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Authors: Janice Thompson

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Chapter Nine

A
fter a particularly long day, Ida arrived home to find Papa dressed in his Sunday best. She looked at him with curiosity as he straightened his tie, and asked the obvious question. “Going somewhere?”

“Into town for supper.” He turned to her with a mischievous grin.

“But I’m planning to cook bratwurst. That’s your favorite,” she argued.

“It’s pot roast and potatoes night down at The Harvey House,” he said. “And Myrtle Mae has invited us to come for dinner.”

“Myrtle Mae Jennings?”

Ida saw her father’s thick mustache twitch a bit. That always meant a smile hid underneath.

“Papa?”

“What, Ida? Can’t a man eat pot roast without a hundred questions from his daughter?” he asked, eyes twinkling.

“You can eat anything you like,” she responded,
“but I suspect there is more to this story than meets the eye. Am I right?”

After clearing his throat, he offered up a vague answer. “Myrtle Mae is a fine woman.” He glanced in the mirror to check his tie. “And a mighty fine cook.”

“So am I,” Ida said, hands on her hips.

Her father reached over and gave her a light peck on the cheek. “Yes, but we never know what the future holds.”

“What are you saying?” She stared at him in disbelief. “Are you telling me I’m being traded in for someone who knows nothing about cooking German fare?” Her papa cut potential arguments short with a shake of his head.

“Daughter, I’m not trading you in or asking you to give up cooking. Trust me when I say I would never do that. I’m just in the mood for pot roast and potatoes, that’s all.”

“Sure you are.”

“Now don’t make more of this than need be. Come along and be a good girl now. Let your papa escort you to town for a nice dinner.”

Her father headed toward the door, gesturing for her to follow. However, Ida stood with her feet planted firmly. Surely he must be joking. Why had he set his sights on Myrtle Mae Jennings, of all people? Everyone in town knew she was a busybody and, well, a chatterbox. Such a thing could hardly be tolerated in a woman.

On the other hand, perhaps Ida shouldn’t judge too
harshly. Dinah had flat-out accused
her
of gossiping recently, with regard to Mick Bradley. But that was different, of course.

“Come, Ida. We are to arrive at six-thirty,” her father said impatiently.

“But, Papa—”

“Come.” He opened the door and extended his hand. She glanced in the mirror. “Can’t I even have a minute to freshen up?”

“One minute.” He gave her a wink. “I’ll be on the porch swing, dreaming about that fine meal we’re going to have.”

“We could have had a fine meal at home,” she muttered after he’d gone. However, after a long day of work, she might actually enjoy an evening of being waited on.

Even if it meant eating someone else’s cooking.

Ida took advantage of her time alone to tuck some loose curls into place. And she couldn’t very well go into the restaurant at The Harvey House wearing her dull brown gingham dress, could she? No, she might as well put on her Sunday blue with the puff sleeves. It wore well, and brought out the color in her eyes—or so she’d been told by Sophie, who knew more about fashion than anyone else in town.

As she dressed, Ida thought about the meeting she’d had with Reverend Langford earlier. He’d suggested they all do what they could to win Mick Bradley to the Lord. Not exactly the response she’d been hoping for. It seemed that no one was taking this
gambling hall as seriously as Ida. She’d work to change that, surely.

Nearly fifteen minutes later, Ida made her appearance on the front porch. Papa started to scold her until he noticed her attire. “Why, Ida Mueller. I dare say you’re as pretty as a field of bluebonnets.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” She took his arm and together they made their way into town, talking all the way. Though she wished to avoid the subject of Mick Bradley, Ida could not. She found herself telling Papa everything she’d learned at the mercantile—how he planned to begin work on the gambling hall within days, and how he’d already hired men to clear the land.

Papa drew in a deep breath but did not respond, at least not at first. When he finally did speak, his words stopped her cold. “I did business with Mr. Bradley this very afternoon. Found him to be an amiable fellow.”

“What do you mean?” She stopped and stared at her father, stunned. “Surely you did not sell the man lumber for that den of iniquity he is building.”

“Daughter, I cannot control what people build with the lumber I sell them. Nor did the Lord tell me to avoid selling to him. This is not a matter of my linking arms with the man. I’m simply treating him with the courtesy I extend every customer.”

“Papa.” Ida shook her head, so upset she could barely speak. In her nineteen years she could not recall questioning any of her father’s decisions. And
yet, in one short day, he’d managed to arouse suspicions twice. Myrtle Mae and Mick Bradley? Had Papa lost his mind?

Pushing her misgivings aside, Ida entered the restaurant on her father’s arm. The most wonderful aroma filled the air. Ida breathed it in, suddenly quite glad she had agreed to come.

She closed her eyes for a second. The noises in the room captivated her. The clinking of silverware and glasses. The sounds of waitresses bustling back and forth with their full skirts swishing this way and that. Boisterous laughter from a couple of men at a nearby table. Voices raised in conversation. The Harvey House was a lively place, no doubt about that.

She opened her eyes, noticing familiar faces in the crowd. To her great surprise, Sophie’s entire family sat at a large table near the center of the room. The Weimer boys—Sophie’s three older brothers—ate with gusto. And her parents looked up with matching smiles, motioning for Ida and her father to join them.

After taking her seat, Ida glanced at the menu, then turned her attention to the conversation at hand. The Weimers were talking about the upcoming church picnic on the Fourth of July, and the annual cobbler contest. She was about to express her desire to enter the contest this year when she spotted Mick Bradley at the restaurant door. Flustered, Ida tried to hide behind her menu.

“Is everything all right, daughter?” Papa asked, easing the menu down to look into her eyes.

“Oh, yes,” she offered. “Everything just looks so good, I can hardly decide. I need to take a closer look.” She peered up over the menu to look at Mr. Bradley once more.

“I’m having the pot roast,” Papa announced to everyone within hearing distance.

“As you can see, so are we,” Mrs. Weimer replied. “It’s truly the best thing on the menu.” As she sang Myrtle Mae Jennings’s praises, Ida couldn’t resist the temptation to groan.

“Are you all right?” Sophie gave her a curious look.

Just then Myrtle Mae entered the room with a broad smile on her face. She eased her ample frame through the crowd of tables, clapping her hands together when she saw Ida’s father.

“Why, Dirk, I’m so happy to see you.” Her cheeks, already flushed, deepened a shade as their eyes met. Ida took note, wondering when this attraction had begun. How had she missed it? And what could she do to keep it from going any further?

Her papa’s mustache began to twitch at once. “After all I’ve heard about your pot roast, I wouldn’t miss it.” And then he winked at her.

Ida tried not to gasp aloud, but stifling her surprise proved difficult.

“What about you, Ida? What’s your preference?” Sophie asked.

“My preference?” Ida stole another peek at Mick Bradley, who suddenly took notice of her. He gave her that smile and she felt her cheeks warm. Embar
rassed, she pulled the menu back up. “I’m not sure what to order.”

Sophie, puzzled by Ida’s behavior, looked up and noticed Mick. “Well, you are certainly studying that menu,” Sophie said with a hint of laughter in her voice. “You will have it memorized before long.”

“Must be mighty hungry,” Mr. Weimer added.

“More likely she can’t find anything she likes,” Papa interjected. “Ida has a tendency to prefer her own cooking over that of others.”

“Oh, you really must try my pot roast, Ida.” Myrtle Mae gave her a pat on the shoulder. “Perhaps I’ll make a believer out of you,” she said, smiling as she headed back to the kitchen.

Ida found it increasingly hard to concentrate, what with Mick Bradley standing directly across the room. Who could eat, when a man like that had just made his presence known?

Mick took a seat at a table well within view. For a brief moment, Ida actually felt sorry for the man, dining alone in a room full of strangers.

Sophie leaned over and whispered, “Perhaps we should ask the man to join us.”

“Hush! He’ll hear you,” Ida replied.

Sophie laughed at Ida, and looked back at Mick. He raised his hand in greeting, and Sophie waved back. “He is one good-looking man, Ida. Surely looking at Mick Bradley gives you reason to rethink your position on marriage,” she teased.

The only thing she wanted to rethink right now
was her decision to join her papa for dinner at The Harvey House in the first place.

 

Mick took note of Ida the moment he entered the restaurant. He couldn’t help but notice her dressed like that. Nearly a dozen times during the meal he glanced her way, just to see if she would look back. He wanted to see how her eyes matched up against that beautiful blue dress. He imagined they’d knock him off his chair if he got a close enough look.

Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—that never happened. All too soon, Ida and her father left the restaurant with the group they’d been eating with. Mick had sensed her discomfort at his presence, and yet a wave of disappointment washed over him as she left.

On some level, Mick envied Ida, sitting with people she loved—in a group that size—to share a meal. He wondered if he’d ever know the love of a daughter, one who looked up at him with such awe. Or the admiration of sons, who hung on their father’s every word like the trio of older boys sitting with Ida. Would he ever gather together with loved ones, praying over food as he’d heard them do, eating pot roast, and singing the cook’s praises loud enough for all to hear?

For the first time in ages, Mick acknowledged that losing his parents twenty years before had left him with an emptiness inside. His brother had taken him in and fathered Mick as best he could, but he couldn’t fill the void left by his parents. Watching Ida
with her friends and family left him feeling lonelier than he’d ever felt in his life.

Would he ever again have a sense of wholeness—of family—like he’d had as a child before his parents passed away?

No. Likely he never would.

And the realization left a hole in his heart the size of Texas.

Chapter Ten

M
ick awoke the following morning with a splitting headache. He wasn’t sure which had made it harder to sleep through the night—the ruffians in the street or the sounds of retching coming from the room next door. Regardless, he could scarcely function when the morning light streamed through the window of the hotel room.

He hadn’t been able to stop the images of Ida Mueller in that blue dress—maybe that was the real reason he couldn’t sleep. He’d wanted to catch a glimpse of her up close, but she’d walked right by him, never even looking his way. Had she done so on purpose, avoiding him deliberately?

He shook her out of his mind and sat up slowly. Plenty of work awaited him, and he needed to get to it.

He dressed quickly, and made his way out of the hotel and onto the street.

Ambling down Midway, he was amazed to find it nearly empty at this time of morning. Except for a
few railroad men gathered at the station, the place was quiet. The morning dew left the first hint of a pleasant aroma in days. He paused for a moment, thinking perhaps he’d stumbled into a different world altogether.

At last, Mick came to the property. His patch of land. Within the hour, workers would begin to clear the spot. In his mind’s eye, he could see how different the lot would look without the overgrowth of weeds. Come Monday, the foundation would be laid, and then the beams erected. Then the exterior walls would come together in no time at all.

Mick glanced over at the mercantile and saw Ida place the Open sign on the door. Their eyes met and he tried to read her expression. The hardness he’d sensed yesterday still remained. Surely there had to be more behind that look than his plans to build a gambling hall.

Mick’s thoughts were interrupted by a child, probably four or five, running out the door with a puppy in his arms.

“Carter!” Ida scolded. “Your mama’s told you a dozen times to keep that mongrel out back. She doesn’t want you dragging him through the store.”

“He’s hungry, Ida.” The pup wriggled loose from the little boy’s grasp and ran out into the street.

Mick reached the squirming ball of fur just as it bounded onto his property. He walked to the mercantile and handed the pup to Ida with a smile. “I do believe this belongs to you.”

“Thank you so much.” He noted her attempt to muster up a stern look, but a hint of a smile took its place as the playful pup settled back into her arms. “We’re so grateful.”

“Puppy!” Carter took the little fur ball from Ida and headed back into the store.

“He’s quite a handful,” Ida said, “but the dearest thing in the world to me.”

Mick looked away. His heart now rushed with a new emotion, one he’d never felt before. What would it feel like…what would it
be
like to have a woman like Ida to come home to? And a child?

Mick could hardly believe the thoughts that raced through his head. Men like him didn’t marry, at least not until they were old or out of money. He had no real need for a wife. And she—whoever she was—would certainly not tolerate his desire to put financial dealings before matters of the heart. No, family was not for him, no matter how lonely he’d been feeling lately.

He tipped his hat then turned back to his property, happy to get away from Ida Mueller and those blue, blue eyes that made him forget himself.

 

“Ida, I can’t thank you enough for coming in on a Saturday morning.” Dinah continued to fuss with her hair, then turned to Ida with a shrug. “How do I look?”

“Wonderful, but you’re going to be late for the meeting.”

With the wave of a hand, Dinah responded, “I
doubt Millie and Reverend Jake will care. We’re just talking about the Fourth of July picnic is all. But they want to include me. They’re always going out of their way to make me feel needed.”

“They’re not
making
you feel needed,” Ida said. “You
are
needed. There is a difference. The reverend and Millie couldn’t possibly pull off the annual picnic without your help, and you know it.”

“Still,” Dinah said, reaching for her bonnet, “I don’t want anyone to feel compelled to include me.” She gave Carter a kiss on the cheek. “Now, you be a good boy for Ida, son. Don’t give her any trouble.”

“No, ma’am.”

“No, ma’am, you won’t be a good boy, or no, ma’am, you won’t give her any trouble?”

Carter giggled. “No, ma’am, I won’t give her any trouble.”

“That’s my boy.” Dinah patted him on the head, then turned back to Ida. “Thank you for minding the store. I’ll be back before noon, I feel sure. And if you need anything—”

“Go, Dinah. Don’t fret.”

Her aunt drew in a deep breath, looking around the store, clearly anxious. “I forgot to mention there’s a shipment of sugar due in and Mrs. Gertsch said she would be coming by to trade some items. Don’t let her get away with too much, Ida. You know how she is.”

“Yes.” Ida tried to hide the smile.

“If her bartering goes on too long, she’ll end up owning the store.”

“I’ll handle everything.” Ida shooed her aunt out the door. “Now go on. How are Carter and I ever going to have any fun if you stay here?” Ida watched Dinah disappear down the street. Her heart secretly ached for Dinah. How such a dear, sweet woman could go on, day after day, after the tragedy she’d faced.

Ida shivered as she remembered that terrible night when Larson had leaped in front of an oncoming train to save the life of one of the railroad men, who was drunk on liquor purchased at Chuck Brewster’s saloon.

He should have been the one to die, not Larson.

Ida drew in a deep breath, determined not to allow herself to focus on the past. If Dinah could move ahead, surely she could do the same. Carter needed them both to be strong.

Ida turned back to her cousin with a forced smile. “Would you like to play with your jacks while I’m tending to the cash register?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

As she dusted the glass cases, Ida heard noise coming from next door. She looked out the window, stunned to see a crew of men working on the empty lot, clearing the weeds. Some of them were Papa’s workers! Likely that scoundrel Bradley had offered them an exorbitant salary. What traitors! And Carl Walken, of all people. After all the food she’d served him, it seemed like a personal betrayal to find his feet planted in the enemy’s camp.

Off in the distance, Mick Bradley spoke to one of the men, giving orders. Ida’s skin began to crawl.
Imagine, putting up the gambling hall next door to a perfectly respectable general store where children played and folks gathered for decent conversation and honorable transactions.

The door opened and Sophie entered the store with her mother. She drew near to the register. “Did you see the goings-on next door?”

“How could I avoid it?”

“What are your thoughts?” Sophie leaned against the counter.

“I think they are making entirely too much racket for a Saturday morning. They are distracting my customers and that will soon affect my business.”

Sophie looked around the empty mercantile. “Your business? But I don’t see—”

“Exactly.” Ida nodded as she yanked off her apron. “So, if you don’t mind watching the register a few minutes, I’d like to go have a word with Mr. Bradley.”

“Mind yourself, Ida,” Sophie said with a smile. “Don’t say anything you might regret later.”

Ida gave her a look of warning and turned to catch her reflection in the glass case so she could tidy up her hair. No point in arguing with the neighbors with messy hair. She needed to put her best foot forward.

With nerves kicking in, she made her way to the door. One foot in front of the other. Then out onto the boardwalk. Then onto the street, nearing the spot where Mick stood in his high-falutin’ shoes and dress coat, talking to Carl Walken, no less.

“Mr. Bradley!” Ida shouted to be heard above the noise of the workers clearing the lot.

He turned to her with a smile. “Lost that puppy again?”

“No.” She shook her head, determined to keep her focus. “I am here with a complaint, one I hope you will take seriously.”

“Oh?” His eyes twinkled with mischief. “And what sort of complaint would that be?”

“First of all, I feel compelled to tell you that the Bible strictly forbids gambling. For this one reason alone, I cannot bear to watch this building go up. And next door to a respectable business like the mercantile. Ridiculous!”

He opened his mouth to speak, but she forged ahead. “And one more thing.” She pointed to his workers. “It’s one thing to hire a man to do a job—it’s another altogether to steal your workers from another man. These fellas work for my papa. They’ve got no business here in town working for you.”

“Now hold on there, Miss Mueller. I haven’t stolen anyone. These men are working on the weekend for extra cash—”

“Cash that will be spent in a saloon.” She pointed to Chuck Brewster’s place. “This is ill-gained profit, and you are behind it all.”

“But I—”

“And have you not thought about the children of Spring Creek? No, you have not! I dare say, if you’d given one minute’s thought to our children, you
would realize that their innocence has already been assaulted. How will they ever remain pure and untouched by the vices of this world if a man such as yourself continues to build—” she sputtered the words “—a g-gambling hall!”

“Well, I—”

“And another thing!” She felt her courage rising. “I am accustomed to peace and quiet on Saturday mornings and so are my customers. With all the noise coming from your lot, the customers are staying away. We’re losing business because of you.”

“I would hardly think—”

“Now, my papa might not have been able to stand up to you, but I can. And will. And I can assure you, the saloon owners will stand up to you, too. There’s not a one of them who’s happy to see you here. Not a one. So I’d watch out if I were you, Mr. Bradley. I fear you may be taking your life in your hands if you continue building of this gambling hall of yours.”

“Are you quite done?” he asked at last.

“I am.” Ida was completely exhausted and shaking to the core. Still, she kept her hands firmly planted on her hips, and never let her gaze slip from his.

Mick let out a whistle. “Well, if that doesn’t beat all!” After a chuckle, he added, “I do believe you’ve missed your calling, Miss Mueller.”

“Oh?” She brushed a loose hair behind her ear, puzzled. She suddenly realized the men had stopped working so they could listen to her talking to Mick.

“If it’s true that preaching is left only to the menfolk,
then the church has done you a great disservice,” Mick announced. “Why, I can see you up there now, pounding your fist on the pulpit, shouting at the parishioners, pointing out the error of their ways.”

A roar of laughter went up from the crowd of workers. A couple even slapped their knees. As a smile lit Bradley’s face, she weighed her options. Fighting the temptation to do or say the wrong thing, Ida bit her lip until it nearly bled.

Clearly, the man refused to see the light. But he knew how to get his digs in, didn’t he.

His expression softened a bit as he added, “Look. Don’t you think I’ve got enough trouble from the men around here? Why would a pretty girl like you want to add to my grief? What have I ever done to hurt you?”

She began to tremble in anger. Why, if he didn’t understand what he’d done to hurt her after all the time she’d just spent explaining, then he must be daft. Ida could hardly control her temper as she spouted, “You’re…you’re…impossible!”

She stomped her way back into the store, outraged and overwhelmed. No man had ever made her feel so…confused.

Sophie took one look at her and sighed. “Oh my goodness, Ida. Whatever happened out there?”

Ida couldn’t answer at first. Speaking over the lump in her throat proved to be nearly impossible. Finally, she managed a few strained words. “He said I’ve missed my calling.” She reached for her apron and, in her fervor, tied it a bit too tight. As she
loosened it, she said, “According to Mick Bradley, I should have been a preacher.”

Sophie laughed so hard she couldn’t speak for a full minute. Then she said, “You know, he may have a point. You do have passion!”

“Sophie, I’m not looking for you to agree with the man.”

“And you have a mighty fine vocabulary to boot! Not to mention the fact that you know the Bible stories inside and out!” Sophie collapsed in laughter again.

“Sophie, I thought you were in agreement with me about the gambling hall!”

“I am, Ida, of course I am. I’m sorry for laughing. I just think that Mick Bradley is impossible, don’t you?” she asked.

Instead of replying, Ida reached for a broom and began to sweep—vigorously. Yes, Mick Bradley was impossible, all right. No question about that. So was her friend Sophie. Those two deserved each other.

The thought of Sophie and Mick together suddenly overwhelmed Ida with such jealousy she had to excuse herself and get her bearings. She had no idea what was happening to her, but she didn’t like it at all. Not one bit.

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