Of “A HEAP OF TROUBLE”
Cole’s heart rate picked up a notch. Her honey-colored hair had been the first thing he noticed when she stepped off the covered wagon a month ago, how it gleamed like silk corn tassels in the sunshine. Her tiny waist and proper curves had sure jingled his spurs. “Afternoon, Miss Mattie,” he jumped to his feet. “Whoa, don’t come in. There’s a mighty dangerous critter under the desk.”
“A what?” Mattie hurried to look under the desk. “Oh, my, it’s a little monkey.” She crawled on all fours to reach for the varmint, offering Cole a tantalizing view of her frilly petticoat and pretty ankles. “Come here, you poor baby.”
“Miss Mattie, stop.” Cole rushed over, a palm on his pistol. “He might bite you.”
Mattie got to her feet, the monkey curled in her arms. “Oh, don’t be silly. He’s what they call a ringtail and he’s half-starved to boot. I had a school friend once whose dad was an Organ Grinder. He had bought one like this shipped in from South America.” Her eyebrows lifted, her eyes on his hand hovering over his pistol. “You weren’t really planning on shooting this little fella, were you?”
“Me?” He let out a chuckle and quickly hooked his thumb over his gun belt. “I’d never think of doing something like that.” He made a show of glancing around the room. “I was just sharin’ my lunch, but he sure made a darn mess of the place.”
She petted the monkey, cooing softly while it lay snuggled in her arms. She bit her lip her eyes twinkling. “Oh, I see. And now you’re sweeping up the scraps. How sweet.”
Cole shuddered at how she could handle the critter so easily. He tried to smile. “Yes, ma’am. Sure was. Cleaning the office and feeding him, that is.”
Her eyes narrowed as she inspected the creature closely. “This fella’s too thin, must not have eaten for a while.” She fingered the metal band around its neck. “We need something to wedge the clip lock off his collar.” A frown pulled at her mouth while her eyes scanned the office. “Oh, hand me that ring of keys hanging on the peg. You hold the monkey and I’ll work the ring under the clip.”
“Uh, you keep a hold of him. I’ll pry the clip loose. I mean since he’s so comfortable with you and all.” He snatched up the key ring and edged closer. His hands trembled. “Why we doin’ this for anyhow? Must be someone’s pet with this fancy collar.”
“Probably, but this collar has sharp edges. It scratches his neck.” She perched on the edge of the desk, holding the monkey firmly, exposing the lock.
Cole moved his hands slowly. “Ah, hold on to his head nice and tight now. We don’t want him wiggling.”
She giggled. “Don’t worry.”
Sweat beaded on his forehead, the heat rushing to his face nearly searing his eyebrows. He reached for the collar, his heart racing. The ring slid under the clip and he forced it up. It snapped open with a ping.
“Now pull the collar apart.”
He did. The collar pushed open wide enough for him to twist it off.
“Yeow!” Pain shot from his hand to his elbow. He dropped the collar as if he had grabbed the hot end of a branding iron. The metal band clunked and spun across the floor. He stared at the bloody strip streaking his palm.
“I told you it was sharp.” Mattie set the ringtail on the desk and led Cole to the basin of water sitting on the ledge in the corner. She soaped a cloth and bathed his palm while he glared at the monkey. Her soft, warm hands gave him a little tingle in his belly, until she poured the whiskey over the cut.
“Yeow!” Cole blew on his hand. He didn’t know which was worse, the cut or the unexpected whiskey wash.
The ringtail rubbed and stretched its neck, then clapped. Cole gave him a scathing look.
Mattie nudged Cole’s arm. “Oh, don’t be such a baby. Look, it’s hardly bleeding at all.” She wrinkled her nose and waved her hands to dispel the liquor fumes floating in the office.
Dang. She probably thinks I’m a jackass. He cleared his throat. “So, how’d you know ‘bout the hurtful collar?”
“When we lived in New York, I visited at my friend’s home. I saw how her father used the collar to train the ringtail by pulling on it with a chain to hurt the little thing.”
Cole glanced at the red streak on his palm. “That seems a downright mean way to treat a critter.”
“I agree.” Mattie huffed. “He said he did that to teach the monkey tricks. Why, he even tied the ringtail’s forearms behind his back to train him to walk upright. I thought it horribly cruel and near cried every time I went to her house.” Her white shirtwaist rose and fell with every angry breath.
“Where do you suppose this one came from then?”
“Must have escaped from that medicine show traveling south of us, that’s all I can figure. We heard about the show while you and your deputies were away tracking those rustlers.” She patted his palm with a dry towel. “You have any luck?”
“Sorry to say we never saw hide nor hair of the thieves. Wade and Sully are still camping out on the range. They’re gonna keep searching the hills beyond the river.”
Mattie folded the towel and set it back on the shelf. “Hope you find them soon so all this trouble will be over.”
“Me, too.” He cast another weary glance at the monkey and sighed. “That critter ate most of my lunch, but I guess even a mangy mutt deserves to eat once in a while.”
The monkey nodded and let out a burp.
Mattie laughed and tickled the varmint under his chin. “I did learn this little thing will eat both meat and fruit. At least my friend’s dad fed theirs well and kept it healthy.” She grabbed the broom and began sweeping up the scattered scraps.
Cole bent to pick up a half-eaten biscuit by the desk. The monkey climbed onto his shoulder and wrapped his furry arms around his neck. Cole choked back a yelp. Hot breath blasted his ear. He nearly jumped out of his skin and reached to throw the critter off, but Mattie was gazing at him with those adoring eyes.
“Oooh, how cute. He’s taken with you. They do love to be cuddled.”
He didn’t dare pitch him off. Cole gritted his teeth and stoically bore the beast, expecting to lose an ear to sharp little teeth. Tiny fingers plucked at Cole’s hair. His ear feeling a little safer, Cole paced the office and forced his shoulders to loosen up with each step.
The floor cleaned, the dirt and bits of food wrapped in brown paper, Mattie wedged the bundle of scraps under her arm.
When Cole passed the hat rack, a small arm plucked the Stetson from the peg and set it on his head. Mattie put her hand over her mouth, but he heard her muffled chuckle.
He stepped onto the boardwalk, the thick planks echoing with each step and sinking a little under his six-foot frame. Now that he finally got the critter outside, he hoped like heck it would scamper off to parts unknown. Instead, it stayed perched on his shoulder as he walked Mattie back to the mercantile her pa had bought from the last owners. The couple had upped and moved farther west to live with their son and his family.
Cole ran a quick scan over the two blocks of businesses down to the Sundance Saloon angled at the far end of town. Buckboards and horses lined the rails and teams tromped the street raising puffs of dust. People chatted in groups or went about their chores. Some of the buildings, like his office, provided living quarters on the upper floor. Behind the businesses, and across a small lane, stood weathered cabins and painted frame houses with shutters.
No drifters, pie-eyed cowhands, or fights in the making were in sight. All remained peaceful-like, which suited him just fine. He sure didn’t need any more problems today.
Old Baldy limped toward them, his stained apron hanging past his knees. He jerked to a stop, and his toothless mouth spread into a wide grin. He smacked his thigh. “I see you gots a new deputy there, Sheriff.” Baldy guffawed until his face turned pink, then he bent over to catch his breath.
Cole thought about shooting him, but instead gave the geezer a stone cold glare.
Mrs. Fiona O’Brien bustled out of the mercantile. Her eyes widened, and she stepped back. A coin fell from her hand and skittered to a stop at Cole’s feet. The monkey jumped to the wooden planks, picked up the coin, then scuttled back up Cole’s pants, shirt, and onto his shoulder. A tiny hand offered him the coin.
Cole tipped his hat and returned the coin to Fiona.
The woman straightened her bonnet and peered at the monkey. “Goodness gracious, if that isn’t the cutest, most mannerly pet I ever had a notion to meet.” Her skirt rustled as she moved nearer. “What’s its name, Cole?”
“Uh, it’s, uh,” he glanced at the monkey. “It’s Beggar.” Cole stood tall and smiled. “Yeah, his name is Beggar, and he’s a ringtail monkey.”
“Howdy, lil’ fella.” Fiona reached up to pat its head.
Baldy wiped his eyes. “Guess I best mosey over and pick up yer lunch basket, Cole. See you and yer new deputy later.”
Cole and Mattie helped Fiona load groceries into her buckboard. She thanked them, snapped the reins and drove the horse down the street to her family’s Eatery business.
Mattie stood on the boardwalk grinning like a fool, but a pretty fool. Cole shook his head, and a long deep sigh escaped his lips. “By the way, why did you stop at the office?”
“I wanted to tell you that I’d be pleased to accept your invitation to the social Saturday.” She glanced up and down the street and then offered him an impish smile. “Bring your new friend along. I take a real shine to men who care for pets. And, I’m sure he’ll be the most popular fella at the social.” She walked into the store, leaving Cole to stare after her.
He widened his smile, his step springy, as he strolled back to the office. He glanced sideways into deep brown eyes. “Guess I’ll have to keep you around for a while. Just remember, I’m the boss, and I have the six-shooter.”
Lorrie’s Flowers and Thorns website http://lorriejuly.blogspot.com