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Burning Kansas – Chapter 8
Creighton Blaylock reined his horse at the red and white striped pole. Grabbing a bundle from his saddlebag, he said, "Zeus, This may take a while and you may not recognize me when I get out. Wish me luck."
He laughed at the horse's snuffle and headed inside. His smile faded when the conversation fell silent and hard eyes measured him.
"What can I do for you?"
Blaylock forced a light tone. "I've been on a hard trail up from Texas and thought I'd scrape off some road so my woman doesn't greet me with a shotgun. I'm looking for a shave, haircut, and a bath if you've got it." The lie came easy when he put the image of Caroline in his mind.
The men in the shop relaxed and the barber gestured him to an empty chair. "Welcome stranger, I'll be right with you."
"Thank you. Be nice to have a seat that's not moving." Blaylock hung his battered hat on a hook and sat down. The two men sitting in the sunny window went back to their newspapers. Headlines were split between the bombardment of Charleston and collapse of the Union prison building in Lawrence. Blaylock tensed at the second. He'd served with men who had womenfolk penned up in that hellhole. He wondered if any of them were among the injured or killed.
Damn it. Why did the kids have to head to Lawrence? I hope Caroline is wrong.
"So, what took you to Texas," the barber, his voice thick with the professional tone of a man who knew how to get a good tip, asked as he brushed off his current customer's neck.
"What? Oh, my brother has a spread down there. Thinking of taking my family down there to live, so I went to check it out," said Blaylock, coming back to the present.
The barber pulled off the dingy drape and shook it clean. A teen boy appeared out of the back room with a broom and quickly cleaned up the floor.
"I can't offer you a full bath, but we can rustle you up some soap and hot water for a small fee."
Blaylock settled in the chair and said, "I would like that just fine."
"I heard you Pa, I'll get it ready," came the reply from the back room.
Blaylock had to laugh. "That's a good boy you've got there."
"He's a little hellion, but he and his friends finally got caught. He knows if he doesn't work good and hard here, he'll be looking at a mule's ass behind a plow at his grandfather's place."
"I got me a boy who's a handful myself. Good for you," said Blaylock.
The barber brandished scissors and comb and said, "So, what can I do for you? A trim?"
Blaylock took a deep breath and stroked his beard. He'd always kept it neat, even when it spilled over his collar and down his shirt front. It had been part of his rank. His signature. He also heard Caroline's pleading voice asking him to look less like what he was. A quick glance at the war torn headlines and he was as sick of it as she. This situation with Jacob changed things.
"Take it all off, right down to the hide."
The barber's expression belied his thoughts.
"I know it'll cost extra and there's a good tip in it if you don't slice me to ribbons."
Blaylock closed his eyes and let the snipping sounds lull him. A steaming towel was followed by the warm lather and scraping of the razor. In a shorter time than he expected, the barber wiped his face and said,
"Now that was a job."
Blaylock ran his hand over his cheeks, the smoothness felt strange.
"You got a mirror?"
The barber responded by handing him a surprisingly dainty silver-framed hand mirror. When Blaylock didn't say anything, the barber fidgeted and asked, "Is everything all right?"
Blaylock laughed and said, "Just a surprise. She still might pull that shotgun on me. Now, how about a quick trim on my hair and that hot water you promised me?"
The breeze felt odd on Blaylock's bare cheeks when he closed the barbershop door behind him. He stuffed his dirty shirt back in his saddlebag and looked up and down the street hoping to see Caroline and hear her news.
Just like a woman, hurry up and wait.
Blaylock jumped aside when a farmer carrying two large bundles pushed past him. "No use standing here like an idiot. Might as well go check out the general store. Zeus, you keep an eye out." He swatted his horse on the rump and crossed the busy street.
Blaylock breathed deep, taking in the smells of coffee, tobacco, and spices while he mentally ticked off the supplies they would need for the ride. Two women glanced at him sidelong under tip-tilted eyes and one blushed when he returned her smile.
"Hello, good day and can I help you?" The shopkeeper, in an apron so white and starched that he had to have a maid washing and ironing half the day, sprang forward.
"Maybe in a minute. I'm waiting for someone."
"As you wish. Please feel free to look around."
Would you would have been so polite an hour ago? Caroline's right, gussied-up is good camouflage.
The bright colors of the dry goods and ladies' finery caught his eye and Blaylock wandered over. His rough fingers caught on the satiny surface of a wide green ribbon. Lucinda had loved such fripperies, but he wasn't thinking of her when he took the reel to the counter and rang the bell.
"Excellent choice, sir. How much would you like?"
Blaylock hadn't considered that. The younger woman shopper edged closer.
"How about a nice length for a hair bow? A little present for," he turned toward the girl who was practically pressing against him, "my intended."
A snapped fan, laughter from the older woman shopper, and the tinkling of the store's doorbell announced that Blaylock had been correct in his assessment.
The shopkeeper's lip twitched, but he didn't say anything as he cut the ribbon and wrapped it in tissue. "This is sure to please her. It's from Paris and fit for a lady as beautiful as," he glanced at the plate glass window, "as beautiful as she is."
Blaylock followed his gaze. Caroline stood on the other side of the glass looking up and down the street.
"Indeed it is," said Blaylock.
"That's Michael Cassett's widow. Sure you've heard of him. He's a hero in these parts. Shame to leave a woman like that alone."
Blaylock hesitated, wondering if the grocer would still be smiling and scraping if he told him exactly how he know Michael Cassett and his widow. Instead, all he said was, "Indeed it is," as he walked out the door.
Aware of the eyes on them, Blaylock put his hand on the small of Caroline's back and said, "Act like I'm your beau. I'll tell you later."
When she started, he said, "Caroline, it's me, Creighton."
To be continued . . .