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Authors: Deeanne Gist

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“Mercy, Tony. You oughta know you can come right on in without waiting for an engraved invitation. How long has she kept you out here for?”

Tony stood, ruffling Myrtle’s head. “I just got here, Iva. Is Russ home?”

“Sure, sure. Come on in.” Shifting the baby boy on her hip, she widened the door, hollered for her husband, then frowned at his suitcase. “You all right?”

He slipped his hands into his pockets. “I’ve been better, I guess.”

He’d known Iva all his life, though she was closer to Anna’s age than his. Russ had claimed her just as soon as her red braids had been released and twisted up in a bun, and then wasted no time in filling up his house with their little ones.

The apron she had tied around the waist of her linsey-woolsey might have started out white but now held smudges of dirt across its entire breadth. Her strawberry hair stood in disarray, long since coming loose from its pins, but her cheeks were rosy and her eyes bright.

The little one on her hip blinked at him and blew bubbles through his lips. Tony reached out and tickled the boy’s chin, causing him to giggle and swat at Tony’s hand.

“You shaved off your moustache,” Iva said.

He swiped his hand across his mouth, still trying to get used to having a clean-shaven face. “Feels funny.”

“Looks nice, though. You have a right handsome face, Tony.”

He smiled.

“I’m sorry about your pa,” she said.

“Thanks.”

“Well, are you comin’ in or not?”

Picking up the suitcase, he crossed the threshold just as his best friend rounded the corner, his large body filling the hall. Russ had one boy wrapped around his leg, the other on his shoulders.

“My turn, Pa! My turn!” the one on his leg yelled.

Russ’s face sobered and he lifted Grady off his shoulders. No sooner had Grady’s feet hit the floor than they pumped as fast as they could to Tony.

“Unk Tony! Unk Tony!”

Tony lifted him up, throwing him high into the air before catching him and lowering him to the ground. Tony briefly remembered jumping into his own dad’s arms once, but his dad hadn’t caught him.

“Let that be a lesson to you, boy,”
his father had said.
“Never trust anybody. Not even me.”

Tony felt a tug on his trouser.

“Me too! Me too!” Jason had released Russ’s leg and now stood beside Tony with arms up. Tony repeated the ritual with Jason amidst squeals of not exactly fright, but not exactly delight, either.

“Okay, you two,” Russ said. “Go on to the kitchen with your mama.”

Iva shooed the boys toward the back. “Step lively, now, I’ve just sliced up some juicy peaches.”

All but Myrtle ran to the kitchen.

Russ glanced at the suitcase. “It’s true, then?”

“What have you heard?”

“That your daddy left you with nothing but the clothes on your back.”

“That about sums it up.”

Russ ran his fingers through his sandy hair. It had begun thinning at an alarming rate, leaving him with half the amount he’d had just last year. “I can’t believe it. Why?”

Tony shrugged. “Darius has always been the favorite. We’ve known that from as far back as our memories take us.”

And the memories stretched clear back to their one-room school days, when during lunch Tony had miss-kicked a ball outside, nearly knocking a painter off his ladder. The teenaged painter had come after Tony, cursing and whacking him with his paint paddle.

Darius had done nothing more than watch and laugh. Russ, big even then for his age, grabbed the teener and shoved him clear to kingdom come, promising more if the fella didn’t leave Tony alone.

They’d been inseparable ever since. Didn’t matter that Russ’s family lived across the tracks. The two boys were either at Russ’s place or Tony’s or somewhere in between.

“I came to say good-bye,” Tony said.

“Good-bye?” Russ’s eyebrows lifted. “You in a rush or do you have time to sit a spell?”

Tony checked his pocket watch. “I’ve a ticket on the noon train.

That leaves me a little less than an hour.”

“Well, come on, then.”

The two men stepped onto the front porch and settled into a couple of rockers, Myrtle right behind them. She crawled up into her daddy’s lap and curled into a ball, sucking vigorously on her thumb.

“What are you going to do?” Russ asked.

“I’m not sure, really.” Pulling out his pocketknife, he flipped it open and began to clean his fingernails. “I bought a ticket up to Corsicana. Thought I’d try to see if I could get hired on as a cabletool worker for Sullivan Oil.”

“A toolie! For Sullivan Spreckelmeyer? You gotta be joshing me. You don’t know the first thing about it. Do you have any idea how the boys treat rookies? They’d eat you alive.”

Tony looked out over the yard. Iva kept it swept, neat, and orderly. No grass, but the azaleas around the house’s foundation would rival any in the pampered gardens around the mansion he’d built for his father.

He sighed thinking about all the work he’d put into supervising the construction of that monstrosity, hoping to earn his father’s approval. Instead, his father made him pay rent just to live within its walls.

“Are you listening to me, Tony? You know nothing about working in the oil field.”

Closing the knife, he returned it to his pocket and set his chair to rocking. “I’ve been doing the bookkeeping for Morgan Oil since its inception. I’ve handled its shipments, inspected deliveries, corrected bills, paid bills, recorded payments. If I can do all that, I figure I can manage working in the fields.”

“It’s nothing like sitting behind that desk of yours. A driller is judged on his ability to fight first and hold his liquor second. What do you think those boys are gonna do when they find out you don’t drink?”

“Fight me?” Tony hooked his hands behind his head, leaning back as far as the rocker would allow. “Sure am glad you taught me how to fight, Russ. ’Course, I can’t handle a bullwhip the way you can, but I’m plenty good with my fists. So, if that’s what they judge a man on first, maybe I’ll be exempt from the other. Besides, I’m not qualified to be a driller. I’ll have to start on the bottom rung. Nobody’s gonna pay any attention to some lowly rope choker.”

Russ rested his chin against Myrtle’s head. “They will if his last name is Morgan.”

“My last name isn’t Morgan anymore. I’m going by Mother’s maiden name. From here on out, I’m Tony Bryant.” He rubbed the skin below his nose. “Besides, I shaved off my moustache. Nobody will recognize me.”

Russ shook his head. “I saw that, and ridding yourself of that colossal mess must have taken a good ten pounds off of ya. But moustache or no, it’s a small world, the oil business. Everyone is gonna know who you are.”

“I don’t think so. I never went out to Dad’s fields. I spent my time either behind my desk or at the rail station.”

“Which brings us back to my point. You aren’t cut out for this kinda work. We work from can-see to cain’t-see. It’s brutal, dangerous, rough, and dirty. You talk like an educated man, but the boys have a vocabulary all their own.”

Tony smirked. “You think because I spent my youth sweeping out the church and my adulthood adding up numbers that I don’t have the stamina for outdoor labor?”

“I think
you
think you can.”

“I’m not afraid of hard work, Russ. And it’s not like I can’t tell the difference between a Stillson wrench and a pair of chain tongs. Morgan Oil doesn’t own one single tool that I haven’t inspected and logged in first.”

“But do you know what they’re used for?”

“I’m a fast learner.”

Myrtle began to squirm. Russ set her down, pointed her toward the door and gave her bottom a soft pat. “Go on, Myrtie. Mama’s in the kitchen.”

They watched her toddle to the door, then struggle to open it.

Russ got up, opened it for her and let her inside before returning to his seat. “Maybe I better go with you.”

“No, Russ. Thanks, but I need to do this on my own. Besides, you have Iva and the kids. You can’t be leaving them.”

“And just how long do you suppose Darius will keep me on, do you think? Not long, I’d wager.”

Tony popped open his pocket watch and stood. “You’re the best driller in the entire state of Texas. And Darius may be a shoddy businessman, but he’s no fool. He’s gonna need somebody in charge who knows what he’s doing.”

“But don’t you resent it?” Russ asked. “Wouldn’t you like to see Morgan Oil go down in flames and Darius with it?”

Not a question Tony wanted to examine too closely. “What I want is to build a bigger and better oil company than Darius ever dreamed of. To do that, I need to know all there is to know about the business. Starting with how to work a rig.”

“Maybe I oughta give you my hat. It’s splattered with slush from the pits, and no decent driller would be seen without one.”

Tony laughed. “I may be a six-footer, but your hat would still swallow me whole. Besides, what would a toolie be doing wearing a driller’s hat? Wouldn’t be right, somehow.” He stuck out his hand.

Russ grasped it. “Do you suppose you’ll meet Spreckelmeyer’s daughter?”

“What daughter?”

“The bloomer-gal,” Russ said, rolling his eyes. “The one that caused such a ruckus up in New York City and had her name plastered in all the papers.”

“Bloomer-girls,” Tony scoffed. “They are nothing but a roly-poly avalanche of knickerbockers.”

Russ chuckled. “You better not let your new boss hear you say so. I hear he sets quite a store on that gal of his.”

“I figure that unless bloomer girls have suddenly decided to roustabout in those trousers of theirs, then I won’t be running into much of the fair sex—seeing as I’ll be working from dawn to dusk.” He picked up his suitcase.

“Well, you take care of yourself, you hear?” Russ said, slapping him on the shoulder.

“Will do.” He’d made it halfway to the gate when Russ’s deep bass voice came floating to him in a parody of a popular nursery song.

“Sing a song of bloomers out fer a ride,
With four and twenty bad boys runnin’ at her side,
While the maid was coastin’, the boys began to sing,
‘Get on to her shape, you know,’ and that sort of thing.”

chapter TWO

TONY CHECKED up and down Bilberry Street. This had to be it. The fellow at the train station had said Sullivan Spreckelmeyer lived northwest of town in a two-story Georgian, shaded by giant pecan trees on a spacious lot and surrounded by a white picket fence.

It was nothing like the ostentatious Morgan mansion, but the place had all the makings of a well-to-do, respectable family home.

Giving his Stetson a determined tug, Tony opened the gate and approached the front porch that ran the entire width of the house, its cedar posts enhanced with carved appliqués. He paused a moment to admire the work, then took the steps two at a time and allowed himself a quick peek through the screen door.

An open dogtrot ran clear to the back of the house, with rooms on either side and a set of stairs just inside the threshold. He raised his hand to knock, then paused, noticing in the darkness at the top of the stairs a creeping figure looking to the left and right.

Tony jumped back out of sight, then peered around the edge of the door. The figure at the top of the stairs straddled the banister and rode it down, flying off the end and landing with a thump on both feet, arms flung into the air.

Tony lunged forward instinctively, pushing open the screen door, expecting to cushion the fall of a misbehaving boy, but stopped in shock when he found himself facing the back of a woman.

Her infernal knickerbockers—along with the means by which she’d decided to descend the stairs—initially misled him as to her gender. But this was no young lad. This was a fully grown woman. Complete with hat, pinned-up hair, tiny waist, and pointy boots.

Her landing looked perfect at first, but then something on her left side gave, an ankle maybe, and with a squeak, the woman crumbled.

She hit the floor before he could react. Kneeling down, he helped her to a sitting position. “Are you all right, ma’am?”

“My stars and garters,” she said, a feather from her hat poking him in the eye. “Would you just look at this?”

Repositioning himself, Tony watched as she propped her left foot onto her right knee, wiggling the heel of her boot. It hung like a loose tooth that should have long since been pulled.

“These are brand-new,” she said. “Straight out of the Montgomery Ward catalogue. Can you even imagine?”

What he couldn’t imagine was how that hat of hers stayed attached. One-and-a-half times as tall as her entire head, this haberdasher’s nightmare had steel buckles, looped ribbons, feathers, foliage, and even a bluebird. The only evidence it gave of her fall was a slight tilt to the left.

She thrust out her arm for assistance. He took her hand and placed his other beneath her elbow, helping her stand.

“Well, you’d think a pair of boots that came clear from Michigan Avenue could hold up a little better than that.” She brushed the front of her skirt, then raised her gaze to his.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.

The commandment popped into his head just as he noticed the blue of her eyes, the dimples carved into her cheeks, and the peach color of her heart-shaped lips. He’d thought Spreckelmeyer’s wife was deceased. But clearly he was mistaken, for here she was—alive, healthy, and fine looking. He’d had no idea she was so young. And a wheeler, as well. Though it made sense, since the daughter was such an avid cyclist.

He whipped off his hat. “Are you all right, ma’am?”

Narrowing her eyes, she brushed off her backside and glanced at him, the screen door, and back again. “How long have you been standing there?”

“I was just fixing to knock when you, uh, fell.”

She touched her hand to her mouth. “You saw me?”

“I saw you fall, ma’am.”

She studied him for several seconds before a smile crept up. “I reckon that’s not all you saw, is it?”

He answered her smile. “I have no idea what you mean.”

She chuckled. “Well, sir. I do apologize and thank you for helping me up.”

“ ’Twas no trouble. Are you all right?”

“Fine, fine. Heavens, I’ve taken much worse tumbles than that. Now, is there something I can help you with?”

“Yes, ma’am. I was here to ask your husband if he had any need for a cable-tool worker.”

“Ah.” Her grin widened. “If you’re wanting to speak to my husband, you’re going to have one
loooong
wait. But, now, if you wanted to speak with my father, well, you’d find him right through there.” She indicated a closed door along the wall.

He felt a surge of blood rush to his face. “I beg your pardon, miss.”

“No need to worry yourself.” She twirled her hand in a dismissive gesture. “Now, what’s your name, son?”

Son?
“Tony Bryant, miss.”

“Come on, then, Mr. Bryant, and I’ll introduce you to Papa.” She hobbled a few steps, then came up short and turned back to face him. “You, uh, you won’t tell, will you?”

“Tell?”

“About … you know.” She nodded toward the banister, the bird in her hat coming perilously close to losing its perch.

“I didn’t see a thing.” He licked his finger, crossed his heart and winked.

“Oh, thank you,” she said, her laugh sounding like bell chimes.

She knocked and poked her head inside a door, mumbling something, then threw it open, inviting Tony in with a sweep of her hand.

“Papa? This is Mr. Tony Bryant of … ?”

“Beaumont,” Tony offered.

“Beaumont,” she repeated. “Mr. Bryant, this is my father, Judge Spreckelmeyer.”

“Judge?” Tony asked.

“Of the Thirty-fifth Judicial District,” she confirmed.

“Come in, come in,” Spreckelmeyer said. The robust man with a full gray-and-white beard, and blue eyes just like his daughter’s, placed his pen in an ornate brass holder. If his brown worsted suit had been red, the man could have been Santa Claus.

“Would you fetch us some coffee, Esther?” Spreckelmeyer asked.

“I’ll bring it right in,” she answered, then turned to go.

“Essie?”

She paused at the open door, her hand on the knob.

“Are you limping?” her father asked.

She glanced quickly at Tony before looking down at her feet.

“Oh, it’s my new boots. The heel snapped right off. Just as I was about to answer the door.”

“Those bicycle boots you ordered?”

“Yes. Can you imagine? They just don’t make things the way they used to.”

“Well, you must take it to the cobbler at once.”

“And so I shall. Now, if you will excuse me?”

She backed out of the room and closed the door.

Judge Spreckelmeyer stared after her for a long moment, his frown becoming more and more pronounced. “Surely she didn’t slide … naw,” he muttered, then with a shake of his head, he stood and offered Tony a hand. “Mr. Bryant, please have a seat.”

Tony settled into a heavily stuffed wing chair and glanced out a large bay window. The view outside was blocked by a massive oil derrick taking up almost the entire backyard. Nearly every home he’d passed had one.

Corsicana couldn’t be more than two square miles, yet it was full to bursting with thousands of oilmen and at least that many derricks, allowing no relief from the pungent odor of gas.

“Now, what can I help you with, young man?”

Tony set his hat on the chair beside him. “I’d like a job as a toolie, sir.”

“You ever worked in the patch?”

“Only on the supply end. Never in the actual field. But I’ve a strong back, a quick mind, and you won’t find a harder worker anywhere in the state.”

Spreckelmeyer glanced down at some papers on his desk, then moved them to the side. “What do you mean, ‘the supply end’?”

“I used to oversee the ordering and shipping of tools and supplies for Morgan Oil.”

“What happened?”

“Mr. Morgan died last week and the younger Morgan decided he no longer needed my services.”

“You said your name is Bryant?”

“Yes, sir. Tony Bryant.”

The judge looked up over the rim of his glasses. “Is that short for Anthony?”

“It is.”

“And your age?”

“Twenty-eight.”

“Really.” He leaned back in his chair. “Interesting.”

Before Tony could ask him what he meant, Miss Spreckelmeyer entered with a tray of coffee. Gone were the broken boots, replaced by bicycle shoes covered with gaiters. Tony and Spreckelmeyer rose to their feet.

“Oh, please, sit down. I’ll just be a minute.” She placed the tray on an oak sideboard and began to pour.

Spreckelmeyer sat. Tony remained standing.

“Do you take cream, Mr. Bryant?” she asked, her back still to him, the bird in her hat wobbling.

“No, thank you.”

“Sugar?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“One lump or two?”

“Two, please.”

“Ahh. Seems we have us a man with a sweet tooth like yours, Papa.”

The affection on Spreckelmeyer’s face while he watched her surprised Tony. No wonder people talked about how he doted on his daughter. His own father never would have allowed his feelings to be so transparent.

She turned and handed Tony a cup. “Tsk, tsk. I thought I told you to sit, sir.”

“I don’t mind standing.” He wondered how he ever could have mistaken her for Spreckelmeyer’s wife. She was far too young. But it was hardly unheard of for a man to marry a much younger woman.

Hadn’t his father done the same?

Sipping the coffee, he tried to gauge how old she was but found it difficult. Well past marrying age, that was for certain. Yet she had a fine figure. Barely any lines around the eyes, and none at all around her mouth. He felt sure she was somewhere in her thirties, but beyond that, he couldn’t tell.

She set her father’s cup and saucer on the desk.

“Why don’t you join us, Essie,” Spreckelmeyer said. “Mr. Bryant here is interested in working in our fields.”

Our
fields? Did the man actually include his daughter in his business dealings?

She poured herself a cup—with three lumps, he noticed— picked up his hat and carried it to a coatrack before settling herself in the upholstered chair next to his. Only then did he sit back down.

“What kind of experience do you have, Mr. Bryant?” she asked.

He hesitated, taken aback by her question. Yet Spreckelmeyer seemed perfectly willing to let her take over the interview. “I was just telling your father that I’d cataloged tools and supplies for Morgan Oil before Morgan Senior died.”

Her brow furrowed. “We heard about his death. So unexpected. Did you know him at all?”

“I knew him, though we were never close.”

“No, of course not.” She blew on her coffee. “So you have no experience in the field whatsoever?”

“No, ma’am. Not yet. But I aim to—whether with Sullivan Oil or somebody else.”

She exchanged a glance with her father. “Your lack of experience is going to be a problem, I’m afraid. Working in the field is quite a bit different from cataloging tools.”

He narrowed his eyes. It was one thing for Russ, an experienced driller, to doubt his abilities, but to sit here and be questioned by a female with birds in her hair was something else altogether.

“Does it look to you like I can’t handle it?” he asked, his tone sharper than he’d intended.

And though he’d meant the question rhetorically, she gave him a thorough sizing-up, like she could appraise his merits then and there. In spite of his irritation, he straightened his shoulders.

“You needn’t get defensive, Mr. Bryant. There is nothing lacking in your physique. It’s your gumption that I’m concerned about.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The fields require a man who can keep calm in the face of danger. I can tell by looking that you’re strong, but I’ve no way of measuring your courage.”

He set his cup on the edge of the mahogany desk, careful not to rattle the china. “Are you questioning my manhood, Miss Spreckelmeyer?”

She sighed. “It’s nothing personal, just a requisite for the job.”

His jaw began to tick. In spite of his troubles, he’d still grown up a Morgan. He might have his hat in hand right now, but he had more mettle in his little finger than this gal could possibly have from the top of her ridiculous hat to the tip of her bicycle shoe-clad toes.

All those newspaper articles he’d read about her came back to him now. He leaned toward her. “There is a difference,” he said, “between wearing trousers and being a man.”

Her breath hitched, and for the first time since he’d met her, she seemed at a loss for words. She recovered almost at once, however, dabbing at the corner of her mouth with her handkerchief.

“Nevertheless, the oil field is no place for novices. Seasoned oilmen can be killed or crippled in a day’s work.” She shrugged. “I’m afraid we can’t help you.”

Tony speared Spreckelmeyer with a questioning stare. Surely the man wasn’t going to allow her to make such a decision for him?

But the expression on the old judge’s face was unreadable. He held Tony’s gaze a moment, then shifted in his chair to address his daughter. “What about that well out on Fourth and Collin, Essie?

We could use another man out there.”

Her head was shaking before he got the words out. “But he has no experience at all.”

“Neither did Jeremy, and look at him now. A derrickman at the ripe old age of eighteen.”

“That was different,” she said. “That was back in the old days.”

Spreckelmeyer chuckled. “Four years ago hardly qualifies as ‘the old days.’ ”

“In the oil patch it does.”

The judge said nothing. Tony could not believe this woman held the kind of power she did. Oh, but he’d like to take her down a peg or two. Instead, he kept quiet and waited.

She cocked her head to the side. “Do you really wish to give him a try, Papa?”

Spreckelmeyer shrugged. “He’s certainly a strapping fellow.”

“And yet he would have us believe he did desk work for a major competitor. He’d have to have had schooling for that.”

Tony leaned back in his chair, forcing himself to assume a casual air. Clearly, his trouser comment had hit its mark. He knew he ought to leave well enough alone, but temptation overrode caution.

“Would you like to see my grade-school cards, Miss Spreckelmeyer?” He patted his pockets as if he always kept them at hand. “Or perhaps you could write for references to the schoolmarm from my hometown?”

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