper always treated her as no more than a child. Nevertheless, she threw her blanket and pillow over the side yelling, "Catch!"
Oops, she'd thrown it down on him. "Sorry," but she felt a giggle rise up. She was still smiling as she climbed down the ladder. She pulled another of the blankets off her pa's bed and gave it to him. "Here, you can use both of those blankets to make a bed, but you'll have to circle three times like a dog does before you lay down on the hearth." She'd never teased anyone like this before and didn't know what had come over her. 'Course, she'd never had a man-stranger in the house before either.
She kept her eyes away as he pulled off his boots. They thudded on the ground one at a time. That jerked her eyes back unintentionally, and she saw him take off his vest with the badge and hang it on her chair. Hattie then rolled over with her back to him for good and certain. She was churned up with worry over her pa, but then relaxed after praying and slept well.
"Morning sunshine," the sheriff said grinning. "Do you always sleep this late?" He had a pot of coffee on and was frying up some bacon. "I was hoping you'd wake up and make some more of your biscuits."
Hattie threw off her covers embarrassed and hurriedly put her legs out over the edge of the bed, remembering a little late to pull her dress down to hide them. Her hair had all but flown free of her braid in her sleep. But when she looked out the windows, she could see the drifts had nearly covered them.
He'd noticed but politely looked out too. "I'll have to shovel my way out the door to get to the animals. The snow's still coming down heavily, but at least the wind's not blowing as hard."
It actually was extra quiet as if they were in a snow cocoon. "I'll make the biscuits. Won't take long since you already have a good fire." She jumped out of bed, and mixed up a batch as fast as she could. Hattie didn't know when she'd slept so long. She guessed she was used to listening all night for her pa to come in. It was wearisome. But with him good and gone, it was another kind of dread to wake up to.
"Doesn't look like you'll be heading into town any time too soon," she said casting another glance over her shoulder as she plopped the drop biscuits down.
"Nope. With this kind of storm, people know to stay sheltered. There wouldn't be too much call for folks to need me if I was in town, other than looking for your pa," he said softly. "I'm truly sorry about that."
She nodded swallowing back her tears. She'd cried some smothered in her pillow last night, but wasn't going to go soft in front of him now. However, her idea of the cold sheriff was starting to melt a little.
After they ate another silent meal at the table, he again expressed his appreciation and took his plate over to the snow they'd melted to wash in.
"I'll get these. I know you want to get out to the stock," she offered.
"Yes, ma'am, I do. Thanks."
He could barely shove the door open against the snow that had blown up and drifted onto the porch. First he handed in some more logs, then shut the door only to be swallowed up by the cold. She heard him shoveling, scraping the heavy white blanket away. When it got quiet, she knew he had gone to the stable. Even though it was daytime, it was still eerily dark in the storm. Hattie lit the lantern and put it in the window facing the path to the animals and watched for him to come back.
Sure enough, the door banged open again surprising her. "Glad that's done," he said. "It's cold enough to turn me into an icicle!" Once again she shut the door since his arms were full of firewood.
Just as she was about to turn and hand him a cup of coffee, a snowball hit her smack dab in the back. Hattie barely kept from dropping his cup. upon turning around, she saw him standing there grinning. Only this time his eyes snared hers, and she was caught in their trap as sure as a rabbit in a snare.
"Sorry, I shouldn't have done that," he mumbled starting to lose his smile.
A smile teased her lips. "Just wait. I'll catch you unawares. You don't lock people up who throw snowballs at the sheriff, do you?"
He grinned slyly as he said, "If I wanted them close at hand, I might." Then his smile vanished as he ran his hand over his face. "Well, did you want to talk now?"
She sighed and sat down. "I can't quite piece it out. My mind's worse than the stitching on a crazy quilt."
"I figure we could come up with some options, and you can decide what to do, if worse comes to worse, that is." He blew on his coffee and took a sip, "Umm. Let's see, the most obvious solution would be for you to marry." He was looking down at his wet boots.
She dropped her tin cup and coffee flew out everywhere, on her, on the floor and even some on him.
"What! That's plum crazy. I don't have a beau." She looked at him dumbfounded. Then she grabbed a rag and started mopping up her mess hoping to hide her bright blush.
"Well, you're of an age and pretty as all get-out," he said trying to smile.
"What are you saying then? I just go to town and find me a husband? The only men I know of frequent Brown's Bottle, and I want nothing to do with a drinking man," She said adamantly.
"There's a few good men in town, not many, but a few," he said gently. "I can ask around. Since you've tucked yourself away, I doubt many even know you're here. We could ride to town, and I could introduce you," he said with his eyes steady upon her. "Sometimes these long winter nights makes a man think of..." he cleared his throat, "of needing some companionship." He colored up a bit.
"What are my other options?" Hattie crossed her arms over her chest and asked refusing to be backed into a marriage corner. She'd come out swinging first. When he took his time answering, she found herself twiddling the end of her braid she'd just redone while he was outside.
"You could try to find a job in town, but I'm not aware of anyone hiring. Business always in a slump in the winter. Suddenly he glared saying, "But don't even think about letting any barkeeps offer for you to wash dishes or something," he said glaring at her.
"Of course not. I'm not stupid," she huffed back. She knew how some women started off in a bad business.
"Sorry. The only other thing we could try would be to find that aunt of yours up in Montana, the one you mentioned."
"I doubt we could find her. Pa didn't even know her married name. While you were out with the stock, I looked through the trunk and couldn't find any old letters. I'm afraid that's a dead end," she sighed, then brightened. "I could stay here by myself. Maybe in the summer I could grow enough in my garden to sell my truck in town. I know how to hunt and fish and trap. I could sell my skins too. That might tide me over," she said hopefully as if trying to convince herself.
"Or you could starve or be an easy target for some unseemly caller knowing you were alone," he said practically growling.
She stared out the window daring any tears to fall as she fought despair. Finally she broke the quiet that had fallen. Hattie practically whispered, "I suppose I should marry. Never thought about it before since pa needed me. But what if no one wants me?"
The sheriff snorted. "Nothing to worry about there. I could put a good word in for you," he said running his hands through his hair. "Maybe that's not a good idea just yet," he sighed. "I'll try to keep it quiet about having to hole up here in this storm with you so your reputation will be kept as pure as the driven snow." He attempted a smile, but knew he'd alarmed her.
"I never gave that any thought," she sighed. "Besides, you've been respectful of me, and I thank you, especially since you're the law and I'm just the daughter of a drunk. People might not give me the benefit of the doubt, but surely they would expect that you've acted as a gentleman."
"Of course, most would. But there's always a vicious one out there who lives for malicious gossip. The Bible says we're to avoid any appearance of evil, but that's nigh impossible in this storm."
"What do we do?" she asked nervously.
"We might have to bury your father right away, then hurry you into a marriage. Once that happens, you should be safe from vicious tongues. There's probably several men who wouldn't mind taking over this property. It's a nice piece though your father didn't work it much," he glanced at her and saw her shame. "Sorry, I didn't mean..."
"That might be a better incentive than the thought of marrying me. I doubt many would be willing to take me on considering my pa's bad name."
The sheriff took her work calloused hands into his rough ones and waited until she looked up at him. "Miss Hattie, God is your Father. You are His daughter. He took your shame on the cross. Just remember, you are only responsible for your own sins, not your pa's." He let go of her hands, but ran his finger down her cheek then lifted her face so she would have to look at him. "Besides, you are a lovely young woman. Any man would be delighted to make you his wife. Somewhere in Isaiah chapter 62, it says "Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken...instead thy land Beulah or married; for the Lord delighteth in thee." I can't quote it all perfectly, but it goes something like that.
Hattie studied his eyes, a golden brown with glints of green under his half closed lids which were rimmed by dark lashes below just as dark brows. She took a deep breath and let it out. "Thank you, Sheriff. I don't even know your name, but I'll never forget the kind things you've said. It's almost enough to make me believe you." She smiled gratefully but swallowed hard.
"If you can't believe me, believe the Scripture, young lady!" he grinned pulling his hands away. "Houston. My name is Houston North. It's been awhile since anyone's asked me."
"Houston, one hero named after another," she grinned, for truly he was her hero.
For supper she made cornpone and beans with more bacon. They took turns reading to each other, staying up late until they finished the entire book. Hattie had never enjoyed a book more. He was good company. She loved hearing his low voice reading like distant thunder rumbling. Hattie also was wont to study his face as he read. His chestnut hair fell almost down in his eyes, and he kept swiping it away. Of course, he was as brown as a nicely tanned deer hide from being outside. He made her mother's rocking chair look small with his lanky legs stretched out and with his huge hands cradled the book .
Hattie had heard that he'd served the North in the war between the states. Her brother who had died had also served the North, but most of the young men hereabouts had been riled up for the South. The sheriff was still just a young man, not nearly as old as she had once thought. He was probably about the age her brother would have been.
Houston stretched and yawned. "I'm glad you don't have cows that have to be milked, Miss Hattie. The beasts in the stable can wait until morning for me. I think I'll just put on another log and call it a day." Handing her book back, his fingers touched hers and he hung onto the book longer than necessary. Then he studied her as if he was reading her like a book wondering how it would end. Finally, he dropped his eyes and just said, "Thanks, Miss Hattie, for sharing the book with me. That was a good story," he glanced back up, "one I'll always remember, especially nice having shared it with you."
Feeling suddenly very shy, Hattie said nothing, but crawled into bed. She pulled the covers up to her chin leaving her back to this man sleeping in the house. She was alone. With him. He turned out the lantern. She lay there awake trying to fathom what it would be like to be married. Her parents had been happy together since pa had not begun drinking until after her ma and brother were gone. It was hard to remember those happy times before the war, when her brother was still alive and her mother was still with them. Now it might be her pa's turn to be buried. Then she'd be very much alone. Would any other man be as nice as the sheriff? What did it mean to feel something funny when his hand touched hers as he gave her back the book? Did he feel it too? Is that why he looked at her so long like he ached? She could tell by his breathing that he was still awake too, but it was improper to talk to him, especially about such things. Besides, she couldn't put into words the confusion she felt.
Her eyes almost hurt when she opened them the next day due to the sun gleaming off the brilliant snow lighting up the cabin. The sky had dressed in her periwinkle gown, as her mother would have said. Then she realized, the sheriff would leave now. She'd be alone again. Hattie closed her heart to self pity. She didn't have time for that. In fact, he was gone, but his gun belt was still here. Houston must be out taking care of the animals. Hattie needed to hurry up and make more biscuits. He could clean out the rest of the jam out of the jar today. She grinned at the thought of the way he enjoyed it, closing his eyes almost with every bite.
The biscuits were baking, the bacon was crisping, and the coffee was perking when he came in. Houston looked at her with half a grin and said, "Happy New Years! It's pouring sunshine on us for now, but the snow is plenty deep. After breakfast, I'll go to town and round up a search party." His eyes studied hers. "Will you be okay, or would you rather I take you to the Widow Cooper's house first?"
She stiffened her back. "I'm alright alone. I'm used to it." He just frowned.
It was a quiet breakfast. After he'd put his dish and cup in the soapy water, Houston tugged on his coat. He stood looking at her. Finally, he said, "It's been a pleasurable time with you, Miss Hattie. Thank you for the good food and company. I'll come by late this afternoon and let you know if we found anything." He gave her a sideways hug and kissed the top of her head. "Take care. Don't run off anywhere. The snow's deep enough to swallow you whole," he winked. With that he was gone, and her life was empty.
It took her just a moment to put away the blankets he'd folded. Her father's bed was made. She swept, but the floor wasn't dirty. She'd wiped up the melted snow already. Hattie wasn't ready to read the book again they'd shared. It just didn't seem right quite right yet after having read it together. So, she got out her mother's Bible and read that. Hattie prayed they'd find her pa.
Good to his word, Houston came by with several men on horseback to say that he was calling off the search. She met them out in the yard. They'd found nothing.
"Do you want to come in and get a cup of coffee?" He never got off his horse.
"Better not, Miss Hattie. Thank you anyway, and sorry I don't have better news." He looked her steadily in the eye to make sure she was alright.
She nodded slightly at him and said, "I didn't really expect any." Then she raised her voice and said to the other men gathered, "Thank you gentlemen for looking for my pa. I do appreciate it." That was as much as she could say without her eyes brimming over as she worked hard to contain them.
When the men left, she could hear their voices with a word here or there snatched away by the wind and carried back to her ears. They seemed to be joshing the sheriff about something. Did she just hear them laughing. "Two nights?" There was more boisterous laughing, then she caught someone saying, "She's a looker," and "Lucky dog!" Then they were gone. She stood with her hands fisted. "Stupid men." She went in and slammed the door.
Who would want to marry her now? Maybe someone who wanted her property badly enough, she thought. Tomorrow she'd go see the pastor about a service for her pa. Hattie sighed. At least the men's horses had trampled out enough of a path through the snow for her mule to follow into town.
The next morning, she was ready to ride. The sky was such an intense blue, it was as if heaven was watching over her. But somehow all Hattie wanted to do was see Houston once her mule plodded into town. She slid off in front of the sheriff's office and knocked on his door.
He seemed shocked to see her standing there. Then he looked around before inviting her in. "Good morning, Miss Hattie. Can I help you?" He seemed stiff for some reason.
"I came into town for two reasons. I'm going to see the reverend about having a service for my pa, and then I want to meet some of those men you said might want to marry me." She had no idea how she still stood there without fainting after making such an outlandish declaration, but she had no choice except to face reality. Besides, it was his idea. He said he would find potential husband candidates for her, and she'd hold him to it. Hattie had worn her nicest dress though she had nearly outgrown it and the buttons strained down her front. She even did her hair up for once, but the wind had ripped it down again and stolen all her hair pins by the time she reached town.
"Miss Hattie, I...ugh..." The man almost looked scared. "Give me a moment to think." He drove his fingers through his hair almost as if he wanted to pull it out. It had seemed so simple when talking in the cabin. He looked up at the ceiling, then down to his boots, clicking one after another off the list in his head. Finally he said, "I'll round up a couple men on such short notice, men who are in town. Then I'll meet you at the preacher's."
When her eyes grew round he said, "Just to introduce you, that's all." She relaxed a mite. "Thank you." She mounted her mule and turned its head away. Blinking back tears, she finally realized what was upsetting her. She had hoped that the sheriff himself might be interested, would speak for her, but evidently not. She guessed she wasn't that good of a catch after all. She rode to the church as if going to a hanging. Her throat tightened as if it were squeezed by a rope. She didn't know which was worse, burying her pa or having to marry a stranger. A sleigh sat outside the church with horses steaming their breath. She didn't know what to do. Should she knock or just go right on in. She decided to quietly enter the sanctuary and wait. As her eyes adjusted from the brightness outside to the dim interior she screamed, "Pa!" and went running down the aisle. Mizz Cooper was there too along with the preacher and the doctor.
"Where were you?" she demanded once she quit hugging him. "The sheriff had a search party out looking for you. We all thought you were surely dead lying frozen in a snowbank somewhere." Hattie looked back and forth between her Pa and Mizz Cooper. He was looking almost sheepish and the widow Cooper was blushing. Hattie's eyes grew wider looking beyond them where she saw the preacher standing there with his book open in front of them. She ignored his gaping mouth. The doctor wasn't much better.
"Are you getting," she gulped, "married?"
"Darling, I can explain..."
Mizz Cooper jumped in, "I found your father Christmas Eve. He'd fallen off his mule and injured himself."
"I was trying to give her a Christmas present, but wasn't in any condition to give it to her I guess," her pa interjected.
"Anyway," she smiled sweetly up at him, "He had a touch of lung fever, but it was the alcohol shakes and demons that he had to be rid of. The doctor, then the preacher stopped by. They both agreed he shouldn't be moved."
"Next thing you know, that storm hit. It was a doozy! Were you okay darling?" her pa asked. "I wasn't too worried since you have a good head on your shoulders and knew better than to go out in the storm."
She nodded her head but thought back to almost being caught in it until the sheriff rescued her, and how he stayed...She forced herself to listen again as shocked as she was to hear their tale.
"The preacher had hinted that since she was nursing me so long alone in her house," he looked up at the widow all calf-eyed, "that we'd better tie the knot to shut up any gossip that might taint her."
"He's been delivered from the demon drink," the woman said with a sure shake of her pretty gray head.
Hattie's mouth dropped open. She sure as goodness knows hoped that was true.
The preacher cleared his throat, and they all looked up at him. He stared her down. "The talk in town is that the sheriff was out to your place for two nights during the storm. Is that true, Miss Hattie?"
She could only nod her head and swallow hard before her pa exploded, "Why that dirty, rotten, snake in the grass, why I'll..."
"Snake in the snow, dearest," Mizz Cooper interjected.
"Pa, he rescued me from freezing to death in the storm. I'd walked to town looking for you, but the storm caught up with me before I could get back home. He found me just in time right as it broke. Of course, he couldn't go back out in the blizzard. It would have been certain death..."
Her pa was still growling as the back door of the sanctuary burst open. Three men were silhouetted by the bright winter sunshine behind them. She didn't recognize two of them, except the third one she'd know anywhere.
"Miss Hattie, Mizz Cooper, Pastor, Doc...wait, you're alive Mr. Chandler?"
Hattie glanced back at the two blushing potential grooms more thankful than ever that she'd found her pa alive and wouldn't be forced to marry either one of them. She was half mad that Houston--no she'd go back to calling him Sheriff--that he thought she'd settle for either of these two limp wristed bachelors.
"Sorry, gentlemen. It was kind of you to come, but I won't be needing you any time soon," she said as gently as she could. They thundered back down the aisle jostling each other in their hurry on their way out to escape. Evidently their mamas never taught them that it wasn't reverent to run in church. Houston looked at her out of the corner of his eye with his eyebrow arched not daring to take his eyes completely off her father who looked as riled as a rattlesnake coiled to strike.
"You!" he hissed. "You spent two nights in our very home with my defenseless daughter. I demand that you marry her here and now for the sake of her reputation!"
"Papa!" she exclaimed. "How rude! This man doesn't want to marry me." She swallowed that hurt down like a burr. "Besides, he was the perfect gentleman."
She'd just thrown fuel on the fire. Her pa, who'd never liked the sheriff anyway, blaming him for having to spend so many nights in jail in a drunken state, was turning redder than a hot coal. Even Mizz Cooper was trying to calm him down now.
"You! What's wrong with my daughter? What do you mean you don't want her? She's as fine as..."
Houston was backing up with his hands in front of him. "Believe you me, I know she's desirable, I mean, she's as fine as a fresh breeze on a summer day, as a warm fire during a cold snowstorm," he swallowed knowing he'd just said all the wrong things. "But I can't marry your daughter. I'm already married!" He looked at her in misery, and said just to her, "I would marry you if I was free, but I'm not."
Hattie could only mouth the word, "married?" as the others shouted it, even the pastor and doctor joined in unison.
"Where is she then?" Pa demanded.
"Last I heard she was still back in Franklin, Tennessee. We'd only been married less than a month when I enlisted." Houston didn't say how terrible that first month had been, everything but marital bliss. He hadn't realized he'd married a hornet with a stinger. He ran his hand through his hair since he'd respectfully taken his hat off in church. "When I told her I was leaving so I could sign up for the North, she had a real hissy-fit, carrying on and wailing to wake the dead. The corker was that she told me not to bother coming home, that if I was going to fight for the North, that I didn't need to ever come back to her, that I was dead to her. So after the war, I never went back. A friend had written that the house I'd inherited from my grandfather was gone anyway, burned down. No one said what happened to her. I never asked. I never really cared before now. I was determined to be a bachelor all the rest of my days." He looked at Hattie with regret. "But I'll swear on the Bible, that one right there in the preacher's hands, that I never touched your daughter."
Her hand went up to where he'd stroked her cheek so gently. "It's true, Pa. It's like I said. He was stuck with me in the house, but was the perfect gentleman. As soon as the weather cleared, he rounded up a group of men to go out looking for you."
Then she looked at the pastor accusingly, "You knew? You knew my pa was alive and didn't tell me?" He coughed nervously. "And you?" she glared at the doctor who was turning an unbecoming red. "How could you torture me, leaving me to think the worst."
The pastor ran his finger around his collar. "I just assumed the doctor here had told you. I guess he assumed I had. Then the storm hit. After that by then we both assumed at least by now, your pa surely would have come by."
She looked hard at her father. "Why didn't you come home first before coming to town?"
"We wanted to hurry and get married. I guess I just didn't figure on you worrying so much?" he looked like a hound dog simpering.
"Wouldn't worry? You've been gone eight days at least, pa! The mule came home without you! Why did you think I wouldn't be worried sick?"
He shrugged sheepishly again, but then looked back at the sheriff, and his face hardened. He stalked right up and got in the sheriff's face and poked his finger into his chest as he said, "As for you, Sheriff, I suggest you send a telegram right now to Franklin, Tennessee, to see if you are still a married man or not. And if you are, then do right by your wife. If not, I'll see you back here waiting with the preacher."
Hattie watched consternation turn into resolve on his face then hope as he looked at her. Houston said, "Yes, sir. I'll send my friend a message. His business isn't far from the telegraph office. I heard he made it through the war and went back home, but I haven't contacted him since the war's been over. We were close friends once, but he wore the grey while I wore the blue. I hope he would tell me the truth."
As he left in a hurry, the preacher cleared his throat. "Highly unusual. Shall we began again?"
Hattie slipped into a pew and watched as her pa married her best friend, Mizz Cooper. She couldn't begin to think where they'd all live now. Would her pa think that she should stay in their house alone while he moved into the widow's more comfortable home? As many times as she'd been there, she couldn't think if there was even an extra bedroom or a loft at the widow's. She was too shook up right now. Hattie couldn't begin to imagine what her father meant by what he said about the sheriff meeting him back here at church if...Then again, she asked herself, what she would do if his wife came out here to be with him. If that was the case, Hattie determined never to step foot back in town again, ever. That would be one more reason not to. She couldn't bear it. She'd become the peculiar spinster who lived by herself, a recluse. Maybe she'd even tame a raccoon for a pet. Her mind wandered as she tried to think up a name for a pet wild thing.
No sooner had the preacher pronounced them man and wife, than her father smouched his new wife a good one. Hattie looked away shuddering. Then the door banged open again. The preacher really needed to do something about the way it did that.
But her thoughts were all gone from her head as soon as she realized who it was, as empty as an egg sucked clean by a hound dog. There before her was a grinning sheriff marching down the aisle spurs ajingling. Instead of getting down on one knee, however, he scandalously swooped her up and put her on his lap right there in her pew and kissed her in front of God and everybody. She could hear more than the preacher gasping hard for air.
"Miss Hattie, I'd be much obliged if you'd have me for your husband." Then he kissed her again as if he'd been desiring to do that for days. It put all kinds of new ideas into her empty head. Finally, her pa tapped him on the shoulder.
"Looks like you two are next. I take that to mean that you are a free man, sheriff?"
"Yes sir. It seems everyone back there thought I had died in the war since I never came home. My wife up and remarried right away to some surviving soldier who wore her favored color gray. So, I'd say I'm available. I'm just waiting to hear from my dear, sweet Hattie." He looked back at her. Somehow, his grin had grow even bigger and his eyes were twinkling.
When she found the power of speech again, Hattie said, "As long as you promise no more snowball fights in the house, I'll say yes."
He threw back his head and laughed. "I promise that we'll be too busy to have snowball fights as long as you promise to read to me after supper every night, among other things." He winked, and his grin held more mischief now than was proper in church. Hattie jumped up with her face flaming and said, "Well, we'd better tie the knot then, I guess."
And they did as witnessed by her pa who was chewing his moustache trying to reconcile having the sheriff as a son-in-law, and by the new Mrs. Chandler who was finally realizing that Hattie had grown up, and by a chagrined physician who finally got his right color back, and by the minister who signed the marriage license with a shaky hand. Two weddings in one day? That was his personal best, a new town record!
"But you will be called, 'My delight is in her...'