“We're going to pick up horses at Manny's Livery Stable.” Lucky carried his saddlebags over one shoulder and Tempest's new saddlebags packed with her supplies over the other. She walked beside him with her blanket.
“Is Manny the one who sent word that he had a mare I could borrow anytime?”
“Isn't that generous?”
“Women do seem to appreciate him.”
“No wonder. He sounds like such a nice, thoughtful man.”
“I don't know about that, but he takes good care of horses.”
“A man can do more than one thing at a time.”
“Given the right incentive, that's true.”
“I think you're jealous.”
“He obviously has a sterling reputation in the Bend.”
“And I don't?”
“The ladies like you.”
“And I like them.” Lucky didn't know how they'd gotten into this discussion. He and Manny were about as much alike as a mule and a horse. One was for steady work while the other was for fast pace.
“I still think I should be wearing my new .32.”
“A firearm is not fashion. It's serious business.”
“I'm serious about protecting myself. And you, too.”
“Thanks. I already feel safer.”
“No need to be snide. We're going into the wilds of Indian Territory. From what everyone's told me, it's dangerous.”
“Not if you know what you're doing. Besides, the Five Civilized Tribes are rebuilding their nations.”
“What about the Texikaners? It's not too likely they're going to be left in anybody's dust. From what Ludmila saysâ”
“Are you going to quote her every step of the way?”
“She's smart, generous, and knowledgeable. Mama Lou and Diana, too.”
“I know a few things.”
“Maybe you do, but I'm not sure how practical they are. After all, you're the one who is paying me two double eagles to talk with ghosts.”
Put like that, all he could do was shake his head. He wasn't going to win an argument with her. He'd teach her how to handle her .32 as soon as he got a chance.
When they arrived at Manny's Livery Stable, Manny limped out to greet them. He wore faded blue jeans and a red plaid shirt. He was all wiry muscle with a wild mane of black hair touched with silver and a grizzled beard.
“Welcome!” Manny spit a stream of tobacco to one side, and then wiped his mouth with a red bandanna. “So here's the little lady everybody's making such a fuss about. You're just as pretty, and I bet as smart, as they say you are.”
Tempest smiled and held out her hand.
Lucky watched in astonishment as Manny lifted her fingers to his lips and bowed over her hand. Where had the stableman learned a gentleman's move like that? Just went to prove that the Bend welcomed all comers and asked no questions. He wouldn't be surprised if some European royalty weren't hanging around town incognito. Ludmila came to mind, but he quickly dismissed her.
Not that anyone here would know, care, or believe it, but he was Indian nobility. The Atlahtaw Nation didn't have a homeland anymore. They'd lost their wars with the Europeans for Turtle Island, now renamed the United States of America. They'd even lost much of their culture. Yet their priests and priestesses had protected the People's power by moving it from the physical plane to the spirit plane, where mystics still maintained it.
After the last, lost battle, many of the Atlahtaw had escaped to save their heritage by living with one of the Five Civilized Tribes or marrying into French families, mostly in New Orleans. Those captured had been sold into slavery to the sugar planters of the West Indies. Over time, the Atlahtaw became renowned mystics within host nations like the Chickasaw, the Crow, and the Choctaw.
And that was how he had become Lucien Deveraux, French, Choctaw, and Atlahtaw. On the outside, he was known as Lucky, a treasure hunter paid well to recover lost property for railways, banks, and others. He was also president of the Society for the Preservation of Antiquities. On the inside, and to those who mattered most, he was Chief of the Secret Order of Sun Rattlers and a direct descendent of a legendary chief, the last Sun King, or Grand Sun, of the Atlahtaw.
“Lucky!” Manny called. “Are you wool-gathering? I said I got your gelding and Tempest's mare saddled and ready to go. Big Jim says you've got no time to waste.”
“Thank you,” Tempest said. “I'm so grateful for your help.”
“Think nothing of it. Now, I gave you a regular saddle, if that's okay.”
“Ludmila explained the importance of riding astride.”
“Mama Lou sent over some fresh baked goods for your trip.” Manny appeared sheepish. “Don't tell her, but I ate one of her muffins.”
Tempest laughed. “I'm sure she'd forgive you, since they're irresistible, but I won't tell. I'm thrilled to have some to take with us.”
“Thanks. Sure don't want her mad at me.”
“Is there a place inside where I may change to my split-skirt?”
“Will an empty horse stall do?”
“Yes, thank you.” She held out her hand to Lucky. “Please give me my saddlebags.”
He handed them over, and then watched her walk inside.
“Quite a woman, ain't she?” Manny said, watching, too.
“Sure is.” He looked at Manny. “Any news I ought to know from the other side of the Red River?”
“Hear some big outfit is getting the whiskey peddlers in line.”
“What do you mean?”
“They work for the outfit, or they don't work.”
“That's what's gettin' them in line.”
“I don't like the sound of that.”
“Nobody does. We're all too independent to work for somebody else. Trouble's brewing, mark my words.”
“Thanks for the tip.”
“Come on, let's get you and the little lady saddled up.”
Lucky followed Manny inside. As promised, his bay was ready to go, impatiently stomping a hoof. He stroked Miko's long nose and received head butts in return. He tied his saddlebags to the saddle, and then checked to make sure the cinch was tight.
“I'm ready to go.” Tempest stepped out of the horse stall.
Manny let out a whistle of appreciation. “Miss Tempest, that surely is your color.”
She chuckled, setting down her blanket and saddlebags. “Thanks. Ludmila has a good eye.”
Lucky thought she had more than a good eye. Tempest looked like a blackberry confection ready to eat. He'd like to scoop her into his arms, lay her on fresh hay in a horse stall, close the door, and shut out the world. He'd taste her until he'd indulged every fantasy he'd had since the first moment he saw her.
“Let's mount up.” He sounded gruff and knew it, but everything about her set him on edge. He picked up her saddlebags and blanket, tied them to the back of her saddle, and checked the cinch.
“I've never ridden astride,” Tempest said.
“Nothing to it.” Manny gestured toward the mare. “Anna there will stand still while you put your left foot in the stirrup and throw your right leg over the saddle. That's it.”
“I'll help you,” Lucky said.
“No, thank you. I need to learn to do this on my own.”
He stepped back, liking her determination.
Tempest got a leg up, over, and plopped down in the saddle.
Manny tucked a red-and-white-check napkin wrapped around food in her saddlebag.
Lucky mounted and glanced at Tempest. “Ready to go?”
She nodded, violet eyes sparkling with excitement, and placed a hand over her heart.
It was a simple gesture, but one that went straight to his gut. She was putting her faith and trust in him to keep her safe and help her reach her goals.
He wouldn't let her down.
Tempest followed Manny out of the stable, riding beside Lucky. She felt like pinching herself to make sure she wasn't living a dream. But if she was, she didn't want to wake up. The Bend's residents had been nothing but kind to her.
Manny held up a hand, glancing up and down Main Street.
“What is it?” She looked around, but saw nothing unusual.
“Expecting somebody?” Lucky asked.
“You ever meet the Hayes Brothers?” Manny queried.
“Here they come now.”
Two broad-shouldered men with short, black hair and neat mustaches, and dressed in blue seersucker plaid sack suits with round corners and brown derby hats swaggered down the boardwalk.
Tempest watched them in amazement as they drew near. They were almost giants at six-feet-five. They were dressed in the latest fashion, something she doubted anybody saw much in the Bend. And they radiated energy enough for a dozen men.
They came to a stop in front of her and were almost at eye level even though she was on the back of a horse. They appeared to be handsome, debonair gentlemen out for a constitutional. And that made about as much sense as anything else in Delaware Bend.
Manny stepped up beside them. “Lucky and Tempest, I'd like you to meet Burt and Bob Hayes.”
They raised their hats in unison, inclined their heads, and smiled, revealing bright white teeth.
“Howdy,” Lucky said.
“I'm pleased to meet you.” She could see they weren't twins like Elmira and Lamira, but they were close to it.
“I'm Burt.” He stepped forward. “Miss Tempest, please forgive our intrusion into your day. We understand you are about to leave town on a matter of supreme importance. Nevertheless, we wanted to catch you while we had the opportunity.”
“We represent Hayes Brothers Entertainment Enterprises.”
She nodded and smiled pleasantly. Did they sell pianos to saloons or something?
“We trust you have considered the importance of your contribution to society,” Burt said.
“Everybody has heard about the commitment by ladies of temperance societies to bring public awareness to the detrimental effects of whiskey overconsumption,” Burt said.
“But few have had the opportunity to view an actual event such as when you chopped the Red River Saloon bar,” Bob added.
Tempest blushed, feeling heat sting her face.
“We thought you might care to spread the word and reach a larger audience,” Burt said.
“As you're a huckleberry above most persimmons,” Bob added.
Tempest glanced at Lucky, hoping for some enlightenment or help. He appeared as puzzled as she felt.
“We are creating a Wild West show for the stage,” Burt said. “Such famous big bugs as the legendary singer, Lady Gone Bad, the popular dime novelist, Angelique, as well as outlaws, Indians, gunslingers will all be represented to our audiences across the nation.”
“Savagerous,” Bob added.
Tempest felt her mouth drop open in surprise.
Lucky chuckled. “You're spinning a tall tale.”
“It's no story.” Manny bristled. “I'm their stock handler. Mama Lou is their cook. This business is homegrown. And it's getting bigger by the day.”
“Last year Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show opened in New York and it's a huge success. Folks want more of the Wild West,” Bob said.
“That brings us to why we are here,” Burt added. “We believe folks will pay hard-earned cash to see on stage the
Reenactment of Temperance Tempest Chopping the Legendary Bar of the Red River Saloon.
Tempest put a hand over her mouth to hold back her laughter at the absurd idea.
Lucky laughed out loud.
Manny appeared offended. “Laugh all you want now, but we'll laugh last when we're rolling in dough and you're still hunting in the mountains for gold.”
“As much as I appreciate your suggestion,” Tempest said, “I've hung up my hatchet.”
“We'll buy you a new one,” Burt said.
“Paint it red. Add some sparkles,” Bob added.
Lucky laughed harder.
“Miss Tempest,” Manny said. “Please give the notion some consideration. Your legend is growing. Once your painting hangs in the Red River Saloon, you'll be even more famous. If you're in our Wild West show, folks will come to Delaware Bend in droves to see that artwork. We'll all be rich and famous.”
Tempest looked from one to another as realization dawned on her that they were totally serious. “Perhaps an actress could play my part?”
“Diana might do it, but she's got other parts to play,” Burt said.
“Diana has agreed, as well as Mama Lou?” Tempest shook her head in wonderment.
“Don't forget me,” Manny said. “We wouldn't sign on to no flyby-night operation. I've known Burt and Bob all my life.”
“You forget Tempest has several jobs already,” Lucky said. “She doesn't have time, even if she was interested in your show.”
“We wouldn't think to impose on you now,” Burt said. “We're in the planning stages. We're gathering backers. We're soliciting talent.”
Temperance Tempest and Her Hatchet,
” Bob added. “Think about it.”
“And the Bend would sure appreciate your help,” Manny said.
Tempest felt her heart constrict with sadness. Now she understood. Nothing in the Bend had been free. She owed the town's residents, and they were calling in their marker. She glanced over at Lucky, hoping she didn't appear as disillusioned as she felt.
“You can see you've caught Tempest by surprise,” Lucky said. “She isn't used to being famous yet. We don't even know when we'll be back in town.”
“Consternation!” Burt shook his head. “Miss Tempest, if we sound pushy, we apologize.”
“We don't mean to wreak havoc,” Bob agreed. “We understand you might need time to ponder setting foot on stage. But we want you to know that our ladies will receive the utmost privacy, respect, and protection.”
“Mama Lou, Diana, and Ludmila are gonna have my hide.” Manny spit a stream of tobacco to one side, and then wiped his mouth with a bandanna. “They told me not to make you feel like you owed the town something, 'cause it's not true. Everything we done we done from our hearts. We want you to join us in this adventure 'cause we like you and you fit in with us.”
Tempest smiled, feeling a little better at his words. “Is Ludmila part of this enterprise, too?”
“Who else is gonna order us what we need?” Manny asked.
“Maybe we didn't make it clear that everybody is getting paid top dollar or a percentage of the profits,” Bob added.
Tempest cocked her head to one side, considering the money. Elmira and Lamira would be outraged at the idea. Once she set foot on stage, her reputation would be ruined for all time. On the other hand, it was pretty much in tatters right now. And with no matrimonial prospects, she did need an income.
“Lucky, you're a likely looking man,” Burt said. “If we painted your skin darker, we could outfit you and send you on stage to play an Indian. Are you any good with that six-shooter?”
“Indian?” Lucky asked.
“Good idea,” Manny said. “Lucky, we'd be glad for you to join us.”
“Thanks,” Lucky said. “But right now we're headed for Indian Territory.”
“But we'll be back soon.” Tempest couldn't imagine taking part in a Wild West show. Still, it wasn't much stranger than anything else that had happened to her in the Bend.
When Lucky urged his horse forward, she followed him. On impulse, she looked back and raised her hat to the three men watching her. They responded in kind.
Indian Territory just might turn out to be dull after Delaware Bend.