February 13, 2009

The Spinster Brides of Cactus Corner

One of my western novellas is in this collection. It's about four friends who live in Cactus Corner, Arizona. They would all be considered spinsters, but that doesn't bother them. They work together to help the orphanage in town.

My story, The Spinster and the Cowboy, opens the collection.

San Francisco, Spring 1894

When the sharp rap on his closed office door roused him, Joshua Dillinger raised his gaze from the legal document he had been studying with intense concentration. He hated distractions, and Charles Ross, his secretary, knew it. Only something of great urgency would cause this interruption.

“Enter.” Joshua realized that his command sounded abrupt, but he wanted to get this interruption over with so he could discern any flaws in the contract that had to be ready for signatures in less than an hour.

Brandishing an envelope, the thin man walked briskly across the rug that swallowed the sound of his footsteps. “This was just delivered by messenger, Sir. I have a feeling it’s important.”

He handed the missive to Joshua and hurried out of the room, pulling the door closed behind him. Joshua studied his father’s scratchy scrawl on the front of the letter. He wondered how the post office even knew where to send it. The older Father became, the worse his handwriting grew. If Joshua hadn’t been used to deciphering the letter he received from his dad, he wouldn’t have been able to tell what the address was.

Joshua placed the packet on top of the stack of documents that needed his attention today and went back to his contract. He returned to the place where he held his finger on the paper. Joshua went back to the beginning of the sentence and started over. For the next forty-five minutes, he had a hard time keeping his mind on his task. Every few moments, his eyes strayed to the slightly wrinkled envelope. Joshua wondered what it contained, but he had to finish with the contract and send Charles over to the client’s office with it.

After his secretary left with the completed document, Joshua stood and stretched. While he concentrated on a hard task, his muscles became more and more knotted. He rubbed his neck with both hands and rotated his shoulders, trying to loosen them, as he stared out across the bay from his perch most of the way up one of San Francisco’s many hills. Joshua chose this office because of its view of the water. Not only could he keep up with the comings and goings of ships, but watching the bay in all kinds of weather proved soothing. He loved this city and once again thanked the Lord for the opportunities that led him here.

Finally, Joshua turned around and picked up the letter from his father. He hoped it wasn’t bad news. Using the opener with the beautifully carved scrimshaw handle his grandfather gave him when he first opened the law office, he slit the paper and removed the contents–a sheet of paper and an already opened envelope with papers inside. Father had forwarded a letter he received from his best friend Fred Cunningham. In his included note, his father added his own request that Joshua do what Fred asked of him.

Now curious, Joshua pulled out the other papers. Before he read the words, his memory revisited a time when he was twelve and his family traveled by coach from Texas to Arizona to visit the Cunninghams. Their ranch spread for hundreds of acres from the base of the Rincon Mountains toward a tiny town, really not much more than a few huddled buildings surrounded by tall cacti with arms that spread toward the sky. What was the name of those plants? Something that started with an s and sounded foreign to his young ears.

He enjoyed that trip. The ranch was larger than the one his father owned in Texas. Much of the time, Joshua accompanied Mr. Cunningham’s nine-year-old daughter on wild rides around the vast acreage. With her brown braids flying in the wind, India could ride better than most of the cowboys. He often wondered about the girl. A few years after that trip, they had received word that her mother died. Did her death calm India or make her even wilder? He never heard anything more about them, because soon after that, he left home to study law.

Joshua turned his attention to the message. Fred Cunningham wanted Joshua to go to Arizona and help his daughter run the ranch for a time.

While perusing every piece of paper in the envelope, Joshua discovered that Mr. Cunningham died almost a year ago. The message shouldn’t have taken so long to reach him, but the man’s lawyer had forgotten to mail it to Joshua’s father until recently. Father sent it on from Texas.
At first, Joshua decided that he should ignore the appeal. He was a city lawyer, a long way from the young man who grew up on the plains in Texas. He hadn’t ridden a horse in years, preferring to use a buggy in the city. However, throughout the long afternoon, his mind kept returning to the request. Mr. Cunningham was his father’s best friend, and he wouldn’t have asked something like this if he hadn’t believed that India needed help. How could Joshua refuse? When he finished work for the day, he stood watching the lights flicker on one-by-one up and down the hills that spread from his office toward the shoreline. Soon many of them reflected in the water of the bay, sending sparkles that looked like stars in the inky liquid.

In the last year, Joshua had taken two partners into the fast-growing firm. Because he worked so hard to build the business, he hadn’t taken off any time. With the partners and a couple of junior lawyers to keep things going, maybe he could take an extended leave and fulfill Mr. Cunningham’s dying wish.

Chapter 1
Arizona Territory

India Cunningham tried to blow away the curls that fell across her right eye. She didn’t want to stain her white-blond tresses with the rich red barbeque sauce concocted by one of her ranch hands, Hector Gonzalez. India had no idea what all Hector put in the mixture, but she knew it left a mark on anything it touched. She would have to rub a lot of lemon juice on her hands before they would return to their natural color. Even then, it might take a day or two for the crimson stain to wear off.

Today should have been a good day for the fundraiser for the Cactus Corner Orphanage. This time of spring was usually cool and mild. Not today. A blazing sun beat down, bringing a river of sweat that rushed down India’s spine. She had worn a brown blouse in case some of the sauce splashed on it while she basted the whole steer her foreman, Nathan Hodges, butchered yesterday. While he slowly turned the spit holding the beef over the fire pit, India painted the side nearest her with sauce, making sure every inch of the carcass would absorb the tantalizing flavor.

Hector’s sauce almost guaranteed the success of the event. Cowboys from every ranch for miles around flocked to get their share of the feast and add to the coffers of the orphanage. Today most of the cowhands’ pay would be spent to help people instead of wasted in the saloon across from the general store.

The milling crowd kept even a hint of a breeze from reaching India. She had hoped to escape to the hotel and clean up before the festivities began, but the time for that was long past. Maybe no one would notice how terrible she looked since she was by the fire pit at the edge of the crowd. Wrinkling her nose, she shrugged her shoulders, trying to dislodge the fabric that plastered against the moisture on her back.

“India Cunningham!” Jody McMillan pushed her way through the nearby crowd. “What are you doing still back here?” A frown replaced the questioning expression Jody had worn just a moment ago. “I thought you were going to clean up at the hotel. Didn’t you take a room for that very purpose?”

India watched her good friend try to brush away some of the dust that had settled on the skirt of her own dress. Why ever did Jody wear such a light color to a picnic? Didn’t she know how it would show all the smudges? And all those ruffles would just hold in the heat.

You can order The Spinster Brides of Cactus Corner using this link:

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