By Christopher Leeson
Chapter 1, Part 1
December 19, 1871, Continued
Tuesday, December 19, 1871
A prairie chicken, bursting from the roadside weeds, startled the carriage horse. “Easy now, Hazel” Mrs. Fanning shouted to the beast, tugging at the reins to settle it down.
Myra Olcott, next to her aunt, bounced once on the hard seat and then forgot about the mishap; she was too angry to care. All she could think about was how her life had crashed into flames like a burning building.
Abigail Myra Olcott hadn't wanted to make this trip but Aunt Irene was insistent: “Everyone knows that a young lady has arrived from 'the East.' They'll all be curious to meet you and we shouldn't keep you out of sight for too long. They might start wondering whether you have a contagious disease, or something worse.”
Those words struck Myra like a blow.
Irene Fanning realized her mistake. The girl's parents had died of cholera five years past, and she was still angry with the entire world because of that.
“What I'm saying,” Mrs. Fanning explained, “is that you can't afford to have curious people watching you too carefully. You have secrets to keep. Or have you stopped caring?”
“I've already met everybody in town,” the girl said, “and what I've stopped caring about is the whole pack of them.”
“But they've only met you as Myron Caldwell, who's supposed to be dead. You have to introduce yourself as a totally new person.”
Myra scowled. She distinctly disliked the “totally new person” that she had become.
“I asked Molly O'Toole to join us today,” continued Irene. “The storekeepers all know Mrs. O'Toole. If she seems to like you, it should carry weight with them. Make a good impression and they'll spread the word that you're a fine young lady.”
With clenched fists, Myra declared, “I'm sorry I ever came back from Stagecoach Gap alive.”
“You've said that before. But tell me, my girl, would you truly rather be dead and buried, with your soul very possibly in Hell, or would you prefer to be alive – even as you are?
The maid gritted her teeth. The term “my girl” was a magical code-word that compelled her to follow her aunt's orders. She hadn't really believed in magic before, but the week before, it had come out of the brush like a rattler and stung her. It compelled her to tell the truth, for one thing, and that was something that could only get a person into trouble.
“I don't believe in Hell,” the maiden replied grudgingly , “but I sure wouldn't want to go there if it's real.”
Irene turned her head and spoke seriously. “Most of the people who fall into the flames don't believe in Hell either, I imagine. People who don't believe in Hell can't honestly believe in Heaven. And only people who believe in God are allowed to live with Him.”
“The demons must believe in God,” Myra retorted. “They don't live with him.”
“Yes, but they don't love him or obey him willingly. That's the difference.”
“I'd rather be a ghost and live by myself.”
“Whatever you want, I rather believe that it's not you who will be judging such matters.”
“It's the parsons that fill people's heads with ideas like yours,” the ginger-haired maid returned. “What does a bag of straw like Reverend Yingling know?”
The two of them had argued along these lines before. This time, the woman just sighed and kept driving.
By now, the buckboard had passed the town welcome sign and Riley Canyon Road was widening into the main street of the town. Eerie, Arizona was small compared to many Eastern towns, but here, south of the Superstition Mountains, it was the largest settlement to be found, except for Phoenix, sixty miles to the west. As they passed the false-fronted buildings on either side, the people turned to look. Few could have missed the very attractive young lady seated next to the Widow Fanning.
Irene waved to those who waved at her first, but her forced smile was masking tension. How would Myra behave in public? Only a few people in the world knew the girl's real identity. Not even George Severin, the neighbor boy who helped them on the farm, had been told the truth.
The woman driver slowed as she came up to the O'Hanlon Feed and Grain Store. She brought Hazel to a complete start and then climbed down to the dusty street. While tying the horse's tether to a post ring, Irene told Myra, “Come down, please. We'll go over to the Eerie Saloon and to together with Molly.”
Molly! Of all the people in Eerie, the saloon-keeper's wife infuriated Myra the most. Irene didn't like ordering her around magically, but Molly O'Toole was bossy by nature. In fact, she had become the local prison matron, directing several “potion girls” at their duties at the Eerie Saloon. The idea of entering what was a disguised jail tied her stomach up in knots. The saloon owner, Shamus O'Toole, the son of an Irish witch and the step son of a Cheyenne medicine man, had concocted a magic potion. It turned any man who drank it into a woman who was referred to as a “potion girl.” Why hadn't someone holier-than-thou Christian shot him in the back of the head by now?
Irene led Myra to the saloon's bat-wing doors and there she paused. The young farm woman had been brought up thinking of a saloon as an antechamber to Hell. The only time she had walked into a saloon she had been under escort by Eerie's Judge Humphreys. She had half-expected to be insulted by some drunken scoundrel, but that had not happened. Surprisingly, the young man at the bar had actually been courteous. Similarly, the O'Tooles, the owners, had received her, a near stranger, with warmth and sympathy. They had saved Myron's life, albeit by an unheard of means. Though she would have paid him almost anything for his help, Mr. O'Toole had not asked as much as a penny for his life-preserving help.
Trying hard to stay steady, Irene peered through the window. The sign against the glass said that no drinks would be served until eleven o'clock in the morning. The woman wasn't quite sure whether the tavern owners were respecting decorum, or that they were simply late risers, kept up late by their night-owl customers.
Resolved, Irene guided her niece through the swinging doors. The barroom was almost deserted, with only two people to be seen. One was a very attractive red-haired woman seated at a small round table and playing a game of solitaire. The other was a boy sweeping the floor. This youth she recognized as the son of a local Mexican laundress. He looked to be about sixteen.
“Young sir,” Irene said. “I think Mrs. O'Toole may be expecting me. Would you be so kind as to let her know that my niece and I have arrived? I'm Mrs. Fanning.”
The boy, Arnie Diaz, looked up and the attractiveness of the lady's younger kinswoman caught his eye. She looked smart in a flowery “town dress” worn under a blue cloak trimmed with rabbit fur. Myra, espying the smile at the corners of Arnie's mouth, felt miffed. She remembered him from her school days a layabout and a scared chicken who was easy to bully. The girl's frown warned off the youth and he shifted to address the aunt.
“Si, Señora,” he said. “I will let Señora O'Toole know you are waiting.” He went up the nearby stairs. Up above, Irene knew, the O'Tooles had their living quarters.
A few minutes later, a cheery Molly descended the stairway, already dressed for the outdoors. Her hat was fur and she was wrapped in a sleeveless cloak of evergreen hue.
“Top of the morning to ye, Irene,” she said. “And to ye, too, Myra, me girl.” The maiden showed Molly her teeth, but she wasn't smiling.
“I have the shopping list,” volunteered Mrs. Fanning. “Anytime ye're ready.”
“I'm ready when ye are,” Molly replied. “Too bad it is that so few of our friends're off somewhere or still in bed, or else I'd be introducing them to ye. Maggie is back in the kitchen, but ye've already met her.”
“Yes,” nodded Irene. “That was a very fine breakfast that she brought to the doctor's office.” The farm woman now searched her reticle until she found an envelop. This she handed to her hostess. “Here is the payment for that meal, along with a gratuity. I should have remembered to settle up when you visited our place on Sunday.”
The proprietress accepted the envelope. “I'll run it right back to her, but first...” She indicated the redhead at the table. “I'd like to introduce ye to Miss Bridget Kelly. Whenever ye come by, ye'll be just about as likely t'see her out front as ye will me or Shamus. Bridget, this is a new friend of mine, Mrs. Irene Fanning.”
Miss Kelly looked up at Irene. The farmer had known for a while that one of the “potion girls” at the saloon was a gambler. Mrs. Fanning happened to slightly know only two other potion girls, Trisha O'Hanlan and Laura Caulder, and it was hard to know how to behave politely around people with such strange life histories. Did the potion girls dislike being looked at by strangers, especially those who knew what they were? She said to Molly, “Any friend of yours is, or I hope shall be, a friend of mine.”
Molly led her visitor in to Miss Kelly's table and Irene could see that the young lady was even more attractive up close than from a distance. She looked rather Irish, as Irish as the taverner herself. As with other potion girls, Mrs. Fanning observed no trace of masculinity in Bridget, but, surely, her liking for card-playing had to be a mannish trait.
“Bridget, this is Irene Fanning,” said Mrs. O'Toole. “She owns one of the farms to the east, along Reilly Canyon Road. Ye've probably ridden past it a few times by now. She and I will be going shopping. Please be making her feel at home whenever she drops by for business or a visit.”
“Of course, Molly,” Bridget said good naturedly. She met Irene's glance and extended her hand. “How do you do, Mrs. Fanning?”
Irene took the hand. “Very well, thank you,” she responded. “I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Kelly.”
Bridget shifted her gaze toward Myra. “Is this attractive young person a member of your family?”
“Yes. That's my n—niece, Myra. Myra Olcott. She's—she's staying with me. I'm hoping that she'll decide to make herself a permanent home here in Eerie.”
The gambler nodded. “Let's hope so. The town needs young people. By the way, I recognize your name. You have my sincere condolences for your nephew's unfortunate accident. The loss must be very hard for you.”
“It is, thank you. I'm afraid that I still haven't quite recovered from the shock. If my dear Myra were not with me, I don't know how I could have held myself together.”
The distaff gambler appeared sympathetic. “A death in the family is always hard to bear. But, for now, I hope that the two of you shall have a fruitful shopping day with Molly.”
“I'm certain that we will. Thank you very much, Miss Kelly.”
Not long after, Mrs. O'Toole, Irene, and Myra arrived at Silverman's dry goods store. “Maybe we'll be finding a thing or two that Myra can use,” the older woman speculated.
Within the clothing shop, Ramon de Aguilar was tending to business alone. “What can I do for you ladies?” the clerk asked, his English only slightly accented. Most of the town ladies had formed a good opinion of Ramon since he had taken the store job. Oddly enough, it was common knowledge that the well-spoken Mexican was courting Maggie Sanchez, the restaurant owner. People said that the latter had been a bandit, one who had ridden with an outlaw leader who had befriended him in territorial prison.
“Do ye see anything that ye might like t'be taking home with ye?” Molly asked Myra.
“Not if my life depended on it!” declared the maid.
Irene looked dismayed. “Listen, my girl, be courteous. If you don't have anything pleasant to say to a person, just...just be demure.”
The widow wanted to make an apology. “Please excuse her outspokenness, Señor. Myra simply hasn't been herself since her mother died.”
“Of course, Señora Fanning,” replied the clerk. “Feel free to look around; I will be here to assistant you.”
“That is kind of you, Señor de Aguilar. Let me introduce my niece formally. Her name is Abigail Myra Olcott from New Jersey, and she's the only child of my late brother, Amos. Say hello to the gentleman, Myra.”
“Hello,” the girl complied tonelessly. If “demure” meant not having to make conversation, demureness suited her well enough for now.
“Very happy to meet you,” the young man replied.
Myra returned the best smile that her sour mood could manage. She didn't have any use for the Mexican clerk, but didn't have anything against him, either.
Irene and Molly now turned their attention to the dry goods on display. Real shopping was, of course, only incidental to the excursion. What Irene needed to know was how far she could trust her niece's behavior. So far, her doubts had not been allayed.
Something caught Mrs. Fanning's eyes that reminded her that she needed a new dress for the Christmas dance. Her old clothes simply would not do. Except for church wear, the widow hadn't been in need of quality clothing. But, lately, she had met a man who had offered her an invitation to the party. The idea appealed to her, since she wanted to further introduce Myra to the community. Appreciating Tor Johannson's courtesy, she had said that she intended to attend and hoped to see him there.
Silverman's shop had vestments that appeared suitable for what was the year's most important social function. But which of the array should she choose? What did she know about current fashion?
“Molly,” Irene found herself asking, “what do you think would be an appropriate frock for the Christmas dance? I know you have good tastes, considering the nice dress you picked up for Myra in Phoenix.”
Mrs. O'Toole stepped up and looked things over. She knew only that her acquaintance seemed to be a very buttoned-down lady, one who tended to dress older than her years warranted. Regrettably, the death of a beloved husband sometimes shocked a young woman into thinking that she was nearer to the grave than she actually was.
Molly regarded one garment after another. She knew that well-dressed women wanted nowadays liked smart bodice-dresses, trim in the waist and riding low on the shoulders. Worn with a good corset, a gown like that tended to flatter a youthful woman. Molly recalled a line from a rollicking song that went something like,
- The girls have no tops to their dresses at all,
- As if they were bound for a bath, not a ball.
The Irish matron tried to imagine Irene gussied up. But could such a forlorn church lady be coaxed into appearing in public wearing something up-to-date and stylish?
At that moment, the widow remarked, “This one is rather nice.” Irene was holding up a selection that seemed much too sedate for Molly's tastes.
“If I were yuir age, I'd be going in this one,” the older woman recommended. She picked from the rack the low-cut dress that she had most admired.
Irene drew her lips into a rather profound O. “Molly,” she said, “you'd be the belle of Eerie, Arizona in such a dress, but people aren't used to seeing me appareled...so carefree.”
“That's what I was thinking. Isn't it time that someone like yuirself was sloughing off a whole boxcar of cares?” the tavern-keeper asked. “Christmas is the time for new hope, for bright colors, and smiling faces. New beginnings, really. Have ye never been wanting to let people know how...well, how alive and lovely ye are?”
Irene grimaced, as if a ghost had flickered past her eyes. “I did wear something like that at my wedding party,” she admitted. “It was a wonderful afternoon. But everything about my life went wrong right after that.”
“Optimism, lassie, optimism. A seed in the spring may not look like much, but plant it in moist, warm soil and a wonderful flower will soon be blooming.”
Irene shook her head. “Spring is still a long way off.”
Molly smiled. “No, it's not. Ye're living ye'er spring season now. Enjoy it, because springtime is short.” She lowered her voice. “We both know that Myra is making a new start; she has to, or her days won't be happy ones. But the same thing might be true of yuirself.”
“The neckline is frightfully low,” the farm woman observed.
“Ye've got enough going for yuirself so it won't fall down. I know a lady or two that're mightily skilled with the needle, if it's a little alteration that it'll be needing. But whatever ye buy, ye'll have to get a move on pretty quick. There's not much time left for a fitting.”
“It's probably too expensive,” Irene protested weakly.
“It's tag says it's only $9.00. Any good dress is going to cost at least that much.”
“What if it doesn't look good on me?”
“Ye won't know until we give it the mirror test. Why the long face?”
“You know Tor better than I do,” the widow whispered. “What would his sort of man think about a lady who would wear a dress so...frivolous?”
Molly smiled. “That's the best part of it all. Tor is a prospector, not a parson.”
Upon leaving the shop, Molly excused herself briefly to make a deposit at the bank. Irene and Myra, the former carrying her new boxed dress under her arm, walked directly to the Ritter livery stable. When the pair drew near enough to the stalls to smell them, Myra caught sight of a youth emerging from a hay shed. Winthrop Ritter. She knew him; he had been one year ahead of Myron at local school. When the boss's son smiled her way, the girl didn't feel like smiling back.
“Hello, Mrs. Fanning!” a baritone voice spoke up. Aunt and niece turned about to face Clyde Ritter, a man in his 40's wearing a waxed mustache and a leather apron. Because she knew salacious gossip about Ritter, Myra didn't trust his smug professional smile.
“Mr. Ritter,” the Irene said, “my niece Myra is new in town. She so much likes horses that I thought she might enjoy a visit to your very fine stables.”
The proprietor nodded. “Big, hard-bodied beasts appeal to so many of the younger women.” He turned his gaze to the maiden's wary expression. “Maybe you'd like some candy, Miss Myra?”
“My ma always told me not to take candy from strangers,” she replied.
Ritter chuckled. “That's good advice. This is a rough corner of the country and a lady always has to be on her guard. Anyway, you'd be quite welcome to visit the horses whenever you like. I'll be right glad to find a gentle one for you to pet.”
“May we stroll about the stalls?” Irene inquired. Ritter nodded amiably and then escorted the pair in a brief tour. Then, abruptly, he had to excuse himself, having seen a man in a dapper suit walking into his office.
“Ritter's a bad one,” Myra hushedly cautioned her aunt. “Don't let the likes him get you cornered when you're all alone.”
“Mr. Ritter?” she replied. “He's a married man and a town leader.”
“I know what he is. I just hope that you figure it out for yourself, before you're made sorry.”
Just then, Myra noted that Winthrop was still nearby, peering out the door to the tool room. “Let's get out of here,” she suggested to Irene. “Young Ritter is staring at us. He was the worst killcrow at school and all the kids hated him.”
Irene looked at the tall, sturdy boy and nodded coolly his way. “All right, let's go back and find Molly. Then we'll visit the bookstore. I know how much you like to read.”
“Fine. Any place is better than this one,” the girl agreed.
TO BE CONTINUED IN CHAPTER 1, PART 2