Eerie Saloon: Seasons of Change -- Spring, part 4 of 13

Eerie Saloon: Seasons of Change – Spring, part 4 of 13
By Ellie Dauber and Chris Leeson © 2014

Sunday, April 21, 1872

“Arnoldo,” Teresa hissed, “you are walking too fast.”

Her mother was holding onto her right arm, as they walked. “I am sorry, Mama.” She slowed her pace. “Is this better?”

“Si, fine.” The woman smiled. “I suppose that I should be happy that you are in such a hurry to get to church.”

“I’m just happy that I don’t have to push you in that wheelchair anymore.”

“Why, was I so heavy?”

“Of course not; I am glad because you do not need the chair anymore.”

“So am I. It is good to get around on my own two feet again.” She chuckled. “I will even be happy to pull that heavy laundry wagon around again.”

“And I will be happy to see you pulling it.”

“What will you do then, when I am back at work?”

Arnie shrugged. “I don’t know, give the Spauldings their Spanish lessons, I suppose.”

“That is only a few hours a week. You cannot just sit around the rest of the time. As your papa used to say, ‘The lazy man is brother to the beggar.’ I do not want that for you.”

“We can talk about such things later. We are almost at the church.” The young woman looked around nervously.

“What is the matter, Dulcita? Who are you looking for?”

“Pablo and his friends, I do not need to be teased for wearing this pretty dress.”

Teresa glanced at the churchyard. “I don’t see them, but I do see Father de Castro. You can relax. They won’t try anything with him watching.” She pointedly ignored the way Arnie had just described her dress, as the priest walked over to greet them.

* * * * *

“What’re you grinning about, Dell?” Forry Stafford asked his hireling. They were standing in the hall outside their rooms on the second floor of the Lone Star, ready to go down for breakfast.

Dell Cooper wouldn’t meet his boss’s eyes. “Nothing, Mr. Stafford, sir.”

“Bullshit,” Stafford spat. “What is it? Tell me, right now.”

Dell sighed. “I got that man I told you about, got him good.”

“What did you do, and who did you do it to? I don’t need people asking questions.”

“That cowhand you saw the other day, the one that all but called me out just ‘cause I been paying attention to his sister, the schoolmarm.”

Leland Saunders gave a quick laugh. “Trying t’get into her drawers, you mean. You have any luck?”

“Not yet,” Dell said with a nasty smirk, “but I expect to, now that her brother’s in jail.”

Forry sighed. Cooper was up to something. “And just why would he be in jail?”

“‘Cause he stole the money he was supposed t’be taking out to that Mr. Slocum’s ranch – or, at least, they think he did. I used that trick with the rope, the one we used against blue belly riders back in the War, t’knock him off his horse. Then I snuck up behind him and knocked him out. He musta had close to $400 in his saddlebag.”

Leland whistled in admiration. Stafford just glared at the other man. “Where is it now?” Forry asked.

“Most of it’s in the bottom of my valise. I left some in his saddlebag with a note t’make it look like he was in on the job.”

Forry glowered at his employee. “You stupid son of a bitch. If you’ve screwed things up for me in any way, getting turned over to the sheriff for trial will be the least of your worries.” His hand shot up and around Dell’s neck, forcing him back against the wall. “Understand?”

“Y-yes, sir, Mr…. Mr. Stafford, sir. Anyway, I -- I was always intending to divvy it up.”

Forry let him go. “Fine, bring me the money, so I can find a proper hiding place for it. The last thing we need is for that barman’s daughter to turn it up it when she cleans.”

“Yes, sir.” Dell hurried into the room he shared with Saunders, returning less than a minute later with a cloth satchel holding the cash.

His employer took the bag. “You two go down to get breakfast. I’ll be along momentarily.” He stood for a moment and watched them head for the stairs before he went into his own room. “Not a bad profit,” he whispered, hefting the Gladstone. “I may even give that idiot, Cooper, some of it back when we’re done here.”

* * * * *

“This Wednesday night,” Reverend Yingling began, “I shall be appearing before the town council, requesting that they vest control of Shamus O’Toole’s transformative potion in more responsible – more moral hands. In this effort, I am most pleased to say, I have the support of our church board and, more importantly, of this congregation. Like Gideon’s band, we are small in number, but we are rich in the spirit of our Lord.”

“Many of you have shown your support for my efforts by signing the petition that Horace Styron prepared.” He paused. “Horace if you would please.”

Styron stood up. “It was my honor to help, Reverend.” He waved and sat down.

“At this time, I must also thank Mrs. Cecilia Ritter, who worked so hard to ensure that as many people as possible were able to sign.”

Cecelia got to her feet. “I’m always ready to help in a noble cause.”

“Ah, yes, and that help is appreciated, Cecelia,” Yingling said, motioning for her to sit. “But we are not done yet. I know how busy you all are, but I would ask that those of you who can be there at the council meeting join with me. Let the men of the town council that you are serious in this matter.”

Mrs. Ritter hadn’t sat down. “We’re with you, Reverend Yingling,” she shouted. “Anyone who isn’t there has no right to call themselves a member of this congregation.” She suddenly burst into song. “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.”

“Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;” Lavinia Mackechnie and Zenobia Carson rose to join Cecelia. Before Yingling or anyone else could stop them, much of the congregation was singing along. The reverend watched for a moment, looking surprised, before he smiled broadly and added his own deep, basso voice to the impromptu chorus.

* * * * *

“Good evening, Mr. O’Toole,” Ethan said in a cheery voice.

Shamus nodded at the man. “And the same t’ye, Mr. Thomas. What ye be having t’night?”

“Supper, first, I think. Then, I shall be wrapping ‘The Three Fates’ for shipping. I was wondering, though, if I might keep the painting here until morning. I find that the freight office is closed, alas, and your establishment is much closer than my studio.”

“O’course, ye can. The ladies are welcome t’be spending the night in me office.”

Before Ethan could answer, Jane hurried over from the kitchen. “You won’t have t’pack ‘em up, Ethan. I decided t’buy that painting m’self. We can go over to the bank tomorrow t’get the money, and you can move it up t’my room.”

“I’m sorry, Jane, but it’s not for sale.”

She pouted prettily. “But I got the money. I got lotsa money, just ask Shamus.”

“She does,” Shamus answered, scowling at the woman. “And she shouldn’t be wasting it on buying paintings and such.” He turned to look at Ethan. “I’d be saying that about any painting she wanted t’be buying, Ethan. I don’t mean nothing against yuir three ladies.”

Ethan looked gravely at Shamus. “I understand, Mr. O’Toole, and no offense is taken. Your generous payment for my portraits of Jessie and your wife, Molly, is obvious proof of your appreciation for my talents.”

“You are a lovely woman, Jane,” Ethan continued, “and it was a pleasure to have you as a model, but, as I said, ‘The Three Fates’ is not for sale at this time.”

Jane looked as if he had suddenly stuck her. “Why not; when I talked to you about buying it before, you never said nothing like you wouldn’t let me buy it.”

“If I did anything to lead you to think that it was available, I must apologize, but I must also repeat that it is most emphatically not for sale.”

“But --”

Shamus gently put his hand on her arm. “I don’t think it’s worth ye wasting yuir breath, Jane. The man ain’t budging. Besides, thuir’s three tables o’people over there…” He pointed to the tables of Maggie’s restaurant. “…waiting for thuir supper. Should n’t ye be in the kitchen helping Maggie t’be cooking it?”

She looked nonplussed. “Y-yes, but…” Her voice trailed off.

“Please go and cook, Jane,” the artist told her. “I’ve no wish to argue this matter any further, and I do look forward to once again sampling your excellent cuisine.”

She sighed. “Well, thanks for that, at least.” Without another word, she turned and walked slowly back to the kitchen.

* * * * *

Molly knocked on the door to Bridget’s room. “Who’s there?” came a voice from inside.

“‘Tis me, Molly. Can I be coming in?”

“Go… go away.”

“Please.”

Molly heard a sigh – or was it a sob – “Oh, all right, come in.”

“What… what do you want, Molly?” Bridget asked. She was sitting on the edge of her bed. Her dark blue dress was unbuttoned almost down to her waist.

“Thuir’s men downstairs waiting t’be playing poker with ye. I come t’see why ye’re still up here.”

“I-I spilled some of Maggie’s stew on my dress. I came up to change.”

“Aye, ye did, but ye’ve been up here the better part of an hour, and ye’re still wearing the dress ye came up here t’be changing.”

Bridget sighed heavily and stared down at her feet. “Why change? Nobody cares about me or how I look.”

“Now why are ye saying something like that? Of course, people care.”

“Why should they? I know how people think about women like me.” She sniffed, trying to hold back the tears she felt swelling in her eyes. “To them I’m just a… a wo-worthless... whore!” She gave a great sigh, buried her face in her hands, and wept loudly, her body shaking with grief. “Ask anybody.”

Molly hurried over. She sat down next to the crying woman and hugged her fiercely. “That ain’t true, and ye know it. Ye’ve lotsa friends hereabouts, and Cap, he loves --”

“Don’t say it. Please. How can he love me after what I’ve done?”

“What that spauleen, Stafford, did to ye, don’t ye mean?”

“No… I… he – oh, Lord, Molly, Cap’ll hate me.”

“That ain’t true, neither. Ye just wait till he gets back from Prescott.”

“I hope he never gets back, and… and if he does, I’ll just stay up here, so I can’t see his face when he finds out, so I won’t see the disgust in his eyes.”

“There won’t be none of that in his eyes – not for ye, at least, though I wouldn’t want t’be Stafford when Cap finds out. He loves ye, ye’ll see.”

“No, no I won’t. I won’t see him. I don’t want to see him – I don’t want to see anybody.”

“Ye ain’t serious about that. How could ye be playing poker if ye feel that way?”

“Maybe I don’t want to play poker. Maybe I just want to stay up here.” She took a breath. “Forever.

Molly shook her head. “Not forever, surely, but I’m thinking that ye won’t be playing poker with them men downstairs tonight. Do ye want me t’be staying here with ye, or can I go tell ‘em?”

“Go ahead. I guess I owe them that much.”

“Spoken like the lady ye truly are. I’ll tell ‘em, and then I’ll be back. I’ll bring some nice tea, and we can sit and talk for as long as ye want.”

Molly stood up, but before she left, she gently kissed Bridget on the forehead, as she might her own daughter.

* * * * *

Jane was sitting at the bar, waiting to see if anyone wanted a drink. “Hey, there, Milt,” she greeted the man when he came close. “What brings you in tonight?”

“I realized how long it had been since I saw you last,” he answered, grinning at her, “and I decided that it was too long.”

Jane chuckled. “It’s no wonder you win all your cases, when you can say things like that.” She kissed his cheek. “And thanks for coming, I needed something t’smile about tonight.”

“Really, is something the matter?”

“Yeah, that painter, Ethan Thomas, came over t’pack up that painting he done of me and Laura. He’s shipping it off on the morning stage.” She frowned. “I told him I wanted to buy it, and he wouldn’t sell it to me.”

“He… he wouldn’t? What exactly did he say when you asked him?”

“Nothing much, just that it wasn’t for sale. I don’t understand. Ain’t he shipping it back east t’sell? Why waste all that money, when I can buy it?”

Milt tugged at his collar. “Perhaps he thinks he can get more for it in New York than he could ask you to pay.”

“New York?” She shook her head. “He told me he was from Philadelphia.”

“Really? I-I must have misunderstood.”

She suddenly brightened. “Hey, I got a idea. Milt, you’re so good with words. How ‘bout you try t’get him t’sell me his painting?”

“I-I don’t… I don’t know if I c-could. He sounds like his m-mind’s set on… shipping it out.”

“Will you, at least, try?” She gave him her best pout. “Please… for me.”

He sighed. “Very well.” Milt looked around. “Is Ethan still here?”

“No, he left ‘bout a half hour ago.”

“Good – I mean, okay. I’ll talk to him tomorrow morning before the stage leaves.” He smiled. “But, as a lawyer, I’m going to have to charge you for doing so.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You lawyers charge for everything. How much is this gonna cost me?”

“Something very dear, I think, a kiss, and not on the cheek.”

“Well… if I have to.” She leaned in close, and their lips met. Milt enjoyed the kiss so much, he almost didn’t feel guilty.

* * * * *

Monday, April 22, 1872

Jane hurried down the street towards the depot. The Monday stage sat next to the platform. From the distance, she could see a few people milling about. ‘Don’t you leave yet,’ she mentally ordered the driver, or whomever that was climbing up onto the seat.

People were still standing and talking as she came closer. She recognized Ethan… and Milt. ‘They’s shaking hand,’ she thought excitedly.

“You done it, Milt,” she called out as she reached the crowd. “You got me my painting.”

Both men turned to face her. “I-I’m afraid not,” the lawyer told her.

“But I saw you ‘n’ him shaking hands, like you just made a deal about something.” She asked, uncertain of what was going on.

“We… uh, we did talk, but he-he wouldn’t sell.” Milt replied. “Yes, that’s it, and I-I shook hands with him to show that… that there were no hard feelings.” He sounded relieved, as he finished.

Ethan stepped forward. “I am sorry, Jane, but I feel that it would be more… profitable to ship the painting back east for display and sale there, more profitable in a number of ways.”

“But I got the cash t’pay you right now,” she protested. “And I’m in the painting. Don’t all that count for nothing?”

The painter shook his head. “Not in this case, I fear.” He looked at a watch connected by a fob to his jacket pocket. “And now, I must bid you adieu. Mr. Lyman will be arriving at my studio shortly, so that I may work on the portrait he has commissioned for his place of business.”

“See you later, then, Ethan,” Milt said. “And thanks… for, uh, listening to my-my offer, anyway.”

Ethan bowed slightly. “The pleasure, I assure you, was entirely mine.” He nodded to Jane. “A very good day to you both.”

* * * * *

As Arnie stepped up onto the back porch, she could see Mrs. Spaulding watching her through the kitchen window. The older woman was frowning.

“Good afternoon, Annie,” Mrs. Spaulding said, opening the door before Arnie could knock.

Arnie tried to smile. “And a good afternoon to you, too, Señora Spaulding.” When the woman didn’t respond, Arnie added, “Is anything wrong?”

“I had hoped that you would take our discussion of appropriate clothing to heart, Annie. The sort of outfit you’re wearing might be the right thing for a laundress, but it is most certainly not the proper attire for an instructor – instructress – of Spanish.”

“May I put these bundles down before I answer?” Arnie hefted the four packages she was carrying. When Mrs. Spaulding nodded, Arnie carefully set them down on the kitchen table. “Most of today, I was a laundress,” Arnie continued.

As she spoke, the young woman separated one package, a bright green “X” on the top, from the others. “And I am a laundress right now, bringing you your clean clothes. She pushed the three packages towards her customer. And that will be $4.44, by the way.”

“I have a dress and petticoat in here.” She lifted the remaining package for a moment. “And when we are finished with this business, I’ll change into them.”

* * * * *

“Enjoying your lunch?” Nancy looked up from her sandwich. That rude man – Dell… Something -- she remembered him now from Ortega’s Grocery, was standing a few feet away from her desk, watching her.

She glanced around quickly. Her students were all outside eating their own meals. “What are you doing here?” She asked him angrily. “I made it clear that I wasn’t interested in you – or your threats. My brother --”

“Your brother told me not t’bother you. I ain’t here t’bother you. I come here t’help you – t’help him, matter of fact – if you’re interested.”

“To help him, what do you mean?”

“I heard ‘bout what happened t’him th’other day.” The man walked around her desk, stopping no more than two or three feet away from her. “Shame on him letting somebody steal all that money.” He gave a nasty chuckle. “‘Course now, some folks are saying that he wasn’t robbed at all. They’re saying that he was in cahoots with whoever got that money now.”

She jumped to her feet, the better to look this scoundrel in the face. “That’s a lie!”

“Maybe it is,” he grinned, “and just maybe it ain’t. They’re gonna have t’find somebody to blame for stealing all that cash, and he’s the one most likely t’get picked.”

Her heart sank. Could this slimy little man be right? Was Carl really in danger of going to prison? “But he didn’t do it. He couldn’t.”

“So you say. Too bad there ain’t nobody around t’back him up.” He gave her a moment to think. “But there could be.”

“Wh-what do you mean?”

“I mean that I could say that I saw what happened – at a distance, o’course, so I couldn’t do nothing t’stop them men. Yeah, I saw some men stop him, and knock him out, and ride off. I could say that at the – at his trial. And I would, for the right price.”

“But I… Carl and I, we don’t have money, not really.”

“It ain’t your money I want. You come have supper with me t’night over at that rest’rant – what’s it called – oh, yeah, ‘Maggie’s Place.’ You do that t’night, have dinner with me, and act like you like being with me, and t’morrow I’ll go and tell the sheriff, tell the judge, too, if you want, what I said about seeing what happened.”

“H-How do I know I can trust you? It’s against the law to lie under oath.”

“Who says I’ll be lying? You gonna shoot holes in the story that’ll save your brother’s neck? Besides, what’s a man get for lying, a few months, at most? Your brother’s facing five, maybe ten years in prison.”

Nancy closed her eyes. The man was pressing her, not giving her time to think. ‘Carl, why did you have to go back to the ranch, so I can’t ask you what I should do?’ She pictured him smiling, calling her “Nanny Goat,” in that silly, teasing voice of his. Then she pictured him being led away in chains.

“All right,” the words leapt out of her. “I-I’ll do it.” She gave a sad sigh. “I’ll… I’ll have dinner with you.”

He ran a finger down her cheek. “Say it again, Nancy. Say, ‘Why I’ll be very happy to have dinner with you tonight, Dell.’ And smile when you say it.”

Her smile was more of a grimace. “Why, I-I’ll be… happy to have dinner with you tonight… Dell.”

“See how easy that was. I’ll pick you up here at four. That way, we can talk some first, get t’know each other a little bit.”

“F-five would be… better.” A later start meant that she’d have to spend less time with him. “I have papers that I need to correct for tomorrow’s class.”

The man shrugged. “Okay, five.” He gave her a sly smile. “See you then, Nancy… honey.” He kissed a fingertip and touched it to her nose, ignoring her shudder from contact with him. He chuckled and headed for the door.

“‘Scuse me, little gals,” he said, as he walked outside. The “little gals”, Hermione and Lallie had been standing at the door, listening as best they could to what had gone on inside.

They waited until he had rode off before they began to talk. “Who do you think he is?” Lallie asked.

“I don’t know,” Hermione replied. “I never saw him before.” She giggled. “But Miss Osbourne must know him if she’s gonna have supper with him. Wait till I tell my Ma.”

* * * * *

“Annie.” Hedley knocked on Clara’s bedroom door. “Lunch is ready.”

Annie opened the door. “And so am I.” She stepped out wearing the dark green dress she had worn to church the day before. It was still pinned to fit her and displayed her slender, blossoming feminine figure. Without quite knowing why, she’d pack one of her sister Ysabel’s green hair ribbons, and her hair was now tied in a ponytail that draped down onto her left shoulder.

“And well worth any wait.” Hedley gave her his best smile. “May I escort you to the table?” He offered her his arm.

Arnie took it and let his lead her to where his sister and mother were waiting. She couldn’t help from smiling as a pleasant tingle ran through her body. She glanced downward as she took her seat, so they wouldn’t notice the blush she could feel warming her face, especially Hedley – and Clara, of course. She was still smiling after he pushed her in to the table and sat in the chair directly opposite her.

* * * * *

“Mama, Mama,” Hermione yelled, rushing into her mother’s kitchen.

Cecelia Ritter turned away from the stove to face her. “Hermione, where the devil have you been? It’s well after 5 o’clock. You should have been home over an hour ago.”

“I-I’m sorry, but it was important.”

“Really, and what was so important that you couldn’t come home to help me with dinner?” She turned back to the stove just long enough to move the sauce she’d been stirring to a back burner. Away from the direct heat, the sauce would simmer, but it wouldn’t scorch.

“Miss Osbourne… she --”

“What did she do? You weren’t kept after school for misbehaving, were you? I will not be disgraced by you, not when I am doing such important work.”

“I didn’t do noth – didn’t do anything, Mama. Miss Osbourne did.”

That caught Mrs. Ritter’s attention. “Miss Osbourne, now whatever could she have done to make you come home so late?”

“I… Lallie and I, we stayed around the school to see if she was gonna go off with that man.”

“Man, what man are you talking about?” Cecelia Ritter was only too aware of the “good morals” clause in the schoolteacher’s contract.

“I don’t know who he is. But he’s been at the school a couple of times talking to her. He came by today at lunchtime and went straight in to see her -- Miss Osbourne usually eats lunch inside. Lallie and me got curious, so we snuck – we walked up to the door and listened.” The girl studied her mother’s expression. “Was it wrong that we did that?”

“Heavens no; what did they say to each other?”

“We couldn’t hear a lot; they didn’t talk too long, but it sounded like she said she’d love to have dinner with him, and… and that he should come for her at the school at 5. That’s why we stayed around there so long. We wanted to see if he was gonna show up, and if she was gonna go with him.”

“And did he come by for her?”

“He was there, Mama, big as life. He was grinning when he went in – we were in the woods, so they wouldn’t see us. When they came out, it looked like she was smiling, too. She was holding his arm, like you do with Papa when we walk to church.”

Cecelia dropped the spoon she was still holding. “Why that brazen hussy. It’s bad enough that is acting like a… a common who – a common woman, but to flaunt such vulgar behavior in front of two innocent young girls, such as you and Eulalie --”

“Flaunt, Mama? She didn’t even knew we were there.”

“She knew. She just didn’t care. Women like her never do.” The woman stared at her daughter for a moment. “They – she – has no concern for the example she’s setting. I wonder if we should allow such a woman to continue as the teacher of Eerie’s children.” She smiled maliciously. “Yes, perhaps, we should bring our concerns about the lascivious Miss Osbourne to the attention of the town council at tomorrow’s meeting.”

* * * * *

Molly brought an empty pitcher back to the bar. “Ain’t much of a crowd here t’night,” she said to Shamus, as she set it down for him to refill. “Thank heaven them that are here’re a thirsty crew.”

“No, not many at all,” he answered, a bit of sadness creeping into his voice. “And there ain’t likely t’be, not for a while, anyways.”

Molly shook her head. “True enough; thuir’s barely enough audience for Jessie t’be doing her show. And Bridget… I don’t think she’ll be running her game again for a while.” She shook her head, unhappy at the thought of what the lady gambler was going through.

“Not after what that…” He muttered something in Cheyenne. “…Stafford done t’her.”

Molly glanced over to the restaurant tables that Jane and Dolores were clearing. “At least the supper crowd ain’t dropped off.”

“It ain’t another restaurant Sam Duggan’s thrown against me, ‘tis them girls o’his.” He sighed. “And what man ever gets tired of looking at a beautiful woman?” He gently took her hand in his own. “I know that I never do.”

She raised her hand – and his – to her cheek. “Thank ye, Love. ‘Tis a shame he had t’be raising the ante on ye like he done.”

“What d’ye mean, Molly?”

“Ye was the one who was the first t’be filling his saloon with pretty gals. Ye done it when ye agreed t’be watching Wilma and them others after they drank yuir potion. He one-upped ye when he got them dancers in, but…” She paused for effect. “…thuir’s no reason ye can’t be one-upping him.”

He chuckled. “Bring in me own dancing girls, ye mean?” He leaned across the bar and kissed her. “That’s as fine an idea as ye’ve ever had, Molly, me love. I ain’t sure that I’ll do it, but ‘tis surely something worth thinking about.”

* * * * *

‘Finally,’ Nancy Osbourne thought as she walked up the steps to the Carson’s front porch. ‘Any inquisition I suffer through with Mrs. Carson, once I get inside, will be better than what I’ve had to put up with tonight.’

She glanced at Dell Cooper. The man had let go of her hand as they reached the steps. Now that they were on the porch, he took it again. “No, thank you, Mr. Cooper.” She wriggled her hand free from his.

“Dell; I told you t’call me ‘Dell’, Nancy, didn’t I?”

“You did, but now that I am home…” Her voice trailed off. ‘And this evening is thankfully over,’ she added to herself.

“Just ‘cause I brung you back home don’t mean we’re done with each other.” He reached for her hand. When she pulled it away again, he grabbed her by the wrist. “We still got time before you go in.”

“T-Time for what?”

“It’s a purty enough evening. We can sit out here and… talk for a while, hold hands, and just enjoy each other’s company. Same as any other couple.”

She tried to pull free, but he was too strong. “We most certainly are not a couple, and I do not enjoy your company.”

“Then why’d you let me take you out t’dinner.”

“You know why. You forced me.”

“Just tell me how I forced you.”

“You… you told me that, if I had dinner with you, you’d confirm my brother’s story about how he was robbed.”

“That’s right, I did, and I’ll keep my word and go to the sheriff first thing t’morrow morning. If….” He leered at her. “…if you keep your word.”

“I did. I-I dined with you tonight. What more do you --?” She stopped, realizing what she was asking and what he might answer.

“What more do I want? Nancy, there’s a whole lotta things a man wants from a gal like you.” He chuckled. “And some of ‘em need a whole lot more privacy that we got on this here porch.” He ran a finger down the side of her cheek. When she shuddered, he laughed. His finger moved on down her neck before it played with the top button of her dress.

She managed, finally, to pull free and took a quick step back, away from him. “How dare you?”

“I dare all sorts o’things, gal. What do you dare?”

“I’ll dare to get away from you as soon as I can,” she answered quickly.

“Maybe so, but do you dare my going to the sheriff and telling him another story? A story where I saw your precious brother meet up with two men and help them put that money into their saddlebags. After that, one of ‘em tapped him on the head, and they both rode off.”

“You… you wouldn’t?”

“Sure I would. You already know that I’m willing to tell one story. Why shouldn’t I be just as willing to tell another one?”

“But you-you can’t. He didn’t do it.”

“Never? Yep, that’s how often they let men in the territorial prison have visitors, or so I hear.” He stopped, enjoying her horrified reaction. “No, I’m sorry, they let then prisoners have visits every… two months or so.” He studied her for a moment, his glance lingering on her bosom. “You’ll look real purty on visitors’ day.”

Her body slumped in surrender. “All right, a kiss, but a quick one… please.”

“It ain’t really your place t’dicker over how long I take, not with the big favor you're asking.”

He pulled her to him and put his hand under her chin, tilting it upwards. She closed her eyes, not wanting to watch what she was being forced to do. Their lips met. She could smell the garlic from the fish he’d eaten on his breath. His tongue ran along her lip. She refused to part them.

Suddenly, his hands grabbed her buttocks. She gasped in surprise, and his tongue darted into her mouth, seeking her own. She tried to use her own tongue to push his out, but failed. She instinctively wanted to bite him, but was afraid that he'd get violent -- and then go lie about Carl.

He pressed his body against hers and began to roughly knead her derriere. She felt unsteady on her feet and wrapped her arms around him for support.

She suddenly realized what she was doing. “No!” She pushed against him with all her strength.

He laughed; it was a nasty laugh. “Aw, we’re just getting started.” He thought a moment. “I’ll be back for another kiss soon enough.”

“In your dreams,” she said angrily.

“In your own dreams. You can kiss me for telling my story – the right story – to the sheriff. And you can kiss me again when your brother gets off.” He leered at her again. “Matter of fact, after I get him off, you can get me off. Won’t that be fun?”

“I’d sooner die.” She ran for the door. Once she was inside, she slammed it behind her and hurried up to her room to change. She couldn’t throw out the dress she was wearing – she didn’t have the money to replace it. But she wanted it washed – no, fumigated -- before she wore it again.

Zenobia Carson had heard the sound of feet on her front steps. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she saw what looked like a good bit of flirting on Nancy’s part. She saw the apparently not so pure teacher kiss the stranger and let him touch her body in some sort of sexual play.

“I knew it,” she said smugly. “All your pretending to be little miss prim and proper was just so much nonsense. We’ll see to you soon enough, Nancy Osbourne.”

* * * * *
~
Tuesday, April 23, 1872

An editorial from the Eerie, Arizona edition of the Tucson Citizen:

` Consider What You Do, Town Council

` Tomorrow night, the town council of Eerie, Arizona will making
` a very important decision. They’ll be voting on whether or not
` to give Reverend Thaddeus Yingling total control of Mr. Shamus
` O’Toole’s transformative potion.

` I think that they should vote “No.”

` If they vote at all.

` Reverend Yingling is my spiritual advisor. I’ve gone to him for
` guidance on more than one occasion, and I’ve always benefited
` from what he’s told me.

` But there’s a very big difference between giving advice and having
` control. While Reverend Yingling is excellent at doing the first,
` I don’t think that it’s right for him to be doing the second.

` We trusted the men on the town council enough to elect them to their
` office. How can we ask them now to let the Reverend Yingling make
` moral decisions for them -- rather than expect them to rely on
` their own good judgment?

` This is an important question, and it should not be decided lightly. I
` am not saying what the town council should decide, but I am saying
` that their decision should be based on lengthy, deliberate consideration.

` There are those, supporters of the Reverend, who are demanding that
` the decision be made quickly, without consideration and without the
` opportunity for other voices to be heard, other opinions to be con-
` sidered. This is irresponsible.

` There is no pressing need for a final decision to be made. Let the town
` council’s decision this Wednesday night be that the council will take
` the extra time they need to properly consider all of the ramifications
` of what they are being asked to do and to consider the opinions of all
` of the citizens of Eerie before they cast their final vote.

* * * * *

Wilma strode into the Saloon. She stopped and looked around the room before she walked over to where her sister was sitting. “Hey, Jess, how’s it going?”

“Not too bad,” Jessie answered. “Just trying t’learn a new song.” She rested her guitar on her lap. “What brings you over here?”

“I come t’check up on Bridget. Where is she?”

The singer glanced upward. “In her room; seems like she spends most of her time up there these days. Molly practically has t’drag her down here to eat.”

“What about her poker game? She can’t run that from her room.”

“She ain’t running it. As far as I know, she ain’t touched a card since Sunday.”

“Shit!”Wilma spat out the word. “Thanks, Jess. I’ll see you in a bit.”She headed for the steps before her sister even had a chance to wish her luck.

* * * * *

“Go away, Molly,” Bridget yelled when she heard the knock on her door. “Please.”

The door opened. “I ain’t going away,” Wilma said, coming into the room. “And I ain’t Molly.”

“Damn it, Wilma, leave me alone.” Bridget was lying in bed, atop the blanket, and wearing a light green robe over her camisole and drawers. She sat up sullenly.

Wilma walked over to a chair and sat down. “I can’t.”

“What the hell do you mean, you can’t?”

“Long, long time ago, in a orphanage far, far away, I made me a pact with this kid, Brian Kelly – maybe you remember him. I promised I’d watch his back, and he promised t’watch mine.”

Bridget had to smile, if only for an instant. “I remember, but that – that was in another life.”

“Seems like the same life t’me. It just turned out a whole lot different’n we ever figured it would.”

“That’s the truth. We went from rangers to… outlaws to… to…” The word caught in her throat. “…whores.”

“You say ‘whores’ like it’s a bad thing. It ain’t bad, but it ain’t true neither. I may be a whore.” She stopped, stood, and defiantly put her hands on her hips. “Hells bells, let's face it. I am a whore, and I’m damned good at it.” She waited a moment, hoping to see Bridget smile. When her friend didn’t, she continued. “And I ain't ashamed to be one, neither. But you ain’t no whore, and you never was one.”

“Yes, y-yes, I-I am, and ev-everybody in town is thinking it.”

“They don’t think any such thing.”

“They do so. I can tell from the way that they – they all look at me.” Her eyes began to fill with tears. “Forget about whatever promises we made all those years ago; forget about me. Brian Kelly is dead. I'm just his -- I don't know what -- his no-good tramp of a sister.”

“Like hell! You’re as good a gal as I am, maybe even better.”

“No, I’m not. I’m -- like I said, I don't know what I am.”

Wilma came over and sat down next to Bridget on the bed. “Well, you’re a better poker player than I am. You can’t deny that.”

“Not any more, I’m not. I was losing just about every hand. How can I play poker when I can’t look the other players in the eye, imagining what they're thinking?”

“All that is, is your imagination. What you’re seeing in their eyes is worry about what you got in your hand and how much money you’re gonna take ‘em for.” Wilma thought for a moment. “You got any cards around here?”

Bridget pointed to a drawer in the night table next to her bed. “There’s a couple of decks in there.”

“Chips, too, I see,” Wilma said, opening the drawer. She took out a deck and a box of chips and tossed them onto the other woman’s lap. “Okay, deal.”

“What?”

“I wanna show you you’re wrong. You ain’t got no trouble looking in my eyes, so we’ll just play cards for a while today. And I’ll keep coming back every day till you’re feeling up t’running your game again.” She moved back to the chair. “One thing, though.”

“One thing?”

“Yeah, this here game is just for fun. I know better’n t’play a sharp like you for real money.”

* * * * *

“Will you stop glaring at me, Trisha,” Liam demanded during a break when the Feed and Grain was empty of customers.

Trisha blinked in surprise. “Was I?”

“You were, and I’m getting tired of it. What’s the matter with you?”

“You – you and Kaitlin, I’m getting tired of the way you’re acting around her, flirting and carrying on every time the two of you get together.”

“Sort of the way you ‘go to’ with some men around here, isn’t it?”

“No!” She stomped her foot, then crossed her arms for emphasis. “It’s nothing like – I do not flirt like that.”

“The hell you don’t. You’ve been chasing after men since before the dance. That’s why some people believe those lies Cecelia Ritter’s been spreading – or are they lies?”

“Of course they are!” She was hardly about to say how much worse the truth really was. That would come out soon enough. “That’s what you keep telling me.” He paused a half-beat. “I will admit that there are a few things different between the way that you and I are acting.”

“And what are those differences, exactly?”

“You say that you’re just flirting with all those men for fun. I’m serious, really serious, about Kaitlin, and, you know what, she likes the attention I’m paying her.”

“What’re you saying?”

“Just what you think. You keep saying how I’m acting like I’m courting her -- well, I am. She knows I am, and she doesn’t mind. In fact, she’s told me that she’s pleased with the idea of my courting her.”

Liam smiled at the shocked look on his sister’s face. “And now that you know, you’ve got a real reason for glaring at me, don’t you?”

* * * * *

“Zenobia,” Cecelia Ritter called out from the street in front of Ortega’s Market. “Wait a moment.”

Zenobia Carson stopped walking and waited for her friend to cross over from the other side of the street. “Hello, Cecelia. How are you this afternoon?”

“Very well, thanks. I was hoping I would run into you today.”

“Any special reason why?”

“Yes, I was wondering, did you notice anything… odd about Nancy Osbourne’s behavior yesterday?”

Mrs. Carson smiled, happy to be sharing gossip. “My dear, there was very little about her last night that wasn’t odd.”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“As a rule, she comes home around five, though she tries to get up to her room instead of helping me with supper as she should, but yesterday...” She paused for dramatic effect. “Yesterday, she didn’t come home at all; at least, not before dinner – or for dinner, either. I was concerned, of course, any decent Christian would be, but I had to see that my Thomas and the children were fed.”

Cecelia nodded approvingly. “You’re a good soul, Zenobia.”

“One tries. I asked my Tommy if anything had happened at the school. He said, ‘no’, but he also told me that some man had come to see Miss Osbourne at lunchtime.”

“That’s what my Hermione told to me. I was concerned because she shouldn’t be seeing any men socially, especially not at the school.”

“She wasn’t just seeing men at the school,” Zenobia continued. “She finally did come home about 8:30, but not alone. There was a man with her.”

“No!” Cecelia tried to look concerned. “Really?”

“Yes, he walked her right up onto my front porch. They talked – holding hands, no less -- then he kissed her, kissed her right on the mouth. And, so far as I could tell, she kissed him back.”

“The brazen hussy,” Cecelia gasped. “And it’s probably not the first time, either. According to Hermione, he’s been to the school to see her more than once. The Lord only knows what sort of sinful goings-on they’ve been up to.”

“At the school, where all the children could see them? That cannot be allowed to continue.”

“I think it’s time we found a new teacher for our school.”

“With that – what do they call it – that morals clause in her contract, we should have a very easy time getting rid of her.”

“Indeed, I’ve no doubt that this Cooper fellow is not the first man she’s dallied with. I didn’t wish to spread any hurtful rumors around. I wanted to give that poor, foolish woman every possible chance to reform.”

“What are you talking about, Cecelia?”

“When she was lodging with Clyde and me last year, I had some very serious doubts about her character. It seems she's only gotten worse with time. Now her behavior has gone beyond toleration. Something has to be done.”

She gave Zenobia a self-satisfied smile. “I believe that the day has come for Miss Osbourne to pay the piper, and we shall see that she does as soon as we’ve settled with Mr. O’Toole and that ungodly potion of his.”

“To be sure, we’ll have this town running the way we want – the way it should be run, in no time.”

* * * * *

“I got something for you, Jess,” Paul stood over the woman, a sly grin curling his lips.

She returned his grin. “Oh, you do, do you?” She put down her guitar and stood up. “And what would that be, Mr. Grant?”

“This… for starters.” His arms wrapped around her, pulling her close. Her arms went up, circling his neck. Their lips met, and the room went away for a while.

Finally, they had to break the kiss to breathe. “Now that was real nice,” Jessie told him, her voice husky. She was still holding on to Paul. “You said, ‘for starters,’ just now,” she went on. “What else you got in mind?”

“I’ve got a lot of things in mind, and we can… discuss them all upstairs when I’m off duty.” He sighed. “Right now, I’ve got rounds I have to make, and all I can do is give you this.” He retrieved an envelope from his shirt pocket and handed it to her.

Jessie opened the envelope and skimmed the letter that was inside. “It’s from Hanna Tyler. Her Grampa, Nathaniel Mullens – that’s her ma’s father – got sick or something. They really want him t’be at the wedding, so they’re pushing it back two weeks from Sunday, May 19, to Sunday, June 2.”

“Damn,” she muttered. “Now I’ll have t’ask Shamus all over again if I can go.”

“And I’ll have to ask Dan, but I think they’ll let us.” He winked. “We’ll talk about it tonight.”

She giggled. “I suppose we’ll have t’talk about something… eventually.” The letter and the envelope fell to the floor, as she moved in to kiss him again.

* * * * *

“What’s he doing here?” Jane asked, her voice full of anger. She was sitting with Milt Quinlan, taking a short break.

Milt looked around. “Who – oh, Ethan. He, uh… mentioned Jessie when we… uh, when we talked yesterday. He probably came in to hear her sing.”

“Least people are still coming in for something. The place’s half empty these days, thanks t’them damn dancing girls over at the Lone Star.”

She suddenly brightened. “Still… that gives me a chance t’talk to him.” Before Milt could stop her, she stood up and yelled. “Ethan… hey, c’mon over ‘n’ join us.”

The man had turned at the sound of his name. He nodded and walked over to their table. “Jane, how… delightful to see you once again, and you, as well, Milt.”

“Sit yourself down right there, Ethan.” Jane pointed to an empty chair.

He sat. “My thanks to you both for the invitation, and how, may I ask, are you this evening?”

“Not too bad,” she answered, “still a little unhappy ‘bout not getting that painting you done.”

“I do regret that,” the artist said gently, taking a seat. “You were a delight to work with, and I am sorry to have disappointed you in the matter of ‘The Three Fates’ painting.”

“If you really feel that way, maybe I don’t have to be disappointed.”

Milt raised a curious eyebrow. “What do you mean, Jane? The painting is long gone.”

“It ain’t that ‘long gone.’ Sure, it’s on its way from here t’Philadelphia, but that stage has t’make a whole lotta stops. You could wire ahead – to Sante Fe, maybe – tell ‘em you changed your mind and t’send your picture back here.”

Ethan shook his head. “That would be… difficult – and expensive.”

“I can pay for it, same as I can pay for the portrait when it gets back here.”

Milt placed his hand on her arm. “Jane, it’s halfway to Utah by now, you --”

“Utah!” She cut him off. “Who says it’s going t’Utah?”

Milt looked nervous. “Ethan… he, ahh… yesterday, he said – didn’t you say, Ethan, that you were going to ship it east by train?”

“I did?” the artist looked surprised for a moment. “Oh, ah, yes, I did. We had spoken about the matter before you arrived on the scene at the depot, Jane.”

“What ain’t you two telling me?” Jane demanded.

The men glanced quickly at one another. “Nothing, nothing really,” the painter said. “There is just less danger to the portrait if I ship it by rail, that’s all.”

“But that just makes it easier t’get back. When the stage gets to Utah, they can just put it on one heading back here, instead of on the train.”

“Perhaps, but I decline your offer, no matter how generous and well-intentioned, Jane. I prefer to have my work displayed back East.”

“Since when is the money back East any better ‘n mine? Come t’think of it, how come you made up your mind so fast? Last week you was more ‘n ready t’sell it to me?”

“Jane, please. I’m sure he had a good reason.” Milt shot a quick look to the other man. “Besides, it sounds to me like you aren’t the only – what did you call it once – the only ‘mule-stubborn’ one at this table.”

“Indeed.” Ethan got to his feet. “And the most simple way to end this apparent stalemate would seem to be for one of us to no longer be at this table.” He gave a low bow. “Another time, perhaps. Good evening.”

Jane watched him walk to another table halfway across the bar. “How come you took his side so much?” she asked Milt.

“I-I wasn’t trying to take anyone’s side. I knew he wasn’t going to send for that painting, and I just wanted to end the discussion.”

“You knew, did you? And how was that?”

“I… I’m a lawyer, Jane. Knowing people’s part of my job.” He relaxed as he saw Jessie moving towards the small stage near the stairs. “Right now, it looks like the show’s about to start, so we need to be quiet.” He leaned back in his chair and hoped that the argument was over.

* * * * *

Wednesday, April 24, 1872

Nancy picked at the fried chicken leg she’d packed for her lunch. “Damn,” she said to no one in particular and pushed her wooden plate across her desk.

“First time I ever saw you pass up fried chicken,” a voice said.

She looked up to see… “Carl, what are you doing here in town? I thought Mr. Slocum was going to have you stay out at his ranch for a while.”

“He wanted to, but I said to him, ‘Mr. Slocum, sir, you gotta understand, I need to check up on my little sister.’ Turns out, he had a little sister, too, Cap Lewis’ mama, so he knew what I was talking about. He said I could ride in, but I had to promise to be quick and to stay outta trouble.”

He grinned and threw his arms out wide. “I promised… and here I am.”

“You did not tell Mr. Slocum that you had to check up on me?” She smiled shyly and hid her face with her hands. “I’ll never be able to look him in the face again.”

“And just how often do you look him in the face?”

“You know what I mean. I… “ Her embarrassed smile suddenly darkened. “Oh, Carl, I-I’m so glad you’re here.”

He hurried over to her. “Sounds to me like there’s something more than fried chicken bothering you. C’mon, fess up, what is it?”

“That… bastard...” She hissed the last word, but softly, so no children could hear. “…Dell Cooper, h-he – I don’t want to talk about it.” Her eyes began to well with tears.

“C’mon, Nanny Goat, don’t go all stubborn on me again.” He hugged her and gently patted her head, as he might a small child. “You’ll feel better for the telling. You just see if you don’t.”

“He-He said that he’d back up your story about the robbery if I had dinner with him.”

“You say that like you think I was lying about what happened.”

“I-I believe you. I know that you’d never rob Mr. Slocum. B-But when I told him that I wouldn’t have dinner with him, he… he said that, if I refused, he’d tell the sheriff that he s-saw you… helping those crooks, who-whomever they were. He’d tell that story if I didn’t… go out with -- “

He deliberately cut off her words. “So you agreed to… to protect me. Nancy, I’m sorry that you thought you had to do something like that.”

“That’s not the worst of it. We… He took me to that restaurant in Mr. O’Toole’s saloon. Everybody saw me, and, when we went back to the Carson’s house, he… he kissed me, and I-I let him. I know Mrs. Carson saw it. She was colder to me this morning than January back in Connecticut. She'll surely gossip to everybody. What am I going to do?”

Carl's expression was dark, angry. He struggled to control his tone. “First thing, you’re gonna dry those eyes of yours. Then you’re gonna finish that chicken leg. You know what Aunt Clementine used to say about wasting food.” He used a finger to carefully raise her chin, so she was looking right up at him. “And don’t you worry about Cooper; I’ll talk to him.”

“Just talk?”

“Well, I may have to use my fists to move the talking along the way I want it to go.”

“Please be careful, Carl.”

“Carefullest man in town.”

* * * * *

“How’s it going, Love?” Molly asked, as she stepped through the doorway into Shamus’ office.

He looked up from his ledger and tried to smile. “Just as ye might be expecting… terrible. We’re really taking a hurting, since Sam Duggan brought in them dancing girls o’his.”

“Aye, but ‘tis only a few days since they started doing thuir shows. Ye’ll see, the men’ll be getting tired of sitting over thuir, and they’ll be coming back.”

“Maybe… someday they will, but I’ll not be holding me breath waiting for men t’be getting tired o’watching pretty girls dancing for ‘em. And he'll be making so much money that he'll be able to fix up that place o'his and keep me regulars even after the novelty of them girls has worn off.”

“Ye could always get some dancing girls for over here, ye know.”

“I know, and I been thinking about doing it, too, just as I said I would. It’d be expensive, though -- and risky – t’be fixing up the place and bringing in dancers from San Francisco or Denver or wherever Duggan got his girls from. We might not be making up what money we spend t’do it.”

“It don’t have t’be.”

“Any why not?”

“Thuir’s a pretty girl or three right here in Eerie.”

“Aye, but are any of them dancing girls? I think not. Besides, too many o’them pretty ones have husbands or parents who ain’t about t’be letting them dance -- or they already have a job with somebody like Lady Cerise and ain’t interested working for us here.”

He sighed. “And them few that are interested ain’t likely t’be knowing much about the job.”

“Maybe not, but they don’t have t’be knowing anything at all, not with the experienced dancer ye got t’be training ‘em up.”

He gave her a wry smile. “And who would that be?”

“Who d’ye think?” Molly replied. “Just ‘cause I ain’t worked as a dancer since we got married, don’t mean I forgot what I knew then.”

“That was more’n a few years ago, Molly Love,” Shamus teased. When he saw her expression, he quickly added, “Even if ye don’t look a day older.” He considered the idea for moment. “I ain’t saying yes t’yuir offer, but I ain’t saying no, neither. I want t’be thinking about it for a while first.”

* * * * *

Carl strode purposefully into the Lone Star. He glanced around for a moment before walking over to the bar where Dell Cooper was standing alone, drinking. “I want to talk to you, Cooper.”

“Really?” Cooper set his beer on the bar and glared at Carl. “What about?”

Carl glared back. “My sister… I told you to leave her alone. She says you’re still bothering her.”

“Getting her hot and bothered, you mean.” The man laughed. “Damn hot, and ready for some fun with a real man.”

“Mister, you better apologize for saying that, if you know what’s good for you.”

“The hell, I will.” Dell glowered and stepped back, arms set and ready to fight.

Carl’s hands balled into fists, but before either man could throw a punch, Sam Duggan stopped them. “This is a peaceable bar, gents. If there’s gonna be a fight, I’ll ask you t’take it outside.”

“Fine, with me,” Carl replied. “I can beat the shit outta him outside as easy as I can do it in here.”

The other man sneered. “Lead the way, mister, and we’ll see who takes care of who.”

“Just be sure you ain’t too scared to follow me out.” Carl turned and started for the swinging doors that led to the street.

Cooper waited until they were about five feet apart. His face contorted into a nasty grin as he slowly drew his pistol from his holster so the angry man wouldn't hear the rasp.

“Carl, look out!” Duggan yelled.

Carl spun to the left and quickly drew his own weapon. He fired once, on the fly for cover behind a table.

Dell lurched back a step. “Son of a…” His voice trailed off as he looked down unhappily at his chest. A red stain was growing on his shirt. He barely had time to mutter, “Shit…” before he dropped towards the floor. He was dead before he hit it.

Carl hurried to his feet. “You ain’t even worth that bullet, Cooper,” he said with disgust. “Somebody get the Doc.” He shook his head. “and Stu Gallagher, the undertaker, too, just in case.” He heard somebody agree and run out the door. “Better get the Sheriff, too,” he told Duggan, weariness seeping into his voice. “This sure as hell ain’t gonna help me at my trial.”

* * * * *

“May I come in, Thad?” Martha Yingling knocked on the half-opened door to her husband’s study.

He looked up from his papers and smiled at her. “Certainly, my dear. What did you want?”

“I-I was just out doing some shopping, and I heard the most horrid gossip about Nancy Osbourne.”

“What sort of gossip?”

“They’re saying that she’s been out cavorting with all sorts of men, sitting on their laps, kissing them, and who knows what all else.”

He leaned back in his chair. “And who’s been saying these things?”

“I heard it from several women, Roberta Scudder, Lavinia Mackechnie… Zenobia Carson seems to be the main instigator, her and Cecelia Ritter.” She took a breath. “Cecelia’s even talking about getting Nancy fired. You’ve got to talk to her, make her stop saying such foul lies. And tell others not to believe what she’s saying.”

“How do you know that they’re lies?”

“Because I know Nancy Osbourne, and she’d never do such things. And I know – we both know – Cecelia Ritter, and we know how much she likes to stir up trouble, especially when it would hurt someone she doesn’t like. She’s had it in for Nancy for some time, ever since Nancy boarded with the Ritters last year.”

“Right now, Cecelia Ritter is one of my strongest supporters in getting that dangerous potion away from O’Toole. She has been doing the work of the Lord with that petition.”

“Right now, she’s maliciously spreading lies against a very good woman, one whose only crime is to be younger, prettier, and smarter than she is.”

“For everything there is a season, and I will not go against her at this time.”

“Could you just talk to her, in private if need be, and ask her stop her attacks on Nancy?”

“There are very great issues riding on keeping Mrs. Ritter's support. It would not be politic to go against an ally.”

“But she’s wrong – so very wrong – can’t you see that?”

“Aren't you taking sides too quickly? In the past few weeks, Miss Osbourne has shown me a willful streak that you may not have seen. Time and again she's argued with me about the meaning of the teachings of the Lord. She is not thinking clearly. She can make mistakes, it's clear. It is not so hard for me to believe that there may be some truth in the stories that Cecelia is telling.”

Martha considered his words. “I-I’m sorry, Thaddeus. I’ll leave you to your work.” She walked out of the room, trying to understand just whom she was sorry for.

* * * * *

The schoolhouse also served as the site for meetings of the town council. The three members of the council, Whit Whitney, Arsenio Caulder, and Aaron Silverman, took their places at the large table in the front of the room.

“As chairman of the Eerie Town Council,” Whit Whitney said firmly, “I declare the April 24, 1872 meeting called to order.” He banged his gavel on the tabletop. “We seem to have a larger crowd than --”

Cecelia Ritter quickly rose to her feet, interrupting him. “Mr. Chairman…”

“Yes, Cecelia,” Whit answered. “Do you have a question?”

She nodded. “Yes, I want to know why that wicked woman is up there with you?” She pointed at Nancy Osbourne, who was sitting at the corner of the desk.

“Miss Osbourne is taking the minutes of the meeting. It’s part of her duties as our schoolteacher.”

“Duties she is not fit to do,” Cecelia said, angrily. A number of voices from around the room agreed with her. “I… We demand that she be fired.”

A gasp came from Nancy, but before she could say another word, Lavinia Mackechnie jumped to her feet. “Second the motion.” Her words were met with a round of applause.

“Now, wait a minute,” Arsenio Caulder shouted from his place on Whit’s left. “Before we do anything like that, I, for one, want to know why. What is this all about?”

“She’s not fit… the morals rule.” Zenobia Carson answered. “I saw her.”

“She didn't see anything -- I mean, she didn't understand!” shouted Nancy.

“That may be, Miss Osbourne,” said Arsenio, “but let one person speak at a time. We have to know exactly what you are being accused of before you can give an appropriate answer.”

Aaron took that as his cue to speak up. “And what, exactly, was it you think you saw, Mrs. Carson? As they say, the mind can fool the eye if it wants to be fooled.”

Zenobia’s features set firmly in place. “I know what I saw. That… trollop kissed a man – in public – and allowed him to paw at her.”

“That’s not true!” Nancy rose indignantly to her feet.

Zenobia smiled, a cat playing with a mouse. “It is so. They were right there on my porch. I saw it all through the curtain from my parlor.” She paused for effect. “They were out somewhere, together, doing the good Lord only knows what. When they came back, they were walking hand in hand – more than just friends, I thought. He followed her up onto my porch and sat down beside her. He took her in his arms, and they… kissed. She seemed to enjoy it. Not her first time kissing a man, I should think.”

“And you was watching all this?” Aaron asked. “Without doing anything?”

“I-I was shocked at such scandalous behavior. I tapped at the glass, but they didn’t seem to hear. Not at first, anyway. All of a sudden she broke away and came inside. I suspect that she was ashamed of what she was doing – or angry that she’d been caught – because she went straight up to her room without saying a word.”

“I have something to add,” said Cecelia.

“You’ll get your chance. But it's Miss Osbourne's turn to defend her conduct now,” said Whit. He looked toward the teacher and asked gently, “Nancy would you like to give your version of what happened?” He paused a moment for effect. “If anything did.”

The young woman sank into her chair and thought for a moment. How could she explain? ‘Tell them the truth’, she told herself. ‘Tell them that Dell Cooper had threatened to lie about your brother.’ She paused. ‘But which would they think was the lie, that Carl committed the robbery or that he didn’t? The foul little man was dead, dead by Carl’s hand, and didn’t that just make things worse?’

“I… Mrs. Carson is mistaken. He tried to get familiar with me, but I-I wouldn’t allow it. When I got the chance, I ran inside to get away from him.”

“Why were you with him in the first place?” Cecelia accused. “Where were you, and what sort of sinful behavior were the two of you up to?”

“I-I can’t really explain. It's so complicated.” She looked down at the table, not able to face their accusations.

Cecelia’s voice rang out. “Can’t explain or don’t want to explain? It’s all true, you hussy, and you know it. Even before Zenobia saw what she saw, all the children were talking about how their teacher was carrying on with that Cooper fellow at the schoolhouse -- or maybe it was with a number of different men, who can be sure? Can we allow our children to be exposed to a… a woman like her? Fire her, I say.”

“Is that what you had to add, Mrs. Ritter?” Whit asked sourly.

“Yes… My own daughter told me what she'd seen. And people saw her dining with the man at that saloon. She should be fired just for going into a saloon, much less for cavorting lewdly on a porch.”

“Fire her… fire her.” The words echoed through the room.

Whit banged his gavel. “Folks… please, give the lady a chance to speak.”

“She ain’t no lady,” someone yelled, “she sure as hell ain’t no teacher – not for my kids. Fire her.”

“It’s not fair to act on these accusations before they can be fully investigated,” Phillipia Stone scolded. “Nancy Osbourne has been here for almost five years, and nothing remotely like this has ever been reported against her before. My children think she's a wonderful teacher, and she's a good churchgoer, too.”

Lavinia stood up. “Her brother just killed that man in a saloon fight today. He's a thief and a killer. No wonder she's comfortable with bad types. Mr. Osbourne will probably be sent away to prison in a few days.”

“Damned straight, he will,” someone yelled, and others in the crowd agreed.

Lavinia smiled smugly and continued. “Nancy deliberately got those two stirred up against one another and probably enjoyed doing it.”

The barber sighed. “Nancy, is there anything more you can add that will put to rest these accusations?”

She shook her head slowly. “I don't know. It involves matters I'd first like to talk over with the councilmen in private. Someone might be hurt if I say too much in an open forum.”

“Confess! Confess in public!” some woman shouted.

“Nancy?” Whit tried again.

“I --” she shook her head. “It has to be in private.”

Arsenio spoke softly. “If that's the case, people need a cooling off time. We'll get to the bottom of this, I promise, but we first have to think of protecting the reputation of the school until all questions are answered.”

The councilmen then talked in low voices for a moment. After a moment, Whit looked up. “All in favor of suspending Miss Osbourne until we can find out what’s really going on here, raise your --”

“The hell with suspending her,” Horace Styron insisted, taking up the chant. “Fire her… fire her right now.”

Whit seemed to ignore him. “All in favor, raise your hand.” Aaron and Arsenio slowly raised their right hands. Whit gave another, heavy sigh, and raised his as well. “Nancy, you’re --”

“Fired…” She slowly got to her feet.

Arsenio shook his head. “No, just suspended.”

Nancy didn't seem to hear the councilman's words. She shook his hand. “Thank you, gentlemen, up till tonight, it’s been a pleasure working for you.” She walked the length of the room, ignoring the insults people shouted as she went past.

* * * * *

Whit waited until Nancy had left the building. He poured himself a glass of water to try and get the sour taste of the ugly business out of his mouth. It didn’t help.

“Hopefully we can find out what really happened and why it happened. Nothing would be better than to bring back Miss Osbourne with her reputation justly restored. But if that's not possible, we're going to need a new teacher,” he said finally. “Anybody who wants the job should talk to me or one of the other council members right away. If Aaron and Arsenio don’t mind, we’ll meet here again Friday night at… 7 PM to pick the new teacher -- unless matters resolve themselves in Miss Osbourne's favor before then.” The two men agreed at once.

Fred Norman rose to his feet. “Who’ll teach them in the meantime?”

“You want the job, maybe?” Aaron asked.

Norman put up his hands, as if to shield himself from attack. “Not me, I’ve got a business to run.”

“I’ll do it,” Whit said.

“You?” Horace Styron asked. “What makes you think you can be a teacher?”

“I’m a graduate of Bowdoin College back in Maine, and I doubt that anybody’s going to be seriously troubled if they have to wait a couple days for a haircut or shave. I also think I can handle her class for short while.” He waited a moment for any complaints. When there were none, he added, “All in favor – of the Friday meeting and my taking over as teacher for a couple of days?”

The other two councilmen raised their hands. Whit raised his as well. “Unanimous, good.”

“Mr. Chairman,” Reverend Yingling stood up, “about my petition --”

“Just a minute, Reverend,” Whit interrupted. “I suspect that your petition may take a while. Do you mind if we see if there’s anything else we need to deal with?”

“How dare you?” Cecelia called out from her seat. “There’s nothing else as important as his petition, and you know it, Whitney, you scoundrel!”

Whit ignored her insult. “Perhaps, Mrs. Ritter, but I’d like to get anything that can be dealt with quickly out of the way first.”

“I have no objection.” Yingling spoke with the assuredness of a man who knows that he’s about to get his way.

The council waited, but nobody rose to speak. “Very well, then,” Whit said. “Does anyone on the board have anything to say before I open the issue for discussion?”

“I got something,” Aaron said reaching into his shirt pocket. “Or rather, Roscoe Unger had something to say.” He pulled out a sheet of paper. “I was reading from the paper yesterday, the editorial, it says – let me read some of it. Roscoe says, ‘this is an important question, and it should not be decided lightly. I am not saying what the town council should decide, but I am saying that their decision should be based on lengthy, deliberate consideration.’” He put the paper away. “As the Sages say, ‘Life is so short that we have to move very slowly.’ That sounds like good advice to me.”

The shopkeeper took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose for a moment before he put them back in place and continued. “Slow and deliberate ain’t the way we did things tonight with Miss Osbourne. That’s not good, and we shouldn’t keep doing it – especially for something so important. So-o-o…” He stretched out the word to something with at least three syllables. “I move to table the discussion until we can have time for everybody to cool down and, maybe, think clear about what Thad – Reverend Yingling – is asking us to do.”

“Second,” Arsenio chimed in at once. He almost had to bit his lip to keep from smiling at Aaron’s surprising motion.

“You… you cannot do this,” Yingling stormed, his face growing red with anger.

Whit shrugged. “It’s a legitimate motion. All in favor?” The other two councilmen raised their hands. “Unanimous.” Whit raised his own hand. “The motion to table passes.”

“This is patently unfair,” the minister argued.

Arsenio considered the matter for a moment. “You’re right about that, Reverend. It would be unfair for us to wait a whole month. Mr. Chairman, could we have a special meeting, say, two weeks from now to vote on that petition?” He did some quick arithmetic. “That would be May 8,”

“That’s the night for the next meeting of the church board,” Liam O’Hanlan objected, rising to be heard. “But I count more than half the board here in the room. Maybe they can move the date of their meeting to accommodate the Reverend.”

Styron stood up. “Members of the Methodist Church Board, if you’re in favor of meeting on May 15, raise your hand.” He raised his own hand and looked around the room. “Rupe… Judge Humphreys… Jubal… Trisha, everybody’s here but Dwight Albertson. Dwight never comes unless the town council’s talking money, and Willie Gotefreund, and Willie lives outside of town. That’s still a quorum with…” He counted, as the other church board members raised their hands. “With five in favor, we move the church board meeting to May 15.”

Whit nodded. “Good, we don’t want to butt into the church’s business; ‘render unto Caesar’ and all that. Is our meeting on May 8 all right with you gentlemen?” Both Aaron and Arsenio agreed cheerfully.

“In that case…” Whit pounded the gavel once again. “Meeting adjourned.”

* * * * *

The O’Hanlans walked home arm-in-arm, Trisha on Liam’s left and Kaitlin on his right.

“That was a very smart idea of yours, Liam, having the church board vote right then and there to move their meeting.” Kaitlin told him. She leaned in quickly and gave him a peck on the cheek.

He smiled and glanced at his sister. “Don’t look so surprised, Trisha. You aren’t the only one with good ideas.” He chuckled. “Kaitlin herself had a real good one just now.”

* * * * *

Zenobia Carson saw the light under Nancy Osbourne’s door, as she walked down the hall. “Miss Osbourne,” she called, knocking on the door. “Are you awake?”

“Just a moment.” Nancy’s voice could be heard through the door.

Zenobia heard the click of the latch, a latch her boarder had been impolite enough to install, come free. The door opened a crack. “What can I do for you, Mrs. Carson? It’s rather late.” Nancy wore a green and blue plaid robe over her nightgown. She was holding a book – Zenobia couldn’t read the title – in her left hand.

“Then you should be in bed, shouldn’t you?”

“I don’t see why. I have no reason to be getting up any time early tomorrow, as you well know.” She opened the door wide. “Still, I’m being inhospitable. Come in.”

Zenobia stepped into the room and looked around, as if assessing it for damage. “I came to speak to you about what happened tonight. As you know, you have this room by virtue of being the school teacher.”

“Y-yes,” Nancy replied, sensing trouble.

“I'm quite sure you'll never teach school in this town again. Since you no longer hold that position, you are no longer entitled to the room. I’ll allow you to stay here tonight as a matter of Christian charity --”

“Th-thank you, I’m sure.” It was trouble, all right.

“You are quite welcome. However, I shall expect you to be out of my house by… 3 PM tomorrow afternoon. I don’t wish you here when the children come home from school. I have to protect them from bad influences. And so, please do not leave your room tomorrow morning until they have gone from the house.”

“But that’s hardly enough time to find another place to stay.”

“You needn’t worry. Your Mr. Cooper may be dead, but I’m sure that you can find some other man’s bed to warm easily enough.” She gave Nancy a triumphant smile and bustled out the door before the startled young woman could respond.

* * * * *

Thursday, April 25, 1872

“Who’s that?” Constanza Diaz asked, pointing to a tall man who was standing on the schoolhouse steps ringing the bell to announce the start of classes.

Tomas Rivera looked where she was pointed. “That’s Mr. Whitney, the barber. What’s he doing here, and where is Miss Osbourne?”

“I don’t know,” Constanza answered, “but I think we’re about to find out.”

All the children hurried into the building and took their seats. A few tried to ask questions, but Whit just told them to wait. When they were all seated, he closed the door and walked up to the teacher’s desk. “I’m sure you’re wondering where Miss Osbourne is, and why I’m here in her place.”

“I know.” Hermione raised her hand.

The man scowled. “You may think you do, Miss Ritter…” He looked at the seating chart on his desk. “…Hermione, but I’ll talk for now.” He took a breath. “Some serious rumors were being spread about Miss Osbourne. They may not be true – rumors are often based on misunderstandings rather than on the truth. Nevertheless, because of the nature of those rumors, the town council has suspended Miss --”

“She was fired,” Hermione insisted, jumping to her feet. “My Mama told me so.”

Whit glowered at her. “Sit down, Hermione, and stay seated. We’ll discuss your punishment for interrupting like that during recess.” He glanced at the rest of the class. “And if anyone else interrupts -- or laughs at her punishment, they can join her.”

“As I was saying, Miss Osbourne is suspended for a time. I’ll be your teacher for the rest of the week, and we’ll have a real substitute in for her on Monday. Whoever that is will be here until the matter is resolved.”

He walked around the desk and sat down behind it. “I’ll take roll now. Please raise your hand when I call your names, since I don’t know all of you as well as I now know Hermione.”

* * * * *

“Excuse me,” Sheriff Talbot said, stepping up to a table at the Lone Star. Paul was right behind him. “Are you Dell Cooper’s friends, Stafford and Saunders?”

Forry looked up from his late breakfast. “I’m Forrest Stafford, Sheriff. Cooper worked for me, same as Saunders here does. What can we do for you?”

“I’m Dan Talbot. This is my deputy, Paul Grant.” Paul nodded at the mention of his name, as the Sheriff continued. “We’re trying to find out a little more about Cooper and what happened yesterday.”

Saunders snorted. “‘Bout his murder, you mean.”

“Witnesses – and I’ve got a bar full of them – say Cooper drew first. Carl Osbourne just happened to be faster.”

The other man shrugged. “So you say. I think Dell was set up.”

“What do you mean?” Paul blurted out.

Saunders looked thoughtful. “He told me somebody was after him ‘cause of some gal he was sparking. He said this other guy – must’ve been that Osbourne fellah – threatened t’kill him if he didn’t stay away from her.”

“And…” the Sheriff asked, his voice trailing off in expectation.

Saunders continued. “Dell took that gal t’dinner Tuesday night, and he told me, after, that she kissed him when he brought her home.”

“Sounds to me like my man had reason to be worried when Osbourne stormed in here yesterday,” Forry observed. “Maybe Dell figured that Osbourne was going to shoot him as soon as they got out onto the street. Maybe that’s why he was drawing his pistol.”

Talbot frowned. “That almost makes sense… almost. We won’t be trying Carl till next Monday. We’ll need you to testify, so I’m going to have to ask you gentlemen not to leave town.”

“No problem,” Stafford replied. “We weren’t planning to leave before then anyway.”

The Sheriff nodded. “Fine, we’ll see you later, then.” He and Paul turned and headed out the swinging doors of the Lone Star.

“That was pretty good, Mr. Stafford,” Leland said, after they two had left. “All that stuff ‘bout how it coulda been self-defense – hell, I almost believed it myself.”

Forry gave a wry laugh. “It was good, wasn’t it? I had no great love for Dell Cooper, but this Carl Osbourne caused me no little inconvenience by killing him. I see no reason why he shouldn’t suffer some inconvenience in return.”

“What then, boss?”

Forry sighed. “I’m getting damned tired of this town. I think we’ll ride out to Slocum’s one more time and try to get him to see things our way. After that, we’ll be on the first stage out of here.”

Leland looked perplexed. “Ain’t going that far out on the range the same as leaving town? Didn't you just tell the sheriff --”

Forry shook his head. “He had to tell me to stay put, just as I had to tell him I would. Don’t worry; these hick town lawmen can bark, but they know better than to bite.”

“If you say so, boss. But that hombre Slocum… he strikes me as a hard case. What if he don’t wanna see things our way?”

“Oh, he will. One way or the other, he will.”

* * * * *

“Can we join you?” Yully asked. He and Stephan had come over to the picnic table where Emma, Ysabel, and Penny Stone were sitting.

Penny gestured to the open space at the table. “How come there’s no game today? I always figured you boys’d play during an Indian attack – at least till the Apache went after the ball.”

“Not today,” Stephan said with disgust. “Too many of the guys are listening to Hermione and Lallie boasting.”

Emma snorted. “Like they had something to boast about, telling lies is more likely.”

“A lot more likely,” Yully replied. “They’re going on and on how Miss Osbourne was some sort of bad person, and what a good thing it was that their mothers got her fired at the council meeting last night.”

Ysabel was shocked. “That’s silly. Miss Osbourne is a good person and a good teacher. When I become a teacher, I hope that I will be half as good, as a woman and as a teacher as she is.”

“You will be.” Stephan put his hand on her arm. “What bothers me is how much my Pa had to do with it. He knows what sort of a person Miss Osbourne is. He could’ve stopped those women, coulda stopped them real easy, just by saying how wrong they were and telling ‘em to stop.”

He stopped for a moment before continuing. “He didn’t stop ‘em. My Ma asked him to – I heard her, even if I wasn’t supposed to be listening. He wants that… that danged potion too much. Miz Ritter and Miz Mackechnie are helping him, so whatever they want, they can have. It…” He sighed. “…it just ain’t right. It ain’t what a preacher’s supposed t’do.”

“No, it is not.” Ysabel put her other hand on his. The others muttered in agreement.

“Pa wants me to be a minister like him,” Stephan went on. “If I ever didn’t want to be like him, it’s today.”

* * * * *

“Well now, Your Honor,” Shamus greeted Judge Humphreys, “what can I be getting for ye this afternoon?”

The Judge smiled. “A beer, thank you, Shamus, and a bit of your time.”

“Here’s the first,” Shamus poured a beer and set it down in front of him. “And before we get t’the second, I think I’ll be joining ye.” He poured a beer for himself.

The Judge took a drink. “Thanks. I was wondering if we could use your place for Carl Osbourne’s trial on Monday?”

“‘Course ye can. Justice is always welcome here.” So were the customers who came for the trial and stayed to drink. “ T’be telling the truth, I’ve been wondering why that trial ain’t been held already.”

“Because there’re too many questions; if Carl was working with someone, who was it? If he really was ambushed, who did it? We wanted to wait until we had the answers to those questions. We’d still be waiting if he hadn’t shot that man yesterday. The Lone Star isn’t some dive in Abilene, and Eerie isn’t some wild Kansas cow town. We hold a trial or, at least, an inquest when someone is killed in a gunfight. We can get started on the business of the robbery at the same time.”
“Aye, we can. Well, like I said, ye’re welcome t’be using me saloon. I would like t’be asking ye a couple of questions, though, if ye don’t mind?”

“Go ahead.”

“First off, if Carl does have t’be punished – and, mind ye, I don’t think he done anything wrong – do ye want t’be giving him the choice of drinking me potion?”

“I don’t see why not. He certainly knows about it.” The Judge thought for a moment. “We’ve established a precedent of sorts. If a defendant knows about the potion, he gets a choice, potion or jail. If he doesn’t know, he doesn’t get to choose.”

Shamus nodded knowingly, “Aye, it’s off t’jail with him.”

“For the most part, but I suppose that I could just sentence someone to drink the potion. That’s what we did with the Hanks Gang, after all.”

“Aye, we did, and it surely worked out for the best – for the town and for the girls themselves.” He chuckled and added, “And they’d be the first ones t'be saying it.”

Humphreys nodded. “Usually, I choose prison for an out-of-towner, so the secret of the potion isn't passed on to people who might talk, or have friends who would. But if there were special circumstances, I maintain the option to choose differently.”

“Carl will get the choice, of course. He has kept the secret so far, and he'd probably keep it in the future. If he takes the potion, though, he’ll spend… 60 days as your prisoner, the same as the Hanks Gang. That should give you another chance to show that you can handle the potion in a responsible way.”

“Aye, it would. Maybe it’ll be helping me to get out of this mess yuir Reverend Yingling’s stirred up about me.”

“Shamus, I am sorry about that. For what it’s worth, I don’t agree with Thad Yingling about the potion. You’ve done a fine job with it, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Thank ye for that, Judge. It’s nice t’be hearing. I’ve got one more question for ye, though. If Carl does take the potion, he’s – she’s -- gonna be me prisoner, right?”

“Yes, where else would I put her?”

Shamus gave him a sly smile. “Ye could give her t’the good reverend t’be taking care of, since he thinks he can do a better job with me potion.” He laughed. “But that ain’t gonna happen. What I want t’know is – well, ye said I could use me prisoners t’wait tables and dance with the men on Saturday night. What I’m asking ye now is, could I tell Carl t’be a dancing girl for me?”

Humphrey understood at once. “Looking for a way to go up against Sam Duggan, eh?” He chuckled and thought to himself, ‘And on the cheap, too.’ Aloud, he continued, “I don’t see why not. But I do think that Carl should get some extra pay for it. Being a dancer in a show is far beyond the normal duties of a prisoner.”

“So it is, and I’ll be happy t’be giving her something extra in the way of money… if it works out that way.”

“You’ll need more than one dancer, though. Too bad we couldn’t get that bastard that raped poor Bridget. If you’re her father, I feel like I’m some sort of uncle to her, and I’d love to force-feed him a dose… or two.” He whispered the last. “How is Bridget, by the way?”

“Still in a daze. I think she hates herself more’n she hates him that done it.”

“That’s the problem. Much as I’d like to see Stafford up before me for what he did, I can’t do a damned thing unless she presses charges.”

“Aye, and she won’t.” The men looked at each other for a moment before they both took long sips of their beer.

* * * * *

Kaitlin opened her front door on the third knock. “Phillipia, what brings you over here?”

“Cecelia Ritter,” Phillipia answered, her dark eyes flashing.

Kaitlin looked over her friend’s shoulder. “She isn’t with you now, is she?”

“Not hardly. May I come in?” She lifted a small package she’d been holding. “I brought kourabiethes.”

“Those are the shortbread cookies with the powdered sugar and almonds, aren’t they?” When Phillipia nodded, Kaitlin opened the door wide. “Bribe accepted… cheerfully. Come on in, and I’ll brew us up some tea to go with them.”

A few minutes later, the two women were sitting at the kitchen table, dipping the buttery cookies into cups of black tea. “What did you mean about Cecelia?” Kaitlin asked.

“I mean that I’ve had it up to here…” The other woman lifted her arm up above her head. “…with that woman. It was bad enough when she was just the chairwoman of the Ladies' Social Committee. She did the job well enough, and there was no way that she could do anyone any harm.”

Phillipia took a bite of cookie. “She certainly can do harm now. The way she humiliated poor Nancy Osbourne at the town council meeting last night…” She shook her head in anger. “The council only suspended Nancy – no matter what Cecelia keeps insisting – but I wouldn’t be too surprised if she never takes the job back, even after they prove her innocent of that nonsense Cecelia and Zenobia are spreading. If only there hadn't been that killing at the saloon. That's a terrible scandal to overcome, since the two men seemed to be quarreling over Nancy. And with Carl already suspected of robbery, it casts a shadow over his sister.”

“From what Trisha told me about the meeting, I’m inclined to agree. I’m only glad that the council had the gumption to postpone the vote on Mr. O’Toole’s potion.”

Her friend gave a hearty laugh. “That… that was absolutely priceless. I don’t know who was madder about that, the reverend or Cecelia.”

“It’ll do the both of them good to not get what they want so fast – if at all. I don’t know what set Reverend Yingling off to go after the potion the way he has.”

“Neither do I. He can be a bit ‘stiff-minded’ about things, as my father used to say.”

“I know. He was so insistent that Trisha and Emma wear dresses right after they changed. Trisha told me that he threatened to back the efforts to remove her from the board if she didn’t.”

“And now Cecelia is ready to do just that at the next Board meeting. The way she’s got people stirred up about things, she may just get her way.”

Kaitlin hesitated for a moment. “I don’t think she will.” Kaitlin wanted to tell Phillipia that Trisha was going to quit – they were close friends, after all, but she could no more do that than she could reveal that Trisha was pregnant.

“You sound very sure of yourself. I do hope that you’re right.”

“So do I,” she said with a chuckle. “And won’t it be fun to see Cecelia turn red in the face again, if I am?”

“Maybe she’ll wear that violet dress of hers to the meeting,” Phillipia giggled. “The color would go so well with her apoplectic complexion.”

“You’re terrible, Phillipia.” Kaitlin joined in the giggling.

“If I’m so terrible, then why are you laughing?”

“Because it’s so true.” Kaitlin took another sip of tea. “I just wish we could do something to help poor Nancy.”

“So do I… in the meantime, can I ask you a question?” She leaned in, a conspirator hatching a plot.

Kaitlin matched her. “Is it something nasty?”

“Quite the opposite, what would you think of my taking over Nancy’s class?”

“You? Why?”

“Because someone has to do it. My Yully is due to graduate this year, and I will not have some incompetent teacher spoil that for him.”

“Yes, and I feel the same about my Emma, but – excuse me – can you be a teacher?”

“I believe so. My father, Jonathan Wilkes, was professor of Greek language and Greek literature at Dickenson University back in Pennsylvania.”

“Wilkes? With your coloring and features, I always assumed that your family was Greek.” She stopped a half beat, then quickly added. “Not that it matters, of course.”

“My mother was. She met my father in Corinth when he needed a guide. She taught English at a local school, so I’m actually the daughter of two teachers.”

“Then you should do wonderfully… provided your children don’t mind having their mother as their teacher.”

“They had better not. I really want to do this. I think I can do a good job. I plan to ask Nancy for help, too, though I certainly won’t tell many people that she’s helping. She knows how to work with these children, and, maybe if she’s helping, she won’t feel so bad about not doing the job herself.”

“I certainly hope you’re right. She’s been a good teacher, and I would hate to lose her permanently.”

“Let’s just pray that Cecelia hasn’t already made her want to leave the school, no matter what.”

* * * * *

Nancy Osbourne “tsk-tsked” as she walked up the schoolhouse steps. “The door shouldn’t be left open,” she thought aloud. “I’ll have to make sure that I lock it when I leave.”

“Is somebody out there?” asked a voice from inside.

She walked in and saw… “Mr. Whitney, what are you doing here?” He was sitting at her desk, leafing through the McGuffey's Fourth Eclectic Reader.

He put the book down on the desk. “Waiting for you, Miss Osbourne… Nancy. I was hoping that you’d stop by, so I waited around after I sent the children home.”

“Sent them home? No, they need to have their class work. There’s so very much that needs to be covered before the end of the year.”

“And today, some of it was covered. I’m filling in for you this week. The town council will be having a special meeting tomorrow night to see who we can hire for the rest of the year.” Then he added, “Of course, if you can make a good case to the council, you’ll be reinstated.”

He paused. Nancy looked perplexed and glanced away.

“The shooting has made everything seem worse,” Whit continued, “and it removed that Cooper character before he could be made to admit what really happened. Still, things probably won't look so bad once Carl is found innocent of both the killing and the robbery.”

Nancy signed. “I could accept any fate for myself, as long as my brother is exonerated.” She looked as though she was going to say more, but then suddenly changed the subject. “And if you don’t hire anyone to teach?”

He shrugged. “We have to hire somebody. I can’t keep my shop closed forever.” He paused a beat. “Maybe -- if nobody gets hired -- it will force us to end your suspension that much quicker.”

“I-I’m not sure that I want to come back. Don’t get me wrong; I love teaching, but af-after the… the way, I’ve b-been treated…” Her voice trailed off, as her eyes welled with tears and she settled down into one of the eighth graders’ seats.

Whit hurried over to her. “Are you all right?”

“No, I… Mrs. Carson, she… she threw me out, said I was a bad influence, and she didn’t want in her house. I packed – I’ve lived in this town almost five years, and it took me less than an hour to pack.” She half-choked, half-sobbed.

When she got her breath back, she said, “I've got no one in my life except my brother and… and the chil… the children. I pinched pennies my whole life and have saved almost nothing. If I keep going on like I have been, what will I have in another five years, or ten? Besides wrinkles and gray hair, I mean.”

Whit smiled. “Nancy, I don't think anyone will notice many gray hairs and wrinkles on you, even in ten years.” Then he realized that his comforting words might be misconstrued. He shifted the topic. “Do you have a place to stay?”

“No, I asked at a couple of boarding houses. The good ladies would barely talk to me. I got a few offers from men, but not the sort I care to even think about. And if… if I rent a room at one of the saloons, well, to a lot of people I’d just be confirming that those lies about me are true.”

“Come stay with me.”

Mr. Whitney!” She stared up at him incredulously.

“I said that badly. My wife, Carmen, and I have a guesthouse. My brother-in-law, Ramon de Aguilar, lived there before he got married. It has all the room one person needs and there’s a lock on the door.” He looked at her changed expression. “Don’t worry; Carmen loves company. You can ask her yourself.”

“I-I don’t know.”

“Please, try it for just a night or two. Think of it as my way of apologizing to you for voting to suspend you – and as far as I’m concerned that’s all we did.” He gave her his best smile.

She hesitated for a moment, then returned the smile. “Well, I suppose, I could try it for a while.”

* * * * *

Milt walked over to where Jane was sitting by the bar. “Good evening, Jane, can I buy you a drink?”

“Only if you promise to answer a question,” she replied, looking at him oddly. “Answer it true, I mean, with no lawyer wiggling.”

He raised his hand, palm outward. “I promise.” He turned to R.J. “Two beers, please.” When the barman drew the beers, Milt took them both and let Jane lead him to a nearby table.

“Okay,” she said, taking a seat opposite him. “My question is, what’d you say t’Ethan so he wouldn’t sell me that painting? Remember, you promised t’tell the truth.”

He sighed. “Can I take a drink first?” When she nodded, he took a long sip. He’d been expecting – no, been dreading her question, and he hoped that she’d understand what he was about to say. “I asked Ethan for some samples of his work, he gave me the sketch he did of Jessie’s hands; one of Wilma – just her face, there’s some things you can’t send through the mail; and a couple sketches of ‘The Three Fates.’ He even threw in a quick sketch of me.”

“You said ‘mail.’ Who’d you send them sketches to?”

“Herbie… Herbert Johnston, he’s a fraternity brother of mine from Rutgers. His father, John Tyler Johnston, was one of the men who just founded a new art museum in New York. I thought Mr. Johnson might be interested in Ethan’s work.”

“You thought he’d wanna buy that painting, didn’t you?”

“Frankly, Jane, I-I did. I was hoping he’d make Ethan an offer that you couldn’t match. I figured that you’d be less upset if somebody outbid you for the picture than if Ethan just refused to sell it to you.”

“I guess this Johnson fella outbid me.”

“He did more than that; he offered to sponsor a show of Ethan’s work if he could buy that painting cheap. I don’t know what he paid, but Mr. Thomas told me that he expects to make more than enough on the other paintings he’ll be showing to make up for what he didn’t get for ‘The Three Fates.’ From what Herbie’s told me about the art market in New York, the painter’s probably right.”

“So you win, and Ethan wins. Everybody wins, thanks to you, except me.”

“Jane, please don’t think of it like that.”

“Don’t you go telling me what to think, Milt Quinlan. I know I ain’t near as smart as you, but gimme credit for having some brains.”

“I-I do, Jane. Honestly, I do.”

“No, you don’t, and you never will. I’m just poor, dumb Jane, and you gotta sneak b’hind my back t’protect me from myself.”

“It… it isn’t that way at all.”

“Yes, it is, and the hell with it, and the hell with you, too.” She stood up quickly and headed for the stairs before he could stop her.

Milt watched her go. “Well, that went well,” he said sarcastically.

* * * * *

Friday, April 26, 1872

Phillipia Stone used a borrowed key to let herself in to Whit Whitney’s house. “Hello,” she called, “is anybody home?”

“Hello?” Nancy Osbourne answered from the garden. “Who is that?”

Phillipia followed the sound of Nancy’s voice. “It’s me, Miss Osbourne, Mrs. Stone.”

“Oh, yes, I was hoping I would see you at some point. I wanted to thank you for standing up for me at the council meeting.”

“I was glad to do it. We've met a number of times to discuss my children’s school work, and you’ve always conducted yourself as a lady – as well as a dedicated and caring teacher.”

Nancy had to smile at that. It felt so very good to hear someone say something nice about her. “Yully, Penny, Nestor, and Aggie are attentive and well-behaved children. It’s a pleasure -- it was a pleasure being their teacher.” She sighed. “Having said all that, may I ask what are you doing here just now? Whit and Carmen --”

“Mr. Whitney told me that you were staying here. He gave me the key, as well.”

“You seem to have gone to a great deal of trouble to find me, Mrs. Stone. What can I do for you?”

“For a start, you can call me Phillipia. I’m hoping that we can be friends.”

Nancy gave her a sad smile. “I could use a friend or two right now.”

“And I hope that you will think of me as one, seeing as I came to see you about taking over your job – just until you get reinstated, of course.”

“Thank you for that last part. It doesn’t seem very likely that I will, though.”

“I’m sure that you’re wrong about that.”

“There are a lot of people who think otherwise.” She thought for a moment. “But why are you asking me? I certainly don’t have any say in who my…” She sighed. “…my replacement is.”

“No, but I didn’t want you to think that I went behind your back. Or that I believe that nonsense that Cecelia Ritter and the others are spouting.” She paused for a moment. “Besides, if I’m to do the job properly, I’ll need your help.”

“My help?”

“Of course. My father was a college professor, Greek language and literature, and I often helped him with his classes – that was how I met my husband. But I don’t know the students in your class, or how well they’re doing in each subject, or – or a hundred other details that you know. You can show me all those things, and you can help me prepare the lessons.”

“I-I don’t think I can. I’m not supposed to have anything to do with the children.”

“I can come here after school, and you can help me learn what I’ll need. Then, when you take the class back, you can step right in.”

If I take the class back.”

“I’m sure that you will.” Phillipia looked Nancy straight in the eye. “In the meantime, will you help me and help your students?”

Nancy felt as if a weight had been lifted. She didn’t want her problems to harm the children. She could still be a teacher, of sorts. “Of course, I will.” She hugged Phillipia. “And thank you, thank you so very much for asking.”

* * * * *

Forry Stafford and Leland Saunders rode slowly up to the hitching post in front of Abner Slocum’s ranch house. Abner saw them coming and walked down from the porch. “What’re you doing here, Stafford?” he asked gruffly.

“I just wanted a chance to speak to you again, Mr. Stafford,” he answered smoothly. “I had hoped to see you in town, but, when that didn’t happen…” His voice trailed off.

“I heard that you found something to occupy your time.”

“What… oh, her. Let me tell you, sir, that little bit of fluff put up a fight, but…” he grinned. “I knew she wanted it; they all do.”

Slocum glared at the other man. “So you took it, and made it look like it was her fault.”

“That’s beside the point, sir.” Forry sensed that he needed to change the subject, even if he didn’t know exactly why. Maybe Slocum was sleeping with the little tart himself – or wanted to.

Yes, that would explain what this rancher had stuck in his craw. Brian Kelly, Bridget Kelly. ‘Maybe the two of them got married after the war,’ he thought, ‘And Tess came out to where Brian was buried and jumped into bed with the most powerful man she could find. She knew the truth, so she got his help to clear her dead husband's war record and settle the grudge she had with me, the man who had gotten him kicked out of the army.’

He chuckled to himself. ‘And I just got her madder, even if she was asking for it.’

Forry didn't want to open that powder keg with Slocum. “I wanted very much to talk to you, so I decided to come back out to your ranch.”

Slocum frowned at how easily Stafford dismissed Bridget and what he’d done to her. “Make it quick. I have work to do.”

“I’m sorry we got off on such a bad footing the other day.” Forry gave the rancher his best smile, as he dismounted. Leland stayed on his horse. “I wanted to ask you another question about those records.”

“We’ve talked about them more than enough, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t believe the records or you.”

“You made that very clear, sir, and I’m sorry that you think so ill of me. I just wanted to ask you what, if anything, you were going to do regarding them.”

“I wasn’t going to do much of anything. Br – Kelly’s done rather well out here – gotten a new start as it were.” He smiled, thinking of how much of a new life Brian – now Bridget – Kelly had gotten.

Stafford misunderstood and smiled back. “Really, sir? I had heard that he was dead. He and that other no-good, Will Hanks, rode into some sort of an ambush and got the deaths they so richly reserved.”

“Don’t be so smug, Mr. Stafford.” Slocum was looking daggers at the man. He couldn’t tell Stafford the truth about Bridget, but he also couldn’t let this slimy little bastard think that he’d won. He might not be able to do much about the rape, but he could do something about those records.

“Your persistence has got me wondering just how badly the truth got distorted at that court martial,” he continued. “When I get back from spring branding, I’ll be writing to Issachar Bailey at the Veterans Affairs Office to ask him to investigate the matter further. He may find that a grave injustice has been done.”

Forry’s smile faded. “Why trouble yourself, sir, with such a trivial matter? Brian Kelly’s been rotting in his grave for almost a year.”

“Whether he’s dead or not, I think that the truth needs to be told about what happened at Adobe Wells.” The rancher looked sharply at the two men. “And the proper men punished for it.” Slocum doubted that any real measures could be taken against an ex-soldier for misdeeds committed in an army of a country that no longer existed, but public shame for Forry Stafford would be some sort of comeuppance.

Forry's face didn't change, but his eyes went cold. Now the rancher's cards were on the table. Stafford knew that it was up to him to either raise or call. He sure as hell wasn't going to fold.

A man led a roan horse over to Slocum just then. “Here y’go, boss. He’s saddled and ready.” He tied the horse’s reins to the post.

“Thanks, Blackie,” Abner said. He turned back to face Forry again. “You’ll excuse me now, but I have to get up north to my herd.”

Leland tried to buy more time. “Maybe Mr. Stafford ‘n’ me could ride with you for a while, Mr. Slocum, so’s you two could talk some more.”

“No, I think that I’ve endured the pair of you for as long as I care to. I’ll ask you to leave my ranch now.”

Stafford remounted. “This isn’t the end of it, Slocum.”

“Yes… I think it is. Goodbye.” Abner watched the pair ride off before he walked back up onto the porch for his saddlebags.

* * * * *

Lavinia Mackechnie poured tea for her two guests. “Cecelia,” she began, “you must be livid after the way you were… we were all tricked Wednesday night.”

“It was a setback.” Cecelia Ritter put a third lump of sugar in her tea and stirred it carefully. “But not a serious one. We got rid of that horrid Osbourne woman sooner than expected, and the town council set an early meeting date for a vote on the Reverend’s petition. They know that they can’t try some trick on us the next time.”

Zenobia Carson scowled. “Postponing the vote the way they did, that Aaron Silverman should be ashamed of himself.”

“Those people have no sense of shame.” Lavinia said. “I don’t understand how this town could ever have elected a Jew to serve on the council.”

“That’s easily remedied,” Cecelia said confidently. “Once the Reverend has the potion, we’ll be the one’s running this town, and we can make sure that the council is made up of G-d-fearing souls who believe in our sort of Christian values.”

“You sound very sure of yourself,” Lavinia told her.

Cecelia laughed. “I have every reason to be. We’ll use the time till the council meeting to make very certain that they vote the way we want them to.”

* * * * *

“You sure he’ll come this way, boss?” Leland Saunders asked.

Forry Stafford pointed down at the trail below. “He said he was going north. This is the only trail north from his ranch house. And I’m pretty certain that we doubled around to here before he had a chance to get past us.”

Things had gone too wrong too fast, Forry thought. Slocum, in his temper, could do a lot of damage if he got that investigation started. Normally, Forry would have had Leland and Dell do the dirty work, while he arranged a nice, tight alibi for himself.

But that damned fool Cooper got himself shot. He’d been the marksman and the steady hand of the pair. Leland didn't have backbone enough to be trusted to do this alone. Forry cursed Dell Cooper one more time for forcing him into doing the job personally.

“I hope you’re right. I don’t wanna have t’track him.”

Forry scowled at the man. “Shut up; I said he’ll be here.” He settled back into the tall grass of the rise, where they were hiding.

“There… there he is.” Stafford pointed down to the figure on the roan horse, who’d just come out of the cover of a patch of trees. “Ready… ready… now, fire… fire!”

Two rifle shots rang out. Slocum’s horse turned, as he started for the cover of the trees. But the man slumped in the saddle for a moment before he abruptly fell to the ground.

“Got you, you smug bastard!” Forry yelled triumphantly. They watched for a moment, but their target lay motionless on the trail. Slocum’s mount halted, then slowly walked back to sniff at the fallen man.

Satisfied, Leland stood up. “Let’s get outta here, sir, before somebody – aww… shit!” He saw men riding quickly out of the woods towards Slocum and ducked back down.

“What?” Forry looked. “Dammit; I thought he’d be alone.”

Two men dismounted and ran over to where the man lay. Another rider – “That damned nigger,” Forry spat when he recognized Luke Freeman. The man must have heard where the shots came from. He was pointing to where they were hiding. Five men wheeled their horses and galloped towards the hidden pair, weapons flashing. They were firing high to keep whoever had shot their boss pinned down.

“Run!” Forry and Leland both leapt to their feet and headed for the tree where their horses were tied.

Forry heard a groan. He glanced back to see Leland stumble and grab his right leg. Forry could see blood. “Help me, boss,” Leland pleaded.

“Idiot!” He sprinted forward. When he reached the tree, he began to pull at the reins.

He heard the sound of horses – and men. “Hold it right there,” a voice ordered. He looked up. Three men were glaring at him from horseback a few feet away, all of them with pistols pointed straight at him. Two more were over by Saunders, who sat on the ground, still holding his leg.

“Certainly, gentlemen.” Forry tried to smile as he dropped his rifle and slowly raised his hands.

* * * * *

“What’s Red doing to the boss?” Joe Ortleib asked.

Red Tully kept working. He’d managed to stop the blood flow with a balled-up kerchief pressed tight to the wound. Now he was trying to tie that kerchief in place with a couple more tied together into a sort of rope. “I’m trying to stop the bleeding,” he answered. “That’s about all I can do.”

“Can he ride?” Luke Freeman, the black foreman, asked.

Red shook his head. “Maybe… but he shouldn’t. He needs to stay as still as he can till the doc gets a good look at him.”

“Since when’re you such an expert?” Finny Pike demanded sarcastically.

“Since 1862,” Red replied. “The Army made me a orderly at a field hospital when I joined up. Moving… moving people was a big part of my job. There’s only one wound. The bullet that got him’s still in there, probably in his spine. His best chance’s t’stay laid down.”

Luke nodded. “Finny,” he ordered, “you’s got a fast horse. Get your ass back to the ranch and get out here quick as you can with a wagon so’s we can get Mr. Slocum into town.”

“Have ‘em put a mattress in it for him to lay on,” Red added. “And a blanket and pillow so he’ll be more comfortable.”

Finny nodded and galloped off.

“You just stay there, Mr. Slocum,” Red told his half-conscious employer. “We’ll get you to Doc Upshaw in no time. With any luck at all, you’ll be up and about in time t’see them bastards off to prison for what they tried t’do to you.”

He smiled reassuringly when he said it. It was the same lie he’d told too many wounded men during the War.

* * * * *

Liam used his napkin to wipe the last crumbs of cherry pie from his face. “That was a delicious dinner, Kaitlin.”

“Thank you, Liam,” Kaitlin replied, smiling. “I’m so glad you enjoyed it.”

Emma took a sip of lemonade. “It was good pie, Mama.” Trisha nodded and mumbled something in agreement.

“Thank you all.” Kaitlin rose and began to gather up the dishes.

Liam stood and shook his head. “You’re doing it wrong, Kaitlin.”

“What am I doing wrong?” she asked. “This is how I always clear the table.”

He walked around to where she was standing. “Yes, and if I was here as just your brother-in-law – your former brother-in-law – I’d watch you for a bit before I went over and sat on the sofa, talking shop with Trisha, while you put away the leftovers and did the dishes.” He took her hand. “But that’s not why I’m here tonight.”

“Wh-why are you here?” She felt a warm blush race across her face.

He smiled. “I’m courting you, Kaitlin. You know that – or you should; I’ve certainly made no secret of my intentions. Tonight Emma and Trisha are the ones who clean the table and do the dishes. We'll go out on the front porch to sit and talk and look up at the moon and…” He took the plate from her. “…and hold hands.”

“Well…” Kaitlin felt a pleasant tingle, one she hadn’t felt in a very long time, run through her. “I suppose we can do that – tonight, anyway.” She took Liam’s arm and let him lead her towards the door.

They both ignored Emma’s gasp of surprise and Trish’s angry glare.

* * * * *

Doctor Hiram Upshaw stepped into his office’s waiting room. He looked tired, and there were bloodstains on his white, cotton surgical coat.

“How’s Mister Slocum?” Luke Freeman asked, quickly rising to his feet. Red Tully, who was sitting three chairs away, also stood.

The doctor sighed. “I stopped the bleeding – you did a good job, Red. He’s not conscious, but, thankfully, he doesn’t seem to be in much pain.”

“Thank the good Lord for that, at least,” Red answered. “Is he… is he gonna be okay?”

“Frankly, it’s too soon to know. He’s weak, and his pulse is far from steady.” He shook his head. “It doesn’t help that the bullet’s still in there.”

Luke looked puzzled. “Couldn’t you take it out, sir?”

“He’s rather weak just now,” Upshaw told him. “And the bullet appears to be lodged in his spine. That’s very risky surgery.”

Freeman frowned. “You can’t jus’ leave it in there.”

“I don’t want to. There’s a doctor in Philadelphia, Wolfgang Vogel. He’s an expert in this type of surgery. Since I’ll be up all night monitoring Abner, I’ll also be using that time to draft a telegram to Vogel describing the case and asking for his advice.”

“You write it up, doc,” Red told him, “and I’ll take it over for you in the morning. That way you can stay here and watch the boss.”

The physician chuckled. “Are you sure Luke here is going to let you hang around my office till morning?”

“You’s prob’ly gonna want some help with Mr. Slocum, doc,” the black man said in reply. “Red done worked at a hospital during the War. I got me a ranch t’run, ‘specially with Mr. Cap up in Prescott, but Red, he can stay here for as long as need be.”

* * * * *

“Are we in agreement, then?” Whit Whitney asked his fellow councilmen.

Aaron Silverman gestured at the almost empty schoolroom. “You see anybody else that wants the job?” He took a breath. “We’re just lucky that the one that does want it will do a good job. As the Sages say, when Luck enters, give him a seat! Let’s hire her already.”

“Arsenio, what do you say?” Whit asked.

The smith shrugged. “I agree with Aaron. She’ll do the job – and do it well enough, I suppose. Let’s hire her and go home.”

“Done.” Whit banged his chairman’s gavel. “You’re hired, Phillipia, and good luck to us all.”

* * * * *

Arsenio watched the room empty. Once the three councilmen were alone, he picked up his hat and stepped over to Whit, who was putting papers into a valise. “Whit, has Nancy said anything to you about what really happened between her and Dell Cooper?”

“Not yet; I’ve given her every chance now that she's staying in our guesthouse, but all she said was that she'd prefer to talk to the whole council together, not one at a time.”

“Is she stalling about something?”

Aaron came over to join them. “Why should she wish to wait? As they say, the truth is so heavy that few men can carry it alone.”

“I think she's waiting for her brother's problems to be decided,” Whit answered. “I can't help but think that her reluctance to defend herself has to do with the suspicions against him. Maybe something she knows might be used against Carl at the inquest.”

Arsenio nodded. “Maybe. And maybe it's her duty to speak up about what she knows about Carl, good or bad. I like Nancy, but she's doing herself no good letting people wonder about her.”

“The truth, as they say, can be the worst libel,” Aaron added, “but he is her brother, and blood don’t turn into water.”

“I get a sense that the feeling is hardening against her,” Whit said, “when she could have nipped it in the bud by talking at the meeting… maybe.”

The other two agreed. “And maybe,” Aaron suggested, “we should set a date to hear her out after we know if Carl's going to go free or not.”

“Probably so,” Arsenio said. “We have time before we need to start a search for a permanent replacement, if necessary.” He considered the situation. “How about Wednesday night at… 7, over at your place, Whit?”

The barber shrugged. “Sounds good to me. I just hope that that young lady uses the time she's got well.”

* * * * *

Saturday, April 27, 1872

Arnie pulled the laundry wagon up to the Spauldings’ back porch, her last delivery of the day. “Remember, Mama,” she told Teresa, who was walking beside her, “the Spauldings do not know that I am really a boy.”

“I will remember,” Teresa answered. “Is that why you are wearing a dress, so they will not find out?”

“I… they expect me to dress this way. Señora Spaulding said I should wear one if I’m going to be their teacher. I want to keep that job.”

“Your papa used to say that ‘gold is the best argument.’ I see that he was right.”

Arnie sighed. “They are very nice people. I like them, and I do not want to disappoint them.”

“Not disappoint them the way you disappoint me when you will not wear a dress except for church?”

Arnie could hear the hurt in her voice. “Mama, I… it is just easier to pull the wagon if I wear my old clothes. A dress… there is not the room to stretch my legs when I walk, and it is tight…” She gestured at her stomach and her bosom. “…up here when I move my arms.”

“I managed,” Teresa replied. “And I will have to manage again when I take the job back from you on Monday.”

“You are used to wearing a dress while you work. I was… I am not.”

Before Teresa could answer, a tall young man walked onto the porch. “I thought I heard voices out here.” He smiled and looked down at the two women. “Hello, Annie. Is this your mother? You said that she’d be coming with you today.” He walked down the steps to where they were standing. “I – we all – have looked forward to meeting her.”

“And you will.” The young woman smiled back at him and half-turned towards Teresa. “Mama, this is my friend, Hedley Spaulding.” She turned back. “Hedley, this is my mama, Teresa Diaz.”

Hedley offered Teresa his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Diaz.”

“And I…” Teresa shook his hand. “…am pleased to meet my daughter’s friend.”

Three packages of clean laundry, all labeled “Spaulding”, were on the top of the cart. “I’ll take these.” Hedley picked them up. “After you, ladies.” He bowed, gesturing at the steps with his free arm.

“Th-thank you, Hedley.” Arnie felt a rush of heat run across her face, as she walked up onto the porch. She stopped and looked back at the boy… and her mother.

Teresa studied the expression on her daughter’s face. ‘Perhaps,’ she told herself, ‘Arnolda is not as much of a boy as she thinks she is.’

* * * * *

Phillipia Stone knocked on the door of the Whitney guesthouse, a two-story structure at the far side of the fenced-in courtyard behind their house.

“Be right there,” a female voice came from inside. A moment later, Nancy Osbourne opened the door. “Phillipia, do come in.”

Phillipia walked in. “Thanks.” She looked around. “Oh, my goodness...” Her voice trailed off.

“It certainly is,” Nancy said with a chuckle.

They stood in a large, well-appointed main room. The walls were plastered a light blue shade that went well with the dark oak paneling. Several paintings, portraits of men in old-fashioned Spanish costume, hung from the walls. A fireplace, almost high enough for Nancy to step into, took up most of one wall. A set of three chairs and a long settee were grouped in front of it. A dining table, made of the same dark oak and surrounded by eight chairs, stood some feet beyond it. Phillipia could see that a stack of papers, most of them arranged in folders, sat on the table.

“I knew that Carmen’s family was old Spanish land grant,” Phillipia said, “but this…”

“Was designed to impress.” Nancy finished the thought. “It impressed me, too. There’s a full kitchen behind that door.” She pointed beyond the table. “And four lovely bedrooms upstairs. I’m using the smallest one, and it’s still twice as big as… my last room.”

Her smile faded. “I hate it, living here on charity like I am.”

“Maybe Carmen and Mr. Whitney will let you stay here after you get your job back.”

If I get it back. If I want it back after what the good ladies of this town did to me. If I want to go back to living my life by rules that none of them would ever put up with.” She shook her head as if to banish the thought. “No, that’s not fair. I’ve loved my time here as a teacher.”

“And you will be one again… soon.” Phillipia put her hand on the other woman’s arm. “For now, you can help me keep the children’s studies going until you take your job back.”

“You were hired, then?”

“I was, but I don’t know if it was because of my sterling credentials or because nobody else asked for the job.”

Nancy had to smile at that. “Nobody else was crazy enough, eh? All right, come over to the table and let’s get started.”

“What are these?” Phillipia asked as she sat down next to Nancy.

“My files on each student; I kept them in my room because I worked on them at night. I just… brought them with me when I had to move out.”

“I’m glad you did. What are they, exactly?”

“Notes on each student’s habits, especially on how they learn; their test records and their grade levels for each subject; and, most important, my lesson plan, what I hope to teach each student by the end of this year.”

“All that?”

“Let me show you.” She picked up a file. “This is your son, Yully.” She opened it and began to read. “Ulysses – ‘Yully’ – Stone. Good natured and a natural leader; clumsy from a growth spurt early in the fall.” She put down the folder and continued. “He grew into his taller body over the winter, I’m glad to say.”

“Amen to that,” Phillipia agreed.

Nancy picked up the folder again. “Arithmetic… at grade level; reading… above grade level; history... well above grade level. Shall I go on?”

“No, that certainly sounds like him.” She reached for the folder. “Can you show me how to use this – and the ones for all the other children, of course?”

“That’s why I got them out. It may look like a lot of hard work, but I’m sure that you’ll manage.”

* * * * *

“So… Annie,” Teresa began. She and Arnie were walking home from the Spaulding house. Teresa was pulling the wagon now.

Arnie stopped. “Please, do not call me that name, Mama.”

“Why not?” her mother asked. “You did not mind when the Spauldings used it. In fact, you seemed to be very comfortable with the name.” She paused a beat. “Just as you seemed comfortable in that dress.”

“They… Señora Spaulding heard me wrong when I first came to their house. She thought that I said ‘Annie’, not ‘Arnie’ when she asked my name. I did not say anything because I wanted her business for the laundry. Now, it… it would hurt her feelings to tell her the truth.”

“And the dress?”

“I told you, Mama. She – they all expect me to wear a dress while I teach them Spanish. For the money they pay, I am willing to do it.”

Teresa chuckled. “Maybe I should pay you. Then you would wear a dress the rest of the time.”

“Please, Mama,” Arnie sighed, “do not tease me. I am a man. I know what I look like, but – inside -- I know that I am a man.”

“You look like a very beautiful young woman. Why do you not want to dress as one?”

“Because I am not one – I am not, I am not!” She pouted and stamped her foot. Then she sighed again. “And I am so tired of saying that I am not a woman. But if… if I start to dress like one, if I let you call me ‘Annie’, then I am telling people that I am a woman. Can you understand that?” She looked almost ready to cry.

Teresa gently put her arm on her daughter’s shoulder. “Si, Arnolda, I understand.”

* * * * *

Stephan slid his checker to an open square.

“You really ain’t got your mind on your game today, do you?” Penny Stone asked. She jumped the checker, then jumped a second one, which landed her man on the far row of the board. “King me,” she said in triumph, taking his two pieces off the board.

The boy studied the board. He had three checkers left to her seven, and this was her second king. “I give up, Penny. You win.”

The rest of the Fort Secret “garrison “ – as they called themselves – were gathered around the table, watching the game being played out in their underground club house. Ysabel sat down next to the defeated player. “You’re a better player than her, Stephan. What’s the matter?”

“I’m still mad at my Pa about Miss Osbourne, I guess,” he answered with a shrug of his shoulders. “He shoulda stopped ‘em from firing her. He’s so good at telling folks what to do – he tells me often enough – but he just stood there and let them ladies get their way.”

Yully sat down next to his sister. “Yeah, but what can you do about it?”

“I can make darn sure that I don’t wind up like him,” Stephan told him. “I’m gonna write a letter t’West Point. I wanna know exactly what it takes to get in and how old you have to be.”

Emma snorted. “Your pa’s gonna hit the roof when you get a letter back from West Point telling all that. You’ll never get to see it, and you won’t be able to sit down for a week.”

“How ‘bout if I write that letter,” Yully suggested. “My folks won’t mind. At least, I don’t think they will.”

Stephan shook his head. “That’s no good. I want them t’have a record of my name. Just knowing that they have that letter from me’ll make me feel like I got a start at going there.”

“You both should write the letter,” Ysabel proposed. “Give them both your names, and you both sign it, but only write Yully’s address, so they send their answer t’his house.”

Stephan’s expression brightened. “You know, that just might work. Thanks, Ysabel.” He took her hand in his and gave it a gentle squeeze.

“Y-you’re welcome.” It wasn’t very bright in the underground room, and Ysabel hoped that no one saw her blushing in the dim light.

* * * * *

Herve knocked on the half-opened door to Lady Cerise’s office. “Yes, mon cher?” she asked, looking up from her desk. Wilma sat next to her, as they worked on the account books.

“Mam’selle Jessie is here to see her sister,” he replied. “She says that it is très important.”

Wilma stood up. “You don’t mind, do you, Cerise?”

“No,” Cerise shook her head, “but ask her to be brief, s'il vous plait. We have a bit more work to do before you can go and join the other ladies.”

“Hey there, Wilma… Cerise.” Jessie walked into the room. “Is it okay if we talk in here?”

“I feel the need for a cup of tea just now.” Cerise smiled and rose to her feet. “I shall return in… ten minutes?” She said the last as a question.

Jessie nodded. “That should be more ‘n enough time. Thanks.” She waited until the older woman had left the room before she continued. “You hear ‘bout Forry Stafford ‘n’ Slocum?”

“Clay Falk was in here last night. Clay told me – when we had time t’talk – how Forry and that little snake of his ambushed Slocum. He said they almost got him.”

Jessie nodded. “Slocum’s over at the doc’s. He’s hurt real bad, Paul says.” She sighed. “At least they got them two bastards.”

“Yeah, but what’re they gonna do with ‘em? That’s what I wanna know.”

“Try ‘em for murder -- attempted murder, I hope, find ‘em guilty, and put ‘em away some place for a good long time.” She smiled, thinking of Forry Stafford spending years in some prison.

Wilma shook her head. “Or find ‘em guilty and give ‘em each a dose of Shamus’ potion, just like they done t’us, and let ‘em work off their time in the Saloon.”

“Shit, you think that’ll happen? I'm not so sure I want to have those two in there, dirtying up the air. That's my home, you know.” She thought for a moment. “If it happens, what'll we do?”

“I know what I’d like t’do… I’d like t’give ‘em a double dose – turn ‘em out onto the street, a couple of man-crazy carpet girls fucking in an alley with any fellah that’s got two bits t’rub together.” She gave her sister a nasty grin.

Jessie frowned. “I like it, but it ain’t gonna happen. Shamus is way too careful with that potion, ‘specially now that he’s got that preacher man after it. Besides…” she teased, “if they did get a double dose, they’d probably wind up here, working for you and the Lady.”

“The only one that’d like that is Rosalyn. Her and Forry hit it off real good, them both being ‘Suthun’ aristocrats, and all.” Wilma spoke the last in her thickest Texas accent, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

“That still might be better than having ‘em over at the Saloon, having Forry rubbing shoulders with Bridget all day long.” She chuckled. “O’course, that’s all Forry’d be able to rub.”

Wilma’s expression changed to one of concern. “How is Bridget? She any better?”

“A little. She still ain’t running her game, but I think Molly’s got her coming downstairs for the dance t’night. She’ll just sell tickets, and Molly’ll be the one dancing.”

“That ain’t much, but it’s a start, I guess. It’s sure better ‘n her sitting up in her room crying.” She thought for a moment. “And maybe – just maybe – all them men asking about her, asking how she’s doing, and why she ain’t running her game, or even ain’t just dancing with ‘em – maybe it’ll get her feeling better ‘bout herself.”

“I hope you’re right. It pains me the way she acts like what that bastard done was her fault.” Jessie took a breath. “Still ‘n’ all, what are we gonna do if them two sons-of-bitches take the potion?”

Wilma shrugged. “I ain’t sure, but I do know two things. I, for one, ain’t gonna tell ‘em who I – we – used to be. And I am gonna laugh at them so damned hard that I’ll like t’bust this here corset of mine.”

Jessie nodded, a nasty smile curling her lips now. “You know, big sister, that part about laughing at ‘em sounds like one of your better ideas.”

* * * * *

“Good evening, Jane,” Milt said in a cheery tone. “I have my ticket right here.” He held it out.

She took it without a word and put it in the pocket of her apron. “Okay, let’s dance.”

“You’re still mad at me, aren’t you?” He took her arm and led her out onto the dance floor.

She turned to face him, as the music began. “What if I am? I took your ticket, didn’t I?”

“You did, but I was hoping that we could talk while we danced, maybe –”

She cut him off. “Look, Mr. Quinlan, I took your ticket. That means I gotta dance with you.” She sighed. “Just like I’d dance with any other stranger who had a ticket. I don't have to talk to you if I don't want to, and I don't!”

He gave a small sigh. “We'll, then let's dance.”

* * * * *



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