Quartz – Part 5
It didn’t help at all that while Mary was greeting Mr. Alvarez, sitting across from her, Talbot gave Zeke a smirking grin. Zeke pulled out the chair beside Alvarez so hard that Mrs. Estrada gave him a look. With a bob of his head, he sat, mustering as much politeness as he could.
Dinner proceeded without much comment from him while both Talbot and Alvarez did their best to charm Mary. When dinner ended, finally, Zeke stormed off, out the front door and down to the creek. After storming up and down the creek bank, throwing rocks and sticks into the water, he finally calmed down enough to go back.
There he found everyone in the parlor listening to Mary playing Mrs. Estrada’s piano. As he entered, Mary finished the piece and everyone clapped. “That was beautiful, Mary,” Mrs. Estrada told her. “After I had this shipped here, I never did learn to play. There was no time and frankly, no teachers.”
Everyone laughed, Mrs. Estrada included.
Mary looked at Zeke. “I think I’m tired, Cassie. If you don’t mind. It’s been a very long day.”
Mrs. Estrada stood up. “Of course, dear. Forgive me for keeping you.”
Red Talbot stood as well, taking Mary’s hand and kissing it. “I bid you good evening, then, Miss.”
Zeke saw Mary blush, but she didn’t remove her hand from Red’s. He stepped in. “I’ll walk you up, Mary.”
Behind her back, Red grinned. Zeke took Mary firmly by the arm and led her away, thinking only about how if he ever got that bushwhacker alone, he’d take care of him. Mary held onto Zeke’s arm with both hands. “Mr. Talbot is quite the character, isn’t he?” she said as they reached the upstairs hall.
“Oh. Yes.” Zeke had other words to use but he let that go. “I’m sorry you’ve over-exerted yourself. The stage ride must have been brutal.”
She shrugged. “It was tiring. But that’s not why I said good night.” She turned to Zeke as they stood outside her door. “I could see you were upset. That’s all.”
He took a breath. That made him feel like a heel. “I’m sorry, Mary. The man gets under my skin.”
She smiled at him. “I could see that. Don’t let it. I didn’t come all this way to see Mr. Talbot. I came to see you.”
Now he really felt bad. “I apologize. It won’t happen again.”
Mary kissed him on the cheek and opened her door. “Good night, Zeke. Sleep well.” With that she was inside, and the door closed.
Zeke put his hand up to his cheek over the kiss. He could still feel her warm lips there. In his room, he took off his boots and lay down on the bed. Her scent lingered on his shirt and all he could think about was having her in his arms.
The next morning, he was in the barn, taking care of his horses and Jenny, when Talbot rode in. Cesar was out at the pig pen so he stepped forward. “Talbot.”
Talbot tipped his hat. “Stanford.” He dismounted. “You’re up early.”
Talbot laughed. “You’re right, my young friend.” He led his stallion into the barn.
Zeke followed. He wouldn’t put it past this rake to steal anything lighter than the anvil. Talbot took his horse to the far end left box stall and unsaddled his horse. Zeke pretended to check on Butter’s feed box.
“Hey, toss me down some hay, would you?” Talbot called out from the stall.
Zeke could hear the sounds of Talbot unsaddling his horse. He shrugged to himself. “Sure.”
Up in the loft, he forked down three bunches of hay, and climbed back down. “Nice horse.” He could give Talbot that much credit. The horse was magnificent.
“Thank you. Storm is a bit much to handle. He has a mind of his own, but we get along.” The horse took that opportunity to reach around and try to bite Talbot. Talbot pushed his head away and gave the horse’s neck a long stroke. The horse looked at Zeke, as though to say he was in charge.
“I can see.”
“I had a good night last night. You should come to the Oxbow for a hand or two.”
Zeke, never one for throwing his money away, thought that was unlikely to happen. “Maybe.”
Talbot came out of the stall and found the oats, giving Storm a scoop, then put the hay in the rack. He opened the stall door to the outside corral, then came out. He brushed his hands off after closing the stall door. “I suspect breakfast is about ready?”
Zeke nodded. “I suspect so.”
Both men walked to the outside pump and washed their hands, then up the steps to the back porch and into the kitchen.
Pia was pulling biscuits from the oven. Zeke’s stomach growled at the aroma.
“Almost ready. Go. Mrs. Estrada is in the parlor.”
Zeke led the way. In the parlor, the salesman was seated in one of the armchairs. Mrs. Estrada was in her rocker and Mary was on the settee. Zeke’s breath caught in his throat at how lovely she looked, her blonde hair shining in the sunlight streaming through the window. She smiled at him as he entered.
“Good morning, Zeke.” Mrs. Estrada nodded to him. “Oh. I see Mr. Talbot is with us this morning.”
Talbot removed his hat. “Mrs. Estrada, you look most fetching in blue this fine day.” He bowed to her while giving Mary a wink.
Zeke scowled as Mary held her hand up to her mouth. It wasn’t like her to simper. He didn’t understand what was going on with her.
“Miss Younger.” Talbot stepped over to her. “Good morning.” He bowed, took her hand and kissed it.
Zeke rolled his eyes. “Mr. Alvarez.”
“Good morning, Mr. Stanford. A fine day for travelling.”
Talbot turned and nodded to the salesman. “Morning, sir.”
The salesman nodded back. “Good morning.”
Pia announced that it was breakfast and they all went into the dining room.
Later, Zeke mopped the last of the gravy with his biscuit, thinking he’d escaped from breakfast with a minimum amount of aggravation from Mr. Red Talbot. He was wondering about how to spend the day with Mary when Talbot spoke again.
“There’s the usual Saturday night dance at the Oxbow tonight, I thought you all should know.”
Alvarez shook his head. “I’m on my way to Flagstaff right after breakfast, good sir. But thank you for letting me know.”
Zeke glanced at Mary and slumped. She was sitting forward, eyes sparkling.
Zeke checked Mrs. Estrada.
“Oh yes. I haven’t been in a long time but I remember going. Many of the ranch families come into town to do their weekly resupply and stay for the dance. Then sleep in their wagons, go to church on Sunday morning then head back to their ranches.” She nodded, smiling.
Zeke thought she was thinking about a happy memory. The older woman wasn’t doing anything to dissuade Mary from this dance. He looked back to Mary, who was eagerly looking at him. From the corner of his eye he could see Talbot sit back in his chair, arms folded across his chest, smirking. He’d like to slap that smirk right off of his face.
“Doesn’t that sound like fun, Zeke! I could meet some of the ladies.”
That did it for him. If they were going to stay here, she did need to meet some of the other women. Stay here? Where did that come from? “Um. Yes. Sounds like fun. Especially since Mrs. Estrada says it’s a family dance.”
Mary bounced up and down with glee. “Thank you, Zeke! Thank you, Mrs. Estrada. You’ll have to help me pick out a dress.”
Then, she turned to Red. “Thank you for telling us about the dance, Mr. Talbot.”
The gambler touched his fingertips to his forehead, doing a little bow in Mary’s direction. “Anything for you, Miss Younger.”
Mrs. Estrada pushed back from the table. “It’s decided then. Goodness.” She smiled at everyone around the table. “I don’t think I’ve been this excited about going to the dance in a long time.”
Zeke escorted Mary to her room where she was going to lay out all of her dresses to make a decision. Talbot came up as Zeke was closing Mary’s door. He nodded to the man as he passed him at his door, then went back out to the barn. He brought Diva out to curry her. Cesar brought out Storm and tied him to the fence post across the yard from Zeke.
“I hear you’re going to the dance. I take Pia. She loves to dance.” The ranch hand waggled his eyebrows at Zeke.
Zeke nodded. “I guess the ladies do like to dance. Mary’s picking out a dress.”
“You don’ want to go?”
“No. That’s not it.” He had to remember not to brush too hard, he thought as Diva shied away from his rough hand. “It’s just that Talbot brought it up. I know the man wasn’t bringing it up out of the kindness of his heart.”
“Miss Mary is very pretty.”
“Yep. She is. And innocent. Red Talbot is a no-good bushwhacker. Not the kind of person Mary should set her cap for.” Again, Diva whimpered and moved away from Zeke’s brush. He had to pat the horse and calm her down. “Sorry, Diva. Sorry, girl.” He took a deep breath. “Well. I’ve got to take her to the dance. But I don’t have to like that Talbot will be sniffing around my girl.”