“Take Micah back to the hotel, Sven. He’s plumb tuckered out.” Lars winked at the small boy snuggled against his father’s chest.
The child pulled a damp thumb from his mouth and pointed. “Uncie Lar,” he lisped.
“That’s right, little man, I’m your Uncle Lars,” he replied, grinning.
“I believe I will,” Sven said, “if you don’t mind finishing the shopping. I’d have left Micah with Caroline, but she needs to rest. The trip from Texas was mighty hard on her.”
“Go on back to the hotel, brother.” Lars waited and wondered. Did his brother trust him? Would he leave him with their money? He snorted. Did he even deserve his brother’s faith?
“I’ll take you up on that offer. Let’s go see Mama.” Sven strode through the misty San Francisco air toward the small hotel where they had lodged for three days. Micah offered a wave before laying his head on his father’s shoulder.
Well, that settled it. Sven did trust him. Did he deserve it? In all fairness, he thought not. He’d raised hell and caused trouble from his earliest memories, and Sven had rescued him time after time.
It was his fault they were in this city of fog and sailors preparing to head north. If it weren’t for his big mouth, his brother and his wife would be sitting snug in San Miguel, Texas, with a house and a midwife handy.
Lars kicked at the wet sidewalk with the toe of his boot. His brother forgave him, but Sven’s eight-month pregnant wife still bore him a grudge. He didn’t blame her. He deserved it, but he aimed to earn her trust. They were traveling together to Oregon to start over, buy a farm, make a new life. He had plenty of time to show her he’d changed. The first step could be taken today. He’d make those purchases and head straight back to the hotel. He wouldn’t even stop for the beer that called to him like a siren called a sailor.
The large white building across the cobbled street had the word Mercantile emblazoned in red above the door. Sven looked in the window. Seemed like every imaginable item known to man sat on a shelf, lay on the floor, leaned against a wall, or hung suspended from a wire. He’d never seen the like. The stores he’d encountered in the past had enough to get a man by, but this business had riches beyond imagining. A bell jingled overhead as he entered.
“Can I help you?” a voice called from behind the counter.
“Yes, sir, I reckon you can.” Lars paused while he surveyed the groaning shelves. “I aim to travel by wagon up the Siskiyou Trail into Oregon. My brother and me, we got a map, but I’m wondering how often we can buy supplies.”
“That trail is pretty well traveled. You shouldn’t have any problem. I’d carry a week’s worth of supplies. No need to burden your oxen with more. You are using oxen?” The merchant leaned with one hip against the wooden counter. A pencil peeked out from behind his ear.
“First big stop from here is Sacramento. Take you about seven days. A day one way or the other depending on how much ground you cover. There are spots along the way to buy supplies if you need them.” The shopkeeper raised a warning eyebrow. “But those small stores make you pay for poor planning. A week’s supplies will get you close to Sacramento and more reasonable prices.”
Lars pulled a list from his shirt pocket. “I need ten pounds of cornmeal, ten of flour, two dozen eggs, a side of bacon, ten pounds of beans, a sack of rice, ten pounds of potatoes, a dozen apples, coffee and a big bag of crackers.” He placed the paper on the counter. “We’ll see how far that gets us. We’ll be by in the morning with our wagon.”
The storekeeper’s pencil flew as he listed numbers. “That’ll be four dollars and seventy-eight cents.” Lars removed the money packet and placed a five-dollar bill on the counter. He slipped the change, the receipt and the money into his back pocket.
“Thank you. See you in the morning. It’ll be bright and early,” he warned.
“I’m here at first light.” The man was moving about the store pulling items from shelves. “It’ll be ready.”
Lars stepped from the store. He felt mighty good. A new future, one with his brother and his family, one where he might even find himself a bride, beckoned him like sweet tea in the Texas heat.
He paused before the swinging doors of the saloon. Would five cents for a beer make that much difference in their plans? He didn’t believe it would. Anyway, the money was the result of selling their mother’s farm. Half of it was his and half Sven’s. He could spare a nickel from his half. Lord almighty, a man shouldn’t need to fuss over one little beer.
He gave a decisive nod and reached for his back pocket to retrieve the change jingling there, loose and tempting.
What the hell? His wasn’t the only hand trying to relieve his pocket of their money. He tightened his grip around small fingers and dragged the culprit to face him.
“Let go of me, mister,” the boy demanded.
“Not a chance, kid,” Lars growled.
Lars let his gaze wander from the top of the little thief’s head to his boots and back. His pants were a dirty brown, his shirt a threadbare plaid and his boots run over at the heels and plain pitiful. On his head was a disreputable hat of indeterminable color pulled tight down to his ears.
What would Sven do? Lars wondered. Sven was a kind, generous man. All his life when he made this query, he’d done the opposite. If Sven would tell the truth, he lied. If Sven would return lost property, he kept it. But Lars was turning over the proverbial new leaf, making a fresh start, a clean break from his murky past. He knew Sven would not haul the kid to the sheriff. A boy deserved a second chance. Why, Lars, himself, was the recipient of one.
He grabbed the boy by a scrawny upper arm and turned him toward their hotel. The scamp tried to pry Lars’ fingers loose. He squirmed; he pulled; he struggled. Lars laid a series of spanks on the boy’s bottom that lifted him clean off the ground.
“Stop that,” the kid howled and dug the heels of his broken-down boots into the dirt.
“Stop your caterwauling,” Lars spat through clenched teeth. With a no-nonsense jerk, he pulled the writhing thief to his side.
“Let go of me, mister. You got no right.” The boy twisted and turned, but Lars held firm.
“No right, huh? Like you had no right to my money?” he demanded.
“Stop,” the kid yelled as another spank sent him dancing in the air.
No, sir, he didn’t plan to stop. He wasn’t sure Sven would approve, but, by God, this felt right. He kept the scamp headed down the street with swat after swat. They reached the hotel, and Lars helped him up to the room with a swift spank at every step.
Keeping a firm grip of the robber’s arm with one hand, Lars dug in his pocket for the key. When the door swung open, he pushed the thief into the room.
Sven, Caroline and Micah turned from the window with wide eyes and hanging jaws.
“Uncie Lar spank,” Micah declared before returning his thumb to his mouth.
“Indeed, he did,” Caroline agreed.
“What in the world?” Sven raised his shoulders. One eyebrow hovered in question.
“The kid tried to steal our money.” Lars shook an imprisoned arm. “He had his hand in my pocket when I caught him.” He turned toward the struggling boy. “What do you think the sheriff would do if we turned you in? We could still let the law take care of a little robber like you.”
The boy scowled, pulled back his foot, and landed a hard kick on his captor’s shin.
“Why you little…”
When Lars’ grip loosened, the boy seized the opportunity to pull his foot back a second time. He aimed his boot for a tender spot between his jailor’s legs. Lars saw the blow coming and leapt to the side. The kid’s foot hit empty air.
“You little brat. I’ll teach you to fight dirty.” Determination glowed like a banked fire in icy eyes.
Getting a firm grip on the culprit, Lars dragged a chair to the center of the room and sat. He pulled the boy to his side and lifted him over his knee. He secured the kid’s kicking legs with one of his own and rained punishment on that rascal’s bottom. His hand rose and fell in fast, relentless spanks. The boy wriggled that bottom to the left and to the right, but he was trapped and Lars let his displeasure be felt.
When he was certain the boy would think twice before trying such a low-down move again, Lars lifted him to his feet. “What’s your plan, kid? If we turn you loose, are you going to steal again?”
“You bastard,” the boy said through gritted teeth, “you don’t know nothing about what I got to do.”
“Don’t swear in front of my wife and son,” Sven said.
“You want another spanking?” Lars asked. “I got plenty more where that came from.” He put large hands on the youngster’s shoulders and shook.
“Lars, stop,” Caroline shouted. “Look.”
The boy’s hat had been pulled down tight, but between the spanking and the shaking, it had fallen to the floor. A long braid the color of flame swung free to the kid’s waist. Stray hair curled around a scowling face.
Caroline said, “He’s a girl.”
“Why are you dressed like a boy?” Lars shouted.
“It was my disguise, and it was working until you butted in.” The young woman crossed her arms over a flat chest.
“Butted in?” Lars’ eyes were sparking slits of fire. “You had your hand in my pocket.”
“I’m sorry, but I gotta get out of town before Simon Prescott finds me,” she wailed.
Caroline stepped forward with a soothing smile and extended hand. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced. I’m Caroline Nielson, and this is my husband, Sven. Our son, Micah, is two years old and beside him is our dog, Loki.” She rolled her eyes. “I do believe you’ve met my husband’s brother, Lars.”
“I’m Eleanor McBride, but everyone calls me Ellie.” She accepted the proffered hand. “You seem like nice people, and I don’t want to see you get hurt. You best let me loose.”
“You didn’t think stealing our money would hurt? We need that cash to get us up north and settled.” Lars’ jaw and a granite boulder had much in common.
Ellie’s brown eyes brimmed with tears. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking straight, I reckon, but I gotta get out of this town. The Prescotts own the sheriff. Hell, they own this town.”
“Don’t swear in front of my wife and son,” Sven said. “Last warning.”
“Tempers are running a bit hot.” Caroline looked at the big, blond brothers. “Why don’t you both go and bring some supper back from the café. Ellie can get cleaned up while you’re gone. We’ll all feel better after we eat, and we can talk this out.”
“Come on, Micah, let’s go get supper,” Sven swung the child into the air and caught him above his head.
“Oki, Oki,” Micah chanted, pointing at the big Husky.
“Loki can come.” Sven snapped his fingers and the big dog moved next to his master’s leg.
Lars stopped at the door and looked over his shoulder at Ellie. “You better be here when I get back, young lady. If I have to come fetch you, you’ll think that spanking was a Sunday picnic. You’re in some kind of fix, and I can’t… won’t turn my back on a woman in trouble.”
The door closed with a decisive click. “Stay put, Ellie McBride, or else.” He warned through the weathered wood.
“Stay put or else.”