Texas Redemption(4)

By: Linda Broday

The pipe flew from her mouth. Ollie slapped Jeb’s arm. If she thought to jar his feeble brain, she needn’t have bothered.

“Pick up the man’s lunch.”

“I won’t. He called me a mealy-mouthed swamp rat.”

“I’d call that awfully kind. Now pick it up, I said.” Few would’ve ordered such. The brash woman didn’t frighten easily.

Red-faced, Jeb plucked the meat from shards of earthenware. He juggled the hot steak as though auditioning for a traveling circus act before shoving it at the newcomer. “Here.”

Tense quiet stretched. Shenandoah didn’t move. A tic in his jaw spoke of supreme effort to curb his anger.

Finally, Ollie snatched the slab of beef. “Never mind. You’re buying him another. Laurel girl, go throw one on.”

A growl rumbled in Shenandoah’s throat. “We’re not finished. He owes the lady an apology.”

“Boy, whatever you done, better own up to it before it gets you killed. And next time you come in here, bring some manners, dadgum it. Else you’re not welcome.”

While the majority of folk kowtowed to the young bully, Olivia Applejack b’Dam didn’t let her short stature or the fact of her gender tie her tongue in knots. Over the months, Laurel had witnessed that courage many times. Most learned too late the folly of going toe to toe with Ollie. Still, one day her friend’s ornery nature could earn her a one-way ticket to the other side.

Jeb turned beet-red. Shenandoah had dethroned him in front of fidgeting patrons he’d lorded over. The protective confines of the kitchen would take scant seconds to reach.

If not? Laurel could despair of saving her new life.

Good fortune and hope deserted. In the space of a heartbeat, Shenandoah wrenched Jeb’s arm behind his back. “Where I come from a man don’t treat a lady like some common saloon girl. Show respect or I’ll break it in half.”

Unease pricked worse than a stiff horsehair petticoat. Reference to a lady of ill repute might’ve been pure chance had it come from another.

A diner named Mabel averted her gaze. No one ever said how the woman made a living. Her manner and eyes full of shame gave her away. Those things Laurel recognized.

Beads of sweat dotted Jeb’s forehead. “Didn’t mean no harm, Laurel.”

“Miss Laurel. Call her miss.”

“M-m-miss Laurel.” Jeb’s face twisted into an ugly caricature.

Shenandoah dipped into Jeb’s pocket. “For my steak.”

Prater stumbled for the door, forgetting his confiscated revolver. Shenandoah straightened his leather vest.

Laurel whirled from the searching gaze that had the ability to heat each cold corner inside. But she couldn’t outrun the pursuing hiss of snake rattles.

“Show’s over. Go back to eatin’,” Ollie shouted.

Memories of the pungent stench of sulfuric bath water drenched the taste of her spit. Others equally as tormenting rose.

How long before she could sleep without fear?

And how much time to erase the hurt of betrayal? She pushed through the door. Sagging, she buried her face in her hands.

What rotten luck. She’d thought nothing would find her in this town tucked quietly on the banks of Big Cypress Bayou.

Ollie breezed in minutes later. “Someone die, girl?”

“Shenandoah… I know him.”

“Every man, woman, and child west of Kentucky’s heard of the legendary rebel spy.”

“I enjoyed his company toward war’s end.” A brittle laugh broke free. “I learned the value of his word to return. He’ll destroy everything.”

“Maybe he didn’t recognize you.”

“And maybe I’ve grown horns from the top of my head.”

“You worry too much. He’s simply passing through.”

“And if not?” Her bones didn’t lie. She couldn’t stop the tremor in her heart much less the quake in her voice.

Ollie patted her shoulder. “If he thinks to hurt my little girl, he’ll have to step over my dead body first.”

“That’s cheery.” Despite the image of Olivia lying cold and still, the loyalty touched a deep chord in Laurel.

“Relax. Got you this far, haven’t I?”