The Ballad of Hattie Taylor – Susan Andersen

JACOB MURDOCK SQUİNTED into the sun, his gaze following the empty railroad track to its vanishing point between tree-topped rocky outcrops. Yanking his timepiece from his vest’s watch pocket, Jake clicked its cover open to check the time. With a muttered curse, he closed the watch and stuffed it back in its pocket. And glared down the length of the track with uncharacteristic exasperation, willing the train into the station. He rolled his shoulders, trying to shake his guilt over his impatience. Generally, he was pretty damn easygoing and accommodating. Still, when he’d agreed to pick up Augusta’s little orphan and deliver her back to his mother’s house, he hadn’t counted on the train being late. That was shortsighted of him but, dammit, he was raring to discharge his duty. He’d had a spot of courting in mind today. Quite firmly he’d had it in mind to see a certain someone. Reluctantly, he conceded a visit to Jane-Ellen Fielding might have to wait. He’d just have to hope she would still be receiving callers when he finished his errand. Provided he ever did. Jake searched the tracks again, knowing damn well the sound of the train’s whistle carried on the hot, dusty wind and would reach the station before the train itself came into view. Trying to pin his attention on anything other than this never-ending wait, he once again mulled over his mother’s decision to take in a young girl none of them had even met.

Hattie Taylor’s relationship to their branch of the Murdock clan was slim at best. Not that, other than a singular time, he’d bothered debating the wisdom of Augusta’s decision with her. His mother was an incredibly strong-willed woman. Some might say a stubborn one—although not to her face. Not if they were smart. Jake grinned, trying to name a soul brave enough to accuse Augusta Witherspoon Murdock of an uncompromising nature. That was a conversation he’d pay to hear. Yet, “stubborn” could be Augusta’s middle name. Jake had a mental image of the imperious tilt to her silvering head as he’d seen it just the other day when he’d had the effrontery to question her decision. He shook his head, remembering.

Jake had heard out his mother’s plans in silence over breakfast, mentally filing the pertinent information. When Augusta had finished her list of arguments, he’d merely stared at her for a couple of heartbeats before quietly remarking that he wondered if she had considered the ramifications. “You’re a smart woman, Mom, so I trust you realize what you’re proposing has a sizable risk factor attached.” Raising a silver lid from the warming dish on the sideboard, he pinched a fluffy bit of scrambled egg with his fingers and popped it into his mouth. Laughing out loud, he adroitly dodged the swat aimed at him by Mirabel, his mother’s housekeeper. The older woman was Augusta’s confidante and friend as well—and damn near a second mother to Jake. Swallowing, he turned back to Augusta. “What do you know about this kid, after all, besides the fact that from the age of six or seven, she lived in virtual isolation with a couple of crusty old miners?” “I know she is a Witherspoon, Jacob,” Augusta replied repressively. “What else need I?” “Her mother was a Witherspoon,” Jake corrected. “No one knows her father’s antecedents.

From what you’ve said, the man was nothing but a grubby prospector.” He sounded like a snobbish little shit. Still, the girl’s story was a strange one and her unique upbringing was bound to produce problems. Jake had a feeling his mother didn’t fully comprehend what she was letting herself in for by agreeing to raise the child. Elmira Witherspoon, Augusta’s fourth—or maybe even fifth—cousin, had been a quiet, unassuming spinster who’d never given her family a moment’s concern. Until the day she was literally swept off her feet on a busy San Francisco street by a miner named Jeremy Taylor. According to family scuttlebutt, Elmira had been shopping with her maid on the day in question, when she’d carelessly stepped into the street without first determining if it was safe to do so. Family lore had it a milk dray, emptied of its day’s wares, was racing down the street at a respectable clip when Elmira stepped directly in its path. Frozen at the sight of the huge draft horse bearing down on her, she had been in the midst of saying her final prayers—one could only assume—when, out of nowhere, an arm suddenly encircled her waist and swept her out of harm’s way and back onto the safety of the wooden sidewalk. Her rescuer, of course, had been Taylor.

And the rest of the story was, if not history of national import, then at least grist for the family gossip mill. Because Elmira Witherspoon had raised her timorous eyes to her rescuer and succumbed to that often-touted-but-rarely-believed-in Love at First Sight. And the phenomenon wrought monumental changes in her heretofore overprotected, uneventful life. “I must admit I was rather amazed at the girl’s fortitude,” Augusta confessed when recounting the story. “I had always found Elmira to be quite timid. So, for her to suddenly stand firm against the combined condemnation of her entire family and insist on marrying her miner . ? Well, it must have taken a good deal of courage. Quite frankly, I’d never have believed she had it in her.” She suddenly smiled at Jake, and it was a huge, wholehearted beam. “Yet Elmira did precisely that.

She stood firm—even when they disinherited her for her temerity.” Her smile fading, Augusta sighed and shook her head. “I hate to admit it, Jacob, but some of the Witherspoons can be quite unyielding.” “Which probably explains why they refuse to take the kid in now both her parents are dead,” Jake inserted. “At least I hope that’s the reason. It doesn’t say a great deal about their sense of charity, but it’s better than the alternative.” Augusta regarded her son with exasperation. “Really, dear, must you persist in calling her ‘kid’? It makes her sound like some dreadfully scruffy animal rather than the young girl she is. And what, pray tell, might the alternative be?” “That they took the trouble to meet her and found her entirely incorrigible after her sojourn in the wilds of wherever she was.” Jake shrugged.

“It’s been, what—four years since her mother died? And in that time, she’s lived in the back of beyond, attended only by her old man and some other old coot whose antecedents are likely equally questionable.” “Jacob, honestly,” his mother remonstrated. “‘Old man’? ‘Coot’? Where do you pick up these vulgarities?” “Mamie Parker’s place, I suppose,” he promptly replied and hid a smile as he watched his mother and Mirabel pretend outrage. It was not done for a man to mention the local cathouse in the presence of the gentler sex. Jake, however, was convinced Augusta and Mirabel secretly delighted in being shocked by him. Regardless of the belief that ladies didn’t appreciate being subjected to daring, ribald conversation, it had been his observation that his outrageousness often brought a twinkle to their eyes. They would go to their graves rather than admit it, of course. But diligently as they tried to suppress it, the sparkle was there . even as his mother lamented his unforgivable penchant for vulgarity and Mirabel sternly informed him he wasn’t too old to have his ears soundly boxed. Unlike past transgressions when he’d skated scandalously beyond the boundaries of good taste, however, this particular episode didn’t elicit Augusta’s customary long and imaginative lecture regarding his lack of manners.

She immediately returned to the subject of her new ward. “I don’t want to hear another word against my decision, Jacob,” she said with a regal arrogance he rarely heard from her. “The child’s mother was a gentle, well-bred woman—a Witherspoon, my dear—and breeding will tell. Hattie Witherspoon Taylor is coming to live with us, and I expect you to treat her as part of the family.” She gave him her “I mean business” stare. “The subject is closed.” Hell, Jake thought now as he paced the station platform, that was fine with him. It wasn’t as if he’d had a serious objection in the first place. His only concern was for his mother. She was hardly old, but neither was she a young woman.

He feared rearing a rambunctious youngster would wear her out. But perhaps it was precisely what Augusta needed. He often suspected his mother was bored—particularly since she’d been emotionally blackmailed into moving to town. He knew damn well she’d been lonely since his father’s death. She undoubtedly looked forward to the prospect of a new challenge. There was, after all, nothing Augusta Murdock liked better than managing other people’s lives. Perhaps she looked upon the advent of a youngster in her life as a God-given opportunity to bend a fresh personality to her formidable will. The train’s whistle blew a low and mournful note in the distance, and Jake walked to the end of the platform to await its arrival. The sight of smoke and cinders, glimpsed above the trees as they blew from its smokestack, preceded it into view. Then suddenly it roared around the bend, its vibration and noise increasing from a rumble to clattering thunder as it hurtled toward the station.

The whistle wailed and the brakes screeched in a high-pitched shriek of metal on metal while the brakeman plied his trade. The wooden station house shook with a teethjarring rattle as the train thundered in. Brakes still screeching, the great black engine rumbled past, slowing to a shuddering halt at the platform’s far end. An immense gust of steam belched forth with a sound that made Jake think humorously of a fat woman releasing her stays. Moments later, a door on one of the passenger cars slammed open and the conductor stepped out, placing a metal step box on the platform, bridging it to the train’s stairwell. Portly and red-faced, wearing a blue uniform with polished brass buttons, the railroad employee stepped to one side. He mopped his brow with a wilted handkerchief as a salesman stepped down, banging a large sample case through the opening. Once he was clear, the porter leaned into the car, extending his hand. He stood that way for a moment; then he made an impatient grab at something out of Jake’s sight in the doorway’s shadow. “Keep your sonovabitchin’ hands to yourself, mister,” a young and irate voice instructed him.

The man lunged again, his upper torso momentarily disappearing into the car’s doorway. He reappeared with a wild-haired, wild-eyed, spitting, struggling moppet in his grasp. With resigned premonition, Jake started forward. “Hattie Witherspoon Taylor, I presume,” he said dryly upon reaching the pair.

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