Eerie Saloon: Seasons of Change -- Spring, part 11 of 13

Eerie Saloon: Seasons of Change – Spring, part 11 of 13
By Ellie Dauber and Chris Leeson © 2014

Sunday, June 09, 1872

Father de Castro looked down at his notes for a moment before speaking. “My friends, I have a few quick announcements before the final prayers. Last week, Don Luis Ortega presented two challenges from our congregation to Liam O’Hanlan and the board of the Methodist Church. They have accepted them both.”

“The first, I have spoken of already at the daily Mass. There will be an auction of the picnic baskets at the town Fourth of July festival. The lady whose basket goes for the highest price will win a prize. The high bidder for each basket will share the basket with the lady who prepared it – with a suitable chaperone, if the man is not the lady’s husband, of course.” He stopped for the quick chuckle from the congregation.

“Some of our ladies have told me that they do not feel such a contest is proper. I disagree. Most of the baskets will be won by the husband of she who made it, and what is the sin in doing your best cooking for your husband and family? Since I will be one of the chaperones, and I will be sharing a basket of delicious food, what is the sin in cooking well for your priest?” Again there was a laugh, as the man licked his lips and rubbed his stomach, as if in anticipation of a fine meal.

“Nor should the men feel that they are forgotten. Our second challenge was a baseball game between our own team, the Coyotes, and a team from their church. Gaspar Gomez, you are the co-captain of the Coyotes. Is our team ready for such a game?”

Gaspar stood up. He was a tall, well-muscled man with a broad smile – as usual – on his face. “Padre, on the Fourth of July, the Coyotes will be more than ready to hooowwwlllll!” His voice rose in volume and pitch as he leaned back his head, pursed his lips, and finished with a very good imitation of the southwestern coyote baying at the moon.

The congregation, including Father de Castro, laughed and then burst into a round of applause.

* * * * *

Cuddy Smith nudged the tiny blonde sitting next to him. Cuddy and the blonde, Hettie Morris, were having breakfast with the rest of Sophie Kalish’s dance troupe. “Hettie, honey,” he whispered, “what’s the matter with Opal? She’s been just sitting there, picking at her food, for the last five minutes.”

“Oh, not again?” Hettie looked at her friend, Opal Sayers, a slender brunette, and frowned. “She’s… It’s sort of like homesick, Cuddly. She misses going to church.”

“Church?”

“Shhh! She’ll hear you.”

Opal looked over at them, her eyes flashing. “She already did. What’s so wrong about my wanting to go to church on Sunday, Mr. Smith?”

“Nothing, I guess,” he replied. “You just looked so… miserable, I thought that it would be something more impor --”

She looked daggers at him. “More important; what could be more important than –”

“Opal!” Sophie Kallish interrupted in a firm voice. “How many times have we gone through this? If you want to go to church, just go. I doubt that Sam Duggan would mind, and I certainly don’t.”

The other woman looked down at her plate. “I-I’m afraid to. In big towns it's easy to blend into the crowd; nobody knows your name or your work. I don’t think I’d be very… welcome here.”

Ruth Kantor nodded. “I hate to say it, but she’s right. With all the mishigoss – the craziness – that reverend’s stirred up around about O’Toole and that potion of his, the pious folk of Eerie wouldn’t want a…” She rolled her eyes, as if in shock and held up her hands, pretending to fend off something unwanted. “… dancing girl in their midst.”

“No,” Cuddy said apologetically, “they probably wouldn’t. And it’d be their loss, too, Opal.” He gave the woman a comforting smile. A smile that grew broader, as a thought occurred to him. “I wonder how those fine, upright folks’d feel about two dancing girls.”

Sophie gave him an odd look. “Why? Which of us do you think should go with her, and why would the two of us be any better received than the one?”

“Don’t look at me,” Ruth answered quickly. “I don’t even go to shul for the High Holidays, so I sure won’t go to no church.”

Cuddy shook his head. “None of you, actually; I was thinking of Nancy Osbourne, one of Shamus’ girls, the one who does the cartwheels.”

“She’s the one that used to be a schoolmarm, ain’t she?” Hettie asked, a giggle in her voice.

“The very same,” he said. “She was a regular churchgoer before she ‘fell into sin’ as Reverend Yingling would say. Why she’s in such a state of disgrace that Opal here’d look positively saintly by comparison.”

Opal made a sour face. “That doesn’t sound very fair to her.”

“No, I guess it wasn’t, and… Oww!” He winced as Hettie punched him in the arm. “I was about to say that I was sorry about it. People came down on her real hard, and, the way it sounded to me, there wasn’t much proof to what they were saying. I don’t know that she’s back t’church since, and, if she hasn’t, she probably misses it the same as Opal does. If she has, she’s probably felt one or more set of nasty eyes glaring at her. The two of ‘em can go together and give each other the sort of moral support they ain’t likely to get from anybody else.”

Hettie leaned over and gave him a peck on the cheek. “That’s a wonderful idea, Cuddly!”

“I think so, too, Cuddy,” Opal said. “And I’d thank you myself, but I think I’ll leave that to Hettie.”

The little blonde kissed him again. “And I will thank him, too; just as soon as we get finished with breakfast.”

* * * * *

Reverend Yingling strode confidently over to the podium to begin his sermon. “My friends…” He stopped and poured himself a glass of water. As he drank, he scanned his audience. They were looking up at him, waiting to hear and believe whatever he had to tell them.

“An odd thing happened at last week’s meeting of our church board. We, our congregation, were challenged by the congregation of the Mexican church. These challenges were a surprise, a great surprise, but they were accepted – accepted a bit too quickly, perhaps – but accepted, nonetheless, in the spirit of friendship that should exist between our two houses of the Lord.”

“Now, some might say that the challenge of the dinner basket was an invitation to the sins of pride and gluttony, but this need not necessarily be true. My own dear wife, Martha, has told me that she will be preparing a basket. I have no doubt that the contents will be delicious, and...” He smiled down at Martha. “…that I will have to bid high for it.”

“As to the second challenge, the ball game, I am not as familiar with the game as our team captain, Horace Styron…” He turned and nodded at Styron, who stood for a moment, raised his right arm and waved his fist in a gesture of victory.

Styron was about to speak, when the Reverend interrupted with, “Thank you, Horace,” and motioned for the man to take his seat. Once he had, looking chagrined, Yingling continued. “I have no doubt that you and your team will give your opponents a strong game. And I shall be there with many of you to cheer them on.”

“Yes, these two challenges are most exciting, but in that excitement we must not allow ourselves to be distracted from the far greater, the far more serious challenge of Shamus O’Toole’s potion.”

“The potion is still there, my good friends, still poised and ready to create havoc in people’s lives, to change irrevocably the lives of innocents, to prevent them from attaining the destiny that our Lord has prepared for them. Yes, this, my friends, is what I am trying to thwart.”

“These many weeks, I have striven mightily for the creation of a group of honest, G-d-fearing individuals, men who would assume the responsibility for that infamous elixir and would carry out those duties in a manner far wiser than we could ever expect from Mr. O’Toole.”

“And what have we gotten instead? In their timidity… in their perfidy, the town council did not give us what we wanted, did not give us what we needed. There is no strong body to protect us. There is, instead, an advisory body, a body with no power except to suggest what might be done. And who are they to make their suggestions to? To a man who, I feel, does not begin to grasp the true danger that O’Toole’s foul concoction represents.”

And a man who managed – by trickery – to tie my hands in my own modest attempts to protest this unacceptable situation.”

Judge Humphreys jumped to his feet. “Now, just a minute, Thad –”

“Let the Reverend speak,” Styron shouted, and a number of voices rose in agreement.

Clyde Ritter rose to his feet. “You didn’t give him a chance at the board meeting, Humphreys. This is his turn.”

“I’ll sit,” the Judge grumbled, as he took his chair, “but this isn’t the end of it.”

Yingling smiled. “No… it isn’t.”

“The Judge has called a meeting of his ill-fated advisory committee…” The Reverend continued, saying the last with disdain. “I shall be there. The only thing that the town council did correctly, I feel, was to name me chairman, but I see nothing useful coming from that meeting. And I intend to put things aright regarding the creation of a proper group to control the potion. And, with your help…” He looked upwards and raised his hands, as if in supplication.” …and our Lord’s, I shall -- we shall – prevail.”

“Amen.”

* * * * *

“You sure you ain’t got no beer, Colonel?” Fred Reinhardt asked for the third time. Reinhardt was a short, heavyset man in an expensive, but ill-fitting, dark gray suit. He had a round face with brown eyes deeply set in a round, jowly face and sparse graying hair.

Priscilla Stafford sighed, hiding her disgust as best she could. It was bad enough to have this horrible little man in her… her father’s house, but to be polite – even pleasant – to him, was almost more than she could bear. Still, it was her father who’d ordered her to be cordial to him, and, so, what choice did she have?

She answered for her father. “We might be able to find something in that line if you absolutely insist, Mr. Reinhardt, but do try this Chardonnay.” She held up her own wineglass, filled with a pale, white wine. “It goes so wonderfully with the trout.”

Priscilla was a tall brunette, with a slender, womanly figure. Her hair fell in ringlets to frame a heart-shaped face with green eyes and full lips. At 22, she was less than half Reinhardt’s age.

“Well now, Miz Stafford,” he said, “since it’s you that’s asking.” He held up his glass in his stubby fingers. “Fill ‘er up,” he ordered the harried butler. All the while he stared openly at Priscilla’s body, trying to better discern her breasts, hidden as they were beneath her high-collared, green silk dress and layers of undergarments.

Colonel Stafford caught his daughter’s look of distaste and gave a quick cough, signaling her to smile.

“Miss Stafford is so formal,” she replied on cue and with no affection in her voice. “Please call me ‘Priscilla’, Frederick… Fred.”

Reinhardt chuckled and took a long gulp of his wine. “Prissy by name, is it. I hope you ain’t prissy by nature.” He laughed and leered at her, never quite lifting his gaze above her neck. He burped and finished off the glass. “More,” he demanded, waving his glass in the air.

“I try not to be,” she answered, taking a bite of lunch. The way the man was guzzling, she had every hope that he’d soon be too drunk to do anything more than fall asleep in his chair. ‘With any luck,’ she thought, ‘he’ll choke on something.’

* * * * *

As soon as the service was over, Judge Humphreys hurried over to the altar where Reverend Yingling stood, gathering up his notes. “Reverend… Thad, what was all that business about the committee and me? You all but branded me as one of the demons of Hell.”

“I am doing the work of our Lord, Jesus Christ,” Yingling answered. “When you oppose me, you oppose Him, and that makes you an agent, a willing agent, of evil.”

“You’re saying that I’m evil just because I disagree with what you want to do about Shamus’ potion. I think you’re obsessed with that stuff.”

“Obsession! My desire to serve our Lord and to protect … protect the innocents of this town is hardly an obsession.”

“Look, Thad, in my own way, I try to do the very same thing. Protecting the people of Eerie is my job as much as it is yours, and you know it.” The Judge took a breath, hoping that his words were having some effect. “We’ve been friends, worked together on various projects, for so many years. In the spirit of all that, can’t you find some room for compromise on this?”

“Compromise; yes, I suppose that I can see grounds for a compromise.”

“Wonderful, what do you propose?”

“If you will cease your insistence on that foul advisory committee and support me before the town council in my original proposal for a body strong enough to wrest control from O’Toole, then I will cease my efforts to denounce the current committee – and yourself as its promoter – as the workings of Satan that it, and you, truly are.”

“What! That… That’s absurd.”

“So is your attempt to change my mind.” Yingling put his papers into his brown leather carrying case. “Now, if you will excuse me, the faithful members of my congregation are waiting for me.”

He closed the case and headed for the small group standing by the door: Styron, the Ritters, and a few others. Humphreys stood, dumbfounded, by the altar shaking his head. “Now what the Hell do I make of that?” he muttered to himself, shaking his head in disbelief.

* * * * *

“Maybe I should get one of those things for myself,” Amy Talbot said, as she and her husband watched Arsenio carefully lowering Laura’s wheelchair down the steps outside of the schoolhouse. Laura was in the chair, leaning back and holding on tightly.

She reached the ground, and Arsenio stepped down and pushed the chair clear. “Are you having ‘baby’ trouble, too?” Laura asked.

“Just the usual for this point – at least that’s what Edith Lonnegan tells me. I feel big as a house, and somebody…” She rubbed her belly. “…keeps doing somersaults. I’ve had a headache for the past week, and – ohh, there I go, carrying on. I’m sorry.”

Laura smiled. “Don’t be. It’s kind of nice to hear someone else complaining about being pregnant. I’m immense, too. My feet hurt, and I’m stuck in bed all day.”

“You know,” Dan Talbot said wryly, “Sometimes, I think women tell stories about being pregnant the way we men tell stories about fishing. Each one’s trying to outdo the other.”

Amy scowled. “Fishing! When you have a… a trout flopping around inside your belly for nine months, you can talk to Laura and me about how hard it is to be pregnant.” But then she took his hand and smiled. “It is worth it, though… sometimes.”

“It does have its moments,” Laura agreed. Arsenio took her hand, raised it to his lips, and gently kissed it. “Besides,” she continued, “I’m almost… done.” She shivered for a moment.

The Sheriff’s wife saw the change in her friend’s expression. “You scared?”

“Never been more scared in my life,” she admitted, squeezing Arsenio’s hand and glancing up at him.

He put his hand on her shoulder. “Doc Upshaw and Mrs. Lonnegan came by Friday. They say that they’re as ready as they can be, and that Laura… that the two of us shouldn’t worry.”

“I’m feeling stronger, too,” Laura added. “I wouldn’t even be in this wheelchair, except that a certain blacksmith of my acquaintance keeps insisting on taking it.” She reached up and kissed Arsenio’s hand.

Dan Talbot chuckled. “You should listen to your husband. That’s something wives don’t do near often enough.”

“Dan!” Amy punched him in his side. Hard.

He winced. “Some wives, anyway. I’ve no complaints against mine, of course.”

“Neither do I,” Arsenio replied. “Neither do I.”

Laura giggled. “Now that our husbands have both agreed about what great treasures we are, Amy, I’m afraid that Arsenio and I have to be going. Jane’s cooking our dinner today, and it’s not fair to keep her waiting.”

“If you are able to get about,” Amy said, “why don’t the two of you come over for dinner some evening?”

Laura brightened at the thought of spending some time away from her house. Still… She looked at her husband who nodded in approval. “We’d love to; what night?”

“Wednesday, say… 6 o’clock.”

Arsenio nodded. “We’ll be there, and thanks for the invitation.”

Just then Nancy Osbourne came out of the building. She walked unhurriedly through the schoolyard, pausing briefly to give a smile and a nod to anyone who greeted her cordially. She pointedly ignored the snide remarks and catcalls from others in the crowd. Some men leered, imagining her in the skimpy green dress and flashing pink petticoats of a Cactus Blossom rather than the demure blue dress she had worn to church.

“Miss Osbourne… Miss Osbourne,” Yully Stone called out, wriggling his way through the crowd.

Nancy turned, beaming. “Yes, Yully, what is it?”

“School graduation’s this Thursday, Miss Osbourne. can you come… please?”

If possible, her smile grew even broader. “Do you really want me there?”

“Miss Osbourne, you was -- were -- my teacher a lot longer’n my Ma. You gotta be there.”

Lavinia Mackechnie was standing close enough to hear the exchange. “She most certainly does not. The idea is absurd.”

“It’s my graduation, Mrs. Mackechnie,” the boy replied, “and I want her there. So do some of the others. When Lallie graduates next year, she can decide who she wants.”

“Thank you, Yully,” Nancy said. “I shall be happy to attend.” She couldn’t resist giving Lavinia a quick “so there” bob of the head, as she walked away.

The women watched her start on the road to town. “She gave years of her life to this school. She must miss the old days,” remarked Amy. “Yully Stone just did her a world of good, I think.”

“She's got some courage, to face such a chilly reception by so many people,” added Laura. “She just showed some real ‘cavalry steel,’ as my Poppa used to say.”

“That nice, sweet schoolmarm she used to be. Who would have supposed?” said Arsenio.

* * * * *

Ernesto was playing catch, throwing a ball against the back wall of his house and trying to catch it when it bounced back. Lupe sat on the porch with her doll, Inez, watching him. Finally, she got up and came over to him. “Ernesto, are you still mad at Mama?”

“What?” He was so surprised at her asking that he missed the ball and had to scramble after it across the yard. “Why do you ask?” he said, when he came back.

“Inez wants to know – and so do I. It is silly to be so mad for so long.”

“She lied to me – to us both, Lupe. That was not right.”

“You made her cry. That was not right, either. She is still very sad. I can tell. And it makes… Inez cry.”

“Inez is just a doll. She cannot cry.”

“She is my baby. Do not be so mean to her.” Lupe hugged the doll. “It is all right, mi pequeña [my little one]. Mama is here.” Her eyes glistened while she tried to comfort the doll. “He will not hurt you.”

After a moment, she continued. “We were all so happy when we first came to Eerie, so happy to be together, to be a family again. Why does it matter so much to you how it happened?”

“Because it is important.”

“Isn’t Mama important, too?” Lupe stood up, scowled at him. “You always said she was.” She scowled again and walked back into the house.

* * * * *

“Ernesto Sanchez, it is time.”

Ernesto looked up to see a strange, a grave looking man in a black suit. “Time, time for what?”

“Time to leave. Your mother is a bandit and a liar. You and your sister cannot live with her anymore.”

The boy shook his head. “No… No.”

“You said so yourself, Ernesto. She lied to you.” The man made some sort of gesture, and Ernesto was suddenly in chains, marching forward slowly, as much as he tried to resist.

A wagon stood in the street a few feet away. The back was a large metal cage. Lupe was inside, dressed in rags. She was trying to reach through the bars to Mama who was trying to reach in. Both were chained, so that, at best, their fingers could barely touch.

A door opened in the cage. The man picked up Ernesto and tossed him in. “What’s this?” the man asked in an angry voice, grabbing for the doll at Lupe’s feet.

“She is my baby,” Lupe answered in a small, scared voice. “Inez.”

He tossed the doll to the street and slammed the cage door shut. “There’s no such thing as a baby – or a mother’s love.” He clambered up into the wagon’s seat. “Not at your new home.” He flipped the reins, and the wagon started moving.

Ernesto scrambled to Lupe’s side. They tried and tried to reach through the bars towards Maggie, but the chains stopped them.

“Ernesto! Lupe!” Maggie fell to her knees, crying, her own arms outstretched as they moved farther and farther away from her.

“Mama!” Ernesto sat up in bed, his eyes wide and filled with tears and his body covered with cold sweat.

* * * * *

Monday, June 10, 1872

“Ernesto,” Maggie said in an exasperated tone. “You have been staring at me all through breakfast. What is wrong now?”

The boy blinked and jerked his head back, startled. “Nothing is wrong… Mama. I-I was just trying to… I do not know how to… to apologize to you.”

“Just say what is in your heart,” Ramon told the boy. Maggie sat where she was, looking surprised and uncertain. Ramon reached out and held her hand.

“Mama,” Ernesto said softly. “I-I was wrong to say what I did. I love you, Mama, and I am... sorry.”

Maggie rose from her chair and quickly knelt down, her arms outstretched towards her son. “Ernesto!” was all she could manage.

“Mama!” He moved quickly to her from his own chair, and they embraced. Maggie kissed his cheek, while he hugged her as tightly as he could.

“Ernesto,” Ramon asked, rising to his feet. “Do you know the difference between a boy and a man; not that one is bigger or older, the real difference?”

The boy looked up at him. “A man does not make such stupid mistake as I did?”

“A man can make as stupid a mistake as any boy – maybe even stupider ones.” Ramon paused a moment for emphasis. “The difference is that, when you tell a boy that he made a mistake, he yells, and hits people, and acts badly.”

“Like I did,” Ernesto replied, looking down at the floor.

Ramon nodded. “Sí, like you did. A man, when you tell him that he was wrong, he apologizes and tries to make things right.” He reached down, cupping the boy’s chin and lifting it so that they were eye to eye. “And you did that, too. You are not a man yet, Ernesto, but today you took a big step towards being one.”

* * * * *

Bridget set a couple slices of chicken and some coleslaw on her plate. She added three small pickles and walked over to the table where the Cactus Blossoms were having lunch. “You ladies getting ready for another show tonight?”

“And if we are, Kelly?” Flora asked cynically, “What’re you gonna do about it?”

Bridget shrugged. “Not that much; it just holds up my poker game for a little while, but I can manage. I was just thinking how the maneuvers Molly’s got you all doing out there aren’t exactly what you trained for, are they, Lieutenant?”

“At least, I’m doing something, Corporal. You’re just dealing cards; it’s the men that’re playing poker, and I proved weeks ago, that you’re no man.”

“You would certainly know about how men behave – or misbehave, considering the way you’ve been dancing with them, sitting on their laps, and kissing them.”

Flora’s teeth gritted, but she quickly remembered how the Hanks girls, Wilma, Bridget, and Jessie, always acted whenever she tried to bait them. Not getting angry was the best way to shut Bridget up. She lifted her chin and said with a smirk, “Jealous, ‘Miss Bridget’, that the only use any man in this whole town will ever have for you is dealing cards in a poker game you haven’t got the guts to play in?”

Nancy stood up. “Why don’t you two cats go snarl at each other someplace else?” she said firmly. “Lylah and I would like to eat our lunch in peace?” She waited a moment.

“Flora needs t’eat, too,” Lylah added. “Molly wants us upstairs for more practice in a half hour.”

Bridget frowned. She owed Molly a lot. “All right, for Molly’s sake, I’ll let the little slut eat.” She walked away, taking a seat at a nearby table, not completely satisfied with the exchange.

* * * * *

“Shall we begin?” Humphreys asked the men assembled in his office.

Yingling scowled. “I thought that I was supposed to be the chairman of this benighted group.”

“Sorry, Thad,” the Judge said, quickly. “You are the chairman. Would you please start the meeting?”

“If I must.” He slapped the table he was sitting at with his hand. “The meeting is called to order; now what?”

“I suppose that the first thing would be to explain what I want the committee to do.”

Horace Styron raised his hand. “I don’t remember you being named to the committee, Judge.”

“Since the committee reports to me, I’m an ex-officio member,” Humphreys explained. “What I’d like it to do is to work out a set of standards for me. When should a convicted prisoner be offered the potion as a punishment option? Under what circumstances should it be imposed without the defendant's consent? If a person does take the potion, how long should she be sentenced to work for Shamus? That sort of thing.”

“Are we allowed to discuss other matters?” Yingling asked sourly.

The Judge braced himself. “Such as?”

“Such as, where should doses of the potion be stored after manufacture and between uses, and who should have control of those doses?”

“Your committee can make recommendations on any of those things, Thad. I’ll be willing to read and consider anything approved by a majority of the committee members.”

The Reverend rose to his feet, glaring at the Judge. “That is an outrage. These people...” He made a gesture that included, Ortega, Father de Castro, and Shamus. “…will never agree to what I know to be the only proper way of dealing with O’Toole’s brew.”

“I’m always willing t’be listening to a reasonable proposition,” Shamus said, leaning back in his chair, “but I ain’t about t’be approving nothing that goes against me own interests – or against the interests of the town.”

Luis nodded. “That can be said of any of us.”

“I had hoped that I could lead you all to an understanding of what is the Will of our Lord in this matter,” Yingling stormed in his best dramatic voice. “But I see now that my hope was in vain.” He rose to his feet and started for the door, warning, “This is not at an end.” He then left, slamming the door in the face of Horace Styron, who had hurried after him.

Styron stayed in his seat, looking uncertain. “I guess the meeting’s over.” He stated to rise.

“It does not have to be,” Father de Castro said in a calm voice. “I am vice chairman, and we still have three members here – four if you stay, Horace.”

Horace shrugged. “Might as well.” He took his seat again. Maybe he could salvage something from this mess. He could still try and push to get things the way he and the Reverend wanted. At the least, he could pass on to the Reverend -- once the man had calmed down -- what useful information might be had.

“Thank you, Horace,” the priest continued. “As I said, I am the vice-chairman. Anytime Thad Yingling comes back, he can take over. In the meantime, Your Honor, what has been the practice so far as to who gets the option of taking the potion?”

Judge Humphreys looked thoughtful for a moment. “That’s a good question, Padre. As a judge, my job is to get the facts of the case and use those facts to deliver justice or to help a jury do just that. Sometimes, before Zach Levy came to town, I even had to act like a lawyer in the case, questioning witnesses myself.”

“The potion raises a few new issues. We don’t want outsiders to know about it, so it shouldn’t get mentioned in cases with outsiders unless it absolutely has to be. We all know that.”

“Since it changes a man’s life as much as prison time does, a lot more, really, a man gets out of prison. Someone who takes the potion will never change back, according to Shamus. Using prison time as a guideline, I won’t use the potion as a punishment except in major cases.”

“The first time I gave it as a sentence – the Hanks Gang doesn't count, they got the potion before they came into my court – was when Phil Trumbell tried to shoot it out with Wilma Hanks. I gave him the choice, potion or prison time, and he took prison. So did Ozzie Pratt. Jake Steinmetz decided to take the potion” .

“When Forry Stafford and Leland Saunders came before me charged with the attempted murder of Abner Slocum, I didn’t give them a choice. Stafford bragged that he had political connections that could get him out of any reasonable prison time. I’d probably have considered giving the choice to Carl Osbourne when he was charged with robbing Abner – it was grand theft, after all; conspiracy, too, but it turned out he was innocent.”

“How long people have to stay at Shamus’ place after they take the potion is another question, and I’d like to take that up at a later meeting, if you don’t mind. Right now, I’d like to hear what you all have to say about deciding who should get the potion.”

* * * * *

Aaron Silverman looked up at the sound of the bell over the door to his store. “Kaitlin, Trisha… and Emma,” he greeted the people coming in. “What brings the whole O’Hanlan family to my store today?”

“Hello, Aaron,” Kaitlin said. “We’ve come to buy a dress for Emma. She graduates school this week.”

Rachel Silverman came out from behind the counter. “Mazel toiv – that means, congratulations, Emma. Come, we just got some nice, new dresses for you to look at.” She led them over to a long rack of children’s clothes.

“These are very nice,” Kaitlin said after looking at a few of the frocks. “But… do you have something a little more… mature?”

Rachel looked closely at Emma. “For a young lady, you want. Okay.” She walked over to a second rack and pushed a number of outfits away from three dresses near the center of the rack. “These should be her size. For her coloring, I’d say…” She picked one and took out the hanger it was on, so they could see it better. “…this one.”

“Ohh, Mama,” Emma said excitedly. “It’s beautiful.” The dress was emerald green with light green lacework on the bodice, around the cuffs, and along the bottom hem. “Can I… can I try it on?”

Kaitlin smiled at the girl’s enthusiasm. She had changed so much since November. “Don’t you want to look at the others?”

Emma glanced over at the clothes still on the rack. “They’re pretty, I guess, but I really like this one.”

“Then go put it on.” Kaitlin had barely spoken the words, when Emma grabbed the first dress and ran for the changing room.

Trisha chuckled. “That was easy.” She glanced around. “While she’s in there…” She walked towards a small table with several different styles of corsets displayed on it. A couple of them looked like the sort of “man-bait” that she supposed Norma Jean would have liked.

“These are all Thompson’s Glove Fitting corsets,” Rachel said, following Trisha over to the table. “How far along are you?”

Trisha’s eyes went wide. “What? What do you mean?”

“I don’t want I should spill the beans,” Rachel said in a low voice, “but I’ve helped too many pregnant women buy comfortable clothes to not be able to know another one when I see her. But don’t drey your kopf, that means don’t worry, you only show a little… today, anyway.”

“Please don’t tell,” Trisha said, sounding a bit desperate. “Besides my family – and Doc Upshaw and Mrs. Lonnegan, of course – nobody else knows.”

Rachel shrugged. “So who should I tell? You – and that little one – will be letting everybody know soon enough.” She thought for a moment. “Let’s get that dress for your Emma, and you can stay behind and see about a corset, okay?”

“Uh, okay.” Trisha looked very relieved. “And thanks.”

Before the shopkeeper could answer, Emma stepped out from the changing room. The dress fit her perfectly. The lace at her bodice, coupled with the darts sewn into the dress, emphasized her blossoming breasts without being obvious. The garment was cut to show off her narrow waist and wider hips.

“How do I look?” Emma held out her arms and slowly turned around.

Kaitlin sighed. “Like a princess.” She smiled remembering how hard the newly transformed Emma had fought the idea of wearing anything feminine.

“I feel like a princess,” the young woman answered, sounding giddy. “Can I have it; please… please?”

Trisha nodded. “That’s what we came in for. Go take it off, so Rachel can wrap it up.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Emma sprinted back to the changing room.

Kaitlin picked up a small purse from a shelf. “This is almost the same color. It’ll look good with her new dress.” She handed it to Rachel.

“I’ll ring them up together,” Rachel said. “In the meantime, Trisha, why don’t you take another look at the corsets? You should get one at least two or three sizes larger than what you normally wear. And you don’t wear it as tight; that’s bad for the baby.”

Trisha gave a slight shudder. “Every time I turn around, being pregnant gets more complicated.”

“That’s how it works, having a baby,” Kaitlin replied, and Rachel nodded in agreement.

* * * * *

“Excuse me,” an unfamiliar voice said, “are you Nancy Osbourne?”

Nancy glanced up from her copy of Sonnets. The speaker was a slender brunette. “I am… and you are?” She’d seen the young woman strolling along the street once in a while, but didn’t know her name.

“Opal… I’m Opal Sayers.” The woman offered her hand. “I’m one of the dancers over at the Lone Star.”

Nancy shook her hand. “Have a seat then, and tell me what brought you over here.”

“Thank you.” Opal pulled out a chair and sat down across the table from Nancy. “I-I’ve heard about you. I’m… oh, I don’t know how to say it.”

Nancy shrugged. “Just say it, whatever it is.”

“This Sunday…” Opal bit her lip nervously. “I wanted to – to ask…ask if – fooey! N-Nancy Osbourne, will you go to church with me?”

“Why do you ask? You work at Sam’s place, so you can’t be one of those evangelizers.” She smiled ironically. “Not that I need anyone else telling me to save my soul.”

Opal shook her head. “Heavens, no! It’s just… I-I enjoy going to church on Sunday, but… a lot of places, they don’t want to have me there, let alone welcome me in as a new member of their congregation. And the minister here has the people all stirred up even more than usual about something. I-I was afraid to go by myself.”

“I know what you mean,” Nancy replied. “Our Reverend Yingling’s got some kind of bee in his bonnet, and some of the church’s ladies are even worse.”

“Cuddy Smith – he’s Mr. Duggan’s assistant barman – he said I should ask you to go with me… for ‘moral support’, he said.”

Nancy chuckled. “Your Mr. Smith has an odd sense of humor. I’m hardly the most welcome person at the church these days. Still…” Her lips curled in a mischievous smile. “…it might be… interesting to see how welcoming the Reverend and Cecelia Ritter and her friends would be if I show up with another ‘scarlet woman’ next Sunday.”

“You’ll do it? You’ll take me with you next Sunday?”

Nancy nodded. “Sure; you just meet me here at 9:30 next Sunday morning – dress neat, but not flashy – and we’ll walk over together.”

* * * * *

Lucian Stone knocked on the half-closed door to his sons’ bedroom. “Good evening, boys.”

“Evening, Pa,” they answered, not even close to unison.

“Yully, I want to talk to you. Come with me, please.”

“Sure, Pa.” The boy put down his pencil, rose, and followed his father to his parents’ bedroom. As he walked, he tried to think of what he had done to warrant whatever punishment he was about to get. ‘Nothing,’ he decided. ‘I don’t know what he’s mad about.’

Lucian waited for Yully to walk into the room before he went in, closing the door behind him. “You got a letter today...” He picked up a thick envelope from the top of the dresser and tossed it to his oldest son. “…from West Point.”

“West Point?” Yully looked at the packet. “Oh, yeah, I almost forgot.”

“You never mentioned wanting to go into the Army, and now you ’forgot’ writing to the admission office at West Point? Ulysses Plutarch Stone, what exactly are you up to?”

“Pa, it’s – well, it’s kind of a secret.”

“The reason why you want to go to West Point is a ’secret’?”

“Kind of; we don’t want nobody – want anybody -- to know about that letter.”

“We? Who all is this we?”

“Do I have to tell? I sort of promised.”

“I can respect a promise – you know that very well, but I would like to know what’s going on.” He smiled, trying to reassure the boy. “How about if I promise something? I won’t tell anyone else… not unless I talk to you about it first. Is that acceptable?”

“I-I guess.” He spat in the palm of his hand.

Lucian spat in his own hand, and they shook hands, sealing the bargain. “Now,” the man asked again, “who else is on this, and what are you trying to do?”

“Stephan… Stephan Yingling; he’s the one who wants to go to West Point, not me. I still want to study history at Pappous’ [Grampa’s] school up in Pennsylvania.”

“Your grandfather will be happy to hear that you still want to go to Dickinson, but, if that’s the case, why did you write to the military academy?”

“‘Cause Stephan’s pa won’t let him be anything but a minister. If Reverend Yingling knew Stephan wrote that letter, he’d tan Stephan’s hide.” He swallowed nervously. “So I wrote the letter. We both signed it, but we just wrote my address.”

“Don’t you think that Stephan and his father should be the ones deciding what he does with his life? They don’t need you butting in.”

“Pa, the Reverend don’t care what Stephan wants. He says Stephan has to be a minister, just like all the Yinglings have to be ministers. Stephan’s grampa and his uncle and his father’re all parsons, and his older brother got sent away to some school for ministers about a year after he finished grade school.”

“Surely, Stephan has, at least, talked to his father about his own career choice.”

“He’s talked and talked, but his Pa won’t listen.” Yully took a breath. “Heck, that’s why Stephen ran away. He wanted to show his folks how serious he was. But all he got for it was a whupping, and his Pa got even more set in his mind that Stephan was gonna be a reverend.”

The boy studied his father’s face. “Can I go, Pa? I’ve got still got some homework to do. Ma ain’t -- isn’t going easy on us just ‘cause school ends on Friday.”

“You can go. I may – I will -- talk to your mother about what you just told me, but it won’t go any further.” Lucian made a “King’s X” mark over his heart. “I promise.”

Yully let out a sigh of relief. “Thanks, Pa.” He jammed the envelope into his pocket and hurried from the room.

* * * * *

“Here we go.” Clyde Ritter led Flora over to one of the benches in the yard behind the Saloon. “Now we can talk in private.”

Flora looked about nervously. “I don’t know if this is a good idea.” She smoothed out her dress, part of her Cactus Blossom costume, as she sat. She knew that it was barely long enough to cover her knees, and she found herself feeling a certain pride in how pretty her legs looked.

“Sure, it is.” He took his place next to her. Very close. His arm snaked around her waist. “We’ve been wanting to be alone – haven’t we? And now we are.”

She didn’t want to be alone with him, but she did want things from him, flattery for a start, which was always nice to get. But, more important, gifts, and then, the real prize, getting him to hire somebody to beat up Shamus O’Toole and Judge Humphreys for what they’d done to her.

And being alone here with Clyde Ritter seemed to be the only way to get those things she wanted.
“I guess we are alone,” she answered in a low voice.

“You are so beautiful.” He pulled her even closer, leaning in as he did, so that their lips met.

Flora’s arms reached up and around him. ‘At least, he’s not too bad at kissing.’ She sighed, consoling herself. Her lips parted and his tongue darted in, playing with hers.

At the same time, his hand moved towards her neckline. It was cut very low. The tops of her breasts were clearly visible – and accessible, since she wasn’t wearing a camisole. His fingers glided down from her throat and on to her left breast, only the tips of his fingers touching her bare skin. It tickled her, and she shivered. Two fingers slipped down into her corset and found her nipple. They rolled it between them, and then one finger stroked it, his rough, fingertip stimulating her tender flesh.

Flora gasped. Tiny jolts of purest pleasure shot from his fingers throughout her body. It was – ooh! – so much better than touching herself in the bath. She arched her back, pushing her nipple against that wondrous finger of his. At the same time, some instinct she’d never known before made her move her knees apart.

Ritter took the obvious hint. His other hand was on her knee, and then moving up and underneath her dress and petticoats, pushing them aside, as it progressed slowly, deliberately, deliciously up her thighs.

‘What the hell are you doing?’ she scolded herself. ‘Make him stop, st-stop r-right now – ohh, G-d, doh-don’t!’

The small part of her that was still Forrest Stafford hated the female rapture that Clyde was stirring up within her. The Flora Stafford part of her luxuriated in her passion but hated the fact that Ritter was the one making her feel that way, instead of -- somebody she actually liked.

“And what do ye think the two of ye are doing out here, Flora… Mr. Rittter?” Molly scowled at the pair of them.

Clyde sat back quickly, guiltily yanking his hands away from her. “We’re just… enjoying ourselves, Mrs. O’Toole,” he said smoothly. “Making good use of this bench, as so many others have done.”

“Aye, so many unmarried others,” Molly scolded. “Ye’re a married man, Clyde Ritter. I may not care for the woman, but she is yuir wife. I’ll respect that fact, even if ye don’t.” She drew a breath. “So I’m telling the both of ye t’be getting back inside. Now!”

“Yes, Ma’am.” He rose to his feet.

Flora did as well, but she seemed a bit unsteady as she adjusted her dress. Her face was flushed, her breathing heavy, and her knees wouldn’t work the way they were supposed to. “Can he help me walk in, at least?” she asked meekly.

“Aye, he can do that.”

Clyde stepped over and put his arm around Flora’s waist. “Lean on me” he told her, taking her hand in his. They started walking, with Molly following a few feet behind.

“We’ll have to try that again some time when she’s not around,” he said very softly, as they made their way through the kitchen.

Flora’s strength was coming back, but she didn’t move away from him. She was bemused by the way her body was still reacting to his presence. “We can,” she whispered back, “if you bring me something nice to show me how much you want me.”

A thought came to her. “That ivory pin that Nancy Osbourne said you gave her once, the one she was too silly to accept -- that’d be just the thing.” She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “But, for now, you’d better go.”

And he did go, not saying a word but frowning thoughtfully.

* * * * *

Tuesday, June 11, 1872

Flora lay in bed, looking up at the ceiling in the darkened room. ‘It felt so good,’ she thought, ‘so damned good that I almost didn’t mind that it was Ritter doing it to me.’

‘That’s… dangerous thinking.’ She shivered and rolled over onto her side. Sweetums was on the bed next to her, and the kitten mewed softly in complaint and darted out of her way.

She stroked its back to quiet it and let her thoughts continue. ‘It’s supposed to be like… fly-fishing. You go out on the Little Colorado, south of Austin and tease those trout, flash your lure, and watch them go for it. Rainbows don’t just swim over and swallow your lure.’

‘And that’s pretty much what Rosalyn told me; flash my lures…’ She raised her head and looked down at her breasts lifting the blanket that covered her. ‘Get men’s attention by acting like a sweet little girl, that’s what she said, do that, and it’d drive O’Toole crazy.’ She chuckled softly. ‘Like O’Toole cares. He and that wife of his’re happy to see me acting the way I’ve been acting. He needs stronger medicine to get his comeuppance. That’s why I want to get Ritter to strike to my bait, so he’ll get somebody to beat the crap out of O’Toole for me.’

‘Only,’ she sighed. ‘Only, tonight, it was Clyde Ritter who was doing the casting. I was putty in his hands, and those hands… mmm.’ A smile came unbidden to her lips, as she remembered. Her body remembered, too. Her breasts were warm, tingling. Her nipples grew tight. Without thinking, her hand reached up to massage one breast, and the sensations grew. It was a good thing that she disliked him; otherwise she wasn’t sure what might happen if they got that close again.

Even so, it was pleasant to fantasize. Her other hand moved downward, her fingertips sliding over the fabric of her nightgown. It reached the juncture between her legs, and two – three – fingers rubbed her nether lips through the layers of fabric. She moaned and fell onto her back, her legs parted slightly to give her fingers better access. She lay there, panting, then her hips began to move to the rhythm of those fingers.

“Ohh… yes… yes – NO!” She spoke the last word loudly. Her hand shot up to cover her mouth, and she lay quiet, almost holding her breath, waiting for Lylah to say something.

Instead, all she heard was the other woman’s gentle snoring.

“Close,” she whispered, giving a long sigh of relief. ‘Ritter’s all but got me hooked,’ she told herself. ‘If I’m ever going to deal with him on my terms, I’d better strike now. Yes, tomorrow’s – today’s – the day I ask him for that favor. He’s all but got me – and why did it have to be him, anyway? It wasn’t like she wanted just any man. That last thought startled her. Who would she want touching her like that?

She shrugged and tried to get her thoughts back in line. ‘I may as well get something I want out of it?’ She pictured someone big – she couldn’t see whom – beating Shamus O’Toole into a bloody pulp. Some part of her liked what she was seeing, in a detached way, but she told herself that the real thing would be much better.

* * * * *

“Lookee what came in the mail yesterday.” Yully pulled a package from his school bag and tossed it on the table where the garrison was eating lunch.

Stephan grabbed it and read the return address. “U.S. Mili – It’s from West Point!” He turned it upside down and dumped the contents onto the table. He grabbed for one of the two identical booklets that had fallen out.

A letter was folded inside it. “Dear Mr. Yingling,” he read aloud. “Mr. Yingling, don’t that sound grand? Thank you for your interest in the U.S. Military Academy. The enclosed booklet includes all of the information you will need to apply when you reach the minimum age of…” He frowned. “…seventeen. That’s three years away.”

“Sounds like you just passed the arithmetic test,” Tomas said, trying to add some humor.

Ysabel shot the younger boy a nasty look. “That is not funny. What is Stephan going to do for the next three years until he can apply?”

“Maybe that minister’s school out in Indiana isn’t a bad idea, after all,” Yully said. “Didn’t you say that they covered most of the stuff you need to know for West Point?”

“All but the math -- boy, do they want a lot of that, and I can get that from Ysabel here, if no place else.” He smiled at her.

She smiled back. “Sí, I will be glad to help.”

“I’ll help, too,” Emma said, cocking her head proudly. “Mrs. Stone told me that I won first honors in arithmetic.”

“We’ll all help,” Yully added, “especially Ysabel. You do still wanna be a teacher, don’t you?”

“I do, but the school for teachers won’t take anyone younger than sixteen.” She gave a deep sigh. “My Mama says that I can help out with her laundry business till then.”

“That don’t sound like much fun,” Nestor Stone, Yully’s younger brother, said.

Ysabel shook her head. “It won’t be, but there are not many jobs for a girl my age. Emma got real lucky.”

“It wasn’t luck,” Emma replied. “It was hard work, and a lot of it was because of your helping me catch up in math, Ysabel. You’ll make a real good teacher someday; just wait and see.”

Stephan sighed. “I almost wouldn’t mind going to that school if Pa agreed that it was just till I could transfer to West Point.” He looked around the table, his glance stopping at Ysabel. “I’d miss you – all of you – though.”

“You think there’s any chance your father would let you do that?” Penny asked. “Go for a couple of years, but then switch over to West Point?”

Stephan made a face. “Oh, sure, about as much chance as our seeing pigs flying up over that hill.” He pointed to a hill off to the west of the schoolhouse. As he did, he saw Mrs. Stone come out onto the porch of the building.

“Looks like lunchtime is over,” he said. “You better take this back, Yully.” He handed the booklet over to his friend. “If my Pa ever found it, I’d… He’d whup me good ‘n’ hard.”

Yully put the material back into his book bag. “Okay, but I’ll keep it with me so’s you can see it any time you want.” He paused a beat. “And don’t worry ‘bout my folks. My Pa knows about it, and he promised not to tell anybody else, especially your Pa.”

“Thank Heaven for that,” Stephan answered, looking very relieved.

* * * * *

Tommy Carson stepped carefully through the swinging doors of the Saloon, still remembering how Shamus had treated his parents a few days before.

“Can I help you?” Lylah asked, walking over to where he was standing. If she recognized him as the child of the couple who had been so rude to her, she gave no sign.

The boy glanced nervously around the room. “I was looking for -- him!” He pointed over at Cap, who was sitting, talking to Bridget. Without a word of thanks, he rushed over to the pair.

“‘Scuse me, Mr. Lewis. I got a telegram for you, sir.” He held it out in front of him.

Cap took the envelope. “Thanks, son.” He handed Tommy a nickel. The boy pocketed it and hurried for the door.

“Who’s it from?” Bridget asked.

Cap tore the envelope and took out the sheet inside. “Red Tully,” he said. “I’ll read it aloud for you.” He took a quick breath. “Train leaves for Utah in twenty minutes. No change in Mr. Slocum. Bringing letters for you and Doc. Arrive on June 27. Red.”

“I’m sorry about your uncle,” Bridget said in a gentle voice.

Cap shrugged, taking her hand in his. “Doctor Vogel never promised an instant cure. And ‘no change’ means that Uncle Abner hasn’t gotten any worse, either.” He smiled, noticing that she hadn’t pulled her hand away.

‘Well,’ he thought, ‘something good came out of it, at least.’

* * * * *

“I do not want to rush things,” Teresa Diaz said, trying not to sound nervous as she wrote out the words “Spaulding” and “Sabato” onto a tag. “But have you decided about… my Annie?” She pinned the tag to the bag of dirty laundry they had just given her to clean.

Mrs. Spaulding and Hedley both turned to look at Clara. “What do you have to say on that subject, daughter?” her mother asked in a firm voice.

“I… Well…” The girl fidgeted in her wheelchair. “Yes,” she said, giving a deep sigh. The only other girls she’d had the chance to speak to since sending Annie away weeks earlier were the Carson Sisters. And they only came to flirt with Hedley. They were lying when they asked about her.

Annie had lied, too. She had admitted it, but she did it – so she said – only to avoid embarrassing Clara or her family. She was a much nicer girl -- It was so hard not to think of Annie as a girl.

‘What's more,’ she told herself, ‘Annie must know a lot about boys, and that would be something interesting to talk about.’ She smiled graciously and said, “Mrs. Diaz, would you and… Annie please join us for lunch on Saturday?”

Teresa felt her eyes moisten. “Thank you, Clara… Vida...” She smiled broadly. “We shall be happy -- most happy -- to have lunch with you all.”

* * * * *

“Señora Diaz… Señora Diaz… wait!”

Teresa turned at the sound of her name. Hedley Spaulding was running down the street towards her, waving his arm to get her attention. They were about two blocks away from the Spaulding house.

“Did your mother forget something?” she asked when he finally reached her.

He shook his head, taking just a moment to catch his breath. “N-No… ma’am.”

“She did not change her mind about Annie, I hope.” It hurt to ask, but it was a possibility.

“On, no, this has nothing to do with Saturday, except…” He stopped not sure how to ask what he wanted to ask her.

“What is it then?”

“Can…” He swallowed hard. “Can I talk to her? Is it all right – I mean, now that my mother and Clara are willing to talk to her?”

Teresa tried very hard not to smile. It was sweet, in a way, that the boy and Annie – ‘Arnie’ she reminded herself. ‘I must remember to think of her as Arnie.’ It was sweet the way they seemed to care for each other. Still… “I am sorry, Hedley, but my answer must be, ‘no’, for the present.”

“But why… my mother said it was okay for us all to talk?”

“Hedley, your Mama got mad, and your sister got very mad because… Annie kept a secret from them. Now you want to meet her in secret.” She shook her head. “No, not until after lunch on Saturday?”

He brightened. “But we can get together after that?”

“After that – if it goes well – you can talk to my daughter about it yourself.”

* * * * *

From the June 11, 1872 edition of The Eerie Citizen, an editorial by Roscoe Under:

` A New Game Begins

` Tonight at 6:30 PM, Horace Styron will be holding tryouts for the
` Eerie Eagles baseball team on the grounds of the Eerie Public School.
` The Eagles are sponsored by the Methodist Church, but the tryouts are
` open to anyone. The team’s first game will be against the Eerie
` Coyotes, a team sponsored by the Church of Our Lady of Blessed
` Charity, as part of the town’s Fourth of July Celebration.

` Frankly, The Eerie Citizen is very glad to see the game being
` planned. It is especially glad-making, since the eventual goal is the
` combining the best players from both teams in to an Eerie City Team.

` Recently, political thought – and action – in Eerie has been most
` divisive, splitting our community apart, creating distrust between
` friends and neighbors. Some of this has been due to people who we
` would have expected to be far more responsible, people whose true
` role should be to turn us to the higher path, not to lead us to the
` lower one.

` Now we will have two rival teams, but they will be friendly rivals,
` teammates eventually. Let’s all hope that it can be that way off the
` field, too. Everyone of us working towards their own goals, but all of
` us working in a spirit of friendly cooperation that has been too long
` missing from our public affairs.

` It’s a good sentiment on -- or off -- the field, “Play Ball!”

* * * * *

Constanza was putting the last of the silverware out on the table, when Arnie came through the door. “Mama,” the young girl called out, “she is home.”

“Ysabel,” Teresa said, “watch the food. I need to talk to Arnolda.” She wiped her hands on her apron and walked towards Arnie. “In private; Arnolda, please come with me to my bedroom.”

Arnie nodded and followed her mother. She studied the older woman as she walked. No, there didn’t seem to be any new problem with her leg. “What is it, Mama?” she asked once they were both in the other room.

“Shut the door, please,” Teresa ordered. She waited for the door to close before she continued. “We have an invitation, you and I.”

Arnie stared at her for a moment, before she realized what Teresa was saying. “Mama, do you mean…?”

“Sí, the Spauldings want us both to come to their house for lunch on Saturday.”

“They do?” Arnie’s concerned expression broadened into a grin. “Oh, Mama!” She ran over and embraced her mother.

“You certainly seem happy about lunch,” Teresa teased. “Is Señora Spaulding that good a cook?”

“Not as good as you, Mama. I am happy because -- if she invited me – she, they all have forgiven me, and we can be friends again.”

“All of them? Is there one of them that you especially want to forgive you and to be friends with you, again?”

‘Hedley,’ the answer came at once to her, but she was not going to say it. This was something different from any way she had ever felt before – as a boy or a girl. She looked down at the floor, hoping her mother wouldn’t see her face flush. “Cl-Clara,” she said aloud. “She is the one who was the most upset to find out the truth about me.”

“Clara… of course.” Teresa covered her mouth to hide her expression. ‘Spoken like a girl in love,’ she thought, ‘and trying to hide the fact. Where, oh where, would this lead to? Lunch on Saturday will be muy interesting.’

* * * * *

“Nu, Phillipia,” Aaron Silverman asked, as he took his seat, “have you decided to take our offer?” Aaron was sitting at the table in Whit Whitney’s dining room. Whit and Arsenio Caulder, the other two members of the town council, were next to him. Phillipia Stone sat across the table from the trio.

“It’s a very flattering offer, gentlemen,” she replied, “and I’ll admit that I have enjoyed being a school teacher these past weeks.”

Whit, the chairman, smiled. “And you’ve done an excellent job of it. That’s why we’d like you to stay on as the teacher for the next school year.”

“The problem is, I’m not just ‘the teacher.’ I’m also a married woman with a husband and four children to take care of. Three of those children would be my students next year, as well.”

“You managed to do all that this year,” Arsenio said. “Or were there problems that you didn’t tell us about?”

“Not really, but I was only teacher for a few weeks, and, to be honest, Nancy Osbourne was helping me – in the beginning, at least. I’d like to have some help again next year.”

Aaron shook his head. “Getting Nancy’s help might be a bissel – a little bit – harder next year. The Saloon keeps her -- jumping.”

“I wasn’t thinking of Nancy,” she answered. “There’s… I know of a young woman; she has no formal training, but she very much wants to be a teacher, and I believe that she’d be an excellent one.”

“And who is this jewel?” Aaron asked. “And how much would it cost to hire her?”

“Not very much. In fact, I’d be willing to take a small cut in what you offered me to help pay for her.”

“For who? A pig in a poke, I’m not interested in.” The shopkeeper chuckled. “It ain’t exactly kosher.”

“Ysabel Diaz. She’s one of the two girls graduating on Thursday.”

Whit raised an eyebrow. “She’s barely out of school herself, and you want her as your sort of assistant?”

“She’s been acting as the teacher’s assistant all year. She’d help with the younger students while Nancy or I was working with the older ones.”

“So she’d only be there to help with those younger students; is that what you’re saying?”

Phillipia shook her head “Oh, no… I believe that you’re all familiar with Emma O’Hanlan.”

“Yes…” Whit glanced at his fellow councilmen, both of whom nodded in agreement. “She took a dose of the potion last… November, wasn’t it? She was badly injured, and it saved her life.”

“Yes, but Elmer O’Hanlan was in fifth grade. Emma is graduating eighth grade. Ysabel tutored Emma after her change to bring her up to eighth grade level. In fact, Ysabel is a large part of the reason why Emma is able to graduate.” She paused a beat. “Not only that, Emma has a job with Jubal Cates when she graduates. He’s training her to be a surveyor. That takes a great deal of math, and, as I understand it, Ysabel has been helping her with that, also.”

Aaron stroked his chin. “There’s a saying that even an idiot can be a teacher, bu-ut…” He pronounced the word as if it had two syllables. “…he can’t be a good one.” He studied the woman’s expression. “You , we know, are a good one; so, I ask you, are you saying that she’s a good one, too?”

“I am. She wants to be a teacher, but the new teacher’s college over in Prescott won’t take any students less than 16-years old. I thought that she could get a very good start working with me.”

“Tell me one thing, Phillipia,” Arsenio said. “Will you take the job – even if we don’t hire Ysabel Diaz?”

“I will, but I’ll be able to do a better job for the children if you do hire her.”

Whit rose and reached across the table. “The job is yours, then.”

“Thank you, Mr. Whitney… gentlemen.” She shook Whit’s hand. “But what about Ysabel?”

“Let us think about it, if you don’t mind. We’ll give you and her both our answer at the graduation ceremony on Thursday, if you don’t mind the wait.”

“I suppose not,” she answered, looking Whit in the eye. “Especially if it’s the right answer; you know how much we teachers prefer right answers.”

* * * * *

Clyde Ritter pawed through the bottom drawer of his wife’s jewelry box. “It’s gotta be here someplace,” he muttered angrily. He was about to give up and just pull out the drawer and dump it on the top of the dresser, when he saw what he was looking for.

“There it is,” he said in a triumphant whisper. He saw a flash of white, hidden – mostly – under a length of enameled chain. “When the hell did she get that piece of crap?” he muttered, pushing it aside. He carefully took out the pin, the item he’d been looking for. It was a finely carved, round piece of ivory with a lustrous white pearl set in the center.

He smiled and held it up to get a better look. The pin sparkled in the light of the setting sun that was streaming through the bedroom window.

“Clyde,” Cecelia shouted from behind him, “what are you doing?”

He turned to face her. “Nothing that concerns you. Go downstairs.”

“Nothing? That’s my pin you’re holding.”

“No, it’s my pin. I just let you keep it in your jewelry box, but I didn’t buy it for you.”

“I know only too well that you didn't, but it's mine now. You… You put it back, or I’ll… I’ll tell.”

He glowered and took a step towards her. “Tell what, that your husband stole something from you? Under the law, as your husband, anything you have is mine, anyway.” He slipped the pin into his pocket.

“No,” he continued, “you’ll stop complaining and just go off with Lavinia and those other loudmouthed busybodies in your sewing circle. I let you play your stupid pretend politics because you were making trouble for the people I wanted you to make trouble for.” He took a breath. “And I’ll do what I feel like with your – with my -- jewelry.”

She blinked in astonishment. “My broach; you took that, too, didn’t you?” She crossed her arms in front of herself, and tried to look firm. “You’re up to your old tricks, like with Nancy Osborne. Is it her again? That saloon tramp! I-I won’t stand for it!”

“You won’t stand for it?” He slapped her face; she winced and staggered a step back. “You’ll stand for whatever I damned well tell you to stand for! Otherwise, you’ll find yourself divorced and out on the street with no home and not a penny to your name, nor a friendly hand to help you – I’ll see to that. Now, do we understand each other?”

Cecelia stood, trembling, as all her resolve flowed out of her. “Y-Yes, Clyde.” Her voice broke as she fought the tears welling in her eyes.

“Fine, now, get downstairs and fix dinner. I’m hungry.” He watched her turn slowly and walk through the door. “And not a word of this to anyone. I’m tired of talking about it.”

She nodded, “Yes, Clyde,” and kept walking towards the stairs.

* * * * *

Wednesday, June 12, 1872

“The boss wants to see you, Priscilla,” Rory Halpert said in a cheery voice. “In his office.”

Priscilla Stafford frowned. “I’ve asked you more than once to call me Miss Stafford, Mr. Halpert.”

“Maybe so, but the boss told me to call you Priscilla, and he’s the Stafford who pays me.” The man chuckled. “He said he didn’t want you putting on airs just ‘cause you were his daughter.”

She rose slowly to her feet. “No, we can’t have that, can we?” She walked past the man without another word and headed to the Colonel’s office.

“You wanted to see me, father?” she asked from the doorway.

The man smiled at her, something he rarely did. “Yes, Priscilla, come in – and close the door behind you.”

“Very well.” She did as he had ordered. “May I sit down?”

“No, this won’t take very long.” His smile grew wider. “Congratulations.”

“For what? I’m afraid that I don’t understand.”

“I just came from a meeting with Fred Reinhardt. He was quite taken with you on Sunday.”

“I’m so glad,” she replied coldly.

“Yes, he agreed to finance my railroad syndicate on remarkably good terms.”

“Then the congratulations are yours.”

“Not entirely; the terms are that he gets twenty percent of the stock… and your hand in marriage.”

Priscilla stared; she had been afraid of a moment like this one for years. “Me and that odious old man? Never!”

“Never is a very long time, Priscilla, especially for a girl with no resources to fall back on.”

“It’s too ridiculous to consider… Mother --”

He cut her off. “Your mother won’t say a word – not if she wants me to keep paying her bills and letting her live in my house in Atlanta. And don’t go crying to my wife for any help, either. You two may have been friends once, but she still hasn’t forgiven you for telling me all those lies about her and your brother, Forrest.”

‘They were true,’ she told herself, ‘but you’ll never take my word over hers.’ She took a breath and asked, “And if I refuse?”

“I’ll put you out like the baggage you are, your mother, too, if she tries to help you. I don’t have to support you anymore than I have to support your mother. Fred Reinhardt will be coming over Friday night for supper. After we eat, he and I will work out the details of our business agreement and of your wedding. You have until then to decide not to refuse.”

She stood silent, glowering at him, while she considered her options and trying desperately to think of more options to consider.

“Enough lollygagging, girl; get back to work.” She had no alternative, as far as he was concerned.

She sighed and lowered her head in submission. “Yes, father.” Shoulders stooped, she turned and walked slowly back to her desk.

* * * * *

“Laura!” Molly shouted gleefully. She came out from behind the bar and rushed over. Laura sat in her wheelchair near the Saloon’s swinging doors. Arsenio was right behind her. “What brings ye in here t’day?” Molly asked as soon as she reached them.

Arsenio chuckled, “I did.” He placed his hand on Laura’s shoulder.

“I’ve been feeling a lot better the last few days, but someone…” Laura reached up and covered his hand with her own. “…insisted that I still have to use this blasted chair.”

“The Doc said it was natural for a woman to feel a little weak or dizzy in the last weeks of her pregnancy,” Arsenio replied. “After all the trouble Laura’s had, I didn’t want to take any chances.”

“I’m fine,” his wife argued, “Honest, I am.” She took a breath. “Well, I’m a lot better, anyway.”

Molly had to smile. “Of course, ye are. The Good Lord knows ye’re as feisty as ye ever was.”

“And I wouldn’t have her any other way,” Arsenio said with a laugh.

“Neither would I,” Molly agreed happily. “Now ye just set yuirself up at a table – any one ye like – and I’ll be getting ye something t’be eating.” She thought for a moment. “We still got some of them sugar cookies Jane made yesterday.”

Laura raised an eyebrow. “Jane’s baking?”

“Aye, she baked an apple pie for Kirby Pinter. Turns out, she ain’t a bad baker, and a lot of other customers enjoyed some o’that same pie. Which got her ‘n’ Maggie ‘n’ me to talking about how there weren’t no desserts at the restaurants, and we decided that Jane could be doing something about that.”

“I’ll have to try those cookies, then.”

“Fine, and I’ll be bringing ye some ginger and rosemary tea t’wash ‘em down.”

“Now, how did you get hold of the very same tea that Dr. Upshaw made for me?”

Molly gave her a mysterious smile. “How d’ye think? I just told him I wanted t’have some ready for the next time ye came in here – which I knew ye’d be doing. And what d’ye want t’be drinking, Arsenio?”

“That same tea; Laura said if she had to suffer drinking it, so do I.” He laughed. “It’s not too bad once you get used to it.”

“We’ll make it three. I been wondering how it tastes. Speaking o’tastes, are ye gonna stay for supper, too?”

Laura nodded. “I am. My keeper…” She smiled up at Arsenio. “…said we can even stay for the Cactus Blossoms’ first show, if I’m not too tired. I’m curious to see what it’s like.”

“Oh, tis a spectacle, it is,” Molly told her. “And I oughta know, seeing as I’m the one who made it up. And, in the meantime, Maggie’s got some lovely venison steaks ye can try for yuir supper.”

Arsenio looked surprised. “Venison, how did you get venison?”

“Maggie wanted something different for the restaurant. Thuir’s mule deer up in the Superstitions, and she asked Davy Kitchner t’see if he couldn’t shoot one for her. He did, and he brought it down a few days ago. That butcher over at Ortega’s cut it up, and… now thuir’s venison steak at Maggie’s Place.”

Laura smiled. “I haven’t had venison in…” She glanced up at her husband. “Now we have to stay.”

* * * * *

Arsenio pushed Laura in her wheelchair over to Bridget’s poker table. “You got time for a little… girl talk?” Laura asked.

“Depends.” Bridget looked at her friend curiously. She gathered the cards she’d been playing with back into a single deck and set them aside. “What do you want to talk about?”

Laura looked up at Arsenio. “Push me in close to the table, please.” When he did, she added, “Why don’t you go over and talk to Shamus and R.J. for a bit?”

“I can take a hint,” he replied. He bent down and kissed her cheek before he headed for the bar.

Bridget watched, bemused, as Arsenio left. “You’ve certainly got him well-trained.”

“Not really,” Laura said. “He just thinks a woman as pregnant as I am should be pampered when she can be.” She waited a half beat. “Besides, he knows how… worried I am about you.”

“Shouldn’t you be worrying about yourself?” Her eyes trailed down to Laura’s swollen stomach. “You and… junior, I mean?”

“Oh, I’m worried about having the baby – and scared, to tell the truth. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t worry about other stuff. Stuff like you and Forry Stafford; how are you doing with her?”

“You mean am I over what Stafford did to me, yet? Laura, I’ll never get over it.”

“Never? I mean, she certainly paid for what he did. You and I never had to prance around in skimpy rigs, kicking up our heels, and showing our frillies to every man in the place.”

“It doesn’t matter; it’s not enough.” Bridget sighed and looked down at the table. “I-I’d have thought you’d understand. You were the one Jake Steinmetz tried to rape. But you just don’t…” Her voice trailed off.

“I’m sorry, Bridget. I admit that I was thoroughly pissed off at Jake for what almost did, but, after he took the potion, he -- she wasn’t Jake anymore. I’m still mad at him, I suppose, but Jane – I don’t know – somehow, Jane isn’t him. She’s my sweet, eager to please sister – sort of -- and I can’t be mad at her for what somebody else did. Can you understand that?”

“I… suppose, but Flora is different. She’s still Forry, teasing me about what he did to me, stealing that wooden soldier that Jessie puts such store in. Inside, she’s still the man that raped me, unrepentant and full of spite. I know it isn’t right, but I hate her as much as ever, and, right or wrong, I want her to suffer for what she did.” She glared at no one in particular. “To suffer!

* * * * *

Clyde Ritter stood and clapped his hands together softly, as Flora walked over to his table and sat down. “You were terrific tonight,” he told her. He took his own seat. There were two steins of beer on the table, and he picked one up and set it down in front of her. “I thought you might be thirsty after all that dancing.”

“Thank you.” She took a drink. It was only the near-beer that Shamus made her drink, but it was cold and wet. “And thank you for those kind words, too.”

“I’ve got more than ‘kind words’ for you.” He gave a meaningful tap to a bulge in his shirt pocket. “But I’d like to give it to you someplace more… private.”

Flora pouted. “That would be nice – only Molly told me not to go out back with you.”

“Then don’t.” He had to smile at the confused look on her face. “But if I left by the front door and then went around the side of the building, and you went out through the kitchen, we might meet up in the yard, but we wouldn’t have gone out there together, would we?”

She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “I knew you were a smart man.”

* * * * *

“That was certainly a good idea you had,” Flora said, snuggling in close to Clyde on a bench by the back wall of the Saloon.

Ritter put his arm around her waist. “Thanks, and here’s a better one, something to show how special I think you are.” He took a small box from his shirt pocket. The box was wrapped with white tissue paper and tied with a green ribbon.

“Oooh, thank you.” She took the package from him and carefully unwrapped it, putting the paper and ribbon down next to her on the bench. She opened the box and found… “It’s that ivory pin of Nancy’s.”

“No, it isn’t – not anymore. It’s ‘that ivory pin’ of Flora’s now.” He lifted it from the box. “Can I put it on you?”

She could see the eagerness in his face. “I’ll have to take it off for the next show – we jump around too much, but… yes, please.” She had him for sure.

“With pleasure.” He opened the clasp and let the sharpened wire come free. Two fingers slipped beneath the neckline of her dress, pushing the fabric away from her corset. With his other hand, he guided the wire through the fabric, out, and then captured it again with the clasp. “There we go; that looks real nice.”

The fingers that had been beneath her dress shifted, moving inside her corset, and beginning to massage her breast. “Feels real nice, too.” His hand inched down and began to play with her nipple. “Doesn’t it?”

“Oooh… yes, it d-does.” She closed her eyes, to better concentrate on the delicious sensations his touch was stirring in her. Her nipples tightened as her arousal flowed through her, and she arched her back, pressing her breast against his fingers.

Clyde leaned in to kiss her. She sighed, and his tongue darted in between her open lips to dance with hers. Without conscious thought, her right arm reached up to drape around his neck.

Clyde was the only man available at the moment, so she let herself enjoy it.

Flora felt herself being succumbing to the exquisite feelings he was creating in her. She was transported, and she wanted them to go on and on and on. Some instinct made her hand slide down, and she ran a finger along the bulge in his crotch. Its firmness almost made her giddy.

She wanted… ‘No!’ she told herself. ‘I will n-not give in. Ritter’s – oooh – I’m as ready to “jump at the lure” as he is. I b-better get him… get him to t-take it n-now, while I – ooh – can still think straight.’

“Well, now.” Clyde broke the kiss, surprised -- and pleased -- to find her stroking his maleness. “I’d say we can move this right along.” He carefully began to work at the top button of her dress. He opened it and moved down to the next one, which was tucked in between her breasts.

Her hands shot up to his chest, pushing him back… gently. “Clyde… please.”

‘Think fast, Flora,’ she cautioned herself. ‘Tease the man, but don’t lose him.’ She took a breath to calm herself. “I… I want to – to be with you,” she tried to explain, “but a girl… a girl has to be sure before she gives herself to a man – like I want to do.”

“What do you mean, ‘be sure’, Flora?” There was a tone of caution – and of suspicion edging towards anger – in his voice.

“Presents are nice… very nice. This pin…” She put her hand up to her breast, touching the ivory pin, but also touching, sliding her finger across her partially exposed breast. “… is lovely, but before I do something to -- with you, I need to know that I can trust you.”

“Who says you can’t? I’ve been good to you, ain’t I?”

“You’ve been very good to me.” She had said in a husky voice. “But buying me stuff, even expensive stuff like this pin, doesn’t show me that I can trust you, trust you enough to… you know.” She fell back on Roselyn’s lessons, smiling shyly and looking away for a moment, her eyes half closed. “I've never been with a man -- that way. This is so new to me.”

“All right – dammit – what do I have to do?”

Gotcha! “Shamus O’Toole, he’s been mean to me, real, real mean, and that judge, ordering me to take the potion -- and then adding a whole month to my sentence, two weeks more than Lylah got. You’ve got to… avenge me. Beat them up, hurt them as bad as they hurt me.” It was fun for her to just to say such a thing to the man.

“Me, slug it out with two men?”

She heard the words, but not the growing anger behind them. “Not you, personally; you’re an important man. You could just hire somebody, a couple roughnecks, and have them do it for me – for you. You do that for me, and…” She leaned in and kissed his cheek. “…you’ll... be… so... very… glad… that… you… did.” With each word, she gave him a peck on his cheek, his lips, his nose.

At the same time her hand had reached down, her fingers encircling his leg. With each word, she also gave it a gentle squeeze. It was the ultimate lesson from Roselyn, and it was something that Violet had done to her, two years ago when she was still Forrest. If she was only one tenth as delectable as Violet had been that night -- She felt a quick pain of regret; the night before Violet had announced that she was marrying his father instead of him -- her appeal would be irresistible.

She loved the power her beauty gave her. With someone else – Who? She wondered for a moment – she might have enjoyed herself, just as Forrest – poor, stupid, trusting Forrest had enjoyed it back then. With Clyde Ritter, it was a business negotiation strategy, nothing more.

“H-Hire somebody?” The faces of Higgins and Blake sprang into his mind. Those bastards had ruined his political plans, beating up on Roscoe Unger and wrecking his shop. Then they’d blackmailed him about it, threatening to say that he’d hired them to do it. They were halfway to the Dakotas by now and, he hoped, to a slow, painful death at the hands of the Sioux.

And now this… woman wanted him to do it again, hire some men to do something that they – the hell with any them – that she -- could blackmail him for. “You’d like that,” he growled, “wouldn’t you?”

“I just said I would,” she said cheerfully, not noticing his growing anger. “Didn’t I?”

“Yeah, you did; just like you kept telling me to give you presents.”

“Girls like presents.” She giggled, trying to act like the willing girl he had wanted before.

“Girls are supposed to like the men who give them the presents. Seems t’me you just like the presents.”

“That’s not true. I-I like you, Clyde.” She smiled and rested her hand on his arm.

“You do, do you? How about you prove it by giving me back that pin?” He wasn’t smiling anymore.

“But… But you just gave it to me.” She tried to understand what was happening; why he was suddenly acting so unreasonable.

“Well, now I want it back.” He glared at her. “You give it back, and then you can tell me how much you like me, even if I don’t give you presents.”

“That’s not fair.” His face was contorted with a ferocity that she had never seen in it before. She had taken some terrible misstep. She was losing the moment, losing it badly, and she didn’t know how to save the situation.

“I’ll tell you what’s fair.” He stood up and pulled his penknife from his jacket pocket. “Take off that pin,” he ordered. “Now!”

Flora rose slowly to her feet. “But…”

“Now.” He flicked his wrist, and the five-inch blade swung into place, locking with a click. He watched her with one eye while pretending he was cleaning his fingernails. “When you learn how to give, maybe I’ll think about letting you receive something later on. We’ll see.”

Flora took a few steps back, away from him and towards the porch. Hoping to mollify him, her hands fumbled at the pin, undoing it from the clasp and slipping it carefully from her dress. “You’re not being fair.” She felt her eyes burn. All her plans, her hopes of payback, all seemed lost. “Not fair at all.”

“I’m fair. I’m very fair.” His voice was low, menacing. “You kept telling me how much you liked me, how you wanted to be with me.” He made a sound that was half laugh, half snarl. “I’m gonna give you a chance to show it. You take off that pretty dress of yours…” He used the knife blade to push the unbuttoned top of her dress apart. “…and we’ll go to it, right here in the yard, right now.”

She shook her head and took another step back. “Somebody will see. No… I-I won’t.” She threw the pin at him.

“The hell you won’t, you little bitch!” He lunged, arms outstretched to grab her.

She dodged and stuck out a leg, as he charged past her. If she could trip him, she could probably make it to the safety of the building before he could get up and chase after her.

He stumbled and fell to the ground. The collision made her yelp in pain.

Flora stood, taking a moment to rub her sore leg before she darted away. She was braced for him to jump up and attack her, but he didn’t move. He didn’t even seem to be breathing. Careful of a trap, she knelt down after a few tense seconds and touched his arm. He still didn’t move.

It took some effort, but she managed to roll him over. His hand held firm to the hilt of his penknife.

The blade was buried in his chest and covered with blood. Lieutenant Forrest Stafford had seen enough dead men on the killing fields of the Civil War to recognize another here in Shamus O’Toole’s yard.

“Shit!” Flora wrapped her hand around his wrist and yanked. The blade came free, but she got some blood on her hand and on her dress.

There was a noise, and she nervously looked round. Matt Royce stood in the just opened doorway to the necessary. “You… You killed him.” Before she could say a word, he ran for the building shouting over and over, “Somebody get the sheriff. Flora just killed Clyde Ritter.”

* * * * *

Flora was still standing by the body, uncertain of what to do and bound by Shamus’ order not to escape, when a crowd of men came out into the yard, no more than a minute later. “Ye’d best be coming along peaceable,” Shamus told her. He spoke in a conversational tone, but, to Flora, it was an order.

“But I-I didn’t do anything,” she protested.

R.J. picked up the knife, carefully wrapping it in a bar towel. “Somebody surely did. That’s as neat a job as I’ve ever seen.”

“Better tie her hands till the Sheriff comes,” another man said. “Potion or not, she might try to bolt.”

Shamus nodded. “Ye’re right. R.J., there’s rope in the tool box; would ye be getting me some?”

“Right away.” The assistant barman hurried inside, returning quickly with the rope. “Sorry about this,” he told Flora, as he tied her hands together tightly.

“But I didn’t do it,” Flora said in an unbelieving voice. “I swear.”

Molly put her hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. “I’m sure ye didn’t mean t’be doing it, Flora, but the man’s dead nonetheless. The sheriff is going to have to sort this thing out.”

* * * * *

They led Flora back slowly to the barroom to wait for Sheriff Talbot and Doc Upshaw. And Stu Gallagher, the town’s undertaker.

Bridget waited until she was certain that no one was in the kitchen. Then, as quiet as she could be, she stepped out of pantry, where she’d hidden, when Matt Royce had run towards the building.

She’d been the on her way to the necessary, when she saw Flora step into view and Ritter menacing her with his knife. She’d stood in the shadows just inside the kitchen, watching the struggle between them and clearly seeing its fatal outcome.

A cruel smile curled her lips as she walked out onto the porch and down the steps to the necessary. “Suffer!“ she whispered into the darkness.

* * * * *

Thursday, June 13, 1872

“You have done very well with your lessons, Arnolda,” Dolores said, as the pair walked to work at the Saloon.

Arnie smiled. “Thank you, Dolores. I think that I have most of the steps down by now.”

“Are you going to tell Molly O’Toole? They can use another waiter-girl, especially this week.”

“I-I want to think about it more. I cannot decide.”

Her older cousin smiled. “It seems to me that you are too busy thinking about seeing the Spauldings on Saturday to be concerned about much of anything else.”

“Sí, I want to apologize again to Clara. I hope she forgives me.”

“And Hedley; do you want him to forgive you, also?”

Arnie felt a tingling run through her. “Oh, yes, him, too.”

* * * * *

Obie Wynn knocked on Judge Humphrey’s door. “‘Scuse me, Your Honor, there’s a Mrs. Ritter to see you.”

“Cecelia?” The judge rose to his feet. “Show her in, please.”

The clerk nodded and stepped back. “He’ll see you folks now.”

“Good morning, Cecelia,” the Judge greeted her as she walked into the room. “May I offer my sympathies on your loss? Clyde and I –”

He stopped as Reverend Yingling came in. “Good morning, sir,” the Reverend greeted him. “I have come to add my voice to Cecelia’s request.”

“What request? What do you want, Cecelia?”

“Where do you intend to have the trial of my poor Clyde’s murderer?”

Humphreys hesitated for a moment. “Normally… for a trial like this, I’d ask Shamus O –”

“No!” she shouted angrily. “No! I will not have the trial held in the very place where my dear Clyde was enticed to his death. I-I demand that you use someplace else.”

Yingling nodded grimly. “I concur. Holding the trial there would be highly inappropriate.” He looked straight in the Judge’s eyes, as he spoke. “Highly inappropriate… perhaps even immoral.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” the Judge replied, not a little surprised at the accusation, “but I can see your point, Cecelia.” He thought for a bit. “The only other place in town big enough is… the Lone Star. I’ll have to ask Sam Duggan, but I think he’ll be willing.”

Cecelia shook her head. “Another saloon, another whiskey-soaked den of evil; how can my Clyde ever find justice in a place like that?” Her eyes narrowed. “They… They should all be shut down, all of them, every last one of them.”

“Perhaps they will be.” Yingling put his hand gently on Cecelia’s arm. “But you and I can speak of such matters later. Right now, we have to see to getting justice for Clyde.”

The Judge bristled. “I assure you both that wherever the trial is held, justice will be served.”

“One can only hope that is the case,” the woman answered. “But justice will most decidedly not be served if it’s held in a saloon.”

Humphreys frowned. “Where would you suggest we hold it then, on the street? There is no other room large enough.”

“Yes, there is.” the Reverend spoke in an almost triumphant voice. “The very place where people pray every Sunday for our Lord’s justice and mercy can be the place where lesser, human justice is applied. Let the trial be held in the church.”

The jurist considered the idea. “It is big enough, but it’s the schoolhouse Monday through Friday. We can’t move the school.”

“We won’t have to,” Cecelia said gleefully. “The school year ends tomorrow. In fact, my Hermione is graduating tonight. The trial could be held Friday – after Clyde’s funeral, of course.”

Humphreys didn't like the idea of holding a murder trial in a children’s school, but challenging the Reverend's idea would put even more anger into a situation that was already boiling over. “I don’t want to be rushed in a half-day session, but we probably could start the trial there on Saturday. It’d be available Monday, too, if we needed it.”

Yingling rose to his feet. “It is settled then.” He held out his arm. “Come, Cecelia; we need not be in the Judge’s presence any longer.”

That was a backhanded crack! Lately Humphreys hadn't cared much for the parson's presence either. The Judge settled back in his chair, watching them leave, a look of disgust on his face. This was a bad situation. The idea that a fallen woman would kill one of the town's leading citizens would have a lot of people up in arms. Public opinion would be a wild bronco that he would somehow have to ride.

* * * * *

Priscilla Stafford knocked on the half-opened door. “Excuse me, Father. May I speak to you for a moment?”

“Just a moment,” the Colonel said, looking up from the paperwork on his desk. “I’ve work to do. So do you for that matter.”

She stepped into the office, closing the door behind her. “I was just wondering if you had heard from Forrest. He’s been away for quite some time now.”

“And he’s just as bad at keeping in touch with me as he ever was. I’ve heard no more from him out in Eerie, Arizona that I did when he was throwing my money away in Europe.”

“Eerie… that’s an odd name for a town. Why ever did he go there?”

“A… ah, personal matter. I’m sure that he’ll be back as soon as he’s dealt with it.”

“I do hope there isn’t anything wrong.” She fought hard not to show her concern. She’d been hoping to get her brother’s help to fend off Fred Reinhardt.

“If there were a problem, he’d have sent a letter pleading for my help. You can be sure of that.” To himself, he added, ‘the little bastard’s probably sleeping his way across the Arizona Territory like he did in Europe. As long as he doesn’t get himself – or some damned woman -- in trouble or spend too much money, I don’t give a good goddamn.’

He looked down at his desk, as if dismissing her. “Is there anything else?”

“Yes… umm, about Friday night.”

The man gritted his teeth, bracing for an argument. “What about Friday night?”

“I was wondering if I could have some money for a new dress?”

“Why? What’s the matter with what you wore the other day?”

“Mr. Reinhardt’s already seen me in it. You don’t want it to seem like I only have one good dress, do you? I mean, don’t you want to show me off to my best advantage? All the other good dresses I have are years out of style.”

“Good point; I’m glad that you’re warming up to the idea of marrying Fred.” He waited for her reaction. ‘She’s fishing for a new dress, but -- What the hell? -- buying her one would be an investment, not an expense. And after Reinhardt marries her, her clothes budget will be his problem.’

“It’s all I can think off.” She gave him a sarcastic smile.

“In that case, draw some money from petty cash – no more than $100, though. You can take the rest of the day off to find a dress you like.” He chuckled. “It’s not like you’re doing anything important around here.”

‘I never am,’ she thought to herself. Aloud, she said. “Thank you, Father. I’ll leave you to whatever you were doing when I came in.”

He was already back at work. “Shut the door behind you,” he answered without even looking up.

* * * * *

Zach Levy stood at the corner of the short jailhouse hallway. Flora sat in her cell a few feet away, staring at the opposite wall. Her hair was mussed, and she still wore her Cactus Blossoms costume. There were three or four spots of dried blood on the dress. “You’ve certainly gotten yourself into a pickle,” he said.

“What… oh, Levy.” She had started at the sound of his voice and turned on her cot to face him. “What are you doing here?”

“I heard that you might need a lawyer.” He raised a bemused eyebrow. “I am still your lawyer, aren’t I?”

“You are. You are, and…” She took a deep breath. “…oh, Lord, do I need your help.”

The lawyer motioned to Tor Johansson, the other deputy sheriff. “Please let me into her cell, Tor.”

The deputy came over and unlocked the door. He closed it, locking it, after Zach was inside. “I let you have privacy. You give a yell, vhen you vant out.”

“I will,” the lawyer said. “Thanks.” Tor nodded and walked away without a reply.

Zach sat down on the cot next to Flora. He opened his brown leather briefcase and took out a pad and pencil. “Now… tell me what happened.”

“I didn’t kill him. You’ve got to believe that.”

“Just tell me what happened, and I’ll decide what to believe.”

“Will you still be my lawyer if you think I did it?”

“I was your lawyer when I knew that you had ambushed Abner Slocum, and I’ll be your lawyer now. My job will just change from trying to prove your innocence to trying to get you the best possible deal.” He studied her face. “Do you understand that?”

“A deal? A deal is for guilty people. I’m innocent. At least, let me tell you what really happened before you decide that you can’t get me acquitted.”

“I’m listening.”

“Clyde and I were in the yard behind the Saloon… sitting on a bench… talking.”

“Just talking?”

She looked away, her eyes partly closed. She could hardly admit to her scheme to get someone to beat up Shamus and Judge Humphreys. “Well… we were kissing… spooning some.”

“Did you know that he was married?”

“Yes, Nancy Osbourne told me, and he admitted it. He said that it didn’t matter.”

“Did it matter to you?”

“No, I-I guess not. Shamus O’Toole wants his people to be nice to his customers. In my case, thanks to that damned potion of his, it’s more a command than a suggestion.”

“Being ‘nice’ to a customer doesn’t necessarily mean to go spooning in some private yard with him. On the other hand, we might get some sympathy for you if we could imply that Mr. O’Toole is forcing you into prostitution as some sort of special punishment.”

“I’m not a prostitute! I-I liked Clyde.”

“Then why did you kill him?”

“I didn’t! I swear I didn’t!” She sucked in a breath. “Why don’t you believe me?”

“Because I think you’re hiding something. Any lawyer will think the same thing. I just asked the question the way Milt Quinlan -- he’s acting as prosecutor for your case -- will ask it.” He made a note. “Now, one minute, you and Clyde Ritter are sitting on that bench spooning; the next minute, he’s on the ground – dead – with the knife that killed him in your hand. What went on between those two minutes?”

She clutched her arms in toward her body and shivered. “He’d just given me a gift – an ivory pin. But he expected me to go to bed with him for it. I told him that we didn’t know each other well enough for me to do something like that.”

“He demanded that I hand the gift back. I told him he wasn’t being fair. He drew a knife to let me know he was serious. I was afraid he’d kill me if I didn’t do what he told me, so I took off the pin and threw it at him.”

“Then he said that I knew how to take but didn’t know how to give. He told me that I’d have to start giving before I’d ever give anything else from him. He wanted to do it right there on the grass. He came at me with his arms out, to grab me. I dodged. I thought I could trip him and get inside the saloon, but he went down and fell on his knife. I tried to help him by pulling the knife out. That’s when all hell broke loose with somebody yelling and accusing me of murder.”

“That was Matt Royce. Why didn’t you yell?”

“Yell what?”

“Yell that Clyde was chasing you with a knife.” He looked her in the eye. “I certainly would.”

“I-I didn’t think of it. I was too scared… too busy trying not to get raped at the time.”

“Why didn’t you yell for help when you realized that he was dead?”

“Because Royce was already yelling enough for the both of us.”

“Why didn’t you try to explain what happened?”

“Nobody asked me what happened; they were all just calling me a murderer. It seemed more important to answer that accusation first. Nobody has asked me anything or let me say anything to anybody important until you came.”

“You didn’t think of that story then.” Zach studied her expression as he spoke. “Or you didn’t think of it until you were making up the nonsense that you were going to tell me? Which is it?” He shifted slightly on the cot. “How about you stop with the fairy tales and tell me what actually happened?”

“Why do you call it a fairy story? What’s not believable about it?”

“Listen, Miss Stafford, your life is at stake. You pled guilty a couple months ago to a charge of attempted murder; now you’re going to be accused of actually committing murder. It would be no great leap for a jury to decide that you’re quite capable of murdering Clyde Ritter.”

“To defend you successfully, I have to know everything that the prosecutor might find out and throw at us at the worst possible moment. I need to know every detail, even the details that make you look bad. I especially need to know everything that you did that might have contributed to his death. Don’t be afraid that I’ll tell anyone what you tell me. There’s a thing called attorney-client privilege, which means that, not only won’t I tell, but that they can’t force me to tell.”

“I’ll defend you even if I know you’re guilty. Depending on what you give me to work with, I’ll do my best to get you found not guilty or, if I can’t, I'll get you the best deal that I possibly can.”

“You’re frank about how lawyers do their job. I’ve always known that's how they work, but you’re honest enough to admit it, and I like that,” said Flora, somehow reassured.

“It’s a job – maybe a dirty job – that somebody has to do. Give me everything you have, and maybe there will be some useful kernel of fact in it that will save you.”

“Is this your first murder trial?” his client asked.

“Yes, it is, aside from practice cases in law school.”

“Well, doesn’t that fill me with loads of confidence?” she said with a sarcastic sigh.

* * * * *

“Nancy… Lylah,” Molly called out from the table where she was sitting, “could the two of ye come over here for a wee bit?”

The pair hurried to her and sat down. “What’s up?” Nancy asked.

“The Judge just sent word over; Flora’s trial ain’t gonna be held till Saturday, and it’ll be held out at the school.”

Lylah looked surprised. “I thought it was gonna be held here.”

“Aye, it was,” the older woman explained, “but Mrs. Ritter didn’t want it held in no ‘den of iniquity,’ and Judge Humphreys decided to go along with that.”

Nancy frowned. “Seems like everybody does what that harridan wants.”

“I ain’t no fonder of the woman than ye are, Nancy, but this here saloon’s the place where her husband died. I can see how she wouldn’t wanna be visiting it for the trial.”

Nancy gave a sour laugh. “Her husband didn’t have any trouble ‘visiting it.’ That’s why he’s dead.”

“Aye, but we’ll be respecting the widow’s wishes – this time, anyway.” Molly took a breath. “But that ain’t why I was calling the pair of ye over. Flora ain’t gonna be here t’be dancing with ye Friday night.” She hesitated for a beat. “Maybe not ever, if that trial goes against her.”

Lylah gasped at Molly’s words. “You think they’re gonna find her guilty and send her t’prison, Molly?”

“They might, Lylah; they just might,” the barwoman replied. To herself, she added, ‘or they may just hang her.’

Nancy frowned. “They don’t like to hang women,” she told them, “though it would hardly be a mercy to send her to prison for years and years.” The dancer’s feelings were decidedly conflicted. Flora was hard to like, seldom letting down her guard. ‘And I warned her to stay away from Clyde Ritter,’ she thought. It was a terrible business, and she didn't want to think about it anymore. “So what are we going to do about Friday night?” she asked.

Molly looked at the former schoolteacher. “That’s a good question. D’ye think ye could be learning ‘Captain Jinx’ in the next day ‘n’ a half?”

“Maybe, but I won’t make any promises. Couldn’t Lylah and I just do the dance we’ve been doing?”

Molly shook her head. “It’d look pretty sad with the two of ye doing the dance that I worked out for three.”

“Probably,” Nancy continued, “but it’d be easier to change the dance we’ve been doing, rather than for me to try and learn ‘Captain Jinx’, wouldn’t it?”

Molly thought for a moment. “Aye, that would be easier. What d’ye got in mind?”

“Pushing up something we’ve been working on anyway,” Nancy explained. “All we need is for Lylah to finally get the hang of doing a cartwheel.”

* * * * *

Bridget walked into the parlor at La Parisienne. Wilma was sitting in a plush, green horsehair chair holding a stereopticon viewer. They were the only two in the room. “Wilma?” Bridget said in a curious voice.

“Oh, hey, Bridget,” Wilma greeted her, setting down the viewer. “Thanks for coming over so quick.”

“Your note said that it was important, so I came right over.”

“It surely was.” She picked up a small china bell and rang it three times.

A slender black woman came in. She was carrying a bottle of champagne and two glasses on a silver tray. “Here you is, Wilma,” she said, setting the tray down on the table next to Wilma.

“Thanks, Daisy.” Wilma said quickly as the woman left. That done, Wilma picked up an ornate corkscrew and popped the cork like an expert. “Drink up, Bridget.” She filled the two glasses. “We got something – something big -- to celebrate.”

“What?”

Wilma laughed. “What? Why Flora Stafford, of course. I heard tell how she killed Clyde Ritter back behind the Saloon. I’m gonna miss that horny old bastard. He was a good customer -- a lousy lay, but he spent money like a drunken sailor.” She took a sip of the liquor. “Damn, that’s good. Like I was saying, I’ll miss Clyde, but it’ll be well-worth losing his business to see that Stafford bitch hang.”

“I guess.” Bridget took a long drink. “She certainly deserves to hang.”

“That she does; that she surely does.” Wilma laughed. “And she done it to herself, killing that fool Clyde. That’s the real beauty of it; that damned bitch done it to herself.”

“Yeah… to herself.” Bridget took a second drink, finishing the glass. Then she gave a hollow laugh and poured herself a refill. “It is kind of funny at that, isn’t it?” She took a sip and giggled from the bubbles tickling her nose.

* * * * *

Nancy Osbourne walked slowly into the clearing that surrounded the schoolhouse. The clearing was filled with chairs facing the porch in front of the building. Some people were sitting, the rest, milling around and talking. She stopped, still uncertain about being there, when she heard a shout. “Miss Osbourne,” Ysabel Diaz yelled. The girl ran over to her former teacher and threw her arms around the woman. “Oh, I’m so glad that you came.”

“Thank you for inviting me,” Nancy replied, returning the hug. She looked up to see Ysabel’s siblings, Constanza and Enrique, hurrying over.

Other people had heard Ysabel’s shout, and more children were running over to greet her. Some parents joined them. Others stood and glared, a few of the adults were trying to restrain squirming children, who shouted or waved greetings. Even so, some other children held back, looking as angrily at Nancy as their parents were.

“How dare you come here tonight,” Cecelia Ritter demanded, pushing her way through the crowd. “We don’t want you around. Go away.” In her black widow’s weeds, she reminded Nancy of the illustrations of the evil witch in the school’s copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a book she had sometimes read to her students.

Ysabel stepped in front of Nancy. “I invited Miss Osbourne, Mrs. Ritter.”

“Actually…” Emma joined her friend. “…we invited her. It is our graduation, after all.”

Hermione gave a dismissive snort. “It’s my graduation, too, and I certainly don’t want her here.”

“I do.” Yully had been standing off to the side near his parents, but now he walked over to stand with Emma and Ysabel. “That makes three out of the five of us.” Stephan had started towards them, but his father pulled him back.

Whit Whitney walked slowly over to Cecelia. “The commencement is open to anyone in town, Cecelia. If Nancy… Miss Osbourne wishes to attend, sitting quietly in the audience like any other citizen…” He glanced over at Nancy and winked. Nancy nodded once and winked back. “…she has every right to do so.”

“I object to having a woman like her anywhere near these poor innocent children.” Cecelia put a protective arm around Hermione and Clyde, Jr.

Whit nodded gravely. “And you have every right to object. You just write a letter stating your objections, and the other school board members and I will give it all the consideration it deserves – at our next meeting.” He smiled his most politic smile. “Now, if everyone will please take their places, we can get started.”

* * * * *

“My friends,” Reverend Yingling began, “we’ve gathered here to honor the five children -- no…” He smiled at the graduates who were sitting on chairs near the porch where he stood. “…the five young adults who are leaving their primary school years behind them and commencing a new stage in their lives tonight. Some of these students shall be going on for further education. My own son, Stephan, for example will be attending training next year for his eventual ordination as a minister in the Methodist church. Others will be finding employment and, eventually, marriage and families of their own.”

“It is altogether fitting that we, as a community – a family -- come together to celebrate their accomplishments and to look forward to their future triumphs. Just as, as a family, we join together to combat the threats facing our own families, our community.”

“And in this fight, we must not be distracted by vain attempts at compromise or place our hopes in the hands of false friends or in allies of the very threat that we are confronting. We must cleave to the biblical truths that guided our --”

Whit jumped up onto the porch. “That guided these young people…” He spoke in a loud, clear voice, while Yingling glowered at him, too surprised – and too angry – to speak. “… in their studies and in their plans, whatever they may, be for the future. Amen, and thank you for that fine speech, Reverend.” He pumped the minister’s hand, even as he gently guided him down from the porch.

* * * * *

Phillipia stood on the porch behind a small podium. “Ladies and gentlemen, family and friends, I give you the 1872 graduating class of the Eerie, Arizona Public School. When I call each student’s name, will he or she please come up to accept your diploma?” She waited a moment. “With the highest overall average, as well as first honors in science, our valedictorian, Ysabel Diaz.”

There was a round of applause, as Ysabel walked up onto the porch. She shook Phillipia’s hand and then turned to face the crowd. “The valedictorian gets to say a few words, they tell me. I just want to thank my teachers, Miss Osbourne for her encouragement all through my school years and Mrs. Stone for her help these last few weeks. I thank my family and my friends, everyone, who has guided me and loved me, and everyone who taught me how a true lady acts…” She looked at her mother and Dolores. Arnie was there, as well, sitting between Costanzia and Enrique, her younger siblings.

“…and doesn’t act.” Ysabel glanced quickly over to where Cecelia was sitting. “Thank you.”

“And I would like to add something,” Phillipia said. “As some of you may know, I have accepted the school board’s offer to continue on next year as teacher. The job is fulfilling, but it’s hard work, and I am a married woman with a husband and children to care for. After a bit of wrangling, the school board has just agreed to allow me to hire an assistant. And I have, one Ysabel Diaz, who, I am certain, will be a most valuable asset to the students and the school.”

Phillipia stepped back and began to applaud Ysabel. Nancy stood up from her chair and also began to clap. Soon, most of the audience joined in, although none of the Ritters did. Cecelia was aghast at the idea of this impudent Mexican brat being a teacher. Clyde, Jr. shuddered at the prospect of having to obey the girl he had been teasing for so long.

* * * * *

Emma received first honors in mathematics. Yully took first honors in history and geography, and Stephan took first honors in English.

Hermione was last and gave a wan smile as she received her diploma to a smattering of applause from her family and a few, younger friends.

* * * * *

Stephan Yingling walked into the classroom. Ysabel was sitting at the teacher’s desk, smiling to herself. Her elbows were on the desk, her hands together, imitating a teacher watching her students. She started when she saw the boy. “Uhh… Hi, Stephan; I was just trying out being a teacher.”

“Miss Diaz… Miss Diaz.” Stephan sat down quickly at one of the fourth grade student desks. He grinned and waved his outstretched hand, as if trying to get her attention.

Her smile broadened. “Yes, Stephan, do you have something to say?”

“They’re bringing out the ice cream and cake, Miss Diaz. Can we go get some?”

“Certainly.” They both rose to their feet.

Stephan stood by the desk as Ysabel walked towards him. When she reached him, he said, “I wanted to congratulate you, valedictorian and a job as Mrs. Stone’s assistant next year, that’s a pretty big deal.” As he spoke, he took her hand in his.

“Th-Thank you.” Ysabel felt a tingling, like a thousand butterflies taking wing from the hand she was holding and scattering to all parts of her body. A lot of them seemed to head for her chest or down below her tummy. She smiled, not sure of what was happening but enjoying it all the same, and stepped closer to Stephan.

He stared down into her dark, chocolate eyes. Something in them, warm and inviting, seemed to draw him in. He leaned down towards her. Their lips met, and the sensations got even stronger. By instinct, Stephan’s arm went around her waist, pulling her closer, even as Ysabel’s arm draped like a garland over his neck. Ysabel bent her knee so that her lower right leg rose upwards behind her.

“We better go get some of that ice cream before it’s all gone,” she said when they finally had to break the kiss.

He took her hand again. “Okay, but it won’t be as sweet.”

They smiled and walked out of the building hand in hand.

* * * * *

Friday, June 14, 1872

Daisy came into the kitchen just as Wilma was taking a long sip of her breakfast coffee.

“You got a letter, Wilma,” Daisy told her. “A li’l boy just brung it over from Silverman’s”

Wilma read the names on the envelope. “It’s from Phil Trumbell.”

“What’s it say?”

The demimonde tore the envelope open, and took out the letter inside. “Dear Wilma,” she read. “I just got word from the warden that they decided to let me out six weeks early on account of my good behavior. I expect to arrive back in Eerie on July 22, and we can celebrate my release with some bad behavior, some real, real bad behavior.”

Wilma smiled, running her tongue across her top lip. “Mmm, he’s got that right. We been teasing each other long distance since last fall. It’ll be so nice t’do it in person.”

“He say anything else?”

“Lemme see. ‘real, real bad behavior’, he says. Then he goes on…” She gave a raucous laugh. “…he says I should meet his stage with a mattress tied to my back, so we can get started right away.”

Daisy chuckled, shaking her head. “You gonna do it; meet him with that mattress on your back?”

“I’m gonna write him a letter back and tell him I will.” She laughed again. “But I’m gonna warn him that he better be the first man off that stage.”

“An' I'm gonna warn you, Miss Wilma. You kilt that man's brother, and what he did to even the score sent him to prison. He might still be powerfully mad. For all his dirty talk, he might really be cumin' back to finish what he started.”

“I'll take that under advisement, Daisy,” Wilma replied without much worry showing on her beautiful face.

* * * * *

The funeral was held in the Ritter parlor. Liam, Trisha, and Kaitlin stood in the line that was inching past Cecelia and her children. The Ritters were seated and all wore mourner’s black. Cecelia still had her hat on, although the veil was pulled up, away from her face. A few feet away, Clyde Ritter, Sr. lay in his coffin, with long, white candles, all lit, on brass pedestals set at each corner.

“Cecelia,” Trisha said softly, when she finally reached the mourners, “Clyde and I may have disagreed on a lot of things, but he was a good man, and I want to say --”

Cecelia had a slightly dazed look in her eyes, as she studied the woman standing in front of her. She blinked as recognition crept into her mind. “Whore,” she cried out, jumping to her feet.

“Mother,” Winthrop said, putting his arm around Cecelia. “What’s the matter?”

Trisha stared at the woman. “I know we aren’t exactly friends, Mrs. Ritter, but you’ve got no call to say something like that to me.”

“Don’t you lie to me, Trisha O’Hanlan. I’ve had three children, and I know what a pregnant woman’s belly looks like.” She put her hand on Trisha’s stomach. “It looks just like yours does.” She glared at Trisha. “Quitting the board for the good of the church – hah – you quit so no one would know what a brazen hussy you really are. I only… only wish my poor Clyde were alive to see the sort of cheap slut --”

Trisha stared at the woman, uncertain of what to say. ‘I knew people would find out,’ she told herself, ‘but not like this.’

Roscoe had been standing off in a corner, out of the way, covering the story of the funeral for his paper. “Mrs. Ritter,” he said in a loud, firm voice. At the same time, he strode over and put his arm around Trisha’s waist. “I’ll thank you not to speak that way to the mother of my child.”

He gave Trisha a quick peck on the cheek and guided her out of the Ritter house before she – or anyone else – could say another word.

“What did you just do?” Trisha asked him as soon as they were outside. “Why did you lie for me like that?”

He smiled – he had such a nice smile. “It wasn’t a lie.” He reached up and gently ran a finger down her cheek. “It was… wishful thinking.” Then he glanced back over his shoulder. “I have to go back inside to cover the funeral. Why don’t you go home, and we’ll talk about… things later, okay?” He kissed her forehead and hurried back into the Ritters’ home.

“Uhh… Okay.” She wanted – oh, Lord, how she wanted to kiss him, to thank him for what he had just done. Instead, she just stood, a shy smile curling her lips as she watched him disappear into the house.

* * * * *

Liam O’Hanlan sidled up next to Dwight Albertson as the two men were walking back to town after Clyde Ritter’s burial. “Can I talk to you for a minute, Dwight?”

“I don’t see why not,” Dwight said amiably.

“A few of the church board members are getting together in the Judge’s chambers as soon as we get back to town. Can you come? It’s important.”

“I-I don’t know. I’ve a lot of work to do?” Albertson took a quick glance at his pocket watch.

“So do I; so do all of us, but it is important. And we won’t be long. I promise.”

“We'd better not be.”

* * * * *

Rupert Warrick looked around, as he walked into Judge Humphrey’s chambers. “Everybody’s here but Horace and Willie, I see.”

“It would’ve been a waste of time to invite them, I think,” Liam said, “but thank you for coming, Rupe.”

Warrick took a seat. “You said that you had some sort of story to tell… so tell it.”

“Okay, Jubal, please tell Dwight and Rupe what happened at the school graduation ceremony last night.”

Jubal Cates took a breath and began. “Reverend Yingling went – I don’t know – crazy. He started off with a nice simple opening prayer. Then he said how we were all there to celebrate the kids who were graduating, and finally he go to how his kid, Stephan, was going on to be a preacher… just what you’d expect.” He sighed. “Then, all of a sudden, he starts talking about some evil threat to the whole town and how we can’t compromise and we gotta stick to… biblical truths.”

“Whit Whitney jumped in right then,” the Judge said, “and got things back on track. Yingling was fit to be tied.”

“Did he say or do anything else?”

“No…,” Liam said. “Come to think of it, I didn’t see him after that. He must’ve gone home.”

“Or got sent home,” Judge Humphreys said, “and a good thing, too, whatever happened. He’d’ve probably tried to make another speech, one just as disruptive as the first.” He paused and looked at the others. “And that’s the problem.” He waited a moment before he continued. “He’s obsessed with the potion. He sees it as the ultimate evil, and he sees anyone who says otherwise, anyone who disagrees with him in any way, as just as evil.”

“Has anybody talked to him about it?” Jubal asked.

The Judge nodded. “I tried on Monday, before the potion committee meeting, and he all but accused me of being in league with the Devil.” He shook his head sadly. “He’s becoming an embarrassment to himself – and to our church.”

“Are you telling us that we have to... to fire him?” Dwight Albertson asked in a shocked voice.

Rupe frowned. “Can we fire him?”

“We can,” Humphreys told them,” but I don’t think – I hope it hasn’t come to that… yet.”

“Then why’re we all here?” Jubal asked.

Liam looked at the others. “Because it may come to that – and, no, I don’t want it to, either. But if it does, it can’t be a spur of the moment thing. For the sake of our own consciences and in honor of what Reverend Yingling has done for this town, it has to be something that we’ve thought about, something that we’ve prepared ourselves to do, not because we want to, but because we’ve decided that we have to do it.”

* * * * *

As Emma came near the place on the hillside that hid the entrance to Fort Secret, she saw Yully Stone sitting alone nearby. “Yully,” she greeted him. “What’re you doing here so early, and where are Penny and Nestor?”

“They’ll be along in a bit,” Yully replied. “I came on ahead. I… umm, I wanted to talk to you... alone, if I got the chance.”

“Alone?”

“Yeah, I…um, congratulations on getting first honors in mathematics.”

“Same to you, for history and geography.” She studied his face, trying to understand what he was saying. “Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?”

“Yes… no, dang it, Emma, no, it isn’t.” He swallowed hard. “I-I wanted to say how nice you looked with your hair up in a braid like you had it last night – and today – instead of in pigtails, like you been wearing it.”

A warm, happy glow ran through her. She felt suddenly shy. “Do... do you really think so?”

“I-I said it, didn’t I? I liked that green dress you had on last night. It made you look real pretty and grown-up and…” His voice trailed off.

Emma reached out to touch his hand. The warm feeling came back, stronger than before, as she felt his fingers curl around his. She sat down beside him and looked around. There was no sign of anyone coming in either direction. “Thank you, Yully. That’s the nicest graduation present I could’ve gotten.” She gave him a quick peck on the cheek. He smiled broadly and kissed her back.

They didn’t say – or do – anything more, but they were still sitting there, smiling, and holding hands, until they heard Tomas coming towards them.

* * * * *

Liam and Trisha were talking when Trisha finally came back to the Feed & Grain after walking around aimlessly, trying to understand what had happened at the funeral. As soon as Trisha had come in, Kaitlin hurried over and turned the latch, locking the door. Once that was done, she turned the window card, so that the “Closed” side faced out to the street.

“Where the hell have you been,” Liam demanded, “and who have you been with -- as if we didn’t know.”

Trisha jerked her head back, as if physically struck. “I... I was just – is that why you closed the store, so the two of you could yell at me?”

“Damn right,” he replied angrily, “and don’t tell me we can’t close it. Kaitlin and I own more of this store than you do, if you’ll remember.”

“Oh, I remember,” Trisha shot back, “and that was your idea, too, as I recall.”

Liam frowned. “If you ‘recall’ so much, maybe you can recall why you lied to us about Roscoe?”

“I never lied about Roscoe.”

Liam gave a harsh laugh. “Oh, sure; he claimed to be the father of your baby just for the hell of it.”

“He isn’t the father,” Trisha insisted. “I honestly don’t know why he said that he was.” She didn’t know, but, for some reason, she was glad that he had, and – oh -- how she wished he were here to defend her now.

“Liam and I saw you talking to him, outside, before he… kissed you. What did he say?”

“I asked him just what you asked me, why he lied to Cecelia Ritter. He said that it wasn’t a lie. He said…” She looked uncertain about what she was saying. “He said that it was wishful thinking – whatever that means.”

Kaitlin smiled knowingly. “It means that he wishes he was the father.”

“You believe her story, Kaitlin?” Liam stormed. “You actually think it was somebody else, Rhys Godwyn or one of those mystery men, she never told me the name of.”

Kaitlin nodded. “I do.” She knew the names; she’d forced Trisha to tell her all those weeks ago, but now she wanted to see if her former husband would tell Liam.

“It is true,” Trisha insisted. “No matter what he may tell people, Roscoe isn’t the father.”

He glared at her. “Then who is – and don’t tell me that you don’t know.”

“I-I don’t, honest.”

His glare got stronger, if that was possible. “Then pick one.”

Kaitlin gasped. “Liam! You can’t be serious.”

“Sure I can, and she has to pick one. Thanks to Cecelia Ritter, the whole town knows – or will know pretty quick – that Trisha’s pregnant. We can’t deny that. If Cecelia can see it, everybody else will be able to, soon enough.”

He glared at his sister again. “And they’re all going to think that it’s Roscoe’s baby, thanks to that speech he made. The way I see it, she has two choices, to go along with Roscoe, and let him claim the baby – and her -- or pick somebody else for the job.”

“P-Pick somebody?”

“That’s what I said… little sister. Now that your secret’s out, you’re a fallen woman, and the only way to get your good name back is to find a father for that baby… and a husband for yourself.”

“Husband? Not one of the men who could be the real father was fit to be any woman's husband.”

“That’s the bed you made,” Liam told her, a nasty grin on his face. “And now you get to pick who lies in it with you. So think real carefully, Trisha. It’ll probably be a new experience for you, but you can try. You’ve got till suppertime Sunday to tell me who my new brother-in-law is going to be, and I’ll do the rest.”

* * * * *

Fred Reinhardt took a long drink of his brandy, draining his snifter. “Shame ‘bout that pretty daughter of yours not being here, Stafford. I was looking forward t’spending some time alone with her, seeing how we’re… engaged.” He raised the empty glass and the butler hurried over to refill it.

“Yes, I am sorry about that,” Colonel Stafford replied smoothly. “But when she got that telegram from her mother – my second wife – asking for help, while she was ill… Well, the girl just dotes on her mother. She was heartbroken about not seeing you tonight, but she had to go to Atlanta.”

“And when’s she gonna be back?”

“That’s hard to say. It's a long way, and you know how some illnesses can linger.” He studied Reinhardt’s expression, while he silently cursed Priscilla for disappearing the way she had. ‘She can’t hide from Pinkerton,’ he told himself, ‘and when they bring her back, I’ll whip the tar out of her and then chain her to the bedpost.’ He chuckled. ‘Reinhardt might just prefer her that way.’

“Do you keep in touch with your former wife?”

“Not really.” Touch was the right word. ‘If Priscilla is with Daphne, my former wife will find that her meal ticket from me just expired.’ He decided to change the subject. “But enough talk of my family, Fred. How about we go over the details of the railroad you’re going to help finance.”

“Sounds good t’me.” Reinhardt put down his brandy. It took a bit of work to get his overstuffed body up and out of the equally overstuffed chair he was sitting in. “This deal is sweet enough that I’d’ve probably bought in, even if you hadn’t made your daughter part of the deal.” He chuckled, “Of course, you wouldn’t have gotten terms anywhere near as good if she wasn’t…” He chuckled again, sounding nastier this time, “…on the table as part of the deal.”

* * * * *

As the music reached its peak, Nancy and Lylah were at opposite ends of the area doing randy jams. Suddenly, Nancy gave a whoop and started skipping towards Lylah’s side of the stage. At center stage, she whooped again and did a cartwheel to get the rest of the way across. She stood up, she put her hands on her hips and did a jig step, facing Lylah, as if challenging the black woman.

Lylah danced away. Halfway across the stage, she whooped and cartwheeled to the far side. She did the same jig step that Nancy had, put her hands on her hips, and gave a quick nod of the head, as if saying, “So there.”

The two women faced each other and did cartwheels, winding up next to each other. They linked arms and did a few high kicks, before they each whooped one last time and dropped down into splits just as the music ended.

The crowd exploded, applauding, yelling and whistling raucously. A few men fired pistols, and more than a few threw coins at the pair.

* * * * *

“I gots to admit,” Luke said, as he and Lylah settled down on the bench behind the Saloon, “I didn’t even know if there was gonna be a show tonight, not with Flora in jail.”

Lylah smiled, feeling very smug. “Well, there was, ‘n’ the way they was clapping ‘n’ yelling, I’d say that people thought we done okay.”

“Okay? Gal, you was fantastic, doing all them cartwheels like you done.”

“Seems like cartwheels was all I’ve been doing the last couple days. Molly ‘n’ Nancy kept at me till I learned how t’do ‘em. Then we practiced the new version of the dance till I could do it in my sleep.”

“You sure didn’t look like you was sleeping in there. The way you was dancing, jumping ‘round and yelling, was a pure delight.”

“I’m glad everybody liked it so much – ‘specially you. If Flora don’t get outta jail, me and Nancy’re gonna be doing it that way for a good, long time.” She paused, remembering Flora’s situation. “And she’s gonna – I don’t know where she’s gonna be.”

“Ain’t nobody knows. They say she murdered Mr. Ritter. A person can hang for that.”

“You think so. Dang, that’d be --”

Luke cut her off, putting a raised finger in front of her lips and whispering “Shhh,” before he continued in his normal voice. “I didn’t bring you out here t’talk about your dancing or Flora or anything else.” He took her head in his hands and drew close. “I brought you out here for this.” His lips touched hers in a kiss that quickly grew more and more intense.

Lylah sighed. He pressed his lips against hers. Her tongue brushed against Luke’s lips for a moment before it fled back into her mouth. His mouth opened slightly. She could taste the sweetness of his breath as he began to suck on her upper lip. The warmth of his kiss flowed through her body. Her arms rose slowly, gliding up and around his shoulders and neck, even as his arms encircled her, pulling her even closer.

When he broke the kiss, she looked up at him with half-closed eyes and an expectant smile on her lips. He kissed her again on the lips, a quick kiss, before he left a slow trail of kisses across her face, her chin, and on down her neck.

She trembled, lost in the feelings, the flames, he was kindling in her. Her nipples were drum tight, pushing out her corset. The warmth, the yearning that was building in the cleft between her legs was more than she could bear. It was a hunger that she longed to feed, and feed, and feed....

While he nibbled on her neck, Luke’s hands reached for the green buttons on her dress. He quickly undid the top four, revealing the cactus-flower pink bodice she wore beneath. He waited for her reaction, and when she made no effort to stop him, he began undoing the hooks.

He moved back up to kiss her on the mouth again, and she moaned, as his tongue slipped back into her mouth. At the same time, his hands finished with her garments, and he gently pulled them aside, freeing her breasts.

Again, he waited for her to react, but all that happened was a murmured, “Oh, yes,” when he broke the kiss. He smiled as he moved down to run his tongue across the tender flesh of her breast. She moaned again, and he took her nipple into his mouth, sucking at it like a nursing calf.

She leaned back slowly, bracing her arms on the bench. At the same time, she arched her back, pushing her breast at him, making it even easier to work at her extended nipple, while she luxuriated in the thrills that he was sending through her.

His hand reached up to play with her other breast. His fingernail ran across it, raising sparks like a sulfur match on sandpaper.

Lylah moaned again, overwhelmed by delicious sensations. She wanted more, and some instinct she’d never realized she had made her spread her legs in invitation. At the same time, her arm shifted and her hand began to caress his thigh.

He did the same, pressing firmly down to feel her flesh beneath her dress and the layers of petticoat. He moved slowly, past her knee, between her thighs, until his hand reached the narrow space at the juncture of her legs. Then he wriggled his fingers against her.

Lylah had never been touched this way before. She made a deep, sensual noise, a giggle of delight, and pressed her legs together. His hand was trapped, still moving against her. She luxuriated in the exquisite yearning he was causing her to know. “Yes… please, yes.” Her arm moved up and around his head, holding it in place against her. Her other hand was still on his leg, just now reaching his crotch. The bulging she felt was so big and firm and, somehow, oh, so very, very reassuring.

The world seemed to fall away from them. All they knew was the mutual fervor they felt for each other.

It lasted – they didn’t know or care how long – until they heard a voice.

“Just in case thuir’s either o’the Cactus Blossoms out here,” Molly called, standing on the top step and out of sight of the bench, “she needs t’be getting inside and getting ready for the next show.”

A short time later, she stepped back as Luke and Lylah came around the side of the building and onto the steps. They’d have been holding hands, if they both weren’t hurriedly adjusting their clothes.

* * * * *

Saturday, June 15, 1872

A News Item from the June 11, 1872 edition of The Eerie Citizen.

` Eerie Makes the Grade

` This Saturday, Eerie, Arizona will join the list of cities and towns
` from all across these United States that have had a Sanborn insurance
` map drawn up for their buildings.

` These maps use a very detailed system of colors and symbols to detail
` how each building is constructed and what use or uses it is being put
` to. The maps are used by all major insurance companies to assess
` risk and set rates. And, in the event of a fire – as recently beset
` the building that your own Eerie Citizen is published in – or any
` other calamity, the insurer is better able to indemnify the policy
` holder.

` Insurance companies view these maps very favorably. In fact, we are
` reliably told that towns that have had such maps drawn up have found
` that their insurance rates have lowered.

` The map is being prepared by Mr. Jubal Cates, local surveyor, and his
` new apprentice, Miss Emma O’Hanlan. Mr. Cates is quite familiar with
` the Sanborn insurance map system. Indeed, he worked alongside of
` Daniel Alfred Sanborn, the originator of the system, in the creation
` of the insurance map for Boston, Massachusetts.

` Mr. Cates has met with the members of the Eerie town council, who
` have all wholeheartedly supported the project, as does this
` newspaper. In fact, the first four buildings to be surveyed are the
` those containing Josiah “Whit” Whitney’s barbershop and his wife’s
` bathhouse, Aaron Silverman’s Dry Goods, Arsenio Caulder’s smithy, and
` the offices of The Eerie Citizen. We trust that the rest of
` the good citizens of Eerie will all be equally willing participants.

* * * * *

Teresa Diaz walked up to the back steps to the Spaulding house. “Are you ready, Arnolda?” Hearing no answer, she looked around, finally seeing her daughter hanging back by the entrance to the yard.

“Arnolda,” she asked, “why are you standing so far away? Come over here.”

Arnie shook her head. “No, I… This was a mistake.”

“No, it was not. Come over here, and you can carry the clean laundry up onto the porch for me.”

Arnie nodded. “Sí, Mama.” Still uncertain, but unwilling to disobey her mother, she walked slowly over to the laundry cart and picked up the three bundles that were the Spaulding’s clothing.

“Ah, Teresa,” Mrs. Spaulding said, opening the back door, just as they reached the porch. “And Annie, too. Or do we call you Arnie?”

The girl looked down, not quite able to meet Vida Spaulding’s gaze. “Arnie is the thoughtless boy who lied to Clara… to all of you,” she answered in a halting voice. “Annie is the stranger who you welcomed into your home and allowed to become your friend.” She and Dolores had worked out the words of apology, and she had practiced the speech over and over, hoping to get it right. “I would rather that you think of me as Annie.”

“Annie it is then, and she… you are welcome in our home.” Mrs. Spaulding stepped aside, holding the door open and gesturing for Teresa and Annie to go inside.

Hedley was waiting in the kitchen, standing next to the worktable. Clara sat next to him in her wheelchair. “You are, indeed,” he said, flashing a broad smile.

“H-Hello, Annie,” Clara added.

Arnie set the laundry down on the table and hurried to her. “Clara, how are you feeling? Are – Are you still coughing, or are you better? You seem better. That dress, it is the one I wore for you.” She looked up at Hedley for a moment. “You see, I said that it would look better on her, and it does, doesn’t it?”

Clara laughed at Arnie’s bubbling questions. “Yes, Annie, I-I am better. Thank you for asking.”

“I’m fine, too, by the way,” Hedley said sourly, but then he winked. “It is good to see you again, Annie.” He studied her for a short time. “Is that a new dress? It fits you… very well.”

Arnie suddenly felt a delicious warmth run through her. “It is new, yes.”

“Why don’t we settle up on the laundry?” Mrs. Spaulding suggested. “Then we can all sit down and catch up on things over lunch.”

* * * * *

In short order, they were seated around the dining table. Vida Spaulding and Teresa Diaz each sat at an end. Clara and Arnie sat along one side. “So we can tell each other secrets,” Clara explained with a giggle.

Hedley sat opposite them. “The better to look at you,” he’d whispered to Arnie, causing her to blush and – almost – giggle herself, as he helped her into her chair.

“Are you still working for your mother, Annie?” Vida asked.

Teresa answered for her. “She was only helping out while my broken bones healed. Now she works for --”

“Mama!” Arnie all but shouted, suddenly afraid of how the Spauldings would react to her working for Shamus.

Teresa smiled gently and reached over, putting her hand on Arnie’s arm. “Annie yelled like that because she was afraid that the truth would shock you.” She took a breath. “She is working as a waitress at the Eerie Saloon.” She said the last words quickly, in case Arnie tried to stop her.

“A saloon,” Clara giggled. “Oh, my, how scandalous.”

Hedley grinned and leaned forward to look closer at Arnie. “How scandalous, indeed.” Arnie felt as if he was looking right through her clothes, and she had to fight to keep her hands from modestly covering herself.

“Isn’t that the place where they had the potion that… changed you?” Vida asked. “Are those people forcing you to work for them?”

Teresa spoke before Arnie could frame an answer. “Oh, no, they are good people. The owner’s wife, Mrs. O’Toole – Molly – is a friend of mine. They pay Annie – and my niece, Dolores -- a good wage to wait on their customers and do the dishes. Mollie has them help with the housework, too, sweeping floors and changing the linen in the rooms that the Saloon rents out.”

“You’re not one of those Cactus Blossoms I keep hearing about, are you?” Hedley asked, sounding hopeful.

Arnie felt a blush race across her face. “Oh… no, I could not do something like that.” She decided not to mention the Saturday night dances. She still wasn’t completely certain that she was going to ask about being one of the waiter girls. ‘Maybe,’ she thought, ‘if I knew that Hedley would come to the dance.’

And she blushed again.

* * * * *

Zach Levy moved in until he was standing very close to the eighth-grade desk that was serving as the witness stand. “Miss Stafford,” he told Flora in a clear voice, “Hit me.”

“What?” Flora couldn’t understand.

He was right next to her now. “Hit me, better yet, stand up and slap my face.”

“I-I can’t.”

“You’re on trial for your life, Miss Stafford. Do it.”

“You know I can’t. O’Toole’s potion won’t let me.”

“Could you explain that, please?”

“Shamus, when he gave me that damned potion of his, and I… I changed, I had to do whatever he said, and he told me that I couldn’t hurt anybody.”

“You can’t hurt anyone, anyone at all?”

“No, I-I can’t.”

“Then I suppose you couldn’t kill anyone either, could you?”

Flora brightened, understanding what he’d been trying to do. “No… No, I couldn’t.”

“No more questions,” Zach said confidently. “Thank you, Flora.” He walked back over to the student desk that he was using.

Milt Quinlan stood up. “You can’t hurt anyone, Miss Stafford. Is that right?”

“I just said so, didn’t I?”

He walked over to where Zach had stood. “I say that you can.” He leaned in close. “You know I’m right, so why don’t you just slap my face and have done with it. C’mon, what’ve you got to lose?” He waited a half beat, and then added, “Bitch.”

“Objection, Your Honor!” Zach leapt to his feet. “Mr. Quinlan has no right to insult my client like that.”

The Judge nodded. “I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Levy. Let’s have no more language of that sort towards this or any other witness.”

“Very well, Your Honor,” Milt replied. “Hit me, Miss Stafford, if you can.”

“I can’t!” The frustration showed in her voice. “And you know that I can’t.”

Milt smirked. “You say that you can’t. All right, then, is it because of Shamus O’Toole’s potion, or is it because you’re afraid to hit me. Is that it, really, you’re afraid?”

“No, I-I’m…”

“I say it is. I say that you’re a coward. You couldn’t face Abner Slocum, so you had to ambush him. And you couldn’t kill Clyde Ritter – so you say – because you were just too scared to do it.”

“I’m no coward.” She quickly added, “I didn’t kill Clyde, but I’m no coward.”

“I say you are. Coward, coward, coward, yellow belly, chicken.” As he said the last word, he suddenly reached out and pushed her.

“Bastard!” She growled. The potion allowed for self-defense, and Flora reacted to the push, slapping his face.

Milt smiled in triumph. “It seems that you can hit me, after all. No more questions.”

Zach quickly rose to his feet. “That’s right, Mr. Prosecutor, she can hit someone, but only in self-defense, as you’ve just demonstrated. Thank you.”

* * * * *

Trisha watched the jury walk out of the schoolhouse. A tent, she saw, had been set up over two of the picnic tables, and the twelve men were headed for it. As soon as they had, Sheriff Talbot took his place a few feet in front of the tent’s entrance in order to ensure the men privacy for their deliberations. “Time to find Roscoe,” she told herself.

“Trisha.” As if on cue, he stepped out onto the porch. “What brings you here?” He hurried over to where she stood, his smile growing broader with each step.

She smiled back, a little hesitant about what she was going to say. “I wanted to talk to you about what happened… what you said yesterday.”

“When I… um, when I claimed to be the father of your baby. Is that it?”

“Of course, it is.” She looked around. Others were coming out of the building. “But can we find someplace a bit more private to talk about it?”

“There’s not much privacy around here.” He pointed to a break in the grass and trees that surrounded the grounds, a narrow pathway into the woods. “Let’s try this way.”

He started for the path, and she followed behind him, walking circumspectly, rather than holding hands. About twenty feet in, he stepped behind a large Arizona cypress tree. She looked back. Between trees and high grass, she couldn’t see the school. “Now,” he said, taking hold of her hand, “what exactly do you want to talk to me about?”

“I need to know, why did you do it – and don’t give me that silly nonsense about ‘wishful thinking.’ I just won’t buy that.”

“Then let me – damn, you know that you’re better with words than I am.” He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. “Let me show you why I did it.”

His arms circled around her, pulling her close. Startled, she looked up at his face. He leaned down and their lips touched in a kiss. Her arms drifted upwards, settling around his shoulders like a cloak. She felt lit up inside, like a paper lantern, with a gentle warming glow that flowed through her body.

She sighed, as the kiss grew stronger, more passionate. Her breasts ached, an exquisite ache, to be touched, fondled, caressed. Her nipples stretched, pushing against the fabric of her camisole in their eagerness for his attention, and in the cleft between her legs, she felt a hunger grow that cried out to be slaked. She trembled at the intensity of it, even as she rubbed her body against his.

“Now do you know why,” he said, breathlessly, as they eventually had to break the kiss.

Her arms tightened around his neck. Her knees felt too weak to support her on their own. “Ohhh, oh, yes.” She felt shy and happy and… loved, and she wanted him, wanted him so badly.

“Good, then what are we going to do about it?”

“I know what I want to do.” She grinned in anticipation.

He kissed her forehead. “I suspect that you do – and I suspect that it’s what I want to do, as well, but not here, not now.” He was all business now. ‘Somebody has to be… damn it,’ he told himself.’

“And we have something that must be taken care of first,” she said, trying to calm the fluttering in her body. “Come to my house tomorrow for lunch after church. I think that you and my brother and I have a great deal to talk about.”

* * * * *

“Flora Stafford,”Judge Humphreys began, “you have just been found guilty of first degree murder. Under the laws of the territory of Arizona, this court has no choice but to sentence you to be hung by the neck until dead.”

Flora sank down in her seat, tears swelling in her eyes. “But I didn’t kill him. I didn’t. I didn’t.”

“Your Honor,” Zach jumped to his feet. “This sentence is not warranted. Defense has clearly raised the issue that a potion girl like my client can only fight in self-defense. Further, no motive for a murder has been offered by the prosecution, only some vague conjecture of a lovers’ spat.”

Now Milt stood. “The jury has considered – and rejected – these issues, Your Honor. However, the prosecution has no problem with an appeal to lower the charge to manslaughter, which only carries a sentence of imprisonment for twenty years to life.”

“This court will agree,’ the Judge said in a formal tone. Unless either of you object, it will hear such an appeal on… Wednesday, the 19th of June, 1872.”

Milt shook his head. “I have no objection.” Zach nodded in agreement, while Flora looked skyward, as if a prayer had been answered.

There was an angry mutter from among the trial watchers. Judge Humphreys pounded his gavel against a wooden plaque. “There will be order in the court.”

A couple persistent voices still offered backtalk.

“I said order,” the jurist warned. “One more sound and there will be citations for contempt.”

The court voices fell to quiet, but the silence was a tense one.

* * * * *

“Nu, Ramon,” Aaron Silverman said, as they were closing the store, “you been quiet all day. What’s the matter?”

Ramon chuckled and shook his head. “I never could fool you, really, could I?”

“As the Sages say, ‘you laugh with your friends, but you cry with your good friends,’ and I can see, plain on the nose on my face, that you got something heavy on your mind.”

“If you must know, I was thinking about something Ernesto said to me a while back… while he was still angry at Margarita. He was in the stockroom, reading his school book of all things, and I went to talk to him about how much he was hurting his mother.”

“Such a sad time that was.” Aaron studied Ramon’s face. “What did he say to you?”

“That he didn’t have to listen to me because I wasn’t his father.” He sighed. “I wasn’t his father… then.”

“And you are now; since when?”

“No, I’m not, but I-I think that I want to be. I think of him as my own son, of Lupe as my daughter. Why should they not be my children?”

Aaron raised an eyebrow. “You’re gonna adopt them? What does Maggie think of that?”

“I haven’t talked to her yet. There is a problem, you see… my brother.”

“A big problem, from how he acted about you getting married in the first place.”

“He has been unlucky in love and still has no heir of his own. If that does not change, Carmen and I remain to inherit his share of the family estate. And if I adopted Ernesto and Lupe, they would also be heirs to our family’s property after me. I believe that such a prospect would be a very unhappy one for Gregorio.”

“Well,” Aaron said, pursing his chin, “I think I know what you should do about it.”

“You do, what – what should I do, por Dios?”

“You gotta talk to that pretty wife of yours. If she says, ‘no,’ and I don’t think she will, then you and Gregorio ain’t got a problem. If she says, ‘yes,’ then you got two minds working on it – three if you count yours truly. If nothing else, we got your brother outnumbered.”

Ramon had to laugh at his friend’s optimism. “We do, indeed. I will think about what you said, Aaron, and thank you.” He pumped the older man’s hand. “My friend.”

“You’re welcome. Now let go of my arm, so we can both go home to our wives.”

* * * * *

Molly walked over to the table that Arnie was working at, putting out the napkins and silverware for the diners at Maggie’s restaurant. “Can I be talking to ye for a wee bit, Arnie?”

“Sure, Molly,” Arnie said, putting the tray of silverware down on the table. “What is it?”

“Ye’ve heard about Flora, I expect, that she was found guilty, I mean.”

“I have. It is hard to believe that someone I know could be a murderer.”

“Don’t' ye be too hasty,” Molly went on. “I didn't hear nobody in that courtroom come up with any good reason why Flora’d want t’be murdering Clyde Ritter. Forry may’ve had a reason t’shoot Abner Slocum, but her killing Ritter don’t make no sense to me at all.”

“I don’t think she done it, and I hope ye don’t neither, but that ain’t what I come t’ask ye about.” She seemed to be studying the girl’s expression as she spoke. “There’s a lot o’people in town for the trial – and for thuir usual Saturday business o’course, and a lot of ‘em are gonna be staying for the dancing here tonight.”

“Probably…” Arnie replied, “…some of them wanted to dance with Flora I think, but that… cannot happen now.”

“No, it can’t, can it?” She sounded sad, as she said it. “With her in jail and all that’s happened with some of the other girls, thuir ain’t near enough for them men t’be dancing with, Maggie, Bridget – when she’s up to it, Jane, Lylah, and Dolores.” She took a half beat. “And ye.”

“Me?”

“Aye, Dolores told me that she was teaching ye the dances. She thinks ye’re ready. Are ye?”

“I…” Was she ready? She hadn’t told the Spauldings about the dances because she wasn’t sure that she was ready – that she would ever be ready to dance at them. She wanted to say, “No,” but this was Molly asking. Arnie knew that Molly had spoken up for her to Shamus more than once.

The young girl sighed. “I do not know if I’m ready, but – for you—I will try.”

* * * * *

“Should I say congratulations?” Cap asked, as he waltzed Bridget around the floor.

She blinked, as if she hadn’t heard. “What… congratulations, what do you mean?”

“Congratulations on being right about Flora Stafford. She certainly seems to be as bad as you’ve been painting her all these weeks.”

“Oh, uhh… thanks.”

“You certainly don’t seem very happy about it.”

“I-I guess I am.” She took a breath. “Can we change the subject… please? I don't want to think about it. Uh -- it's already old news.”

“Sure.” He smiled. “I know something worth talking about. Us. You seem to be more and more of your old self. How are you feeling, and would you like to… go outside and, maybe talk – or, even better -- not talk about it?” He gently stroked her cheek.

She trembled at his touch and put her hand on his. “I-I… do want to, Cap, but tonight… tonight, I don’t think I’m fit company for myself, let alone for you.” A tear ran down her cheek.

“I can’t imagine you not being good company.” He wiped away her tear with a finger.

“Trust me, tonight, I’m… I can’t. Oh, Lord, Cap, why do you put up with me?”

“Because you’re more than worth it.” He kissed her cheek. “You’re worth the wait, too. Something’s troubling you tonight, so let’s not talk about being together after the dance. In the meantime, please let me help with whatever is bothering you.”

“I don’t know if anyone can help me, but thanks for the offer.” She sighed. “I’m sorry.”

“So am I.” He smiled, a sad little smile. Maybe with Flora in her grave, Bridget would finally be able to close the book on a terrible experience. “I’ll just have to console myself – for now – with having you in my arms out here on the dance floor.”

She felt warm, protected, and so damned frustrated. “Thanks you, Cap, for understanding.” She lay her head on his chest and tried to just enjoy being in his arms.

She shivered, thinking that if Cap ever found out the truth, he would despise her forever.

* * * * *

“Arnolda Diaz,” Jerry Domingez said in surprise. “Since when are you one of Shamus’ waiter girls?”

“I-I am just helping out tonight.” Arnie answered nervously.

He didn’t speak for a while, concentrating on the mazurka they were dancing. Finally, he said, “You should keep at it. You are a good dancer.”

“Thank you, Señor Domingez.”

“If we know each other well enough to dance together, you should call me by my given name, Gerardo… Jerry, the Anglos call me.”

“Jerry, it is.”

“But it seems so wrong to be dancing with such a pretty girl as you, when her name is Arnoldo. Can I not call you something else when I am dancing with you?”

“Mama has started to call me Arnolda.”

Jerry frowned thoughtfully. “That is not a very attractive name, not for a señorita so bonita.”

Arnie thought for a moment before she gave in to the inevitable. “When we dance, you can call me… Annie.”

* * * * *

“You got company, Miz Stafford,” Tor Johansson announced walking over to her cell.

“Sorry t’disappoint you, Flora,” Carl Osbourne said, walking into view, “it’s only me.” He came around the beefy deputy and entered the cell. “Thanks, Tor.”

“What are you doing here, Osbourne?” Flora asked. When she hadn’t seen him at her trial, she’d been afraid that he didn’t care enough, or – much worse – that he thought she was guilty.

He gave her a lame smile. “Mr. Lewis sent me up to check on a couple of the line cabins up to the north. I only got back to the ranch house a couple hours ago. Soon’s I found out you was in jail, I told him I had t’come in and see that you was all right.”

She felt like a massive weight had just slipped off her shoulders. “I’m just so glad you’re…” she glanced down at the bars of her cell. “…here.” She was suddenly afraid that she was admitting too much. “I mean, you're about the only real friend I have in this damned town.”

Johansson shut the door slowly, listening for the click of the lock. “You give a yell vhen you vants out.” He turned and headed back to the sheriff’s desk.

Carl sat down beside her and gave her an encouraging smile. “So, how are you doing?”

“For a woman who’s probably going to hang in a few days I’m doing fine; just wonderful, in fact.”

“You’re not gonna die – at least – not while I have anything to say about it.”

“What can you do about it? That damned jury found me guilty, and the Judge said I would hang.” She sighed. “He’s letting me appeal my sentence on Wednesday, but, even then, the best I can get is twenty years in prison, which isn’t much better.”

“Did you kill Ritter – honestly, did you?”

No, I… I swear it. Of all people, what reason would I have to kill him? A lovers’ spat like my lawyer said? I didn’t like him that much! Mainly, I played up to him to get back at Shamus O’Toole.”

“Then you shouldn’t hang -- or rot in jail. You've got so much to give. It would be a waste to let you get gray behind bars, and I’m gonna do all I can to see that you don’t.”

“How? You don’t have time to be appointed governor of Arizona, and there’s no other way you can get me out of this.”

“Maybe not, but I have to try.”

“Why? I mean, why should you care what happens to me?”

“Before I answer, let me give you something.” He reached into his pants pocket and took out…

“A ticket?”

“Yep, I bought it from Molly before I come over. Will you take it?”

She shrugged. “I suppose.” She accepted the ticket, putting it into a small pocket sewn into her dress. “Now what happens?”

“What usually happens when you take one of them tickets?” He pulled her gently to her feet and into his arms. “We dance.” His left arm went around her waist, while he took her right hand in his.

“Wha-Where’s the music?”

“Right her.” He began to hum the”Blue Danube”waltz as they danced, as best they could, in that small cell.

Flora was tense at first, and she moved awkwardly. But, as they waltzed, she began to relax. His arms were around her, sheltering her. When she rested her head on his chest, she could hear his heart beat and feel the vibrations from his humming. She was somehow comforted by the sounds. A warm glow flowed into her, through her, and it seemed to melt the icy fears that had stabbed at her heart since the moment that Judge Humphreys had read her sentence.

“Thank you,” she whispered, looking up at his face, her eyes glistening.

He kept humming, but he leaned down and kissed her forehead. “And that Flora is why I have to save you.”

“What, so you can dance with me?”

“You got it. I gotta save you ‘cause I don’t wanna see what my life’d be like if you wasn’t there t’dance with.”

He couldn’t be serious, not like that, not about her. She stared at him, her mouth open and her eyes glistening. “That does sound like a good reason,” she said softly. Her arms remained comfortably around his waist.

And his arms still cradled her against him.

* * * * *



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