The Belle of Eerie, Arizona: Chapter 5

Posted 01-06-20

By Christopher Leeson

Saturday, December 23, 1871 Continued

Out of earshot of Talbot and Euler, Myra was telling her aunt: “Everybody's gawking at me. I look stupid!”

“No you don't,” Irene assured her. “It's just that people are wondering who you are.  And, by the way, they surely notice how well you're dressed.”

“Stop saying that!”

Irene held her voice low.  “Isn't it better to be admired, treated like someone that they'd like to know, instead of as a person that they don't trust or are afraid of?”

“I'd rather make them them afraid. And I'd be glad to be homely if would make me fewer problems.”

“I doubt it would.  You'd still have a parcel of sorrows, only they'd be different ones.  I was considered pretty at your age, but I was too shy to really enjoy it, even before...Darby passed on. Don't make light of God's gifts.  What ever problems you're having, there's always someone, somewhere, who is having an even worse time of it.”

“So what?  I'm betting that there are plenty who're having things a lot better than I am.”

“Envy is a deadly sin, my dear.  Can't you at least be grateful that you're not starving in China?” Irene glanced to the side, at the tables arrayed with treats. “Think about it. When do all those hungry people over there ever get to eat their fill, like we can?”

“I don't see how me eating like a hog once in a while is going to help anyone in China,” Myra replied.

“I'm not sure about that either, but you should be using this opportunity to settle gracefully into the community. Mingle and let people know who you are. Act friendly and they'll be friendly to you, later on.”

“What's the point?” the girl asked. “I never had a friend who didn't end up stabbing me in the back.” She was especially remembering Ike Bertram -- the leader of the gang who'd accidentally shot her during the robbery at Stagecoach Gap. Worse, only a half-hour later, he'd threatened to finish her off, to keep her from talking to the law. The skunk would have pulled the trigger, too, she supposed, except that Myron had slipped away when Ike was busy burying the stolen strongbox.

“I shouldn't wonder that your friendships never seem to go well,” stated Irene, “since you're determined to quarrel with everyone close to you.  I'm trying hard to understand your way of thinking.”

“You're just not listening carefully.”

“Here's some advice that I hope you'll listen to: It's easiest to get along when you're kind and respectful. Whenever you're able, be generous, too.”

“Is that what's made you so happy and successful?”

Mrs. Fanning sighed.  “I'm still learning the lessons of life, myself.  Above all, don't make trouble because it will usually come back to hurt you. Don't invite trouble, because you'll have more than enough of it through no fault of your own. While we're here, just be pleasant and avoid arguments.  If you're still miserable after about two hours, we can leave.”

“What am I going to do in this chicken coop for two hours?”

“Eat, make conversation, and enjoy the music. Also, you can do some dancing.  Kayley and Rosedale did their bet to prepare you, after all.  I'm sure that the two of them must be around here somewhere. If not, they'll soon be showing up. If I know that pair, they'll have plenty of cheerful topics for discussion.”

Girl talk!  That was the absolute last thing that Myra was looking for. Frustrated from talking to her aunt, the girl just stood there sullenly, until Irene drifted away, having noticed somebody whom she knew from church.

Two hours in this place! the farm girl thought again. The span of time that Irene was taking so lightly seemed to her as long as a life sentence. The only people that she'd needed to speak to was the Sheriff and Ozzie Pratt, the man from the newspaper.  Hopefully, they were wandering the room somewhere, guzzling whiskey and filling their faces with free food. But, if they weren't, she'd be putting herself through one hell of a mortifying experience for no reason at all.

Myra looked around and didn't like what she saw. People – the men especially -- were still eying her, like hunters determined to bring home a dead duck.  Grown men, old men, and pups still wet behind the ears.  She frowned and let everyone see the frown, sending out a clear message that she didn't want to speak to any of them.  But just when her glower was at its angriest, she realized that one of the men looking her way was Sheriff Dan Talbot!

#

Now that the lawman and the teenage girl were making eye-contact, the latter's resolution wavered. The faithful conversation, she realized, lay only minutes ahead in time, and she could hardly remember what all she intended to say.

Myra, in fact, couldn't have felt more daunted had she been squared off against a gunslick in the middle of a dusty street.  She wished that she could just leave.  Unfortunately, the girl had come here for a good reason, and had to see it through if she was ever going to set her mind at ease. 

It occurred to Myra that maybe Dan Talbot didn't actually know who she was.  So far, he hadn't met him face to face as a girl. Under better circumstances, she might have liked to trick him, lead him on, and then make a fool in front of everybody.  But there were two things wrong with that scheme.  First, she didn't want to do anything that would place her in a bad light in front of so many people, and, secondly, she needed his advice, not his anger.

Myra let out a resigned sigh and steeled herself for what had to be a grim encounter. Then, still jittery, she stepped toward the peace-keeper as if walking on thin ice.  The eyes of the crowd continued to be overly-interested in her, some taking a bead on her profile, some viewing something lower. She cursed the snug corset she was wearing, not just for leaving her short of breath, but for foisting on her such a noteworthy outline.

Close-up to Talbot, she at last said, “S-Sheriff.”

The tall man watched her approach with a look of interest on his lined, sun-browned face. “Miss Olcott,” I presume,” he said.

That address irked her.  As bad as it was keeping company with people who didn't know the truth, it was even worse being with those who did.

“Sheriff Talbot,” Myra pronounced carefully, “I came to this party mostly to speak to you. Any objection?”

“Speak about what?”

“Important stuff.  But it's too private to chew through inside this turkey pen.”

Dan regarded her quizzically.  “All right. Let's step outside.  There'll be a lot of open space under the stars, and we'll be losing the light fast.”

Myra nodded and followed Dan out the front door. They stepped into the winter darkness.  The breeze was  cool, but not uncomfortably so – not even with a good portion of her skin uncovered. There was not much left of the dusk and the people whom she saw in the torchlight were mostly clustered in groups and couples. There being no music as yet, no one was dancing. Pretty soon, she supposed, the band would come out of the schoolhouse and then the silly “skip to my Lous” would get under way.

“This good enough?” the lawman asked.

“A little farther out,” she urged.  “I don't want any of these busybodies eavesdropping.”

Dan humored the young lady and her ushered a little farther out, finally stopping by a hedge of bushes that marked the edge of the schoolyard.  “What can I help you with, Miss Myra?”

“Don't make fun of me. Without you, my life wouldn't have turned into a train-wreck.”

He smiled guardedly. “Did I wreck your life or save it?”

“This isn't the kind of life I ever could have accepted, if given a choice. I'm mad enough to shoot somebody, except for that damned magic. But I sure as hell ain't going to thank any person who's set me up for what feels like a life in hell.”

“I didn't have any part of what happened,” Dan told her, “except that I took your aunt over to see to Judge Humphrey.  And it isn't your Mrs. Fanning's fault, either; she only wanted to save you.  She must have thought that you were worth keeping around.  Maybe you'll prove her right someday.”

“Good; we'll both can be honest.  You never liked me and I never liked you.  But, for now, we've got business to discuss.”

“And what would that business be?”

“I've got to ask you about an important matter.”

“Is that so?  I expected that you were all set to rave and swear.  I was going to go along with it, since it might help you to settle down, once you got all that bile out of your system.  But if you hanker to talk civilly, I'm much obliged. What's bothering you?”

Myra looked down at her own feet, as if trying to find enough inner steel to brace herself up enough to seem formidable.  When that steel proved elusive, she took a hard swallow and met his glance sternly.

“I want to know if there was a serious crime committed a few years ago, one where you never caught the outlaws.”

Sheriff Talbot blinked. “Are you talking about some crime that you made happen?”

“No, not me.  But before I say anything more, I want you to promise that you won't repeat what I tell you.  Not to anyone.”

He gave back a serious look.  “If you're holding back information about a crime, and if the criminal can still be dealt with, I can't agree to let him off scot free.”

“The...the people who may have done..the thing... are dead.  But there are innocent folks who could still get hurt if a lot of loose talk got turned loose.”

“Who'll get hurt?”

“The...the family.  There's no one to arrest, and that's the honest truth. But if word escaped that somebody did something wrong, there might be plenty of disgrace to spread around.”

“All right.  Unless I have to arrest some guilty person, I'll keep things  confidential.” 

Myra felt she could go along with that, but hated to deal with the law. “And don't you say anything to Aunt Irene either, you hear?” she added. “I think it would hurt her most of all.”

“I won't, not unless I absolutely have to.”

“Shake on it?”  The ginger extended her hand.  Dan took it.

Myra then stood back, straightened herself, and seemed to grope for words.  “I-I found a letter sent to my mother the other day. It sounded like Ma had just told somebody that she'd done something bad.”

“Who did she tell, and what did that person say?” 

“I don't want to get into that.”

“That's not reasonable.  If you went to a doctor, I don't think you'd be so sly about fessing up to what was hurting.”

Myra frowned.  It surely did seem futile to be too coy. Anything that she tried to keep from Talbot he could probably guess, like some detective inside a story.  How had she ever gotten backed into a corner as this one?

With effort, she said, “I found out things from that letter.  It was written a little after the war, about the time that my folks started acting sad-like.”

Dan's eyes narrowed.  “So, are you going to tell me why they were acting so sad?”

“I-I don't know, exactly.  But I'm thinking that they might have been sorry about stealing something.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Because the always talked about owing money before, but then they stopped.

“Well, what did they steal?”

“I don't know that either.  I'm not sure that they stole anything.  But if they'd gotten out of debt somehow, it should have made them happier. Instead, they acted like they'd plum lost the knack for enjoying life.”

“When, exactly, was this going on?”

“The letter was dated 1866 near the end of May.  But the way that the writer talked, the thing the folks did must have happened a couple years back.  That would be before the war was over.  Maybe a year before.”

The lawman frowned off into the distance, looking toward – but not seeing – a darkening row of locust trees.  “So, you're talking about 1864 or thereabouts?”

“As far as I can reckon.”

“What exactly do you remember from those days?”

“Not much.  I was only about ten in 1864 and they didn't talk business with me. We ate good eats, I know. They also started fixing the place up some, like putting in that windmill, digging a new well, buying more cattle. They even had money enough to buy me a few toys.”

Myra's expression made it hard for Dan to stay on guard. He'd always thought of Myron Caldwell as a shallow brat, a bad kid with no sense of right and wrong.  Maybe, though, beneath Myron's former armadillo shell, there was a person who had feelings. He let the girl stand quietly for a minute, appreciating the pain that he saw in her face.

“Let me get just one thing clear...Thorn.  Are you wanting me to prove that your folks are guilty of something bad?”

“No!” she said sharply.  “I want you to prove that they didn't do anything.  I'm thinking that if no serious crime is known about from five years ago, I'd be able to sleep easier. Unless I know for sure how things really were, I'll never be able to think about them properly...the way used to remember them.”

The sheriff pushed up his hat brim; his lips were pursed with the heaviness of his reasoning.  “This is a funny business. Most of the time, I get a complaint about some crime and then I have to catch the parties that committed it.  Sometimes, I have to dig a little first, to find out who exactly was the culprit.  But here, you seem to want me to check around and see if any crime was committed, all the while hoping that I won't find one. Well, strange as the business sounds to me, I can take a shot at it. Would that make you happy?”

“Maybe.  I hope so.”

“But if I find something about your folks that doesn't smell right, how will you feel then?”

“About as bad as I'm feeling now. I don't want to go on suspecting that they did something awful, especially since I might be completely wrong about it.”

“Well now, maybe the best way to move ahead is for you to tell me who knows more than you do.  Who sent that letter accusing your mother?”

“I don't see why you need to know.”

“You're protecting somebody, I reckon.  Your aunt maybe?”

Myra looked away.

It was obviously to Dan that a family concern was affecting Myra, and he didn't feel like poking that kind of wound.  “You haven't told me much,” the Sheriff said. “As for crimes, there've been robberies and killings hereabouts long before I ever took the badge. I wasn't even Eerie's town marshal as far back as 1864.  The best way to clear your parents' name is to prove that they didn't have a motive for doing whatever may have happened.  Tell me, were your folks carrying debts with the bank, or with the merchants in town? I mean, was there anything that might have made them desperate for money?”

The girl looked back, nodding slowly. “They surely had a peck of things.  Like I said, after a while they stopped fussing about what they owed. But I was still pretty young at the time; I saw and heard a lot that I didn't understand.”

Talbot frowned thoughtfully. “Banks keep good records, and most merchants do, too.  I can ask Dwight Albertson about the Caldwells' finances, and also question the store owners that were here that long ago.  Most farmers tend to be in and out of debt over the whole course of their lives.  That's normal for honest people. But, all too often, there's somebody who gets out of debt sudden-like, and stays out of debt. That could be a bad sign.”

“I – I guess so.”

Observing Myra in her present state of mind, it was hard for Dan to see the Myron that he'd known.  She seemed younger than the young hellion had, so much more of a child.  “Ordinary folks might not notice if a neighbor comes into money,” the sheriff began again, “not if the person keeps to himself and is careful about not spending too much, too quickly.  For now, for your own good, you ought to stop investigating. You could open an old wound, and a scandal would make it harder for you to settle down into a new life. I can look into things without drawing so much attention to myself.  People expect a sheriff to be asking strange questions and they usually don't expect him to explain himself.  The first thing I'd do in this case is to pick people's minds about any unsolved crimes they know of, going back a few years. If I need to mention the Caldwells by name, I'll say as little as possible.”

Myra raised her chin. “Just don't let any pole cat wheedle more than that out of you, Sheriff. I don't trust anybody with that kind of information.”

“You're right to be careful, but I'm used to working with matters like these.” 

“Should I keep clear of Ozzie Pratt, too?  Wasn't he living in Eerie back then?”

Dan's brows knitted.  “Yes, he was, but it's always risky to talk to a newspaper man.  Their job is to print things that people don't want printed.  Let me handle Ozzie Pratt, if he needs talking to at all.”

Myra nodded slowly.  “So, where does all this talk leave us?”

“My advice is to put your troubles out of your mind as best you can.  You should just settle back and enjoy the party.”

When Myra made no reply, Dan continued, “Like I said, I'll do what I'm able, and let you know right quick what I find out.”

“Thanks,” the girl replied faintly.

Dan stood where he was, watching the potion girl move off.  He had always felt sorry for Myron Caldwell. The boy could have been so much better, except that he had lost both his parents at the same time. That was a terrible mule kick for a kid so young. Thorn had been left broken inside; for him, being broken meant growing up mean and sour. Starting over again as Myra was the best chance he had to change for the better. The lawman had seen such a thing happen with the Hanks gang. If this new hammer blow tore open all of Myra's wounds again, she might lose her chance.  The right elements might never come together again, and young Caldwell might never fix what was a messed up life.

#

Although the talk with the sheriff hadn't gone as badly as she had feared, Myra didn't like leaving something so important to someone else, especially to a lawman. The tin-star men were always looking for someone to blame, guilty or not.  Usually, a bucker could get a better shake from almost anyone else, even an outlaw.

“Myra!” someone shouted.

She turned to see Kayley and Rosedale running from out of the crowd. Miss Grimsley had on a burgundy-dress and her expression was bright-eyed and excited. Rosedale was dressed up, too. Miss Olcott wished she could turn invisible, being in no mood for company.

“Oh, Myra!” exclaimed Dale.  “Now I see why George admired your dress so much! It's almost perfect! It makes me embarrassed to be seen in the faded thing I have on!” The Severin girl's frock was light blue cotton and patterned with small red blossoms. The thing didn't look so bad to Myra's glance, though it had clearly been washed a good share of times.

“I didn't pick it out myself.  A friend of Irene's did,” said Miss Olcott.

“Do you mean Molly O'Toole?” asked Kayley.

Myra scowled.  “I guess George doesn't leave out very much when he gets to gossiping.”

Dale glanced back at the school.  “Pretty soon the band will come out and the boys will be asking the girls to partner up.”

“Maybe they'll ask you two,” Myra replied, wanting to change the subject. 

“And you, too!” chirped Kayley.

The ginger shook her head. “Who'd want to dance with me, anyway?”

“Don't be so modest!” said Dale. “You're as cute as a chickadee, and that dress makes you look even better.  A lot of boys will be wanting to swing you around the play-yard, mark my words.”

“But if you're not used to young men,” advised Kayley, “you'll be surprised how shy most of them are. The best way to get a shy boy to dance with you is to start talking to him – about anything all all, except dancing.  Like, do you know anything about fishing?  If he's already been admiring you, your being friendly and going easy might be enough to make him ask the question.”

“It seems to me that the braver person at a dance should ask the question,” observed Myra.  “Who set the rules that girl's shouldn't speak their mind?”

“Mama says that only a hussies will ask boys straight-out to dance,” explained Miss Grimsley.

“So what's wrong with hussies?”

“I'm not sure,” replied Kayley, “but no one wants to be called one.”

“Too many people are too quick to make up rules for everybody else to follow,” adjudged Myra.

“I know,” agreed Rosedale. “But when we're their age, we'll be the elders making up the rules. We'll just have to be careful to make up much better ones.” 

“By the way, it was awful that pa and the others couldn't find Thorn,” put in Kayley.

Myra looked at the golden-tressed blonde, trying to think of a reply. “No,” she finally said, “it was better than having him found him dead. Maybe it means that he got away.”

“Pa said you were thinking that,” spoke up Dale.  “Thorn wasn't very nice, the Lord knows, but it would surely make your aunt feel better if he came back someday fit and fine.”

Myra shook her head. “There was nothing wrong with Thorn, except that he wanted to live the way that he wanted to live, without everybody else telling him what to do.”

“But he wanted to be an outlaw,” said Dale.

“So was Robin Hood,” Miss Myra replied.

“I think there must be a lot more bad outlaws out there than good ones,” Dale responded soberly. “I could have liked Myron better if only he was nicer.” Suddenly she blinked. “Oh, say, I almost forgot to mention that I'll be attending the church service for your cousin. It's too bad it happened. I like Mrs. Fanning a lot, and I like you, too, Myra.”

“Look!” exclaimed Miss Grimsley. “Some boys are looking at us!”

“I hope one of them asks me to dance,” said Dale. “If no one does, I'd rather be partnered with with a girl if it means being left out entirely.”

“If no boy asks first, I'll dance with you,” Kyley promised her friend.

Myra grimaced inwardly. Soon, the two of them would be shuffling off together, leaving her behind to look like a wallflower. Maybe if Tor Johansson didn't show up soon, Irene would get tired of being ignored and decide to go home. That would be a blessing.

“I think I'll go inside and get something to eat,” Myra told her companions.

“You'll miss the first dance!” Kayley warned.

“I'm not much of a dancer. It's no big deal to me.”

“You shouldn't be so shy,” Dale stated. “I used to be, too, but I got over it the first time a boy called me pretty.” Just then, the Miss Severin looked up and announced, “Here comes the band. They're going to set up!”

Myra took a critical look at herself. The way she was dressed would give men the wrong idea about her. No good could come from staying where she was.

“I'm really hungry,” Myra reminded them.

“We'll see you later,” chirped Dale. “We want to watch the band get ready.”

“See you later, Myra,” Kayley added in parting. The Olcott girl watched them walk away.

#

Irene Fanning had been passing time with people she knew. She'd already been asked several times about the carefree style of her dress. She repeatedly needed to explain how she had bought it at the last minute from the limited stock available at the Silverman's store.

“They didn't have anything I liked this year,” said Zenobia Carson. “Their rack looked extremely picked over.”

“Mrs. Fanning,” Livinia Mackechnie put in, “doesn't the cut of that dress leave you feeling chilly?”

Irene, smiling patiently. “I have a warm shawl on the buckboard. I'll fetch it promptly should the night grow unpleasantly cool.

“How is your spirit holding up?” asked Grace McLeod.

Irene wondered whether this was a subtle form of censure. “I'm sad for Myron,” she explained, “but I'm also overjoyed that Myra has come to stay with me. She's new to the West and I wanted to bring her to a place where she could make new friends right away.”

“I haven't met your niece yet,” mentioned Hilda Scudder. “Maybe we can exchange introductions at the memorial Tuesday.”

Irene nodded. “Yes, she'll appreciate that, I'm sure. For one so young, she's had more than her share of sorrow.”

“Isn't that always so?” said Hilda. “Especially at Christmas, it's important that all of us open our hearts to the stranger.”

At that moment, Irene was straining to see over her companions' heads, hoping to locate Tor Johansson. She was actually trying to suppress any feeling of eagerness. She couldn't keep from thinking about Darby in heaven, and how her behavior might make him feel.

Suddenly, she espied a man taller than anyone else next to him. He seemed to be carefully scanning the crowd. When his fair eyes fixed on her face, her nerve almost failed. Irene clenched her fists and made a brave effort to show a pleasant face. Tor flashed a smile and started her way.

When the Swede was at a small distance, he remarked,“Mrs. Fanning, how nice it is to see you again. Have you had a nice veek?”

“Excuse me, ladies,” Irene said as she stepped out from the knot of church friends and toward the big Swede.

“The last few days have been busy,” she confided, “but I have been looking forward to this gathering.”

“I like your new style of hair. You look like a lady of high society.”

Irene's cheeks warmed slightly. “I'm hardly that. But the bun I usually wear would scarcely have been in the spirit of the season.”

“I vould agree. And your dress is very handsome.”

“I'm happy you think so. Some of the ladies seemed to imply that it's too bold.”

The prospector grinned broadly. “Ladies! Tat's vhy we love tem so much.”

Irene nodded, feeling awkward but trying not to show it.

Tor beamed. “Vhen I came in, da band outside vas ready to start da music. I suppose you have a dance reserved already?”

“Not at all. And it would be sad to miss the opening dance.”

“Yes, dat vould be yoost terrible,” he said. He offered her his arm.

The ladies standing nearby took note of everything. The faces of the majority did not register approval.

#

Myra and her aunt passed one another, going in opposite directions. They exchanged glances, but neither spoke. Tor Johansson, next to Irene, looked huge. It occurred to the redhead that Irene would be lucky if Tor's big ox feet didn't leave her toes black and blue. Then the girl continued on, toward the tables. She was glad for the interior warmth, due to the lightness of her apparel.

Myra, looking at the clock behind the teacher's desk, winced. So little time had been passing. Eating, she hoped, would kill a good piece of it, so she paused to sample several delicacies: bread pudding, a jelly omelet, mince pie, cheese, and stewed prunes. All this fare she washed down with glasses of punch, but was disappointed that it hadn't been spiked.

“Hello, you must be new in these parts,” someone remarked. Myra looked over her shoulder and her lips pursed at the sight of Winthrop Ritter.

“I'm new in every part,” Myra answered back flatly. “Aren't you the Mex I saw cleaning pens over at Ritter's stable?”

The young man scowled. “I don't clean pens. And I'm sure not any Mexican. My pa owns the stable, like he owns a whole lot else in this town. I'm Winthrop Ritter.”

Myra pretended to sniff. “Did you come straight over from work? Sometimes things get stuck to a person's shoes.”

Winthrop exchanged one scowl for a harder one. “There's a lot of poor folk hereabouts. One never knows what they drag in.”

“If you say so.”

He didn't didn't feel charmed by the girl's tone, but, with effort, he maintained an amiable front. “I saw you coming in with some sort of fancy gal,” he said.

Myra shrugged. “That was my aunt, Mrs. Fanning.”

“Irene Fanning?” He shook his head. “I really didn't recognize her. She looks like she could be one of Lady Cerise's gals.” Then he caught himself. “Maybe I shouldn't talk that way in front of a nice girl.”

“Where in tarnation does one find nice girls around here?”

“One is standing in front of me,” Winthrop answered with an ingratiating smile. “What's your name?”

“I'm traveling under the name of Abigail Myra Olcott.”

The youth laughed. The frontier was full of rascals who'd come out from the East. A lot of them were trying to keep out of the hands of the law. What's your name? was considered to be an impolite question if put to an outsider. Instead, folks would ask, “What name are you traveling under?” This girl Abigail had answered like a horse-thief on the dodge, and that tickled his funny-bone.

“That's a mighty fine handle. When I hear a name like Abigail, it always makes me imagine a lady of distinction.”

“And I always think of some old grandma with a cane. People call me Myra, and that doesn't set very well with me either.”

Winthrop nodded. “I hated my name, too. Back in school, there was a smart-mouthed kid who'd always try to make me sore by calling me 'Winnie.'”

Myra regarded her unwelcome companion. There was about a ninety-nine percent chance that he was remembering Myron Caldwell, who'd been just a grade behind him. “Did you let him get way with it?” she asked, wondering what he'd say.

“Not a bit. I whooped him a few times and that taught him some manners. Before I graduated, he was bowing and scraping like some sort of black slave.”

'You lying S.O.B.' thought Myra. The only time Ritter had ever hit him without getting get hit back worse was when two of his bully friends had been holding his arms. The boy had gotten revenge, though. He'd slipped a carmel-covered onion into his enemy's lunch pail and laughed like hell to see Winnie's face change when he bit into it! For a different offense, Myron had put a “Bankrupt, Going Out of Business” sign on Clyde Ritter's office door. He'd purposely done it on a Sunday morning, when there was only an illiterate hired man there to tend the horses. The stableman couldn't read the placard, so he'd left it up all day, supposing that his boss wanted it to be seen.

Outdoors, a lively tune had just started up.

“Say now,” Winthrop said, “they've commenced the opening dance.”

“Do you like to dance?” Myra asked. “You don't look like the type.”

He shrugged. “I don't care much for it, that's a fact. But I'm game for a little shuffle around the floor if the girl is pretty enough, and she's wearing something I like.”

“Are you talking about a cat-house girl? Did you bring one of them with you tonight?”

Instead of getting offended, Winthrop smiled conceitedly. “Why do you sound so interested? If you're hinting that you'd like to dance with me, I'm all for it.”

“I'd rather be hung,” said Myra.

The youth eyed her skeptically. “You know, you're pretty, but what comes out of your mouth is something else entirely.”

“Then why is it that people keep telling me that I'm sugar and spice and everything nice?”

“Well, whatever else you are, you're easy on the eyes. Can I get you anything?”

“I could use a little privacy.”

Winthrop made a grumble deep in his throat and departed with a perfunctory nod.

Myra consulted the clock again. The whole conversation had taken only five minutes; she still had a heap of empty time left to deal with.

Myra resumed munching her way along the table. While doing so, she noticed a dark-haired girl doing the same in the other direction. This one was dressed for a Mexican fiesta, showing off a nice pair of shoulders. Miss Olcott couldn't fail to recognize Raquel Gomez from school. Her father was a clerk at Oretega's grocery. She'd already started looking good a year earlier, and was looking even better now. Was the girl alone? The Anglo and Mexican communities usually kept clear of each other in Eerie. This señorita would have to be a plucky one to mingle casually with people whom she scarcely knew.

“Hi, Raquel,” said the auburn. “Good eats, aren't they?”

The Latina looked up and, failing to recognized the speaker, smiled bemusedly. “It is good food,” she agreed, her accent not very pronounced. “Por favor, I don't think I know you.”

This reply reminded Myra that she had to keep on guard. “Irene Fanning is my aunt.”

“Oh, I meet Señora Fanning at the grocery all the time. You must be the new girl that mis amigas saw shopping with the lady and Señora O'Toole early in the week.”

While Myra didn't care for Mexicans, she had no place better to be. To make conversation, she asked, “Are your own people partying somewhere else tonight?”

The Gomez girl shrugged. “We held our own fiesta de Navidad last night. But an American asked me to come with him to this party, too. Why should I not? I know many Anglos. They have nice songs and music. Their food is very exotic! Also, by coming here, I gain another a chance to dance. Perdóname, what should I name you?” she asked.

“Myra,” Miss Olcott answered.

“How do you know me?”

“Ah, someone pointed you out.”

“Someone I know?”

“Maybe. Winthrop Ritter.”

“Oh,” said the dark-eyed girl, using an odd tone.

“Don't you like him?”

“He's not the best of the Anglos. Are you and he buenos amigos?”

“No, not at all,” asserted Myra. “I just met him.”

“I think I should be sorry.”

Myra nodded. “I feel sorry, too.”

Raquel lowered her voice. “Don't find yourself alone with such an hombre. At last summer's fiesta, he pinched me!”

Myra tried to look commiserative. In plain fact, she might have enjoyed pinching this chica herself.

“Oh, mira!” said Raquel in Spanish. “He comes, the joven who escorted me,” Myra looked to see who it was she meant.

Oh, Lord.

It was Lydon Kelsey, the closest thing to a friend that Myron could claim in Eerie. It didn't surprise the girl that Kelsey couldn't find anyone to go with him better than a Mexican, but had to admit that he had made a good pick.

The young man's appearance hadn't changed much over the passing year. He was dressed better than usual, of course, wearing a suit of yellow-brown corduroy over a white, ruffled shirt. The latter was set off with a black string tie. Coming face to face with Kelsey made Myra squeamish, even though she knew that there wasn't a chance that he could recognize her.

“Oh, Raquel,” the Anglo youth asked, “who's this pretty niña?”

“We just met,” the señorita replied. “She is Myra, the niece of Señora Fanning.”

“Oh, hello, Myra,” Kelsey said, meeting her eyes boldly. “I heard something about a cousin of Thorn Caldwell coming to town.” He smiled. “You probably didn't know it, but I was Thorn's best friend.”

“Is that so?” replied Myra. “Who was your best friend?”

Lydon either missed the jab or ignored it. He said, “Sometime we ought to get together and exchange memories about the dear departed.”

Myra frowned. “I don't have much in the way of memories about Myron. The two of us never met.”

“Well now, I haven't heard him called Myron in a long time. He'd hammer-punch anyone who addressed him by that sissy name. From what part of the country do you hail from, gal?”

“New Jersey. Most of what I know about my cousin is only hearsay.”

“Well, he and I had some good times bumming around. By the way, that's an eye-catching frock you've got on. Is that how New Jersey girls dress?"

“Sometimes. But I'm not much interested in partying.”

“You should be. You clean up real nice.” When Myra didn't react to his compliment, he said, “If you're wondering what Thorn was like, I could tell you plenty. Would you mind much if I came out to the farm, maybe take a walk with you, and fill you in what you don't know?”

“We can do that next summer,” she said tersely, “if the farm doesn't keep my aunt and me too busy to entertain visitors.”

“Yeah,” Lydon muttered disappointedly, “I'll check on you then.” He looked back toward Raquel. “Come on, little cucaracha, let's dance up a storm.”

“You big tonto!” she declared. “I hope you don't know what a cucaracha is! What an awful thing to call a muchacha,especialmente if you expect her to dance with you!”

The youth threw up his hands. “Women!” Without a real apology, he led her away by the wrist.

Myra watched them go -- without regret in Lydon's case. She couldn't help but take another glance at the clock. It had hardly moved. How in the living hell was she supposed to endure until eight-thirty? There were plenty of books in the schoolhouse, at least, so maybe she could sit down somewhere and read.

As Miss Olcott was standing there, thinking, a young man edged up, not a person whom she knew. “May I have the honor of the next dance?” he asked.

Myra scowled. “Go jump off a cliff.”

The youth sighed and withdrew.

“That wasn't very nice of you,” spoke up someone else. She recognized the voice and confronted her nemesis with a glare. “George, you've turned up yet again, like a fly going back to a...” She stopped, not wanting to say something uncouth with women present.

“A sugar cube?” he guessed.

“That isn't even close. I expected you'd show up sooner or later.”

“I promised I would, didn't I?”

“What a time to keep a promise! Dale didn't mention that you were lurking around somewhere.”

“My sister and Kayley came in with their folks. I just rode up alone. Now I'm glad that I did. Seeing you gussied up is like eating chocolate. I especially like that new hair bow.”

“Whatever you happen to like, Mr. Severin, it has nothing to do with me.”

“It has everything to do with you. You're a sight to remember. Even that little blue mountain off of Indian Head isn't half so fetching.”

“If you hang around up there, I'll have to keep shy of the place.”

George's expression changed slightly, as if she'd said something interesting. Myra cussed herself. A supposed newcomer shouldn't have spoken as if she'd known the local sites he was talking about.

TO BE CONTINUED IN CHAPTER 6



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