In a bachelor auction, hardworking Diana wins herself a rugged Mountie for twenty-four hours.
© Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.
The harvest fair, Calgary, District of Alberta, 1893
“Good heavens, they’re raffling off men.”
With a jolt of pleasant dismay, Diana Campbell peered through the boisterous crowd to her friends, Winnie Gardner who was speaking, and Charlotte Ford who was smiling in expectation at the handsome men lined up as prizes along the dirt midway. Horses neighed beyond them. The wooden carousel creaked.
“I think the object is to win a bachelor as a prize.” Diana read from the sign above the men. An afternoon breeze, warm for September, whispered over her cheeks, coaxing her to forget about her looming problems, to enjoy the humor here.
She and her two friends wiggled through the mob to get a closer look and identify the bachelors. Through a shifting sea of Stetsons and bonnets, Diana focused on three shirtless men perched above huge vats of water, a bull’s-eye target mounted above them, ready to be blasted by any participating female who plunked down a nickel.
And there were plenty of beautifully dressed women lining up to plunk.
Taller and ten years younger than her two friends, Diana adjusted her tattered bonnet. “They’re Mounted Police.”
“How do you know?” Charlotte loosened the cloak around her thin shoulders, exposing her faded work tunic.
“Because the sign above them says so.”
Winnie and Charlotte stifled a laugh.
“I didn’t see it,” Charlotte confessed, bobbing in place to read. “The sign also says they’re collecting money for the children’s charity and that the Mountie would do your bidding for twenty-four hours.”
“Well, I for one wouldn’t know what to do with a man if I won him.” Self-conscious of her drab clothing, Diana smoothed her clean apron and told herself she didn’t care what anyone thought of her coarse, black shoes.
She steered her friends to the center of the crowd. They were an hour away from their three-o’clock shift at the poultry factory. Wearing kerchiefs beneath their bonnets and freshly laundered work tunics, Diana knew they could easily be mistaken for sanitation workers.
“I’d know exactly what to do with one,” whispered Winnie, her plump body straining beneath her blouse. “I’d make him massage my feet.”
Diana smiled, mostly because Winnie, the captain of their poultry line, always complained about her aching feet. “I could use a foot rub myself.”
Charlotte leaned to the other two and whispered. “I’d make him massage the rest of me.”
Gasping, then laughing, the women headed to the center of the maze and stopped, but not before their movements attracted the gaze of the man sitting above the right tub.
Inspector Mitchell Reid.
Surprised, Diana tensed. Her shoulders and arms stiffened. She lowered her hand as cool, dark eyes flickered over her body in equal, primitive recognition.
Although Diana and her siblings had only lived in Calgary for a month, she’d already had a run-in with the police. Yesterday, Inspector Reid had come banging on her door with her adolescent brothers in tow—Wayde and Tom—demanding an apology for their “delinquent behavior” as he’d put it. Well, staring at the man now she’d almost give her rent money to see him plunge into the brisk water. Headfirst.
The men on either side of him were well into their fifties, handsome and sporting, but something drew her eyes to the inspector. He sat taller on his plank with a tanned torso, a whisper of dark hair running along the ridges of his firm chest, his lean waist twisting toward her and long legs encased in denim pants.
What set him apart wasn’t so much his youth and stature but his bold look. That of a lean, hungry renegade. His black eyebrows leveled over deeper, blacker eyes. There was an intensity to the set of his tanned jaw, the crisp shadow of his cheeks and the stubborn curl of black hair at his temples. Even here, he seemed to be in calm command.
Her senses heightened.
The rush of air felt suddenly hot. Bodies crushed her. Children’s laughter from the pony rides echoed above the throng. Aromas of the bountiful harvest wove a ribbon through the air between her and the inspector—earthy pumpkins, tangy apples, fresh-baked cookies. A rich harvest was something she and her family hadn’t fully experienced while living in a city, and it soothed her senses.
Up until the officer had seen her, he had seemed rather bored. Now his eyes glistened with the smug assurance of a man in control. Just as he had been yesterday, ranting at her while towering above them at their splintered front door, daring her to cross him or to put up an argument. Threatening her brothers with jail in that dangerously low voice, speaking to her as if he weren’t quite civilized himself.
The rudest man she’d met so far in Calgary, he’d given her only two opportunities to speak. “Are you Miss Diana Campbell?” And then at the end of his condescending speech, “Have I made myself clear?”
Yes, sir. No, sir. Thank you very much, sir. Were those the words he was used to hearing?
It was a wonder that the lineup of gawking women to Diana’s right were happily tossing rubber balls solely at his target, whispering and hoping to win him above the others.
“My word,” said Winnie, spotting him, too. “It’s the wild Reid brother. The youngest of the three.”
Charlotte stared with admiration. “The second brother to become a Mountie. I think it’s sweet that they both became policemen like their father.” She added to Diana, “Their father was a copper in Ireland but is now one of the biggest ranchers in Alberta. They say he took bribes in Ireland and had to flee to America.”
Diana wondered if it was the truth or a rumor. Either way, the Reid family had long roots in the community. It made her feel like more of an outsider.
They were Irish; she and hers were Scottish.
“And Mitchell Reid has broken every heart in town.” The information didn’t impress Diana. How could this obnoxious man have the talent to break any woman’s heart?
“There’s the woman he’s courting now. Don’t know how long she’ll last.” Winnie pointed to a pretty redhead in the lineup who was tossing a ball at his target. “Allison Oxford.”
Diana wondered what it might be like to forget about her dreary life for twenty-four hours and step into the glossy shoes of Miss Oxford, immersing herself in the company of this attentive, dark-eyed Mountie. Diana struggled to banish the thought. She had more important goals to consider, such as her interview tomorrow with the town’s optometrist and whether she would get the better job. Providing a home for her family that was safe and secure would bring her peace of mind she’d never get by winning a bachelor.
Comically, to Diana’s right, a photographer from the local newspaper recorded the events with a huge, portable camera. A magnesium flashlamp clicked and, a second later, covered the thin blond fellow with smoke and soot.
With a splash, one of the older Mounties fell into the water. The crowd shouted approval and the reporter took notes, but Miss Oxford argued it wasn’t the target she was aiming for.
The woman was a poor shot, for she had been aiming at her beau, Inspector Reid. The inspector shrugged his shoulders and laughed, indicating there was nothing he could do to change the results. The bachelor in the water was quickly replaced by yet another Mountie as Miss Oxford left the midway with her prize.
Diana peered with curiosity at Inspector Reid’s remaining flock of admirers, who were still vying for him. They were dressed in satin bonnets and smart, lace-trimmed jackets. She recalled a time when she had worn satin bonnets, and when her mother had her gowns made by the best dressmakers in Toronto. Bristling with embarrassment as she compared herself to the giddy lineup, Diana adjusted her thin hemline to conceal the edge of her thick shoes. They were floppy on her feet although she wore two layers of socks.
They had been her father’s shoes. The only thing left of his great fortune. The only shoes she had now.
With her parents gone and buried for five years, it was up to Diana to put clothes and shoes on her sisters and brothers. She was grateful they were younger and perhaps didn’t remember as well as she, the lushness of their former lives. Maybe at times such as these, their ache wasn’t quite as vivid.
“Miss Campbell!” a man shouted, causing her to snap to attention. The fort’s commander, Superintendent Ridgeway, who seemed to know everyone in town, chewed on an unlit cigar as he addressed her. He held a red rubber ball in the air. “Would you like to win some help around the house for twenty-four hours?”
As if she could spare a nickel for a ticket. “No, thank you.” As if she’d want to waste one minute of her precious day with the irksome Mitchell Reid.
Blessedly, the commander went on to other ladies in the crowd and Diana sighed in relief.
“Diana, you should try it,” urged Winnie. “You could win one of the men and split his duties between us.”
“I won’t be wasting my pennies on anything so silly. You could try it instead,” replied Diana.
“But you’re the better shot. I’ve seen you throw. You’re always practicin’ ball with your brothers. You could win and we could each get a foot rub out of him.”
“I wouldn’t take a foot rub.” Diana returned her gaze to the inspector. He was teasing a giddy blond woman who aimed then missed her third shot. The thought came with a pang that he’d be trouble for whatever woman won him. “I’d make him do my endless pile of laundry.”
The three women laughed at the ridiculous notion.
“And then,” said Diana wistfully, running her slender hand along her mended skirt pocket, “I’d make him repair the ripped screen on the front door. I’d make him clean out the privy with lye and…and help Robert with his mathematics, and coax Gena through her nightmares allowing me to sleep through one blessed night.” She quieted, thinking of all they needed. “I’d make him show Wayde and Tom the proper way to eat at the supper table and make him explain that being a man doesn’t mean you always have to fight. I’d have him carry Elizabeth and Margaret on his shoulders all day, just because they’re little and need the extra attention.”
“But for you…what would you have him do for you?”
Mitchell Reid was bending over the water, his broad shoulders straining in the sunlight as he demonstrated to a buxom older woman how to pitch over her head.
Diana smiled, dreaming of luxury. “I’d ask him for three minutes of time to myself. To shut the private door behind me, close my eyes and do absolutely nothing. Alone and uninterrupted.”
“That’s asking for an awful lot,” said Winnie, who, widowed in a farming accident by a runaway long-horned bull, had three children of her own to support. Her elderly mother looked after the children while Winnie went to work at the factory, dipping slaughtered chickens into boiling water then handing them to Diana who plucked them.
“Let’s go.” Diana thought it wasteful to daydream. “I promised to meet my family at the carousel before our shift starts. Elizabeth fell into her nap just as I was leaving the house. The older brothers are sitting with them, then bringing them to see the fair.”
The three women squeezed through the crowd and made their way past the lineup of beauties. Trying not to feel intimidated by their nosy glances, Diana smiled and nodded politely. But as she turned, she heard one of them whisper the awful words.
“Lovely shoes, miss.”
Diana flushed. Mortified at the insult, she turned to see who could utter such a condescending thing, but the four young women closest to her quickly looked away.
Speechless for a moment, Diana realized she’d stopped walking. “In my home,” she said with dignity, “I teach the children it’s never kind to make fun of a stranger.”
No one apologized. No one even looked her way. No one in the crowd seemed to even notice she was talking. Others continued tossing balls at the inspector, who was too far away to overhear. Diana felt invisible, as she had on so many occasions in the past five years. She felt as if she was always on the periphery, watching others make life choices, marriage choices, watching others toss balls at targets.
“Come along, Diana,” said Charlotte. “These women obviously have no manners.”
But something in Diana hardened. She wouldn’t be invisible. She couldn’t let this pass. “I’d like to try that rubber ball, Superintendent,” she yelled above their heads. “To win the inspector!”
The fashionable women gasped in disbelief, but they finally turned to look at her. So she wasn’t invisible.
In the periphery, the reporter strained toward Diana, then quickly adjusted his camera.
“Imagine,” said one of the society women beneath her breath, causing Diana’s blood to stir. “Her with Mitch.”
The accompanying laughter stung more than the words. But Mitchell Reid was someone Diana knew these women wanted. And for one desperate moment, she wanted to prove that what she wore on her feet had nothing to do with her value as a person or her ability to toss a ball. She knew her temper was leading her. It would likely lead her into deeper trouble, as her father had often warned her, but she couldn’t stop herself.
“Oh, heavens,” said Winnie. “Good luck.” The three women scrounged through their bags for coins. “I’ll put in two pennies.”
“I’ve got one,” offered Charlotte.
Diana dug into her drawstring purse. “And I’ll chip in the other two. We’ll have to work an extra half hour tonight to replace this money.” They made four cents an hour, exactly half the wages of the men who worked alongside them.
“You’ve got one shot. Don’t waste it.”
Diana nodded. “If I win him, you can have him.”
Charlotte’s eyes widened in delight. They paid their money. Charlotte shoved Diana around to face the audience, and then the rugged, looming Mitchell Reid.
A smile crept along the corner of his lips, the first she’d seen him wear. It combined with the dangerous glint in his eyes and made her shiver.
“Atta girl, Miss Campbell,” he hollered, “money for the charity then you’d best move on to find your brothers.”
Diana cleared her throat, irked by his mention of her brothers as if implying that they were in trouble somewhere and needed her. She grasped the ball. “Better not get too comfortable, Officer, because you may slip off that pedestal.”
A number of men laughed. He quirked an eyebrow with apparent amusement. “Come here and show us, then.”
Was he aware of the pattern to their speech? When she was a child, her father, a newspaper editor, would often play a game of alternating sentences with her by starting each new one with the next letter of the alphabet. A, B, C, just as they were doing now. But no one else in the crowd seemed to have noticed, so maybe it was a coincidence.
She’d try a D and see if the officer followed. “Don’t suppose you’ve got swimming trunks beneath those pants?”
“Easy to imagine, isn’t it?”
The crowd cooed and Diana’s skin tingled. It was too easy to imagine and he was secretly playing the game with her. She wondered where he’d learned it.
When his intrusive stare deepened, she felt a rousing sensation in the pit of her stomach. This game was terribly intimate, as if he were flirting with her in private but somehow out in the open. Her pulse skipped as she aimed the ball above his mocking glare. She wasn’t used to flirting, and certainly not used to mocking.
“Fortunately I’ve got a steady hand,” she continued with an F, “and nothing you can say will shatter my confidence.”
“Glad to hear about the confidence but too bad about the steady hand.”
The crowd laughed and she felt her blood rush. He was so quick to return her volley of words. She should stop this private game so that he understood she didn’t approve of his cocky manner.
But she couldn’t. “How much time do I get you for scrubbing my floors?”
More laughter from the folks watching.
“I’m insulted that you’d waste my time with floors!”
“Just you wait and see.” She took a deep breath, aimed carefully and threw hard.
The rubber ball collided with the metal bull’s-eye. Boards clattered.
The rest happened all at once. Diana heard a camera click in his direction. Flecks of ash fell from the sky. Then his deep dark eyes widened in shock as the arrogant Mitchell Reid tumbled into the water with a loud, satisfying splash.