Printer in Petticoats
the street a team of horses hauling a rickety farm wagon rolled up in
front of the empty two-story building that had housed the Smoke River
Bank. A brown canvas cover swathed something big and bulky in the wagon
She couldn't tear her gaze away. A tall, jean-clad man in a dusty black Stetson hauled the team to a stop and jumped down. He had a controlled, easy gait that reminded her of a big cat, powerful and confident and . . . untamed. His hat brim shaded his face, and his overlong dark hair brushed the collar of his sweat-stained blue work shirt.
She sniffed with disdain. He was just another rough, uncultured rancher come to town with a load of . . . what? Sacks of wheat? A keg or two of beer?"
The man untied the rope lashing the dirty canvas over whatever lay beneath, and Jessamine stood up and craned her neck to see better.
Oh, my father's red suspenders, what is that?
The barber, Whitey Poletti, and mercantile owner Carl Ness put down their brooms and ambled across the street to see what was going on. In two minutes, Mr. Rancher had talked them into helping him unload the bulky object. He loosened the ropes securing the thing, lowered the wagon tailgate and slid a couple of wide planks off the back end. Then he started to shove whatever it was down onto the board sidewalk.
The canvas slipped off and Jessamine gave an unladylike shriek. A huge Ramage printing press teetered on the wagon bed.
A printing press? Smoke River already had a printing press-hers! Her Adams press was the only one needed for her newspaper-the town's only newspaper.
She found herself across the street before she realized she'd even opened her office door. "Just what do you think you're doing?" she demanded.
Mr. Rancher straightened, pushed his hat back with his thumb and pinned her with the most disturbing pair of blue eyes she'd ever seen. Smoldering came to mind. Was that a real word? Or maybe they were scandalizing? Scandalous?
"Thought it was obvious, miss. I'm unloading my printing press." He turned away, signaled to Whitey and Carl, and jockeyed the huge iron contraption onto the boardwalk.
"What for?" she blurted.
Again those unnerving eyes bored into hers. "For printing," he said dryly.
"Oh." She cast about for something intelligent to say. "Wait!"
'What for?" he shot from the other side of the press.
"What do you intend to print?"
"Newspaper? But Smoke River already has a newspaper, the Sentinel. My newspaper."
"So we don't need another one."
"Nope." He stepped out from behind the press and propped both hands on his lean hips. "I've read the Sentinel. This town does need another newspaper."
"Well! Are you insulting my newspaper?"
"Nope. Just offering a bit of competition. A lot of competition, actually. Excuse me."
He brushed past her and hefted one corner of the press. Then the three men heaved and pulled and frog-walked the bulky machine up the single step of the old bank entrance and through the doorway.
Well, my stars and little chickens, who does he think he is?
She tried to peer through the bank's dust-smeared front window, but just when she thought she saw some movement, someone taped big sheets of foolscap over the panes so she couldn't see a thing.
She waited until Carl and the barber exited and walked back across the street. Her curiosity got the better of her. "What is that man doing in there?"
"Movin' in," Carl offered. No law against that."
Jessamine swallowed a sharp retort. She couldn't afford to insult a paying customer, even one who was at the moment helping her competition. She needed every newspaper subscriber she could get to keep her paper in the black. She had to admit that she was struggling; ever since Papa died, her whole life had been one big struggle with a capital S.
Carl marched past the bushel baskets of apples in front of his store and disappeared inside. The barber lingered long enough to give her a friendly grin.
"Like Carl says, no law against movin' in."
"That man needs a haircut," she retorted. She was so flustered it was the only thing she could think of to say.
Whitey nodded. "So do you, Miss Jessamine. Gonna catch them long curls of yours in the rollers of yer press one of these days."
Jessamine seized her dark unruly locks and shoved them back behind her shoulders. The barber was right. She just hadn't had time between setting type and soliciting subscribers and writing news stories to tend to her hair. Or anything else, she thought morosely. There weren't hours enough in the day to deal with everything that had been dropped on her.
Wearily she plodded back to her office across the street and dragged out her notepad and a stubby, tooth-marked pencil. "New printing press arrives in Smoke River," she scrawled. "Bets taken on longevity."
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