Authors: LaVyrle Spencer
She remembered them all too clearly, the knuckles bound because she'd burned herself on a live coal as she dug for charcoal, her feet and gown soiled by running to Doc's house.
"He was unconscious, and gangrene had set in. I went to fetch Doctor Dougherty."
"Oh? I don't seem to remember the doctor coming that night."
"Well, he didn't… I mean, he wasn't home, so I had to treat Jesse—Mr. Cameron, I mean, as best I could."
"You seem to have treated him to more than a mustard poultice," David accused.
"Save your explanations for someone who'll buy them,
She was as pale as a sheet by this time and clutching her hands together to stop their trembling.
"I think you had better go, Mr. Melcher," she said quietly. A muscle worked in his jaw as he looked at her standing so still and erect beside the smirking man.
"Yes, I think I had," he agreed, quietly now too, and turned from the room. He went upstairs to gather his things together with a heavy heart. When he returned downstairs she stood clear across the parlor, the pain in her heart well hidden as she faced him.
"I have no shoes," he said forlornly.
"You may wear Father's slippers and have someone return them when they come for your valise." Her hands were clutched as their eyes locked, then parted.
"Miss Abigail, I…"He swallowed. "Perhaps I was hasty."
"Yes, perhaps you were," she said in clipped tones, too hurt to soften.
He limped to the screen door and each step crushed a petal of some fragile flower which had blossomed within her since he'd come here. He pushed the door open, and her hand instinctively reached toward him. "You…" He turned and she retracted the guilty hand. "You may take one of Father's canes. There's no need to return it."
He took one from the umbrella stand, looked balefully across at her, and said, "I'm ever so sorry." She longed to cross the room, draw an arm through his, and say, "It's all a big mistake. Stay and we'll set it straight. Stay and we'll have lemonade in the garden. I too am sorry." But pride kept her aloof. He turned and limped away.
She watched him until he turned a corner and was lost to her. He was a gentle man and a gentleman, and both attributes had lifted Miss Abigail's waning spinster hopes, but those hopes were firmly dashed now.
There would be no lemonade in the garden, no soft, kid city shoes arriving to tell her he was thinking of her. There would be only her quiet afternoons of weeding and her twilights spent with the sonnets. What have I done to deserve this? she thought painfully. I've done nothing but save an outlaw's life.
As if on cue, his voice came, clear and resonant. " Abbie?"
Impossible to believe how a single word could make one so angry.
"There's no one here by that name!" she exploded, swiping at an errant tear.
"Abbie, come on," he wheedled, louder this time.
She wished she could ram a fork down his throat and incapacitate it again! She ignored him and went to do her morning chores in the kitchen.
"Abbie!" he called after several minutes, his voice growing stronger and more impatient. But she went on with her tasks, drawing extreme pleasure now from disregarding him. Hate lodged in her throat like a fishbone.
"Goddamnit, Abbie! Get in here!"
She cringed at the profanity but vowed it would never put her at a disadvantage again. Two could play this wily game, and she wasn't above trying to get even for what he'd done. She calmly ignored his calls until finally, in a voice filled with rage, he bellowed.
"Miss Abigail, if you don't get in here this minute, I'm going to piss all over your lily white bed!"
Appalled, blushing, but believing every word he said, she grabbed the bedpan and ran. "You just try it!"
she shouted, and flung the bedpan from the doorway. It came down on his good knee with a resounding
, but she was gone before the reverberations ended. In her wake she heard him hiss something about a vicious asp.
Horrified and shaking, she knew she'd made it worse, for she'd have to go back in there and collect the thing and—oh! he'd been so angry again! Maybe she shouldn't have flung it at him, but he deserved it, and worse. He'd have deserved it had it been full! She pressed her hands to her cheeks. What am I thinking? He's turning me into the same sort of uncouth barbarian he is. I must get control of myself, pull myself together. I'll get rid of him as soon as I can, but until I do, I'll level my temper, like Mother always warned me I must, and somehow squelch this urge for revenge. She was in careful control by the time she reentered his room and spoke with cold disdain.
"I suggest, sir, that for the duration of your convalescence we draw a truce. I should like to see you well and on your way again, but I simply cannot brook your hostility."
"My hostility! I deserve a fit of hostility! First I got shot by that… that
for something I didn't do, then tortured by a woman who whacks me in the teeth with her spoon, refuses to tell me where I am or why, calls me by somebody else's name, ties me to the bedpost, and holds out on me when I need a bedpan!
Lady, you talk about hostility, I've got plenty, and more where that came from!"
His shouting shattered her nerves, but she carefully hid it, purring, " I see you've regained full use of your vocal chords."
Her high and mighty attitude made him bellow all the louder, "You're goddamn right I have!" Her eyes actually twitched.
"I do not allow profanity in this house," she gritted.
"Like hell you say!" he roared.
"How brave you are when you shout like a madman." And finally he started to simmer down. Using her finest diction, her quietest tones, and her explicit vocabulary, she laid down the law while she had him feeling sheepish. "At the onset, sir, you must understand that I shall not accept your calling me by such familiar and disparaging terms as Abigail, Abbie or… or
. You shall call me Miss Abigail, and I will call you by your surname if you will kindly give it to me."
"Like hell I will."
How easily he could rout the importance of etiquette and make her feel the one in error.
"What's the matter with calling me Jesse?" he asked now. "It's my name. You were so anxious for me to tell you what it was when you thought I might not make it."
"Yes, for your tombstone," she said smugly.
Unexpectedly, he smirked. "Now I'll never tell you the rest of it." She turned away quickly, fearing she might smile.
"Please, can't we quit this bantering and resolve our dispute?"
"Damn right we can. Just call me Jesse,
Abigail." Once he'd said it, she wished he hadn't—not that way! He was the most irritating man she'd ever met.
"Very well, if you won't tell me your last name, I'll continue to call you Mr Cameron. I've grown used to it, in any case. However, if you persist in using crudities as you did earlier, we won't get along at all. I'd appreciate it if you'd temper your tongue."
"My tongue doesn't take to tempering too readily. Most of the places I go it doesn't have to."
"That has become very obvious already. However, I think neither of us likes being cast together this way, but seeing that we are, shall we make the best of it?"
Again he considered her words, analyzing her highfalutin way of speaking and that cocky eyebrow that constantly prickled his desire to irritate her.
"Are you going to poison me with any more of your potions you concoct for naughty gunslingers?" he queried mischievously.
"You have proven this morning, without a doubt, that you don't need it," she replied, her ears still ringing from his tirade.
"In that case, I accept your truce, Miss Abigail." And with that, the tension seemed to ease somewhat.
She went to the bay window and opened it to the morning air. "This room smells foul. It and you need a thorough airing and cleaning. You have grown as rank as your bedclothes," she finished, her back to him as she flung the curtains up over their rods.
"Tut-tut, Miss Abigail, now who's goading?"
That "tut-tut" sounded preposterous coming from a man like him. She wasn't sure if she could handle his newfound sense of humor.
"I only meant to say I thought you might appreciate a bath, sir. If you would rather lie in your own effluvia, I will thankfully let you." By now he knew that she cut loose with her high-class words whenever she got flustered. It was fun seeing her color up that way, so he went on teasing.
"Are you proposing to give me a bath while I lay naked in this bed?" He gasped in mock chagrin and pulled the sheet up like some timid virgin.
Turning, she had all she could do to keep from laughing at him in that ridiculous pose. She cast him a look of pure challenge and stated in no uncertain terms, "I did it before… I can do it again."
His thick black eyebrows shot up in surprise. "You did it before!" He pushed the sheet back down, just below his navel. "Well, then…"He drawled, relaxing back with his good hand cradling his head.
When she spun from the room he lay there smiling, wondering if she'd really give him a
cleaning. His smile grew broader. Hell, I'm willing if you are, Abbie, he thought, and lay in the best fit of humor he'd enjoyed since falling into this flower bed of hers.
When she returned, he watched her roll up her sleeves, thinking, ah, the lady bares her wrists to me at last. He knew he had her pegged right. She was virtuous to the point of fanaticism, and he couldn't figure out how she was going to handle this situation and come out as innocent as she went in. He enjoyed himself immensely, potent buck that he was, lying back waiting for her discomfort to begin.
She had very delicate hands that looked incapable of managing the job. But some minutes later she had an oilcloth under him so fast, he didn't remember raising up to have it slid into place. He submitted complacently, raising his chin, turning his head, lifting his arm upon command. He had to hand it to her, she really knew how to give a man a decent bed bath. It felt damn good. He couldn't believe it when she climbed up next to him to get at his left side. But she did it, by Jove! She did it! And raised a new grudging respect in him.
"Now that we've drawn a truce, maybe you'll tell me why you started calling me Cameron," he said while she lathered away.
"I thought you were awake and sensible that first time you spoke. I asked you your name and you said
'Mike Cameron.' I heard it, or rather saw it, distinctly."
He remembered back and suddenly laughed. "I didn't say Mike Cameron, I said 'my camera,' but at the time it felt like somebody was drying their green rawhide around my neck, so it might not have come out too cleat" He looked around. "By the way, where is it?"
"Where is what?" She kept on ascrubbing, kneeling there beside him.
"Camera?" She glanced up dubiously. "You've actually lost a camera and you think
know where it is?"
He raised a sardonic eyebrow. "Well, don't you?"
She'd been washing his side. The cloth in her hand rested nearly on his hip now, the sheet still covering him from there down. She looked at him and said dryly, "Believe me, Mr. Cameron, I have not come upon a camera on you… anyplace. " It was out before she could control it, and Miss Abigail was immediately chagrined at what she'd said. Her startled eyes found his, then veered away as she set to work with renewed intensity.
"Why, Miss Abigail, shame on you," he drawled, grinning at the rising color in her cheeks. But he was sincerely worried about his equipment. "A camera and plates take up one hell of a lot of space. What could have happened to them?" he asked. "And my grip was with my photographic gear. Where is it?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about. You were brought to me just as you are, sir, and nobody said anything about any camera or plates. Do you think I'm hiding them from you? Put your arm up, please."
Up went his arm while she scrubbed the length of it, including his armpit.
"Well, they've got to be someplace. Didn't anybody get them off the train?" She started rinsing the soap off the arm.
"The only things they carried off that train were you, Mr. Melcher, and his valise. I'm sure nobody expected a thief to be carrying a camera." The little upward tilt of her eyebrow told him just how preposterous she thought his little fable. "Tell me, sir, what an outlaw does with a camera." She looked him square in the eye, wondering what lie he'd concoct.
He couldn't resist. "Take pictures of his dead victims for his scrapbook." His evil grin met her appalled look.
"That, Mr Cameron, isn't even remotely funny!" she snapped, suddenly scrubbing too hard.
"Ouch! Take it easy! I'm a convalescent, you know."
"Please don't remind me," she said sourly.
His tone became conversational. "You wouldn't believe me anyway, about my camera, so I won't bother to tell you. You'd rather think I was merrily robbing trains, then you can feel justified in…" his voice raised a few decibels as he yanked away "… tanning my hide instead of just scrubbing it! Ouch, I said!
Don't you know what ouch means, woman?" He nursed his knuckles. But he could almost hear the bones snap in her neck, she stiffened up so fast.
"Don't call me woman, I said!"
She snatched his hand back and began drying it roughly.
"Why? Aren't you?" Her hands fell still, for he had taken hold of her hand, towel and all, and was holding it prisoner in his long, dark fingers. Panic knifed through her at the flutter of her heart. She looked up at his dark eyes, probing with an intensity that alarmed her.
"Not to you," she answered starchily, and pulled her hand free, then quickly clambered off the bed.
Something indefinable had changed between them in that instant when he grasped her hand. They were now quiet while she proceeded with the washing of his right leg. She soaped the length of it, working gingerly at the area near the wound. Once he arched his chest high and dug his head back into the pillow with a swift sucking breath of pain.