Disclaimer: Ain't mine, sadly

Notes: Wow, almost a year... I'm so sorry :S Thanks for all the reviews for the last chapter. Thanks to Ballettmaus for her help with this chapter, and to all who've been reminding me to update!

Chapter 33


'So, the hardware store, huh?' Don asks, shoving his hands into his pockets and glancing at me once we've left Stella and Miss Angell.

'Yeah. Won't take us long then we can head back to the Hammerbacks' and reassure Martha that none of us have frozen out here,' I answer. 'Reckon it'd be a good idea to check up on the place, secure it and remove any valuables,'

Security and valuables, however, weren't my main reason for suggesting we check the store: distracting Miss Angell was, seeing as how she'd started to suspect something was up.

Don don't seem suspicious though as he mentions that we oughtta find out whether Sinclair made a will or not and if he left any relatives.

That gets me thinking as we trudge through the snow: Brigham Sinclair sure weren't the friendliest of men. Kept himself to himself, as the saying goes. I never heard him mention any family or friends out of town, though that's not to say they didn't exist... Don frowns when I ask him about that.

'Ain't sure about that... Guess Hammerback might know.'

'I'll ask him later,' I say and Don smirks.

'Once you've reassured Martha that you and Stell especially ain't frozen and starving, of course.'

'Of course.'

Giving me another quick look, he continues more seriously, 'Speaking of Stell, Miss Jessica seemed to think you two were discussing something secretive…' His eyebrows are raised.

'Secretive?' I echo, turning a wondering look towards my Deputy. 'Don't reckon so. She was kinda' upset, naturally, when we got to the saloon, so we didn't say a whole lot, just kinda' kept together.' I'm hoping that puts him off: the engagement between Stella and me is just that – between Stella and me. There ain't anyone else who needs to know yet. Likely we'll just tell folks individually when the time's right. For the moment, it's nice to keep it as something only the two of us know about.

'Figured that was the case.' Don shrugs, to my relief. He's got a healthy sense of curiosity – certainly an advantage when it comes to his work, but not always to my advantage. If he had any kind of suspicion about what Stella and I really talked about, he'd have been at me like a dog with a bone for details.

And with that thought we arrive at the store, and stop. Feels strange to be standing here with the door shut and the blinds down at the windows, no Sinclair standing on the threshold. It was a rare day indeed when he closed the store – rain or shine, he'd be open first thing in the morning to last thing at night. He might not have been popular, but no one could ever accuse him of being unreliable.

'Likely there ain't gonna be many mourners at the funeral, huh?' Don breaks the silence.

'Likely not. The two of us and Hammerback, maybe a few others...'

'We're gonna be there?' Don asks, turning to frown at me.

'We are. Whatever Sinclair did, as far as I'm concerned, he redeemed himself by savin' Messer's life. For that reason, I'm gonna make sure he's got at least a few folks to say goodbye to him when he's laid to rest.'

Don shrugs, not looking mighty pleased about that, but says nothing else other than that there'd better be a good spread of food afterwards.

He follows as I make my way up the steps. It ain't a surprise to find the door locked. Burglaries ain't a problem here, mostly, but Sinclair was always cautious.

'Reckon there's a key anywhere?' Don asks after rattling the door.

'Gotta be one somewhere,' I say. Though they ain't used much, there's usually a key for most doors in town, and some of them sure are kept in some interesting places.

Happen to know that Hammerback keeps the key to the funeral parlour in the mouth of a stuffed porcupine that sits at the back of his workroom. Gave me a shock when he reached in there one afternoon. Stella keeps the saloon key in a hollow pottery cat... or rather, she did.

It don't take us too long to find what we're looking for – on top of the lintel, after Don stretched up to take a look. Sure is useful having a tall Deputy.

Inside, after we've opened the door with a slight shove from my useful Deputy's shoulder, we're hard-pressed to see much in the gloom. Should have brought a lantern...

'Got any matches, Mac?' Don asks holding up a lantern with a grin.

'Good find. Might have some in my pocket...'

I do and we get the lantern lit. Makes it a whole lot easier to negotiate our way round the interior and pull up the blinds, letting the afternoon light flood in. Once we've enough daylight, I make sure the lantern's extinguished. Guess I'm gonna be kinda wary round fire for a while yet.

'What d'you reckon then?' Don asks, casting his gaze round at all the boxes, crates, packets and everything else that Brigham kept. 'We take out anythin' valuable, lock the rest of it up and leave it here?'

'Yeah, that's gonna be the best plan.' Moving over to the counter at the back of the store, having to manoeuvre my way round a lot of heaped-up merchandise, I take a quick look through a heap of papers. Seems to be lists of some kind; stock maybe, nothing that needs dealing with urgently. 'I suggest we count up any money that's in the register and elsewhere, note the amount down and lock it up in the safe in the office, along with anythin' else that looks important.'

'Deeds and such?' Don asks, raising his eyebrows.

'Those too.'

He grunts. 'Course, there's the likelihood he gambolled the whole store away, too. Or it's gonna have to be sold to pay any creditors.'

'It's possible, but we'll deal with that when we have to.'

Dealing with all this sure ain't what I want to do, but it's gotta be done and the faster the better. Money and finances ain't my favourite thing to have to organise, Stella's better with all that kinda' thing - she's a businesswoman through and through – and even though she hires an accountant to do most of it, she still keeps a close eye on her finances.

There ain't much to find – register's got a few bills and coins in it, but not exactly a fortune. Ain't many papers around either, and those there are already organised into a couple of boxes in the back room. Certainly saves us time, which I'm thankful for. Don't want to be leaving Stella for long.

'Sure ain't a lot, is there?' Don remarks while he empties out a box of receipts, including some gambling chits. 'Thought we might've found a few more things of Sinclair's, you know, letters and such.'

He's right. There's a real lack of anything personal in the place – it'd be hard for anyone on the outside to know there'd been a real person running the place, a person with a life and history of their own.

I'm comparing that again with other places and folks in town – the photographs of Martha and his daughters all over his office and workroom Hammerback's got, for instance, as well as a collection of curiosities he's gathered from his travels; both Don and me have got a couple of photographs on our desks, too – my favourite being one of Stella and me which we had taken last summer. But probably the place with the most personal touches, and the spirit of the person who runs it most present in it is... no, was the saloon. Stella had made it uniquely hers with little things such as vases of flowers here and there and paintings on the walls. Most of all, it was Stella herself who made it special. Without her there, it would have been like any other saloon in any other town...

'Hey, Mac, what d'you reckon we do with these here things?' Don holds up a handful of jewellery – rings, necklaces and bracelets – letting them trickle through his fingers. 'Look like some of them are the real thing, not just paste gems. Far as I can tell, anyhow,' he adds, 'not bein' an expert in such matters.' He passes them over to me to take a look. 'Know anythin' about jewels?'

'A bit... My grandfather had a jeweller's shop back East,' I say, studying the stones and remembering Grandfather Taylor's old store. 'Taught me a few things to look out for when it comes to gems...' Right in the middle of all the mixed up tangle of necklaces and so on is a pendant that catches my eye. With a bit of difficulty, during which time Don loses interest and wanders off to look at other things, I manage to extract the pendant from the heap. After laying the rest of the trinkets down on the counter, I'm able to study it.

That's gotta be a real emerald, embedded in a heart-shaped cluster of tiny diamonds on a silver chain. It's one of the most beautiful pieces of jewellery I've ever seen…

'Pretty,' Don comments, startling me as he appears over my shoulder and gazes at it.

'Not bad.' I ain't gonna give him the slightest hint of anything, so I'm as casual as possible. Kinda' wish he'd go away again to give me a chance to look at the pendant a bit more. I know exactly whose neck I can see it on, having fastened it there myself... Colour of the emerald is almost an exact match to Stella's eyes, although maybe not as bright. It's damn near perfect.

'What about takin' all these things with us and lockin' them in the safe, too?' Don asks, which I gotta admit is probably a wise idea, and tell him so.

That leaves me with something of a dilemma, however. What am I gonna do about purchasing the pendant now? Sure can't go saying anything to Don, and I ain't gonna just take it neither... but it's exactly what I want to give to Stella for our engagement. Rings ain't necessary, I know, and Stella sure ain't a woman who needs a token - we've made our promise to each other and that's the most important thing of all. Even so, I guess for my own sake, I want to give her something that's special, for her to keep and treasure. And this could almost have been made for her…

Well, guess I'll just have to be patient and wait until we got all this muddle sorted out. I want everything done by the book. At least the pendant ain't gonna go anywhere locked in our safe.

Soon as Don's found a suitable box, we place all the jewellery into it and seal it up, gather everything else we're taking with us and prepare to leave. It ain't warm in the store and I'm looking forward to getting back to the Hammerbacks' and taking a rest by their fire. A tap on the door stops us though.

Don and I exchange a glance before I call out and demand to know who's there.

'Mr Taylor? That you, Sheriff?' Mr Angell's voice answers and he enters cautiously, tipping his hat to both of us. My heart sinks – if we ain't careful, and he gets talking, we'll be here all day and all night…

'Mr Angell. Somethin' we can do for you?' I move forward, positioning myself so he ain't able to come in too far.

Standing there with his thumbs hooked into his waistcoat pockets, he clears his throat. 'As a matter of fact, there might well be, Mr Taylor, sir.' He puffs his chest out and announces his next few words with more than a touch of pompousness. 'Mrs Angell and I have been up most of the night discussin' matters of a business nature and we have come up with a proposition.'

'A proposal, huh?' Don asks and I shoot him a glance, but there ain't anything but curiosity in his eyes.

Mr Angell smiles indulgently at him. 'Yes indeed, Mr Flack, yes indeed.' He turns back to me. 'My dear wife and I would like to make an offer for this here store, favourable terms, of course, to take it over and continue to run it as a hardware store, with some improvements, naturally. A town's gotta have a hardware store after all, don't you agree?'

'It does,' I say, not wanting to commit myself to any more than that at present. After all, Sinclair ain't even in the ground yet.

'I'm aware this might seem rather, uh, rather hasty...' Mr Angell says hurriedly, maybe guessing what was in my mind as there's a trace of defensiveness in his voice. 'But in the circumstances, it's advisable to think practically. As we're agreed, the town needs a store and I ain't a man to pass up a business opportunity, with, of course, the opportunity to be of benefit to the town.'

To be fair to the man, he does have a point.

'I ain't gonna argue with you about thinkin' practically,' I say and he nods vigorously.

'No indeed, Sheriff, no indeed. You're a practical man in all matters, for sure.' He gives me a hopeful smile, which I don't respond to. Flattery ain't gonna sway me. Mr Angell continues regardless, 'Of course, I ain't got any idea of the profitability of the store of the state of its finances...' He trails off and gives me another hopeful look. I stare back. Even if we did have more than the merest idea of the financial position of the store and Sinclair's estate, Mr Angell would not be hearing about it, being one of the town's most dedicated gossips. Do wonder sometimes if he carries on talking in his sleep...

'Soon as we know any more, we'll inform you,' I tell him and he looks disgruntled. I'm aware I'm being kinda' short with the man, but I'm real impatient now to get back to Stella.

'Of course, of course, Sheriff. It'll be a matter for the bank and any creditors, I expect...'

'Possibly,' is all the answer I'm gonna give him and he sighs before murmuring that he oughtta be heading home.

'Got a whole lot of things to organise and Mrs Angell wants to talk more about our plans,' he says, before adding without a trace of irony, 'My dear wife does enjoy talkin', always has plenty to say on matters.'

Beside me, Don makes a muffled sorta' coughing sound and Mr Angell fixes him with a stare.

'You're lookin' after my Jessie are you, Mr Flack? Seems she's spendin' all her time in your company these days.'

Don looks embarrassed at that and shoves his hands into his pockets before clearing his throat and meeting Mr Angell's gaze head on. 'I sure am, Mr Angell, sir. She's, er, she's a real special lady.'

Yep, there's a definite tinge of red in my Deputy's face which kinda' makes me smile.

'That she is, Mr Flack, that she is. Hmmm... no doubt we'll be seein' you for dinner later?'

'Thank you, sir, that'll be real nice,' Don says, looking a little less pressured.

'Very good.' Mr Angell nods, huffs through his moustache and takes his leave of us at last, closing the door sharply behind him so that the bell jangles.

Still with a trace of colour in his face, Don rubs his jaw and glances at the box of jewellery he's holding. 'Well, guess I can take from that that I got Mr Angell's approval for me and Miss Jessica to be courtin',' he murmurs, fiddling with the trinkets.

'Reckon so, not that he had any reason to disapprove,' I reassure him, thinking suddenly that I gotta write to Ma and tell her that Stella and I are engaged. First thing tomorrow, I'll compose a letter to her, although I ain't got any doubt she'll be pleased. Though she's only met Stella a couple of times, she likes her a whole lot and always writes a message to her in her letters to me.

With Stella at the forefront of my mind, I'm as quick as possible getting back to our office and locking away all the things from the store. Don's equally keen to be finished, but it seems his reasons are several.

'Don't want to keep Miss Jessica, or Martha waitin',' he mumbles at one point, 'She'll come searchin' for us to haul us back if we ain't returned soon.' Which makes me grin. For all his insouciance, Don's got a healthy respect for Martha, along with his admiration for Miss Angell.

Two of us hurry back through the snow to the saloon, where we find the ladies standing and talking, heads close together, examining something Stella's holding.

They turn round as we hail them and Stella greets me with the brightest smile I've seen from her in a few days - makes me smile, too.

'Mac!' she calls as she comes hurrying over, 'Look what Miss Angell helped me find.' In the hand she holds out to me is the necklace I gave her two years ago, made with a tooth from the grizzly she shot, mounted on silver and hung on a thin silver chain. It's thick with soot, but that can be cleaned off; underneath it seems to be undamaged.

'I'm real pleased,' I tell her, smiling and she beams back.

'So am I. If I was goin' to have found anythin', I wanted it to have been that.' She clasps my hand and I'm captured for a moment by the colour of her eyes, sparkling even more than that emerald. Makes me wonder if there's something in her finding that particular necklace. When I gave it to her, even though I didn't say at the time (because officially I was still mad at her for putting herself in danger), it was kind of a symbol of her strength and determination – that old grizzly she killed would've carried on rampaging through town and likely would have killed someone if she hadn't stood her ground and shot it...

'Hey! You two comin'?' Don calls out, and with a quick smile at each other, Stella and I set off, following Don and Miss Angell back to the Hammerbacks'. Stella slips the necklace into her pocket and takes hold of my hand. After another look in her eyes, seeing some of that determination coming back to life, starting to shine again, I'm able to smile. There's time for a glance back at the remains of the saloon, and maybe it's fanciful, but for a moment, I get an image of a phoenix, that bird of legend, rising up from the ashes. Guess that's how it is for us – from all that smoke and wreckage, we got something new and special together. Stella and me - we got a future ahead of us. Today's just the start of it.

Thanks for reading! Do let me know what you think, reviews always welcome, and I've got couple of extra scenes to share as it's been so long! Lily x