Vows, p.1
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       Vows, p.1

           LaVyrle Spencer
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  V O W S


  Lavyrle Spencer

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  Chapter 1


  Wyoming Territory 1888

  Tom Jeffcoat shifted his rump on the hard wagon seat, blinked twice, and peered northward. From beneath the brim of a dusty brown Stetson, he squinted until the blurred outline of a town came into focus. A thrill shot through his belly—Sheridan, Wyoming, at last! And with any luck at all, a bath, a real bed, and a decent, hot supper, his first in eighteen days.

  He clucked to the team and they picked up speed.

  From several miles out the town appeared as no more than a mole on the jaw of the broad, fertile valley, but the setting proved as beautiful as promised in the ad Basking in lush bluegrass, it nestled where the eastern face of the Big Horns met the wide Goose Creek Valley in which Big and Little Goose creeks merged. The paths of the streams were clearly marked by a meandering line of diamond willows and cottonwoods, the latter in seed now in early June, dropping their cottony tufts like a white flotilla onto the waters.

  But the mountains themselves provided the grandeur; snow-capped, blue girded, they rose like knuckles on a tight fist, holding back the harsher Rockies to the west. Those mountains had become protective old friends, ever off Jeffcoat's left shoulder on his long journey up from Rock Springs. Already he loved them: the Big Horns, majestic giants clothed—up high—in the blue-black of Rocky Mountain cedars, fading at the foothills into every conceivable shade of green. Those foothills billowed like a giant ruffled skirt and in their velvet folds nestled his new home: Sheridan.

  "West of worry," the ad had boasted, "with no heat, no dust, no wind, and where the nights are always cool."

  Well, we'll see.

  As he neared the town, individual buildings took shape, then a street—no, streets, by God!—a grid of them, laid out straight and wide and already named on wooden signs—Perkins, Whitney, Burkitt, Works, Loucks, and the widest artery, Main, by which he entered. Deeper in the heart of town the creeks themselves snaked together, breaking the streets into short, oblique avenues. Off on the side streets he saw houses, mostly of frame or peeled-log construction, with high-pitched roofs to shed snow. Many of the plots were surrounded by lines of demarcation: picket fences, hitching posts, outbuildings at rear property lines, newly planted vegetable gardens, and hedgerows of flowers. Entering the business district, he slowed his horses to an easy walk, perusing his surroundings. There must have been fifty buildings, and boardwalks old enough to have become weathered but not warped, and a goodly number of established businesses: a hotel, butcher shop, barber shop, drug store, law office, several stores, a newspaper office; and the inevitable saloons that catered to the cowboys driving cattle up the Bozeman Trail, up which he himself had just come. There were the Star, the Mint, and one called the Silver Spur, beside which a corral held a half dozen wild elk. Several cowboys were using them for roping practice, and the sound of the men's laughter and the animals bawling brought a smile to Jeffcoat's lips.

  Farther along he passed other signs of progress; a building with its double doors thrown wide, revealing a side-stroke fire pump with its brass fittings gleaming; a house bearing a doctor's shingle—L.D. STEELE, PHYSICIAN; a school—settlers were bound to come faster with a school; and a harness and shoe shop, of which Jeffcoat took particular notice.

  Eventually he came to a creek—bridgeless—swelled with spring runoff, where a lanky man in baggy pants and knee-high boots filled his water wagon with a bucket on the end of a long pole. Painted on the side of the tin drum was the advertisement: Fresh Water Delivered Daily, 25c a barrel, 5 barrels for $1.00 Andrew Dehart's Sparkling Water Service.

  "H'lo, there!" Jeffcoat called, reining in.

  The man paused and turned. "Hello!" He had a bushy beard and a great hook nose which he blew—without benefit of a handkerchief—into the grass, leaning first left, then right.

  "Which creek is this then. Big Goose or Little Goose?"

  "Big Goose. Around here we just call it Goose. You new in town?"

  "Yessir. Been here five minutes."

  "Well, howdy! Andrew Dehart's the name." He nodded at the announcement on the side of his water wagon.

  "Tom Jeffcoat's mine."

  "You need water, I'm the man to see. You stayin'?"

  "Yessir. That's the plan."

  "Got lodging?"

  "Not yet."

  "Well you passed the only hotel, the Windsor, back that-a-way. And Ed Walcott runs the livery. Turn left on Grinnell." He pointed.

  "Thank you, Mr. Dehart."

  Dehart waved him off and turned back to his work, calling, "New blood's always welcome around here!"

  The creek seemed to mark the end of the major business section. Beyond it lay mostly houses, so Jeffcoat reversed direction and headed back the way he'd come.

  He found Grinnell without any problem and a huge unpainted barn of a building with a tent-shaped roof, gaping double doors, and a prominent white-and-black sign up high above the hay port: WALCOTT'S LIVERY, HORSES BOARDED & BEDDED RIGS FOR RENT. He turned up Grinnell to have a look.

  In a corral on the near side of the building a half dozen healthy-looking horses stood dozing in the two o'clock sun, their nose hairs touching the wall. On the far side was a deserted horseshoe pit overhung by a line of lopsided cottonwoods which spilled a patch of shade onto the street over the far hitching rail. The barn itself was an immense, open-ended building constructed of vertical weather-beaten boards and sliding double doors that stood open on both ends.

  Choosing the shady hitching rail on the right over the sunny one on the left Jeffcoat passed the open door, glimpsing inside the silhouette of a man framed clearly in the open-ended building, working over a horse's foot.

  His competition.

  He pulled up in the shade, wrapped the reins around the brake handle, pushed to his feet, and, with fists to ears, twisted at the waist. His hide felt stiff as whangleather. Letting out a great gust of air, he vaulted over the side. At the great south door of the livery barn he paused, peering inside. It was like a railroad tunnel, dark and cool within, bright at both ends. At the far end the fellow still worked, facing the opposite door, couching the hoof of a huge liver chestnut stallion in his lap.

  As Jeffcoat approached, he took stock of both the horse and the man. The stallion was snip nosed, broad-chested, and tall. The man—upon closer perusal—turned out to be no man at all, but a skinny boy, no bigger than a good strip of trap bait, dressed in worn blue britches, a faded red shirt, black suspenders, an ankle-length leather apron, and a floppy brown wool cap with a button on its crown.

  At Jeffcoat's approach, the chestnut nickered, dropped his forefoot, and belly-bumped the lad, knocking his cap askew.

  "Blast you. Sergeant, you ring-boned hunk o' gleet! Hold still!" The boy cuffed the horse on the shoulder and centered his cap with a jerk. "You do that one more time and I'll leave you to take care of your miserable quarter crack by yourself!" He clapped a hand around the horse's off fore cannon, forced it into his lap, and resumed wielding the hoofpick.

  Jeffcoat smiled; the animal outweighed the youth by a good thousand pounds. But young as he was the kid knew what he was doing. Quarter crack was nothing to fool around with.

  "You in charge around here, young fellow?"

  Emily Walcott dropped Sergeant's hoof and spun around indignantly. She let her eyes scan with deliberate distaste a swarthy young man who could use a shave and some sleeves on his shirt: someone had torn them off at the shoulder. She gave his bare arms, whiskered face and dusty britches a singeing once-over be
fore replying sardonically, "Yes, ma'am, I sure am."

  Jeffcoat grabbed for his hat. "Oh … my mistake. I thought—"

  "Never mind what you thought! I can do without hearing it again. And don't bother doffing your hat after that!"

  She was thin as a whipsnake and about as shapely, seventeen or thereabouts, all blue eyes and indrawn lips and two cheeks flaring with indignation. Never having seen a woman in britches before, Jeffcoat stood nonplussed.

  "I beg your pardon, ma'am."

  "It's miss, and don't bother begging my pardon." She threw aside the hoofpick.

  "What can I do for you?"

  "I've got a hungry team outside that needs putting up."

  Sergeant chose that moment to stretch his neck, pluck off Miss Walcott's cap, and begin chewing it.

  "Blast your hide. Sergeant, give me that!" She yanked it from his teeth, dried it on the seat of her pants, and examined it crossly while her black hair drooped in scraggles, half held to her skull by combs. "Now look what you've done, dammit. You put holes in it!"

  Jeffcoat worked hard to hide a grin. "You ought to tie him off with two clip ropes instead of just one so he can't get by with that."

  Emily eyed him maliciously while hooking the hat on her head, cramming her hair up inside it and cocking it toward her left ear so the short bill angled over her black, angry eyebrows. With the cap on, and covered to the collarbones by the dirty leather apron, she looked more like a boy than ever.

  "Thank you, I'll remember that," she answered sarcastically, heading for the street, the apron thwapping her calves with each long step. "What do you want, stable 'em only? That'll be a buck a night, including hay. Dessert is extra. Two bits for an extra pail of oats. Curry 'em down'll be another two bits. Stable 'em outside in the corral you can save a dime." She reached the team and turned, but Jeffcoat hadn't followed. "Hey, mister," she bellowed, "I got work to do!" She hooked two dirty hands on her hips, fingers impatiently tapping the hard leather apron. "Where do you want 'em? Inside or out?" When no answer came she poked her head around the door, then bawled, "Hey, what do you think you're doing?" and steamed back inside with fists swinging at her sides like bell clappers.

  "This is no quarter crack, it's a sand crack." He was examining Sergeant's fore-foot, for all the world as if he owned the place. "He'll need a three-quarter shoe or maybe even a copper plate to put pressure on the frog and wall if you want to keep him from going lame permanently. Or maybe a rivet might do."

  "I'll see after my own horses, thank you," she returned acidly, untying Sergeant's single snap line and leading him into a stall. Who the Sam Hill did he think he was, coming in here giving her advice? Some dirty cowpoke without so much as sleeves on his shirt, busting into somebody else's livery barn and spouting off like a geyser when she knew everything there was to know about the care of hooves. Everything!

  But Emily Walcott burned with indignation because she knew the stranger was right—she should have used two snap lines, but she'd been in too big a hurry.

  She granted the stranger not so much as a nicking glance as she marched from the stall and left him behind. "We stable horses here. We feed 'em, and curry 'em and water 'em, and outfit 'em, and rent out rigs. But we don't let tinhorn hostlers work out their apprenticeships on our stock!"

  To Emily's chagrin, as she stormed past him, the man burst out laughing. She swung around with murder in her glare and the corners of her mouth looking as if they were attached to her shoes. "Mister, I don't have time to waste on you. Your horses, maybe, if you speak up fast. Now what'll it be, inside or out? Hay or oats?"

  "Tinhorn hostler?" he managed, still chortling.

  "All right, have it your way." Obstinately, she changed directions, heading toward an open hatch to the hayloft, passing him with a venomous expression on her face. "Sorry, we're all full up," she advised dryly. "You can try down at Rock Springs. It's a few miles that way." She thumbed southwest. Rock Springs was 350 miles, and it had just taken him eighteen days to cover them. Up the ladder she went, until her ascent was stopped by a hand grabbing her beat-up, stretched-out, horsey-smelling cowboy boot.

  "Hey, wait a minute!"

  The boot came off in Jeffcoat's hand.

  Surprised as much as she, he stood gaping at her bare foot with its dirty ankle and flecks of hay pressed onto the skin, thinking this was the most bizarre introduction he'd ever had to one of the opposite sex. Where he came from, ladies wore gingham dressed with ten-gallon petticoats, and starched white aprons instead of leather ones, and leghorn hats instead of boys' knockabouts, and dainty buttoned shoes instead of dung-crusted cowboy boots. And stockings … wispy lisle stockings that no gentleman ever saw. But there he stood, staring at her bare foot.

  "Oh, I … I beg your pardon, miss, I'm so sorry."

  He watched her descend and turn stiffly, presenting a face as brilliant as an August sunset.

  "Has anyone ever told you that you're a rude, infernal pain in the hindside?" She grabbed the boot, overturned an enamel bucket, and dropped onto it to pull the boot back on. Before she managed to do so, he snatched it from her hand and went down on one knee to do the honors.

  "Allow me, miss. And to answer your question, yes, my mother and my grandmother and my fiancée and my teachers. All my life I've seemed to irritate women, but I could never understand why. You know, I've never done this before, have you?" He held the boot at the ready.

  She felt her whole body flush, from her dirty bare toes clear up to her brother's cap. She grabbed the boot and yanked it on herself.

  Watching, he grinned and answered belatedly, "Oats, please, and stable them inside and curry them, too. Do I pay in advance?"

  "We're full up, I said!" Leaping to her feet, she fled him in a swirl of wrath and climbed to the loft. "Take your business elsewhere!"

  He peered up after her, seeing nothing but rafters and dust motes.

  "I'm sorry, ma'am. Really I am."

  A pitchforkful of hay landed on his head. He doubled forward, blowing and snorting. "Hey, watch it!" Overhead her footsteps clunked as she dragged her boots across the floorboards. Another forkful of hay appeared and he backed off, calling, "Can I leave the horses or not?"


  "But this is the only livery barn in town!"

  "We're full up, I said!"

  "You are not!"

  "We are, too!"

  "If it's about your bare foot, I said I was sorry. Now come down here so I can give you some money."

  "I said, we're full up! Now get out!"

  From the other end of the barn, Edwin Walcott listened to the exchange with growing interest. He stood surveying the stranger with hay on his hat and shoulders, watched another load come raining down through the hatch, heard his daughter's obvious lie, and decided it was time to step in.

  "What's going on here?"

  Silence fell, broken only by a blacksmith's hammer from down the street.

  Jeffcoat spun around to find a stocky man framed in the doorway standing with hands akimbo, his meaty arms and hairy chest showing beneath the uprolled sleeves and open collar of a faded red flannel shirt. His black britches were tucked into calf-high boots, and striped suspenders emphasized his muscular girth. He had tumbled black hair flecked with gray, a full black mustache, blue eyes, and a mouth reminiscent of the girl's.

  "Something I can do for you, Mister—?"

  Jeffcoat brushed off his shoulders and whacked his hat on his thigh. Stepping forward, he extended a hand. "Tom Jeffcoat's the name, and yessir, there is. I'd like to leave my horses for a few days if I could."

  "Edwin Walcott's mine. Is there some reason why I shouldn't let you?"

  "No, sir, none that I know of."

  "What's this about you and my daughter's bare foot?"

  "She was climbing up the ladder and I accidentally pulled her boot off, trying to stop her."

  "Emily!" Walcott cocked his head toward the haymow. "Is that true?"

  Beyond her father's range of vision
, Emily buried the fork tines in the hay, wishing she could bury herself in it and stay till Tom Jeffcoat disappeared from the face of the earth.

  "Emily?" her father repeated, more demandingly.

  "Yes!" she delivered in an ornery bellow.

  "He try anything else you want to tell me about?"

  She kicked a lump of hay, sending it flying, but refused to answer.


  Mortified, she stared at the hay, her mouth cinched tighter than a seaman's knot, working her hands about the smooth pitchfork handle as if applying liniment to a horse's leg. At last she clomped to the hay hatch. Planting her feet wide and ramming the pitchfork tines into the pine floor, she met her father's upturned gaze.

  "He came in here and started spouting off about the horses and how I should've cross-tied Sergeant, and taking the liberty of examining his hoof and offering advice on how to take care of it. He made me mad, that's all."

  "So you turned his business away?"

  Pride held her silent.

  "I didn't mean any disrespect," Jeffcoat interrupted, placatingly. "But I'll admit I was teasing her, and I made the mistake of thinking she was a boy when I walked in. It seemed to set her off, sir."

  Turning away, Walcott bit his inner lip to keep from smiling. "Come into the office. We'll do business there. How many days will you be leaving your team here?"

  Instead of following immediately, Jeffcoat stepped beneath the ladder and raised his eyes to the girl who glared down from above. "A week for sure, maybe more."

  He knew beyond a doubt that she'd like nothing better than to fire that pitchfork at his head. But she stood with both hands gripping its handle, staring him down with silent venom.

  "Good afternoon, Miss Walcott," he offered quietly, and with a doffing of his hat, followed her father.

  Walcott led him through a door into a lean-to attached to the east side of the barn, a small room with a bumpy concrete floor and four small-paned windows, two facing the street and two the empty lot. At sunrise the office would be bright but now in midafternoon it was cool and shadowed. It held a scarred desk with the rolltop missing, its pigeonholes overflowing with papers above a dusty top littered with bridle rings, snaffle bits, horseshoe nails, tack hammers, horse liniment and a white dinner plate with a few green beans and a dried breadcrust stuck in a streak of hardening gravy. The desk chair was tilted on its casters and worn bare of varnish on its back and arms. Against the north wall slumped a metal day-bed, its exposed springs covered with a homemade mattress made of stuffed burlap, topped by a multicolored rag rug where a taffy-colored cat slept. To the right of the door sat a small potbellied stove. The walls were hung with an assortment of oddities: beaver traps; stage schedules; patent-medicine trade cards—an advertisement for Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show; a collection of oxbow keys—last summer's schedule for the Philadelphia Professional Baseball Club; and an ancient pendulum clock, ticking slow. The office smelled of onion gravy, aromatic liniment, gram, and hemp—the latter presumably exuding from a lineup of plump burlap bags propped against the wall to the left of the door.


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