Tyrone, Kansas, got hotter than a cookstove sometimes, but the town had never been ankle-deep in mud. Not to Trey McAllister’s recollection.
His stallion plodded through standing water, its hooves heavy with Louisiana red clay. Thunder rolled overhead, and rain continued to come down in buckets.
Trey huddled deeper into his poncho and slowed the animal’s pace. The horse was close to exhaustion; thick sludge impeded its progress. A glance at the sky showed no break in the thick gray cover. Trey reined up, his gaze searching for adequate shelter. A spreading oak, thick with hanging moss, caught his eye. It wouldn’t be much, but it would be drier than sleeping in the saddle. No need to push his horse past its limits, and he was about done in himself.
When he’d left home, going to war had sounded exciting. Not that he liked the thought of fighting and killing. He’d thought of it more as a chance to see some of the country and to strike a blow for what was right. He’d learned the hard way that there was nothing exciting about war, and as it turned out all of the country he’d seen was one battlefield after another.
He never dreamed he could be homesick for Kansas. Sure, the South was pretty with its moss hung trees and antebellum houses, but it couldn’t compare to riding across a Kansas prairie with a good horse under you and the wind in your face. He pictured the land of his birth: wide-open spaces with sunlit clouds racing overhead and the good, fertile soil stretching out to meet the sky. Here, while the land was flat enough, he felt hemmed in, the lack of space stifling to a man used to seeing for miles in every direction.
Trey took care of his horse first. Buck, the big, black stallion, had carried him many a mile. A man could get awfully attached to a horse. A woman, now, she might let you down, but a good horse never would. And he’d miss his friends: men who’d fought for their states but been separated from their companies by battles. Eventually the men had formed their own fighting group and stuck together closer than brothers.
He carried his saddle to the shelter of the low-hanging tree branches. Even the trees were different from back home. He dropped his burden and stood up to stretch, tired of the constant rain and the clinging red Louisiana clay. He’d had too many years of blood and death and fighting. Now that the war had finally ended, he was riding old Buck back to Kansas—God’s country. If he ever got the urge to leave again he’d nail his boots to the ground.
Half an hour later Trey had made a wet camp and settled in. Tonight’s fare would be cold bread and meat. No hot coffee. No fire.
It wasn’t the first time he’d slept in the rain and later eaten a cold supper. Three years fighting the Confederates had turned him from a fresh-faced boy to a battle-hardened man. He knew he looked older, tougher, but the biggest changes were on the inside. You couldn’t watch men die under the most brutal conditions and be untouched. He had a stronger appreciation for life now and a greater realization of how temporary it could be. He’d heard men die cursing the Almighty for not sparing them while others had met their Maker with a prayer on their lips. He knew his own faith had grown stronger through it all.
But the war was really over this time, no cruel hoax like the one attempted earlier last year when two New York papers reported that President Lincoln had issued a proclamation ordering that May 26 be a day of fasting and prayer. The proclamation further commanded the conscription of an additional four hundred thousand men into the Union army on account of “the situation in Virginia, the disaster at Red River, the delay at Charleston, and the general state of the country.”
There was not a word of truth in any of it, and to a war-weary country the hoax was particularly cruel. The perpetrators were found and dealt with, and the nation fought on.
On April 26, 1865, Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his army to Union general William T. Sherman. On May 4, General Richard Taylor surrendered the last significant Confederate force near Mobile, Alabama.
The news was slow to filter down to Trey’s regiment, but when it did a shout the likes of which hadn’t been heard in years marked the victory. Young men dropped their weapons and grown men cried. By then the war had been over for a month.
Men had packed their bags and headed home to families they hadn’t seen in far too long. Others who were missing limbs and eyesight had been carried or supported by compassionate comrades.
Trey rolled into his wet bedroll and closed his eyes, listening to the rain hit the brim of his hat. Thunder boomed in the distance and he knew he wouldn’t get much sleep—not tonight. It would be another week of hard riding before he reached home—home being a little town north of Olathe. Tyrone, Kansas: population fifty-three, not counting the babies born while he’d been gone.
A smile lit his rugged features. Home was a good-sounding word. He pictured the faces of his four sisters—Ellie, Naomi, Sue Ann and Beth—and he could practically smell chicken frying in the skillet. Tyrone would celebrate when he rode into town. Then—and only then—would his own celebration be complete.
He rolled deeper into the soggy blanket, trying to get comfortable. The ground was soft enough, just mud and mire, but it wasn’t the same as a bed. He longed for freshly washed and sun-dried sheets.
Must feel like heaven.
Sue Ann would make sure he’d have clean sheets and hot biscuits and freshly ironed shirts. Trouble was she’d also make sure his hair was cut every month, his boots were shined, and his nails were trimmed. She might even go so far as to demand clean socks and a bath twice a week.
Having four women to fuss over him was a downright pain.
While he was in a hurry to get home, he wasn’t in a hurry to get back to all that bother. He’d missed the girls. Couldn’t deny that, but he hadn’t missed their infernal clucking. Being the only boy—and the baby to boot—his life had sometimes been an unholy nightmare. He occasionally still woke in a cold sweat when his dreams were invaded by childhood memories of those four girls dressing him in frilly dresses and bonnets. This had gone on until he was big enough to fight his way free.
They’d laugh and say what a “pretty baby” he was with that thick head of red hair and sky-blue eyes. Said he was “pretty enough to be a girl.”
Those were fighting words.
Around the age of five or six he’d started hiding out on the days the girls got that “play house” look in their eyes. One day he’d stayed away until long after dark, and Naomi had come looking for him with a hickory switch.
“We thought something awful had happened to you!” She’d given him a tongue-lashing harsher than lye soap.
He was being raised and maternally oppressed by four interfering females. He fought as best he could.
His grin widened when he thought about the women. Twenty-four years old now, he wasn’t going to be intimated by their presence—or at least he didn’t figure he’d be when he got home. He was a man, and a man ought not to have any trouble holding his own with dominating females. He’d been gone long enough for the girls to appreciate his individuality. He’d killed men, fought for his country, upheld the flag.
His sisters wouldn’t likely try to control his life the way they had before he left. He wouldn’t allow it. When he got home he’d get him a place of his own and visit the females for Sunday dinner.
He had no doubt that Beth would already have him lined up with every single belle in Tyrone, which would amount to two women: Florence Williams and Peggy Stovall. Florence’s buckteeth were so bad she could eat lettuce through a picket fence. Peggy wasn’t hard on the eyes, but she didn’t talk much. He’d gone through eight grades of school with her and he’d venture that he hadn’t heard her speak more than a handful of words. “Mrs. Pruitt. Trey threw my chalk down the privy hole.” That’s about all he’d heard out of Peggy. She was his age; surely she’d be talking more and probably wearing those corsets women wore. But then again Peggy wasn’t the sort who ever said or wore anything worthwhile.
He rolled to his side, pulling the hat lower. The past three years had taken a lot out of him, and for the next few months he planned to do what he wanted with no females to interfere. Peace and quiet. That’s all he was looking for, but he had a hunch it wouldn’t be that easy. Trouble waited for him in Tyrone. His sisters needed him, and he wasn’t a man to turn his back on kinfolk in trouble.
Trey rolled onto his back again and the rain sluiced down. With the wet blanket tucked around his chin, he said what he said every night before he dropped off to sleep.
“Thank You, God, for seeing me through this war. I’m much obliged.”
Trey set off an hour before dawn in a heavy downpour, tired, sore, and sleep deprived. Forked lightning lit the narrow roadway. Thunder boomed overhead. The stallion spooked and shied away from nature’s rowdy display. Kansas rains were usually significant, but Trey had never seen anything like this. Louisiana was swamp country; some folks buried their dead above ground, and now he understood why.
By midmorning Buck was tiring again. Trey scraped layers of mud off the animal’s hooves, hoping to get in another couple hours’ travel before he stopped to rest. He’d ridden though mostly swamp for hours now, catching sight of a few gators and steering clear of the snakes that crossed his path. Two more good reasons to favor Kansas. They had snakes out there, but not like these. Cottonmouths as long as your arm with gray shiny skin and gaping white mouths. Imagine waking up and finding one of those varmints in your bed. Kansas copperheads and rattlers were bad enough, but he hated the looks of a cottonmouth.
Toward noon, Trey sat up straighter in the saddle, peering through a veil of heavy rain. Straight ahead he spotted a wooden sign:
Sassy Gap: Population 8½
He smiled. The ½ that had been burned into the wood must be somebody’s way of announcing a new baby.
He clucked to the horse, urging the animal forward. Maybe he’d find a hot meal and a dry bed for the night.
When he entered the burg a few minutes later, he walked the horse down the middle of the street. Water stood in rising puddles; the road was nothing more than a marsh. His eyes scanned the line of the three nearest buildings. One looked to be a general store; the second was nondescript, but he spotted a livery in back. The third and smallest had—
Flames shooting out the roof.
Black smoke rolled out from under the shingles of the roof.
Trey dismounted quickly and raced toward the building, where flames were shooting straight up. Mud sucked at his boots. Sparks, whipped by the wind, skipped across the wooden shingles.
Suddenly women rounded the corner, each carrying a bucket of some kind.
Trey watched as they quickly formed a brigade, passing water from the watering trough into the building. He counted. One, two, three—six—eight. Eight females. Where were the men? Why would they send women to fight fire?
A heavyset woman glanced up, clearly startled when she saw him running at her.
He hurriedly introduced himself with “I’m Trey,” then grabbed the bucket from her hand and joined the fight.
Women raced back and forth, drenching the licking flames.
“The roof!” a woman at the trough yelled. “Save the roof!”
Minutes later Trey grabbed the rope from his saddle, propped a ladder against the outside wall, and hurriedly scaled it. Once on the roof he began hauling up every other bucket of water. It took twenty-two buckets and close to an hour for him to save the roof. Were it not for the heavy downpour, the building would have been in ashes.
Exhausted, the women collapsed to the ground, catching their breath while Trey smothered the last remaining embers with a thick blanket someone had handed him.
He sank down to the shingles and coughed, black smoke filling his lungs. Below him, he noticed the silence. The women sat with bleak eyes, staring up at the building. They’d managed to save the exterior, but inside the structure had major damage. Rolling to his side, Trey again looked around for the town’s men. During the firefight, he hadn’t spotted one man. Not one. Only women. One now carried a small child—a girl—on her hip.
He descended the ladder and faced the strange assemblage. The women’s faces were black with soot. Dresses were soiled and bonnets trailed down their backs. His eyes moved to the sign he’d missed earlier and he winced.
He’d stumbled onto an undertaker’s parlor.
One of the women slowly got to her feet and adjusted her skirt before addressing him. “Much obliged, stranger. The name’s Speck. Grandma Speck. This here is my place, and I’m sure grateful to you for helping save it.”
Trey quickly removed his hat. Overhead thunder rolled and lightning lit the bizarre scene. “Ma’am.”
The stench of smoke and burning rubble in the air made it difficult to breathe. The older woman looked like she was worn to a frazzle. The hand she offered him trembled.
Of the eight, Trey realized, she was easily the oldest. The others looked to be varying in age all the way from very young to this woman, who appeared to be in her later years. Way past the age to be fighting fire, to his way of thinking. He looked around again, expecting to see at least one man peering from the shelter of the other buildings.
Grandma Speck stepped back, assessing the damage. “Well, looks like the good Lord’s blessed us mightily.”
Trey lifted a singed brow. “Ma’am?”
She returned his look. “God’s done gone and blessed us again! We still got part of the building.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Trey turned to look at the source of her blessing. Smoke curled from sections of the roof. Didn’t figure he’d count the past hour a blessing, but he supposed some folks had a sunnier outlook than he.
He turned when a younger woman approached. She was pretty, with dainty features and jet-black hair hanging loose to her waist. Cajun, Trey decided. Native Louisianian.
“Grandma Speck looks on the bright side,” she explained with a heavy French accent. She smiled and Trey’s insides lurched. She was about the prettiest thing he’d seen in years. No bigger than a minute, cheeks flushed by the fire, soot covering the tip of her nose.
“Yes, ma’am,” he repeated.
Another woman, the one carrying the child, came to stand beside him. “Please, won’t you come inside where it’s dry? Maybe you’d like a nice cup of hot coffee to ward off a chill?”
Now that the emergency was over, Trey remembered he’d been about to look for a dry place to sleep tonight. The heavy deluge appeared to have set in for the day.
“Thank you. A cup of hot coffee would be welcome.”
The women clapped with glee and quickly dispersed in opposite directions. One hung back with Grandma Speck.
The older woman made another grateful declaration about God and Trey, which he passed off as being purely coincidental.
“I happened to be passing through,” he said. “Saw the fire and pitched in to help.”
The old woman’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not a man of God?”
“No, ma’am. I mean, yes, ma’am. I believe in the Almighty.”
Trey wasn’t sure what answer she was looking for, but he guessed any heathen riding through Sassy Gap would be asked to keep riding—that much he sensed in her tone.
“Everything happens for a reason,” she said.
Right now he hoped the reason was a hot meal and a dry bed for the night.
The young woman who’d stayed with Grandma Speck stepped in to help Trey stable his horse, then lingered while he dipped a scoop of grain and dumped it in the wooden feed trough. She was thin as a reed with brown hair tucked into a bun on the back of her head. Her recent bout of firefighting had pulled strands loose to straggle around her face. The acrid scent of smoke drifted from her clothing in an almost visible cloud.
She held out her hand. “I’m Helen. We surely appreciate you helping us out like that.”
Her hand was rough and calloused, and he suspected she was no stranger to hard work.
Trey grinned down at her. “Wasn’t anything, ma’am. Anyone would have done the same.”
“I’m . . . not so sure of that.”
She turned away and Trey felt a stab of curiosity. There was something strange about this town, but he guessed it wasn’t any of his business. He wouldn’t be here long enough to get involved.
Once Buck had been taken care of, Helen took him by the arm and led him across the street from the smoking undertaker’s parlor to the entrance of the second building. The rain was still coming down like pouring water on a flat rock. When his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw that he was in some sort of communal room—a large area that served as a kitchen and sleeping quarters. To the rear of the room, he saw nine cots, each separated by a single curtain. A fire burned in the fireplace, and a pot of coffee steamed on the hearth. The women greeted him like a long-lost brother.
The black haired one turned from the stove, her cheeks radiant from the rain and wind. She smiled. “Welcome to our town, Mr.—?” She waited for Trey to introduce himself.
“Trey McAllister. From Tyrone, Kansas.”
She nodded. “Mr. McAllister. What brings you through Sassy Gap?”
Her voice was lyrical. Soft . . . the sort that could be real trouble for a man who hadn’t seen a pretty female in a long time.
“Been fighting in the war, ma’am, but I’m going home now.”
“But the war has been over for a while.”
“Me and some friends stuck around to help a few wounded buddies get home before we left, Miss . . .”
“Please. My name is Mirelle, but my friends call me Mira.”
Trey wasn’t comfortable with the exchange of personal information. Clearing his throat, he acknowledged, “Coffee smells good.”
“Sit down; I’ll fill a cup.”
Trey pulled a chair out from the large wooden table and sat down. Other women started to appear one by one, each doing her best to serve him.
Over coffee he learned their names. Grandma Speck owned and operated the only undertaker parlor for thirty miles around. Mirelle, the pretty French girl, helped her. Then there were Melody, Jane, Brenda, Helen—the one he’d met at the stable, Vivian, and Dee. All had lost their husbands or betrothed in the fighting during the last two years. Melody had one child, a girl. Her name was Audrey and she was three. Trey had never seen a cuter child: round blue eyes, curly dark hair, and a sprinkle of freckles dotting the bridge of her nose.
“My mama planted freckle seeds,” Audrey told him. “And they’re growing.”
“Indeed they are,” Trey acknowledged, which seem to satisfy the child.
Dee wanted to dominate the conversation. Trey sensed the women hadn’t been around men much lately, and he wondered why they chose to live in a town void of male companions. When he managed to get a word in edgewise, he asked. “Why are there no men in Sassy Gap?”
“Oh, one rides through every now and again,” Vivian conceded. The women exchanged candid looks. “But he never sticks around for long.”
Trey wondered about the significance of the looks but decided not to delve into the issue. For whatever reason, it appeared males had no interest in the strictly women-only town.
Draining the last of his coffee, he pushed his cup back. “Is there a vacant room in town?”
One or two women tittered.
Mira shot them a warning look. “No hotel. Did you want to spend the night?”
Trey glanced at the window, where thunder rattled the panes. “Thought I might try to find a dry bed and a hot meal before I head out in the morning.”
Grandma Speck laid her knitting aside. “You can sleep in the parlor.”
“Parlor?” Trey smiled. “What parlor?”
“I’ll show you,” she replied, getting up from her chair.
“That’s real kind of you, ma’am.“
“No bother.” She paused at the door. “Suppose you might want to wash up a bit before supper. Follow me.”
Trey followed her out of the building, huddling deeper into his poncho. They walked the short distance back to the charred building. He paused, looking up at the still-smoldering roof. Then it hit him.
She’d just offered, and he’d just accepted, the undertaker’s parlor.
“I’ll get some blankets and you can roll up in here.”
She pointed to the small dais, which he suspected a casket occupied during services. A chill crept up his spine.
“Most of the fire damage is on the far end of the roof,” Grandma said as she gathered up blankets and pillows. “The smell of smoke ain’t pleasant, but I reckon it’s dry in here and shore better than sleeping in a downpour.”
Trey’s mind raced, trying to think of a gracious way to decline the hastily accepted offer. He was used to killing and dying, but spending time in a place reserved for dead people was something else. But if he refused her offer then he’d have to say why, and he wasn’t inclined to get into all that. He caught the blankets and pillows she tossed him.
“Rest up a bit. The girls will have supper on the table in a spell.” She paused, her eyes scaling Trey. “We’re mighty beholden to you, Mr. McAllister. If the parlor had burned we’d have no means of support. Burying folks is the only income we have.”
Trey thought about the damaged roof and wondered who would make the repairs. It would take a month’s work to restore the shingles. Water dripped in buckets the women had placed under the holes.
“There aren’t any men around who can help?”
Grandma Speck laughed. “Lots of men around, but not a one has the guts to help us.”
Trey thought that was an odd statement.
“It’s a fact,” Grandma said. “Mira’s papa is Jean-Marc Portier, and he won’t let them.”
The situation was getting more bizarre by the minute. Mirelle. The pretty French girl. Her father wouldn’t let them? What sort of nonsense was that?
As though she sensed his question, Grandma went on. “Jean-Marc is one of the richest, most powerful men around these parts. When Mira’s husband, Paul, was killed last year, Jean-Marc insisted she come home. Mira refused, and now he is determined to make her go back. There’s bad blood between them, though Mira won’t talk about it.
“Seems to me their quarrel goes beyond the regular father-and-daughter spat. Their hatred is buried deep. Bone deep.” The old woman clucked her tongue. “He’s made our lives miserable trying to bring her to heel, but Mira’s independent and a mite stubborn. She vows she’ll never let Jean-Marc dominate her again.” Grandma shrugged off any further exchanges on the subject. “We’ll let you know when the meal’s ready. Thank you again, Mr. McAllister. We’re all much obliged.”
With that, Grandma Speck left Trey alone, standing in the middle of the burying parlor.
Belatedly it dawned on him.
He ought to have followed the example of other men and rode straight through Sassy Gap, raining or not.
He tossed the blanket and pillow onto the floor and eyed the dais.
Jean-Marc Portier stood by the window, staring in the direction of Sassy Gap. Rain lashed the windows. It would have to rain. He hoped Curt Wiggins would have enough sense not to set the fire tonight. You’d think a fool would be smart enough to wait until it stopped raining before trying to burn down a building. But not Curt. He’d wager on it. The man followed orders to the last letter; he wasn’t all that quick at thinking on his own.
A rosy glow reflected against the low-hanging clouds. Jean-Marc gripped the rich, burgundy-colored velvet curtains. Fire! At Sassy Gap. The old funeral parlor should burn like fatwood kindling once it got started, if the rain didn’t put out the flames.
Even as he watched, the glow faded. He lingered for a moment before turning away from the window. Another failure. Those Sassy Gap women had more lives than the proverbial cat. They were too stubborn for their own good. He didn’t particularly want to hurt them, unless it was necessary. But he needed the ground that town sat on, and he couldn’t afford to let eight scrawny women—including Mira—thwart him.
A sardonic smile broke across his handsome features. Especially Mirelle.
The smile faded and hardness settled around his eyes. That girl would learn to heel or he’d know the reason why. He’d fought and won control over her spineless mother. Mirelle would be no different.