Friday, January 19, 1877
With the tip of a satin shoe, the graceful turn of an ankle, the woman poured herself like cream from the northbound train out of Marshall and let the tomcats lap her up. In the beginning, an upraised parasol blocked her visage, but no lingering look at her features could erase the impression already established by her pleasing carriage, lavish blue gown, and slender fingers covered in diamonds.
Bertha Biddie waited with stilted breath for the moment when the umbrella might tip and give up its secret. All about her, most of Jefferson had come to a halt, as if the whole town waited with her.
Without warning, the woman lowered and closed the sunshade.
Enchanted, Bertha followed the graceful lines of her form to her striking and memorable face. At first sight of her, Bertha thought she was the devil’s daughter. She bore no obvious mark of evil. Just smoldering eyes and a knowing glance that said life held mysteries young Bertha had yet to glimpse.
Her hair sparkled like sun rays dancing on Big Cypress Creek. Her lashes were as black as the bottom of a hole, and her lids seemed smudged with coal. Delicate features perched below a dark halo of hair, and a pink flush lit her fair cheeks. Her expression teemed with mischief, and her full ruby lips curled up at the corners as if recalling a bawdy yarn. She turned slightly, evidently aware of the gathering horde for the first time. With a tilt of her chin and barely perceptible sway, she cast a wide net over the men in the crowd and dragged them to shore.
Bertha watched them respond to her and realized Mama had been less than forthcoming about the real and true nature of things. Forgetting themselves and the women at their sides, they gaped with open mouths, some in spite of jealous claws that gripped their arms. Even the ladies stared, the looks on their faces ranging from admiration to envy.
The reaction of the men only slightly altered when the lady’s escort stepped out of the Texas & Pacific passenger car behind her. Though his clothes were just as spiffy and he carried himself well, the man who accompanied that gilded bird lacked her allure, bore none of her charm. Yet despite her confident display of tail feathers, the bluebird at his side clearly deferred to him as though he’d found a way to clip her wings.
With great care, the porter handed down the couple’s baggage, the matched set a rare sight in those parts, then held out his hand. Her companion tipped the man, gathered the bags, and walked away from the platform without offering a single word in the bluebird’s direction. She cast a quick glance after him but stood her ground, her demeanor unruffled in the face of his rebuke.
As was the custom, the Commercial Hotel, Haywood House, and Brooks House, three reputable hotels in town, each had transport standing by to haul incoming passengers from the station. Dr. J. H. Turner, landlord of Brooks House, waited on hand in the conveyance he called an omnibus.
The woman’s friend secured passage with Dr. Turner and helped him load their belongings and then turned and crooked a finger in her direction. She pretended not to notice.
“Bessie!” he barked. “For pity’s sake.”
She lifted her head, reopened the parasol, and strolled his way without saying a word --- giving in but taking all the time she pleased to do so. He handed her up into the carriage, climbed in beside her, and settled back to rest a possessive arm around her shoulders.
Dr. Turner eased onto Alley Street and trundled away from the station, breaking the spell cast over the denizens of Jefferson. In slow motion they awoke from their stupor and returned to their lives.
Bertha released the breath she’d held and gripped her best friend’s arm. “What was she, Magda? I’ve never seen anything like her.”
When Magda shook her head, her curls danced the fandango. “Me neither. And we never will again. Not around here, anyway.”
Bertha leaned past Magda trying to catch another glimpse. “She’s no earthbound creature, that’s for sure. But devil or angel? I couldn’t tell.”
Magda laughed. “She’s human, all right, just not ordinary folk.” She pressed her finger to her lips. “Could be one of those actresses from a New York burletta.”
Bertha gasped. “From the Broadway stage? You really think so?”
“She’s certainly stylish enough.”
Bertha squinted down Alley Street at the back of the tall carriage. “That man called her Bessie. She doesn’t look like a Bessie to me.”
“Further proof that beneath all her fluff, she’s a vessel of clay like the rest of us.”
“Who ever heard of an angel named Bessie?”
Grinning, Bertha leaned and tweaked Magda’s nose. “Oh, go on with you.”
Of all the souls wandering the earth --- in Jefferson, Texas, at least --- Bertha Maye Biddie’s heart had knit with Magdalena Hayes’s from the start. They were a year apart, Magda being the older, but age wasn’t the only difference between them. Magda easily reached the top shelves in the kitchen, where Bertha required a stool. And while big-boned Magda took up one and a half spaces on a church pew, Bertha barely filled the remaining half. Magda’s russet mop coiled as tightly as tumbleweed. Bertha’s black hair fell to her waist in silken waves and gave her fits trying to keep it pinned up. Nothing fazed self-possessed Magda. Bertha greeted life with her heart.
Magda nudged Bertha with her elbow. “Earthbound or not,
I can tell you one thing about her. . . .”
The look in Magda’s big brown eyes said whatever the one thing was, it was bound to be naughty. She leaned in to whisper. “She knows a thing or two about the fellas.”
Bertha raised her brows. “You can tell that just by looking at her, can you?”
“Not looking at her, smart britches. I can tell by the way she looks at them.” She fussed with her curls, her eyes pious slants. “No decent woman goes eye to eye with strange men in the street, and you know it.”
“I guess some decent woman told you that?”
“Bertha Maye Biddie! Don’t get fresh with me.”
Bertha tucked in her chin and busied herself straightening her gloves. “Maybe she’s fed up with their scandalous fawning. Ever think of that?”
“Any hound will track his supper.”
The words made Bertha mad enough to spit, but she didn’t know why. “A pie set out on a windowsill may be a fine display of good cooking, but not necessarily an invitation.”
Magda narrowed her eyes. “What on earth are you talking about?” Before Bertha could answer, she stiffened and settled back for a pout. “Why are you siding up with that woman anyway? You don’t even know her.”
The truth was, Bertha’s head still reeled from the first sight of Bessie. The way men reacted to her flooded Bertha’s young heart with hope and provided an opportunity, if the beautiful stranger would cooperate, to fix a private matter that sorely needed fixing.
Bertha knew a few things by instinct, like how to toss her long hair or tilt her chin just so. Enough to mop the grin off Thaddeus Bloom’s handsome face and light a fire in those dark eyes. But she was done with turning to mush in his presence and watching him revel in it. If Bertha could learn a few of the bluebird’s tricks, she’d have that rascal wagging his tail. Then the shoe would be laced to the proper foot, and Thad could wear it up her front stoop when he came to ask for her hand.
One thing was certain. Whatever Bessie knew, Bertha needed to know it.
She tugged on Magda’s arm. “Come on.”
“Come on where?”
Already a wagon-length ahead, Bertha called back over her shoulder. “To the hotel. We’re going to find her.”
“Save your questions for later. Now hurry!”
Bertha dashed to the steps at the end of the boardwalk and scurried into the lane.
“You planning to run clear to Vale Street?” Magda huffed, rushing to catch up. “Slow down. It ain’t ladylike.”
“Oh, pooh. Neither am I. Look, there’s Mose. He’ll take us.”
Just ahead, Moses Pharr’s rig, piled high with knobby cypress, turned onto Alley Street headed the opposite way. The rickety wagon, pulled by one broken-down horse, bore such a burden of wood it looked set to pop like a bloated tick. When Bertha whistled, the boy’s drowsy head jerked up. He turned around and saw her, and a grin lit his freckled face.
“Bertha!” Magda hustled up beside her. “If your pa gets word of you whistling in town, he’ll take a strap to your legs.”
“Papa doesn’t own a strap. Come on, Mose is waiting.”
She ran up even with the wagon and saw that the mountain of wood had blocked her view of Mose’s sister sitting beside him on the seat. They both grinned down at her, Rhodie’s long red hair the only visible difference between the two.
“Hey, Bert. Where you going?”
“To Brooks House. I was hoping to hitch a ride.”
Mose leaned over, still grinning. “We always got room for you, Bertha. Hop on.”
Magda closed the distance between them and came to stand beside Bertha, breathing hard. When Bertha pulled herself onto the seat beside Rhodie, Magda started to follow. Mose raised his hand to stop her.
“Hold up there.” He looked over at Bertha. “Her, too?”
Mose cut his eyes back at the wood and then shrugged. “Guess one more can’t hurt. But she’ll have to sit atop that stump. Ain’t no more room on the seat.”
Magda adjusted her shawl around her shoulders and sniffed. “I refuse to straddle a cypress stump all the way to Vale.”
“Suit yourself,” Bertha said. “But it’s a long walk. Let’s go, Mose.”
Mose lifted the reins and clucked at the horse. Magda grabbed the wooden handgrip and pulled herself onto the wagon just as it started to move. Arranging her skirts about her, she perched on the tall stump like Miss Muffet. “Well, what are you waiting for?” she asked. “Let’s go.”
Laughing, they rolled through Jefferson listing and creaking, ignoring the stares and whispers. When the rig pulled up across from Brooks House, even the spectacle they made couldn’t compete with Bessie and her traveling companion.
The couple stood on the street beside their luggage, the carriage nowhere in sight. They seemed at the end of a heated discussion, given his mottled face and her missing smile.
When Bertha noticed the same sick-cow expression on the faces of the gathered men and the same threatened look on the women’s, she became more determined than ever to learn Bessie’s secret.
The man with Bessie growled one more angry word then hefted their bags and set off up the path. Not until Bessie followed him and disappeared through the shadowy door did the town resume its pace.
Mose gulped and found his voice. “She looked as soft as a goose-hair pillow. Who is she?”
Bertha scooted to the edge of her seat and climbed down. She dusted her hands and smoothed her skirt. “I don’t know, but I intend to find out.”
“Roll up your tongue, Moses Pharr,” Magda said from the back, “and get me off this stump.”
Mose hopped to the ground and hurried around to help Magda.
Rhodie, twirling her copper braid, grinned down at Bertha. “What are you going to do, Bert?”
Magda answered for her. “She’s going to get us into trouble, that’s what.”
Bertha took her by the hand. “Stop flapping your jaws and come on.”
They waved good-bye to Mose and Rhodie then hurried across the street, dodging horses, wagons, and men --- though their town wasn’t nearly as crowded as it had once been.
Jefferson, Queen City of the Cypress, lost its former glory in 1873, when the United States Corps of Engineers blew the natural dam to kingdom come, rerouting the water from Big Cypress Bayou down the Red River to Shreveport. Once a thriving port alive with steamboat traffic, when the water level fell, activity in Jefferson dwindled. To that very day, in fits of Irish temper, Bertha’s papa cursed the politicians who were responsible.
But through it all, Jefferson had lost none of its charm. Brooks House was a prime example of the best the town had to offer, so it seemed only right that someone like Bessie might wind up staying there.
Bertha and Magda positioned themselves outside the hotel and hunkered down to wait --- the former on a mission, the latter under duress. It didn’t take long for the girls to learn a good bit about the captivating woman and her cohort. Talk swirled out the door of the hotel soon after the couple sashayed to the front desk to register under the name of A. Monroe and wife, out of Cincinnati, Ohio.
The gentleman, if he could be counted as such, addressed the woman as Annie or Bessie, when he didn’t call her something worse. The two quarreled openly, scratching and spitting like cats, and didn’t care who might be listening. By the time the story drifted outside, the locals had dubbed her Diamond Bessie due to her jewel-encrusted hands, and it seemed the name would stick.
Bertha shaded her eyes with her hands and pressed her face close to the window. “I don’t see her anymore, Magda. I guess they took a room.”
“Of course they took a room. Why else would they come to a hotel?”
Bertha ignored her sarcasm and continued to search the lobby for Bessie. Still catching no sight of her, she turned around. “Isn’t she the most glorious thing? And even prettier close up.”
“That she is.”
“Did you see the way men look at her? I never saw that many roosters on the prowl at one time.”
“And all for squat,” Magda said. “That chicken’s been plucked. The little banty she strutted into town with has already staked a claim.” She grinned. “He wasn’t all that hard on the eyes himself.”
Bertha frowned. “That strutting peacock? Besides his flashy clothes, she was the only thing special about him. Don’t see how he managed to snare a woman like that. He must be rich.”
Magda arched one tapered brow. “Did you see the rings on her fingers?”
“I reckon so. I’m not blind.”
Magda stretched her back and heaved a sigh. “I guess that’s it, then. Let’s go.”
Bertha grabbed her arm. “Wait. Where are you going?”
“Home. This show’s over. They’ve settled upstairs by now.”
Lacing her fingers under her chin, Bertha planted herself in Magda’s path. “Won’t you wait with me just a mite longer?”
“She’s not coming out here, Bertha. Besides, you’ve seen enough for today.”
“I don’t want to see her. I need to talk to her.”
Magda drew herself back and stared. “Are you teched? We can’t just walk up and talk to someone like her. Why would she fool with the likes of us?”
“I don’t know. I’ll think of a way. I’ve got to.” She bit her bottom lip --- three words too late.
Looking wary now, Magda crossed her arms. “Got to? Why?”
“Just do.” Bertha met her look head-on. She wouldn’t be bullied out of it. Not even by Magda.
Resting chubby fists on rounded hips, Magda sized her up. “All right, what does this have to do with Thad?”
No one knew her like Magda. Still, the chance she might stumble onto Bertha’s motives was as likely as hatching a three-headed guinea hen. Struggling to hold her jaw off the ground, she lifted one shoulder. “Who said it did?”
Magda had the gall to laugh. “Because, dearie” --- she leaned to tap Bertha’s forehead ---”everything inside there lately has something to do with Thad.”
“Humph! Think what you like. I am going to talk to her.”
Magda glared. “Go ahead, then. I can see there’s no changing your mind. But I don’t fancy being humiliated by another of your rattlebrained schemes, thank you.”
Bertha caught hold of her skirt. “Don’t you dare go. I can’t do this on my own.”
“Let go of me. I said I’m going home.”
“Please, Magdalena! I need you.”
Magda pulled her skirt free and took another backward step. “No, ma’am. You just count me out this time.”
She turned to go, and Bertha lunged, catching her in front of the hotel door. They grappled, tugging sleeves and pulling hair, both red-faced and close to tears. Just when Bertha got set to squeal like a pestered pig, from what seemed only a handbreadth away, a woman cleared her throat. Bertha froze, hands still locked in Magda’s hair, and turned to find the bluebird beaming from the threshold --- though canary seemed more fitting now that she’d traded her blue frock for a pale yellow dress.
“What fun!” Bessie cried, clasping her hands. “I feared this town might be as dull as dirt, but it seems I was mistaken.”
Excerpted from DIAMOND DUO: Texas Fortunes Trilogy, Book 1 © Copyright 2011 by Marcia Gruver. Reprinted with permission by Barbour Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.