Read Pearl Online

Authors: Lauraine Snelling

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Pearl (26 page)

BOOK: Pearl
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‘‘That was some shot.’’ Beans spoke from behind Rand.

‘‘That was pure luck. Did you even see him before he leaped?’’

‘‘Nope. I had my eyes peeled, but I don’t know where he come from.’’ The two men made their way down out of the rocks and carefully approached the cat, just in case he had some life left. One swipe with those claws could cause more infection than a dressing of dung. Rand nudged the animal with the barrel of his rifle. No motion.

‘‘Cut the cow loose before she breaks her neck. We’ll never get that carcass over one of the horses, so think I’ll skin it here.’’

‘‘Why? Do you want the pelt?’’

‘‘For a rug, I guess. Could take the head too, but I’ll leave it here for the scavengers.’’

‘‘You ever tanned a mountain lion hide?’’

‘‘Nope. Just deer and beef. Oh, an antelope once.’’ Rand knelt down and cut the cat’s throat to let it bleed out. ‘‘What about you?’’

Beans freed the cow. ‘‘Bear once. Let me tell you, if you want to stay warm in a Dakotah winter, go for a bear hide.’’ The two men set about skinning the cat. ‘‘You want the paws?’’

Rand checked the cat’s mouth. ‘‘Poor old cat. Hardly any teeth left. No wonder he couldn’t kill those cows.’’ Rand almost felt sorry for the beast. Without teeth the big cat couldn’t break the neck of its prey, which was its most effective form of killing. Leap down on an unsuspecting animal, dig in its claws for purchase, and snap the neck with its teeth and jaws.

‘‘Think I’ll keep the claws. The Indians use them for necklaces and such. Good trading.’’

‘‘Let me have a couple for Opal. She’ll get a real kick out of them,’’ Rand said.

‘‘Rand Harrison, what is the matter with you, bringing a child a present like that?’’ Ruby had planted her hands on her hips again, seeming a natural thing where Rand was concerned.

‘‘I thought she’d be pleased. Not every girl has a necklace of braided leather and mountain lion claws. The Indians set great store by such things.’’

‘‘I do like them. Ruby, it’s all right. They just caught me by surprise. All I could think of was Cat.’’ Opal swallowed and traced one of the claws with her finger. ‘‘So big. You said he was real old?’’

‘‘Yep, couldn’t hunt any longer. We did him a favor, actually. Didn’t have to die of starvation. That’s what happens, especially during the winter.’’

‘‘And you nailed the hide to the wall of your house?’’

‘‘You want to come out and help tan it? The Indian women chew the hides to make them soft enough for dresses and shirts.’’

‘‘Ugh.’’ Opal and Ruby both stared at him with pure horror.

‘‘I think I’m going to be sick.’’ Opal blinked a couple of times. ‘‘ ’Scuse me.’’

‘‘See? Why do you do things like that?’’ Ruby’s hiss came from clenched lips.

Rand sighed. ‘‘I don’t know. Just want to let you know how things are out here, I guess.’’ He unwrapped the reins from around the hitching rail.

‘‘Aren’t you staying for supper?’’

He stopped in the act of putting his foot in the stirrup. ‘‘You want me to stay?’’
Woman, I do not understand you at all
. He glanced over his shoulder at her.

Ruby combined a shrug, a half smile, and a frown. ‘‘Well, just trying to be neighborly and to thank you for all you do, like the horses and the necklace and all.’’

‘‘Well, I’ll be . . .’’ Rand flipped the reins over the rail again and patted Buck’s shoulder. He tipped his hat back with one finger and watched Ruby through slit eyes. No matter what he did, it seemed to set her off, and then she’d be all nice again. How was he supposed to know what to do? ‘‘You want to go for a walk down by the river before supper?’’

‘‘Sorry, I’m needed in the kitchen.’’

‘‘After supper then?’’

Ruby paused, glanced back over her shoulder, and her slender shoulders lifted in a shrug. ‘‘All right, I will.’’ Her smile hesitated like a frightened calf peeking out from behind its mother, then widened, even to reaching her eyes.

If that don’t beat all
. Rand studied his boot, then glanced up at the squeaking of the screen door opening. A woman he’d never seen before came out on the back porch.

Ruby smiled at the woman. ‘‘Miss Hossfuss, I’d like you to meet Rand Harrison. He has a ranch south of here on the river. Miss Hossfuss is the new schoolteacher who came west a bit early.’’

Rand tipped his hat. ‘‘Pleased to meet you, Miss Hossfuss. Welcome to Little Missouri.’’

‘‘And you, sir.’’

Her voice was pleasing, as was her face. Some man would be slinging his reins around the Dove House hitching rail as soon as the word got out. She wouldn’t be teaching for long.

‘‘Supper will be ready soon. Why don’t you two sit here in the shade and get acquainted.’’

‘‘I would love to help if you don’t mind. I’ve never had so much time on my hands.’’

‘‘You’ve only been here two days. Perhaps Mr. Harrison would show you the town.’’

‘‘Be right glad to, Miss Hossfuss, not that there’s much to see, but the river is right pretty.’’

‘‘And these hills. I’ve never seen anything like them.’’

‘‘That’s ’cause there’s no place else on earth like the badlands.’’ He held open the gate for her. ‘‘Sunset tonight will make them look like they’re on fire. Fact is, some places are on fire— coal lines that have been burning for years.’’ He happened to glance back to see Ruby staring after them with a rather perplexed look.
Hmm
. Perhaps this was the way to catch her attention. After all, she suggested he take Miss Hossfuss out for a stroll. Besides, pay her back a bit for getting in such a dither over the mountain lion claws. He’d caught Opal bragging about them to Milly. As he thought, she was pleased. But what would it take to please the older sister? Especially since everything he tried had a habit of turning and biting him on the backside.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

‘‘He
was
here.’’

Carl Hegland stared at the man behind the counter. ‘‘But the advertisement said to contact him in this town. Is he staying somewhere else?’’

‘‘No, he had to go back East again, but he will be back. He said if anyone asked about him, to have them stay around, because when he returns he needs builders. What is your name? I have a list going here.’’

‘‘I . . . my name is Carl Hegland, and I am from Minneapolis. I thought to go to work as soon as I arrived. The paper said—’’ ‘‘I know. Sorry. I think this was some kind of emergency. I’m Charlie Higgins, and I work here at Dove House. We still have a couple of rooms, but might have to ask people to double up if they keep coming west like this.’’

‘‘This man. What is he building?’’

‘‘I gather they’re starting with a big house, warehouses, then an abattoir, a place where they slaughter cattle for meat. The marquis, he has a whole town planned out, brought the plans with him when he came. All of it going to be built across the river on that flat spot over there. Big changes coming to Little Missouri, thanks to the railroad and the marquis.’’

‘‘Is there any other work here until he returns?’’

‘‘What can you do?’’

‘‘Whatever needs to be done.’’

‘‘Punch cattle?’’

Carl tilted his head slightly to the side. Was this man pulling his leg? ‘‘Pardon me?’’

‘‘You know, ride a horse, round up cattle, herd cattle, brand them?’’

Carl took a step backward and shook his head. ‘‘We didn’t have such needs in Minneapolis, but if I have to learn them, I will.’’

‘‘Lots of cows coming in, or will be, if what I hear is right.’’

‘‘Don’t people need houses? Where they going to put all the workers?’’

‘‘Tents, most likely, to start with. Like they did out west during the gold rush. Cities went up overnight and came down about as fast sometimes. Did you bring a bedroll?’’

‘‘You mean bedding, blankets, and such?’’

‘‘Yup.’’

Carl glanced down at his feet where his bag of tools rested on one side and his satchel of clothes and a couple of books took up the other. ‘‘No.’’
What was the matter with you, dumbhead? You
should have known you’d be camping
. Calling himself all kinds of names didn’t help, nor did the lack of money to buy things like that. Not that it looked as if there was a place here to buy supplies anyway. The small store across the street, if one could call the rutted and packed track a street, didn’t have much more than the necessities. For one who usually planned things out to the last dot, he hadn’t done a very good job this time.

‘‘Like I said, we got some rooms here. Dollar gets you three meals and a clean bed. Better’n you get anywhere else in this town, let me tell you.’’

At least in Minneapolis I had a roof over my head and plenty of food.
Or rather I did before Mor left. And my boss let me go.
That thought still brought a fire to his belly. After all the other jobs he’d turned down because the man had assured him he always had a future with his company.

Now he had nothing but the few dollars in his pockets and hands willing to work, if only there was work.

‘‘Are you the owner here?’’

‘‘No, Miss Ruby Torvald owns Dove House.’’

‘‘I see.’’ Carl dug in his pocket. ‘‘I’ll pay for two nights if that is all right.’’

‘‘That’ll be two dollars. I’ll show you to your room. Breakfast is—’’Adoor in the back of the room slammed open, and a young girl dashed through. ‘‘Charlie, can you—oh, sorry.’’

‘‘What do you need?’’

‘‘Mr. Johnson’s cow won’t get out of the garden.’’

‘‘Oh my. Excuse me, sir. Have a seat and I’ll be right back. Opal, tell Milly to bring this gentleman a cup of coffee.’’ He and the young girl headed back the way she’d come, leaving Carl to stare after them in consternation.

Carl left his bags where they were and used the time to explore, noting the cardroom. He liked to play cards, but he’d never been much of a gambler. From the look of the room and the abundance of spittoons, he’d bet the men played poker. He turned at the sound of a throat clearing.

‘‘I brought your coffee, sir, and some cookies to last you until supper.’’ The young girl set a cup and plate on one of the tables. ‘‘Just holler if you want more.’’

‘‘Do I pay you or the gentleman?’’

‘‘Gentleman?’’ Her face lit, chasing the paleness with a chuckle. ‘‘Charlie ain’t no gentleman. He’s just Charlie.’’

‘‘He followed—Opal is it?—out to chase a cow. Are there a lot of cows around here?’’ He sat down at her bidding.

‘‘Not here in town. Just Mr. Johnson’s and one other over to the livery. Don’t know why more people don’t have milk cows.’’ She started to leave and paused. ‘‘You want cream with that? I forgot to bring it.’’

‘‘No, strong and black is the way I like it.’’ He watched her leave with a slight wave. His stomach grumbled at the misuse he’d put it through, trying to save money by going without food. The cookies disappeared faster than the coffee he’d poured into his saucer to cool. Hot and strong. Strong enough to grow hair on his chest, as his father used to say. Not that hair on his chest was something to be greatly desired.

Charlie returned, coffeepot in hand, and refilled his cup. ‘‘I’ll show you up any time you’re ready.’’

‘‘You catch the cow?’’

‘‘Fool critter. Out lookin’ for a bull if you ask me. Tore up the peas and tromped through the potatoes. Got her before she mowed down the corn. Just barely up, it was.’’ Charlie shook his head. ‘‘Someone musta left the gate open. Don’t see no fence broken.’’

‘‘I see.’’

Carl finished off his coffee and pushed to his feet. After retrieving his bags, he followed Charlie upstairs and down to the end of the hall. The room welcomed him with braided rugs on the floor and a patchwork quilt covering the wood-framed bed. Pegs in boards along the wall would be used for hanging up clothes, not that he had that many, and a pitcher sat in a bowl on a stand in the corner.

‘‘Mange takk, er, thank you.’’ The room was plenty big for one man, which surprised him. He’d read of men crammed together in freezing attics, the warmth from each other preventing frostbite. But why think of such things when June had warmed the earth, bringing forth the green grasses and swatches of wild flowers he’d seen from the train.

‘‘Mange takk works here good as anything. With a name like Torvald you can guess where her folks come from.’’ Charlie walked over and threw up the sash to let a breeze lift the curtain panels. ‘‘Baths are extra. If you need anything, holler.’’

BOOK: Pearl
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