As he approached Joseph Grant's house that Christmas afternoon, Ian puzzled over the blanket-covered bay horse tied by the front gate. Cutting across to the rear of the house, he slipped from the saddle and led his horse into the barn, then returned to the house. Even as he extended his hand to rap at the back door, it suddenly opened. There stood a smiling Susan; she stepped outside, stealthily closing the door behind her. Turning, she flung herself at Ian, encircling his neck tightly. His arms closed around her waist. He swung her off her feet as they kissed.
Finally, lowering her, he reached into his pocket for a small package. "It's for you. Merry Christmas darling!"
Excitedly, she opened one end of the wrapping and a portion of gold chain fell out, followed by a small gold locket. "Oh,My! Ian, it's lovely." Turning it over, she noticed her initials. She looked up affectionately at him and stroked his cheek with her free hand. Then she turned to point toward the door. "Charley Brown is visiting Marguerite. Have you met him?"
"Not yet, but I've heard a lot about him. He's reputed to be quite a man." He noted gooseflesh forming on her arms and reached for the doorknob. "You'll catch a cold in that thin blouse. Let's get inside."
Opening the door, he stepped aside to allow her to enter first. Ian could hear voices from the front room as he removed his coat. Taking him by the hand, Susan led him in to meet the others.
She smiled as she proudly said, "Look who's here. It's Ian."
Pete, Joseph Grant and his wife Annette were sitting by the double front windows. Ian could see the two men had been celebrating, for each held an enameled cup in his hand. A gallon jug stood beside them on the floor. Susan's mother smiled. "Merry Christmas,Ian." Her smile broadened. "These two have a head start. They'll probably be asleep in another hour."
Pete's words came out in a slur. "Happy Christmas!" He grinned foolishly, and then waved to Susan. "Ne tah nish [daughter]. He comes to see you -- not us." He slapped his knees gleefully.
"Not your daughter . . . mine!" Grant looked to Pete angrily.
Pete rolled his head sorrowfully, "No matter."
During the drunken interchange Ian felt Susan's grip on his hand tighten appreciably.
Easing his grasp, Ian stepped toward the man seated opposite Marguerite. Offering his hand, he said, "I'm Ian McLaren, from Emerson."
The lawman stood to grasp Ian's hand. "Charley Brown, from Pembina."
Ian eyed the older man critically and judged him to be about thirty years of age. He had the size to be a sheriff -- about one hundred and ninety pounds, broad shoulders and a good six feet in height. He had a firm, square jaw, dark blue eyes and wisps of sandy, curly hair at his temples. His appearance was that of a placid, gentle man, but Ian had heard of his prowess when it came to breaking up fights with force.
"I've never been in your store. You're in partnership with Kabernagle, aren't you?"
"Yup. The sheriff's job came after I got out of the Army. It's an occasional job, but the pay is fair." He turned to smile at Marguerite. "Why don't the four of us play whist?"
Marguerite smiled at Ian, pretending to pout. "See, Charley is tired of me already. He wants a change."
Ian had intended to spend his time with Susan, but there seemed no alternative. He looked to Susan, who nodded her acceptance of the situation.
"Sure, why not?"
While Susan brought two chairs, Charley stage-whispered to Ian, "I brought the jug of cheer." He turned his head conspiratorially toward the two drinkers, "Gives us a little privacy." Both Susan and Marguerite smiled at his remark, apparently aware of his stratagem.
Drawing for partners, Ian was paired with Marguerite. The cut for the deal fell to him. The last card dealt was a diamond, making diamonds trump. Ian soon found Marguerite not only an excellent whist player, but also witty and knowledgeable.
As dusk approached, Annette brought a lamp to their table, and then went to the kitchen to prepare supper. When the girls arose to help their mother, Charley pulled two cigars from his vest pocket, offering one to Ian. Biting off the end, he questioned, "You're buying furs aren't you?"
"Yes. Thanks to Pete I'm having pretty good luck." As Charley leaned forward to light Ian's cigar, Ian attempted a nonchalant pose, never having smoked a stogy before.
"Watch out for McMurtrie at the customs house," warned Charley. "He knows a lot of furs are being smuggled across the line from Canada." He sat back, eyeing Ian dispassionately. "No skin off my back. It's not my bailiwick, but if he can prove you're buying Canadian furs, he'll make trouble, probably even try to seize them."
Ian took an instant liking to Charley, realizing his advice was sound. From what rumors he'd heard, the sheriff was scrupulously honest.
"I can't tell where the furs come from, I can only guess. I can't speak Cree; Pete does that for me. I expect some of the furs are from across the line, but I don't go out of my way to buy them. And I buy only on the American side of the border.
Changing the subject, he asked, "Have they found out who murdered that girl at Roseau?"
"No, but Constable Bell, of Emerson, suspects the transients living at Roseau Crossing. They all worked for the C.P.R. last year and one of them was a foreman named Brogan. They're all hard cases. Lordy! The sad part is that there are plenty of women out there glad to mix with them for money. But some cruel bastard had to grab a young girl, and then strangle her! Hell!" He shook his head. "The man must be deranged. If the Indians out there find the guilty one, they'll kill him sure. Then there'll be real trouble!"
Ian nodded, "I worked under that crooked-necked Brogan last summer. He's a cruel, sadistic man, always filthy dirty, with a mouth to match. I'll never work under him again. No man should have to take his abuse." He pondered, "I wonder how he got that crooked neck."
Charley nodded grimly, "I know the man too. He's caused me plenty of trouble in Pembina. It beats all why the railroad contractors hire men of his ilk. I'll never understand. Maybe they figure a bully gets more work out of the men. You know, I fought through nearly four years of the late war," He grinned, "even got me captured when I tried to steal some Confederate horses. I learned that you can push men only so far; you've got to lead them to get results."
He went on to tell Ian how he was transferred to Fort Pembina in 1870, quitting the Army in '75. He explained how he and Kabernagle had teamed up to build their store for the sale of liquors, tobacco and luxury food items.
Susan called them to supper, interrupting their conversation. There were only five to eat, since Pete and Joseph had both fallen asleep in their chairs.
While Annette carved the remaining meat from the well-picked carcasses of two geese, Marguerite set the table and Susan made coffee.
Seating himself, Brown studied Ian. It was plain to him that this boy intended to marry Susan. Perhaps not in the spring, but soon. The thought both revolted and shamed him, for although he was involved with Marguerite and felt comfortable with her, he could never marry her. Miscegenation was a horror to him. His boyhood training in West Virginia made a mixed marriage abhorrent, a hell, leading to genocide. He remembered the lecture his father had given him after catching him in a compromising situation with a young slave girl. "Birds do not mix! Animals do not mix! Human beings do not mix!" Those statements had been repeated over and over by his father as he thrashed young Charley with a heavy strap.
Knowing that he was being unfair to Marguerite left him with a feeling of guilt and regret, but somehow he could not cast her aside. Also, she seemed more than agreeable to continue their liaison.
When Annette questioned about the tragedy at Roseau Crossing, Charley explained, "We have to put up with the good and bad in these small towns. Each starts with one or two small shacks, finally building into a settlement. The trouble starts when the toughs show up. Up to now we've had little trouble in Pembina. It's been mostly petty thievery or the theft of a horse. Of course, this coming summer hoards of men will show up to work on the railroad. I expect there will be plenty of fighting and a few broken heads. Why, between the C.P.R. and Jim Hill's railroad, they're expecting nearly 2000 workers to show up.”
"It hardly seems possible," Ian mused. "Where will they find that many men?"
"Heck," said Charley, "they'll come from St. Paul, Minneapolis, Mankato and all over. It's said Hill is to build an engine house and track for 400 boxcars on that clearing just north of town. They plan on driving piling to cross the slough on the north end of the lake, and make a Y track further east to turn the trains around."
When supper was over, Ian volunteered to help Susan with the dishes while Charley and Marguerite moved quietly back to the card table. Annette discretely vanished into another room, leaving the couples alone.
Susan smiled at Ian mischievously as she turned the wick of the kitchen lamp down so that it emitted only a feeble light. Doing the dishes took an abnormally long time; their hands mingled together in the warm dishwater, then upon each other. They were careful to avoid the open doorway to the living room, but on one occasion Susan peeked into the room and grasped Ian's hand, pointing. Charley and Marguerite were tightly embraced across the small table.
It was late when Susan accompanied Ian to the barn for his horse. After tightening the girth on his saddle, he turned to hold her in his arms. She thrust her body firmly to his, burrowing her face into his neck. For long moments they held each other without speaking. Both were experiencing the same feelings of desire.
"I never believed I could love anyone as much as I love you," Ian spoke softly.
"I feel the same." Raising her head, she looked into his eyes. "Why do we have to wait?"
He kissed her gently. "I've got to find security for us. The railroad will be selling land this coming spring and I know the two quarters I want. When I get a house built for us, then it will be time."
She raised herself on her toes and pressed her mouth against his. Her arms tightened around him fiercely and she arched her body tightly against him.
"Golly, Susan. Don't do that! It's all I can do to keep from tearing your clothes off. You nearly drive me wild. We've got to wait."
She was still thrust against him, her abandonment involuntary. Then she murmured, "Let's not wait too long."
Groaning in his frustration, he released her and reached for the bridle of his horse. Leading the animal out of the barn, he stepped into the saddle and gazed down at her. Presently she turned and walked back to the house. It wasn't until he heard the door close that he nudged his horse into motion toward home.