Authors: Deeanne Gist
Tags: #Fiction, #Christian, #Historical, #Romance, #General, #ebook, #book
“I hear Sharpley’s purty fast.” He slid a black piece onto a square that would allow him to jump one of Tony’s, unless Tony jumped him first.
Tony propped his elbows on his knees, trying to figure out if it was a trap.
“I have high hopes for Mr. Sharpley,” she said. “You should come by one evening and see him for yourself.”
“Sure. That is, if Ma will let me.”
“I’ll speak to her for you.”
The boy beamed. “See?” he said to Tony. “I done told you she was a good egg.”
Her gaze touched Tony’s before skittering away. Just then, several chattering women poured through a curtained partition at the back of the store, disrupting their concentration.
Essie moved to greet them. Tony stood.
“Hello, Essie, dear. Have you seen the babies yet? Precious, simply precious.”
“Yes, Mrs. Vandervoort. They are indeed adorable. How do you do, Mrs. Tyner, Mrs. Whiteselle?”
The women greeted Essie with warmth, then swept past her and Crook, pulling on their gloves while continuing to extol the virtues of the babies they’d been to visit.
“Hey, Harley,” said a girl of about eight with reddish brown braids. “Whatchya doin’?”
“Climbin’ a tree. What does it look like I’m doin’?”
Scrunching up her nose, she stuck her tongue out at him.
Mrs. Vandervoort, a woman with salt-and-pepper hair and shaped like a cracker barrel, signaled the children.
“I gotta go, Mr. Bryant. Miss Essie can take my place for me.”
“Oh, I’m sure—” he began.
“I’d be glad to finish up the game for you, Harley,” Essie said.
Smiling, the boy nodded. “Come on, Bri.” He waved to Tony and ran out the door to catch up with Mrs. Vandervoort, who looked better suited to be his grandmother than his mother. Brianna scampered behind him, braids bouncing.
Essie settled into Harley’s seat and took a small bite of orange. A drop of juice formed at the corner of her mouth. Without ever taking her attention off the board, she pressed the butt of her hand to the liquid, stopping its descent.
“I’m afraid Harley has you in a pickle, Mr. Bryant. Would you like to cry uncle?”
He had no interest whatsoever in playing checkers or anything else with this woman. But he’d be hornswoggling something fierce before he gave up, especially to her. “I’m not sure all is lost just yet.”
“Whose turn is it?”
“Mine.” Reclaiming his chair, he jumped the disc Harley left open.
She quickly moved a piece on the other side of the board. The store owner carried the carton of oranges inside, allowing the door to slam shut behind him.
“Your turn,” she said.
She studied him with eyes the color of bluebells, disconcertingly direct. Having a ten-year-old flounce him was humiliating enough. He wasn’t about to let Essie Spreckelmeyer do the same. Tony needed time to examine the board, but after she’d moved her piece so quickly, he’d look like a fool if he dawdled.
He slid a disc into her king row. She crowned it and moved one of her pieces toward the center.
“I’m calling it a day, Essie,” Crook said, removing his apron. “Will you turn down the lantern when you’re done and go out the back?”
“Of course.” She twisted around. “Are you sure you don’t mind?”
He smiled. “You know I don’t. Just make sure this fella goes with you when you leave.”
“Will do. Good night, Hamilton.”
“Good night, Essie.” He nodded toward Tony. “Bryant.”
Crook’s footsteps clunked on a set of stairs behind the partition before the sound of a door opening and closing sealed off the silence in the mercantile.
“You and Mr. Crook must be pretty good friends for him to let you stay in here after hours.”
“I used to work here, is all. He knows I’ll leave everything in its proper place. It’s your turn.”
Of his four pieces left, he could only move his crowned one safely. He headed it in the direction of one of her more vulnerable blacks, trying to figure out why she had offered to finish out the game for Harley. From all indications, she didn’t care for his company any more than he cared for hers.
She slid her king into an attacking position. Tony would have no choice but to move out of her way or be jumped.
“Why did you stay just now, Miss Spreckelmeyer? Why didn’t you leave when Harley and the others did?”
Her lips flattened a bit. “Actually, I was looking for you.”
“Me?” Surprise tinted his voice.
“Yes.” She struggled for a moment, clearly unhappy with whatever it was she had to say, then straightened her spine and gave him her full attention. “Papa wants me to reinstate you.”
Leaning back in his chair, he hooked an arm over the backrest.
Well, well, well. What do you know about that?
“He was in here just before sunset. Why didn’t he say something?”
“He wanted to discuss it with me first.”
“And what happened when the vote was one in favor and one against?”
She rent the last two slivers of orange in two. “I conceded under duress.”
“I didn’t want to upset Papa by arguing with him tonight. But rest assured, had it been any other night, you would be on your way out of town.”
He leaned his chair back on two legs. “What makes you so allfired sure I still even want to work for Sullivan Oil?”
Hope kindled within her eyes. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
He dropped his chair to the floor and slid his checker to a safer square. She finished off her orange, then bullied another of his discs with a different king. Their pieces danced for several more moves— hers charging his, then his charging hers.
“Are you going to switch to rotary drills?” he asked.
She took so long to answer, he thought she was going to ignore the question.
“We’re considering it,” she finally conceded.
The woman clearly did not like to eat crow. And if he were a betting man, he’d guess she didn’t do it often.
He faced off his king against hers. “I’ll expect a raise, of course.”
Her mouth slackened. “A raise? Don’t you think that’s a bit precipitous?”
“I think it’s the least you can do.”
She puckered her lips. “You may have your old job back, Mr. Bryant, at the same rate as before.” Reaching for a single black disc, she jumped all four of his remaining markers. “Take it or leave it.”
TONY STOMPED on his shovel, sinking it into the gummy soil, then hoisted up a load of dirt. As soon as he’d returned to the rig, Grandpa promoted him from toolie to roustabout, and he’d spent the morning picking up broken rods, junk pipe, and connections so the men wouldn’t stumble as they scurried around the well. He’d discharged the lines to safeguard against leaks. He’d put new clamps on a broken sucker rod. And now he was digging a ditch for the saltwater that had accumulated in the stock tank. Once he filled the ditch with the water, he’d have to figure out how to make the liquid evaporate.
Arching his back, he glanced up at Jeremy on the double board. The boy was juggling elevators—resting one pipe on a device used to lift and lower drill pipe while fitting a collared pipe to a second device, pulling some pipe, then shifting a giant hook back to the other elevator. The process was tedious and the greatest crusher of fingers ever invented, yet Jeremy never missed a beat.
Paul Wilson, their roughneck, had made a visit out to the old pecan tree thirty yards east of the rig and was hotfooting it back. Tony smiled, thinking that what the old fellow lacked in brain power, he made up for in brawn.
Instead of returning to the pipe he was stacking, though, Wilson snatched up his knuckleduster and bullets, then hurried back to the tree.
Tony tossed down his shovel and jogged after him. “What is it, Wilson?”
“I spotted a squirrel up in that there pea-can tree and I mean to get me a piece of it,” he hollered over his shoulder.
Tony slowed, coming to a stop several yards behind Wilson. Toolies, roughnecks, roustabouts, and pipeliners from the surrounding rigs left their posts. All work came to a standstill as they watched Wilson shoot up a box of twenty shells.
For ten minutes he and the squirrel played chase. Men cheered poor Wilson on while simultaneously making bets against him.
When he’d fired his last shot, the untouched squirrel eyeballed him from the edge of a branch, flicked his tail, then jumped to another tree and darted out of sight.
Throwing down the empty box of ammunition, Wilson cursed the varmint. Red-faced, he plowed through the crowd and headed back toward the pipe he’d been stacking.
The fellas slapped him on the shoulder as he went through their gauntlet. “Didn’t know you was such a crackshot, Wilson.”
“Where’d ya learn to shoot? At Lady Pinkham’s School of Charm?”
“I’m thinking ol’ Crackshot would’ve had a better chance of finding hair on a frog than pullin’ that squirrel’s picket pin.”
“Maybe you oughter join up with Miss Spreckelmeyer’s shootin’ class fer ladies. Now, there’s a gal that could fill a hide so full o’ holes it wouldn’t hold hay.”
Tony tried to pinpoint who’d called out that last remark, but the crowd was too dense.
“Back to work, fellas,” Moss hollered. “We ain’t being paid to laze around in the sun.”
As tool pushers go, Moss was a whopdowner—hard, mean, and ugly. He didn’t put up with any lip or lollygagging. No one openly criticized him, though, because he had a few loyalists who would frail your knob if you low-rated him. He looked after all of Sullivan Oil’s rigs and had the stroke to hire and fire.
Catching Tony’s attention, he motioned him over. “I see the old bicyclette changed her mind about you.”
“It’s the judge who’s responsible for me being here.”
“I wouldn’t put any money on it if I were you.” Moss had a laugh that sounded more like a growl. “The lady of the house wields a mighty sword and you’d best be remembering it.”
Someone from a rig up the way called for Moss, and the tool pusher headed his direction.
“He’s right, ya know,” Jeremy said, falling into step beside Tony. “Miss Essie pretty much runs the place. Even Moss reports directly to her.”
“Why?” Tony asked. “Why doesn’t the judge manage it?”
“He kinda lost interest when his wife died. So Miss Essie took over and it’s been that way ever since.”
They reached the sump Tony was digging and paused. “Is it true what that fellow said?” Tony asked. “About Miss Spreckelmeyer being an accurate shot?”
Jeremy smiled broadly. “It shore is.”
“And she teaches other women how to use a gun?”
“My missus takes lessons from her every Thursday mornin’, ”
Jeremy said, “along with a passel o’ others.”
“What possible use could a woman have for shooting?”
Chuckling, Jeremy placed a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Don’t let Miss Essie hear ya askt such a thing. She’ll wear yer ear out giving ya reasons.”
Grandpa barked out Jeremy’s name. The boy hustled up the rig to his spot on the double board leaving Tony to try and make sense of Miss Spreckelmeyer. Checker champion. Marksman. Wheeler. Banister-slider. And worst of all … boss.
By the time Tony had been to the bathhouse and washed off all the drilling mud, the shale, the ditch, and the compound used to grease the pipe with, he’d barely made it to Castle’s Drug Store for dinner. He took his time over the meal, though, regardless of the fact that the “boss” wanted to see him first thing after work.
Taking a swallow of genuine Coca-Cola, he listened along with the other men as Mr. Castle read aloud the latest news of the war. The boys cheered and whistled upon hearing the marines had captured Guantánamo Bay and seventeen thousand troops had landed just east of Santiago.
Setting his coins on the counter, Tony wiped his mouth and slipped out. The streets were congested with men heading east toward the saloons. A ninety-foot gas tower at the corner of Beaton and Collin threw out enough illumination to get by on, though from here he couldn’t see the abandoned seed house Miss Spreckelmeyer had converted into a bicycle club. Still, he’d have no trouble finding it in the dark. It was just northeast of town, not far from Whiteselle’s Lumber Yard.
He skirted the red-light district, passed Frost’s Wagon Yard and the Central Blacksmith Shop. He wound behind the city pound and set a few dogs barking until he was a good distance away.
When he got within sight of the club, gaslight from its high horizontal windows guided him to the doorstep. He knocked, but no one answered, so he pushed the door open.
“Quicker, Mr. Sharpley. You must keep your eye on the ball.
Now, let’s try again.”
In the middle of the vast room, Miss Spreckelmeyer faced a young man who wore a quarter-sleeve shirt with exercise tights as snug as a pair of long johns.
Bunching her skirt in her fists, she raised her hem and tapped a ball back and forth between her booted feet as she moved toward Mr. Sharpley. The full skirt and white shirtwaist she wore were more suited to a stroll through town than a ball drill.
It was the first time he’d seen her without a hat, though. Her hair had wilted, its twist no more than a suggestion of its former glory. Hunks of blond hair swirled across her face, over her shoulder and down her back.
Sharpley crouched, bounced on his toes, and kicked at the ball when she drew near, but only succeeded in stirring her skirts.
She easily passed him, then stopped the ball with her toe. “You lunged again. I’ll get by you every time if you jump in like that.”
“I don’t see what this has to do with ridin’ bikes. Just put me on the bicycle and I’ll go faster than any of the rest of ’em. I swear I will.”
She brushed a strand of hair from her eyes. “There is a difference between being fast and being quick. I will admit you are fast. But if something happens during the race that requires you to respond quickly, you will not fare well.”
Tony settled his shoulder comfortably against the south wall, ankles crossed and hat in hand. They went through the exercise two more times, and he could see their frustration mounting. Sharpley did lunge, but she also outplayed him. Even if the boy used proper technique, he’d be hard pressed to win the ball from her.
“Perhaps I can be of assistance?” Tony suggested.
Miss Spreckelmeyer squeaked and whirled around. “What are you doing here?”
“You sent for me.”
“I sent for you hours ago.”
“And here I am.” He pulled away from the wall and gave a mock bow.
“Well, I’m busy now. You will have to come back in a hour or so.”
He strode onto the court. “Surely that won’t be necessary. I can’t imagine you needing me for very long and it looks like your young charge could use a rest.”
“He can’t have a rest. I’m trying to build up his stamina.”
“By trouncing him at football?” He extended his hand toward the boy. “You must be Sharpley. My name’s Bryant.”
Sharpley grinned. “You work with Crackshot.”
Tony smiled at the mention of Wilson’s new nickname. “I surely do.”
“Who’s Crackshot?” Essie asked.
“Nobody,” Tony answered, turning toward her. “If you’d like, I would be glad to help you show Sharpley what it is you want him to do—with the football, that is.”
He bent over and pulled off his cowboy boots.
“Mr. Bryant! Stop that at once. What do you think you are doing?”
“You can’t very well expect me to play football in my boots.” He removed both socks and stuffed them in his boots.
She stared at his feet. He wiggled his toes.
“Oh, my goodness.” She clasped her hands together, red flooding her face. “This really isn’t at all proper, and I’m not dressed for an actual match. I was merely demonstrating.”
He walked to the ball, flipped it high into the air with his feet, juggled it with his knees, dropped it in front of him and passed it to her. “Watch closely, Sharpley, and I’ll show you how to tame your opponent.”
She trapped the ball with her instep, a spark firing her eyes. “I’m really not dressed for this,” she said again.
He neither encouraged nor discouraged her, just held her gaze. She worried her bottom lip, then looked from him to the ball and back up to him. “Where’s the goal?” she asked.
“I’ll take the bandstand, you can have the entire south wall.”
She rolled the ball back to him. “I won’t need the entire wall.”
Allowing himself a slow grin, he again passed the ball to her. “Oh yes, you will. And … ladies first.”
She didn’t stop the ball as he’d expected, but lifted her skirts, kicked the ball as it slid past her, then sprinted after it. He had no trouble catching up and stealing it back.
Instead of racing to his goal, though, he toyed with her—changing directions, faking a kick, cutting across the ball. But when he tried to backheel it, she intercepted the ball and skirted around him.
He took her on again. Planting her left foot, she lunged to the right, then abruptly to the left, catching him off balance. She attempted a shot on the goal, but he managed to knock the ball into the bleachers before she made contact. Sharpley ran after it.
“Here!” she cried, jogging south. Sharpley threw it her direction.
She pulled the ball back toward her body, forcing Tony to step up and open his legs, then she kicked it between his feet, maintaining possession.
They parried for another minute before Tony acted as if he was going to turn, but stepped over the ball instead and headed in the other direction, breaking away. A few feet short of the bandstand, he struck the ball and scored his goal.
Essie held her waist and tried to catch her breath, droplets of moisture clinging to her skin. Playing football in a tight corset was not terribly wise, but she took satisfaction in the fact that Mr. Bryant was panting just as hard as she. Sweat plastered his shirt to his chest and back, accentuating the muscles beneath.
A smile played on his lips. “A good match, Miss Spreckelmeyer. I’m impressed. Too bad you lost.”
She wondered how well he’d fare running up and down the length of the building strapped into a corset, but, of course, she could not plead her case.
“What?” he said. “Nothing to say?”
Inhaling, she squeezed her side. “That was fun.”
His eyebrows shot up and his smile grew. “So it was. How is it that a judge’s daughter knows how to play a game popular only with the lower, working classes?”
“It’s a beautiful game,” she breathed. “A couple of years ago we had a group of oilmen who used to play every Sunday. I’d go and watch them—from a distance, of course.”
“Then I secretly played here with Jeremy Gillespie and practiced until I could duplicate what they did. But this is the first time I’ve ever played with anyone other than him or Mr. Sharpley.” She propped her hands on her knees, trying to suck in more air.
His smile began to fade. “Are you all right?”
“Sharpley, go get some water for Miss Spreckelmeyer.”
“No, no. I’m fine.” She straightened and the room began to spin. “Uh-oh.”
Tony rushed to her and grasped her elbow. “Perhaps you should come sit on the bleachers.”
Her vision dimmed. The room began to fade.
Tony scooped her up into his arms. “Keep your eyes open, Miss Spreckelmeyer.” He glanced at Sharpley. “Is there somewhere she can lie down?”
“Over here,” Sharpley answered. “There’s an office.”
Weak. She felt so weak.
“Do not faint. Do you hear me? I won’t have it.”