By Christopher Leeson and Ellie Dauber
Chapter 2, Part 1
December 14, 1871
Irene Fanning slept fitfully in the infirmary. When slumber finally fled from her, she climbed out from the cot; it was still dark outside. She quietly went over to Myra's bed and sat on a high stool, gazing down at the patient in the dim lamplight. “Oh, Myra,” she whispered. “I was so afraid you were going to die. But now… how can I explain what happened?” Boys were so proud of being boys, she knew. Myron – Myra – was going to be devastated. She cupped her hands and whispered a prayer for her nephew… her new niece, reminding the Lord that He had promised to make things as easy as possible for him… her?
The sleeper didn't awaken. Stepping to the window, Irene beheld the gray dawning, realizing that this would be a day like no other day. Letting the shade drop, she went out into the deserted waiting room. Doctor Upshaw had returned to his own part of the house once he had removed Myra's stitches, and became satisfied that the patient's sleep was more or less a natural one. Later, she had heard him rise and go out. The woman sighed. So much of what had happened the night before now seemed like a dream. Myron a robber? Myron near to death? Myron a… girl?
Dream? It was a nightmare.
Irene began to feel hungry, having missed supper the night before. A brief inspection of the doctor's outer office discovered no food, but in a corner of the infirmary stood a stoneware water cooler and, beside it, a tin cup. She filled the latter and drank.
Minimally refreshed, the farm woman decided that she should look in on Myra again. 'Oh, My Lord,' she realized in that instant, ‘I’m thinking of Myron as Myra.' She shook her head. How could she change her thinking so swiftly? It was like a fall of heavy snow on autumn ground. One day one showed the green grass; the next day it was all blanketed in white. Such an overnight change should always have struck a person as astonishing, but the average mind accepted it as normal. She sighed. 'I only hope…Myra can get used to her changes just as quickly.’
How had this impossible situation come about? Irene thought back to that terrible letter from the War Department. The young wife had shared so little time with her husband before he had gone away, only to die of camp fever in Tennessee. Left as an impoverished widow, she had had to sell the tiny house that they had purchased together and live in a rooming house, barely scraping by. How lonely, how empty were those days. Amos was dead, and so, too, were her parents and grand parents. By then, the only family she had left in the East was her sister-in-law, and she had always been cool toward Irene.
Feeling forsaken, she had sought solace in prayer. If her prayers were answered, the answer came in a terrible way. Both her sister, Addie, and brother-in-law, Edgar, had suddenly taken sick and died, leaving behind a small Arizona farm and a twelve year old son, Myron Thornton Caldwell. Raising train and stage fare through the sale of her last few possessions, she had set out for the frontier.
At first, Myron had been a moody boy, still shocked by his abrupt orphaning. He seldom smiled and rarely spoke more than a couple words at a time. But soon his manner started to change – and for the worse. He seemed perpetually angry, disdainful of everything and everyone around him.
He became increasing truant from school. There had been fights with other boys – a great many fights – and then came the petty crime. He oftentimes went off by himself, roaming the hills all the way up to Stagecoach Gap. He used these frequent absences to avoid his chores, and Irene found that the work of the farm was just too much for one woman alone.
Talking, and even scolding, did no good, so Mrs. Fanning had started to hire local boys as day laborers. Myron, instead of merely standing aside, had picked fights with these youngsters. Young George Severin had been the only one of the youths who toughed out Myron's bullying and stayed on the job.
One day, when he was sixteen, her nephew crossed over to the pasture of Tally Singer, the neighbor whom he liked least, and rode off on one of the man's horses. His action had disgraced both his name and his aunt's. People had started acting standoffish. Following long months of awkwardness, things seemed to settle down somewhat, but Irene's renewed friendships no longer felt as easy and spontaneous as they once had been.
For the past year, the widow had wondered where her nephew had run off to, and what he was doing. It worried her that the boy who had such a knack for finding trouble might be getting into much more serious trouble out in the world alone. Now, as abruptly as a thunderclap, the world had changed once again.
Myron a girl? ‘What does that mean?’ she wondered. What sort of lives were the two of them going to be living from this moment on?
She continued to stare down at the pretty, even features of the sleeping maiden. “Myra” looked about Myron's age, but there was nothing else familiar about her. She bore no resemblance to any member of the Olcott or Caldwell families. ‘Will she act like Myron did, still want to spend so much time alone, and yet be aggressive and abrasive?’
Another thought. ‘Did this happen by chance, or does the Lord have a plan?' It was said He knew everything about every person's life, past, present, and future, from the moment of Creation. Was He guiding her family's fate?
Irene glanced back at the window. It had brightened to nearly full daylight. 'Why hasn’t the doctor come back to check on Myra?' she wondered. She remembered, too, that her horse had stood hitched behind the office all night, untended. That was no way to treat a beast. 'If delays keep Myra and me in town much longer, I’ll have to take the carriage over to the Ritter Livery Stable,' she thought.
Mrs. Fanning heard a door slamming and voices issuing from the waiting room. “Hello,” she said, stepping out into the short hall.
“In here,” Upshaw called.
Irene walked through the curtained arch and into the waiting room. The physician was standing near the door. With him was a young Mexican woman in a long green dress. She was carrying a tray with several covered dishes and a steaming coffee pot. “Good morning,” she said with a smile.
“Irene,” Doc said, “this is Maggie Sanchez. She runs a restaurant here in town. I thought you and your… niece could use something to eat. How is she this morning?”
Mrs. Fanning recognized the name. Maggie Sanchez’s restaurant was in Shamus O’Toole’s saloon, and Maggie was one of the potion-girl outlaws. Irene searched her comely features for any trace of maleness, but found nothing. “How do you do, Miss Sanchez? Myro… Myra’s still sleeping.” She glanced back at the doctor. “Is that normal?”
“I hope so,” he said, turning his attention to Miss Sanchez. “Please put the food down on the table, Maggie. I'll go check on our patient.” He proceeded through the curtain.
The Mexican gave Irene a friendly nod and commenced setting up a breakfast for two. “Is your niece very ill?” she inquired as she worked, her English not heavily accented. “Myra is her name?”
Mrs. Fanning answered uneasily. She had never spoken to a potion girl, except for a brief pleasantry to Trisha O'Hanlan now and then. “Yes, Myra. She fell quite ill last night. But the doctor says that she's out of danger.”
“That is good. You have a farm outside of town, is that right?”
“Yes.” Irene didn't know what more to add.
Maggie didn't press the conversation and had soon finished her task. Just then, the doctor returned. “If there is nothing else, Señor,” she said, “I will be returning to my kitchen.”
“Thank you. I'll see that your dishes are returned.”
Maggie nodded and excused herself.
When she was gone, Upshaw said, “The... young lady... is still asleep. We'll let her rest until Mrs. O'Toole gets here.”
“Yes. As Shamus explained last night, she's getting some clothes for Myra. And I think that she'll have some useful advice for you, too. About what you can expect from the girl at home, for instance.”
Irene nodded, not sure what to say. Her life had once been so simple – sad but simple. Now, suddenly, she seemed to have become a character out of Grimm's Fairy Tales.
“Try not to worry,” the physician urged. “We don't know a great deal about the potion. Not many people have taken it. They...the subjects...generally get their strength back swiftly, but in this case, Myron was badly injured. It might take more time with him.”
Irene could only return a look of bemusement.
“I think you need a good breakfast,” the doctor said.
She crossed listlessly to the table to eat. Maggie had provided plentiful hotcakes and bacon, along with sliced apples. It was intended for both her and Myra, so she took only her share. Dr. Upshaw used the time to make some notes pertaining to Myra in his medical records. “Do you think...” the woman finally asked him, “that we've done the right thing?”
Upshaw looked up, his brows knitted. “That's a question I've often had to ask myself, even before I became a doctor. Is it ever wrong to save a life, even if it means a life of pain and helplessness? I don't know. With Myra, it will all depend on what she does with her new life, after she's had time to think things through.”
“She's going to be terribly shocked.”
“We should both pray for her. The other potion girls have done well for themselves. They've made many friends. It is hard to remember that they were once desperadoes. Maggie, the young lady who cooked your breakfast, has two children and a beau.”
“She's technically their father. Her boy and girl were brought up from Mexico by the gentleman that she's seeing.”
“She likes... men?”
He grimaced uncomfortably. “I think that Molly O'Toole is the one to ask about that. She's been very close to most of the potion girls.”
“Is she close to Pat... to Trisha O'Hanlan, too?”
“No, not her; Molly is the matron for the prisoners. Miss O'Hanlan broke no law and never had to stay at the saloon. Do you know...did you know Mr. O'Hanlan?”
“Only slightly; I’ve bought supplies from his store, and spoken to him once or twice in church. I've seen Trisha since then, and I still can't put my mind around it. Tell me, do any… of the ladies... leave town after their sentences are served?”
“They could,” he replied, “but none have, so far. I guess they feel that they have no lives left out there. They're making new lives here.”
“Is there any way to change them back?”
“No. The magic seems to be about as final as a hanging.”
“How do they feel about being changed?”
“It's not clear. I've mostly talked to them about their health. But Jessie and Wilma Hanks had a couple of the worst outlaw reputations in this territory, but as they are now, I don't think they're bad people.”
“Jessie is the singer,” Irene said. “I've heard about the other one, Wilma.”
“Just about everyone has heard of Wilma,” the doctor observed wryly, but that was a topic that he preferred to leave right where it was.
A girl shouted from the infirmary room. Both man and woman hurried toward the sound.
Myra was sitting up, wild-eyed. The covers were on the floor, but she was wearing one of the doctor's shapeless gray gowns.
“What the hell! What the hell!” she was shouting.
“Easy, Myron,” Mrs. Fanning answered. “You'll be all right.”
“You're dreaming, my young man,” Upshaw suggested. “Settle down and you'll soon wake up.”
This advice surprised Irene, but it appeared to have a kind of calming effect on the girl. Suddenly she looked more uncertain than horrified.
Myra settled down on the cot. She looked at herself, touched herself, as if wondering how any sort of dream could seem so real.
“Tarnation!” said a woman from behind them. “Such shouting! Thuir must be a new potion girl somewhere around.” Upshaw looked back at the door and saw Molly O'Toole coming in. Her expression was both knowing and grave.
The taverner's wife was holding a wicker carryall by its handles. Mrs. Fanning had seen Molly from a distance before. The Irish woman was red-haired, handsome, and about the age that her sister Addie would have been, had she had survived cholera.
“Molly,” the doctor said. “This – this is Myra. Myra, this is Molly O’Toole, Shamus O’Toole’s wife.”
“Don't call me Myra!” the girl snarled.
Molly put her basket down on the floor and came closer. “Did ye just wake up, colleen?”
Myra reacted to the term “colleen” with a furious glare.
“Listen, Missy,” Molly continued. “We'll be getting right t’work. We're going t'talk, and ye’re not going t'be flying off the handle while we're doing it. Ye'll keep calm, and we'll be having ourselves a nice conversation.”
Myra blinked in surprise. The authoritative statement seemed to have fallen upon the girl like a skeleton's claw. The doctor had seen that look before; Molly was one of the three that the girl was required to obey.
“For one thing, I think it's best to shoot straight w'potion girls. Ye’re not dreaming, honey pie. Ye’re wide awake. And ye’re a girl. ‘Tis also me understanding that it's yuir own fault. After yuir tomfoolery of a robbery, ye’re durn lucky t'be so much as alive. Me husband, Shamus, saved yuir life with some special medicine that he's got. Now, some medicine is pretty rough to take. This medicine is about the best thing thuir is for saving a life, but it also turns a boy into a girl every time.” She studied Myra for a moment. “And I'd say it done a right fine job on ye.”
“What did you do to me?” Myra demanded, but it was not quite a shout. Something had kept her from shouting.
“I told ye what me darling Shamus did. Gave ye some special medicine. The part ye might not like so much is that ye'll be a lassie from now on. The better part is that, once ye’re all fixed up, ye'll be an eye-catcher, for sure.”
Myra leaped to her feet and grabbed at an empty pitcher.
“Stop!” declared Molly. The shout hit the girl like a January blast. She stood frozen in place.
“How can you do that?” Irene gasped.
Molly looked back. “It's part of the magic. Me Shamus had ye tell yuir niece to do whatever ye, me, and Judge Humphreys tells her to. And I'm not about to be letting a headstrong gal start throwing pitchers and hurting people.”
She folded her arms and regarded the seventeen-year-old. “Ye really seem t'be a sour one, Missy, but so was the whole Hanks gang. It was tough for them, and it'll be tough for ye, too. But robbers go to prison, and horse thieves get the noose, so ye can consider yuirself lucky – lucky to be as fit, fine, and as free as ye are. Behave like a decent girl and ye won't get bossed around so much. And one other thing; don't try to hurt yuirself in any way. I'm telling ye now that ye just can't do it. We'll all going to take good care o' ye and do the best we can to see that ye live a nice long life.”
Mrs. Fanning made a small sound of protest. “Aren't you being rather harsh?”
“Please trust me, lady,” the Irishwoman said, “taking precautions is better’n holding funerals. If we want this filly to be pulling the surrey, ye'll have to keep her in tight traces, right up till she stops fussing about the bit. Let her play on yuir sympathy and she'll be moaning, complaining, and feeling sorry for herself till the cows come home.”
Irene's expression remained grievous, but she stood silent.
Molly once more addressed the girl, who was still clutching the pitcher. “Put that vessel down gently, gal. It ain’t nice t’be breaking things.” Myra obeyed with a dazed look. “Now, in case ye didn't understand what ye was told before, yuir name is Myra. So, no more snapping at people who call ye that. Agreed, Myra?
She said "Yes" through gritted teeth.
"Fine. Come sit back down on the cot, easy like. Ye'll only have t'listen; we won't be needing any sass-talk for a while. If I need ye t'say something, I'll let ye know. Understand?” Myra scowled, but couldn't reply. There were voices in her head that, somehow, wouldn't let her speak.
Molly nodded. “If ye understand, say that ye understand.”
Myra wanted to spew a tirade of obscenity, but only heard herself uttering, “I understand.”
“Good. Remember, politeness gets paid back with smiles.” The Irishwoman glanced at Mrs. Fanning and the doctor in turn, just in case either had anything to contribute. It didn't look like they did. Continuing her discourse with Myra, she said, “I'm going to sit down next to ye. Ye won't mind, will ye?”
“Yes, I will!” Myra growled.
“Yuir feelings are yer own, but I think I'll very well do what I please, thank ye very much. And don't ye try laying a hand on me, either.”
Molly took a seat. “Let me tell a little story, so ye understand just how things work. Me man, Shamus, and his family come over t’America back in the 1830s. They was crossing the plains when his da got sick. His ma was what they called a hedge witch back in the auld county, but she couldn’t do nothing t’save him. They was lost ‘n’ a late season snow storm that hit at them. It was a bad one. They woulda died ‘cept they got rescued by a Cheyenne hunting party. Mrs. O'Toole didn't have any place to go, and didn't have a thing waiting for her back in Ireland either, and she so accepted the tribe elders' invitation to stay for a while. By winter, Shamus’ ma was married t’their medicine man, and he had taken Shamus for his son.”
“When Shamus was still a lad, he worked at putting them Injun and Irish magics together into spells of his own, but most of them was as useful as a leaky bucket. When they did work, they mostly stirred up more harm than good. But he found one spell that neither his mother nor the red men knew, a potion that made the man who drank it turn into the fetchingest woman that'd ever crossed his path. It always worked right well, but try as he might, he never could find any way t'be changing a female into a male. The Cheyenne didn't much care for that sort of magic, and the elders told the boy to leave be.”
“A few years afterwards, Shamus decided that he wasn’t cut out t’be no Injun. He said goodbye to his ma and his Cheyenne family and headed off to a fort a few days away. He took a job in a saloon and found out that he had a knack for bar-tending. Later on, he moved out t’San Francisco. Me and him met when he was tending bar, and I was dancing on stage at the same saloon. We got married, but, in a year or so, we decided t'be leaving Frisco. After a wee bit of roving, we found Eerie and settled in. The town's been good to us ever since.”
“Then, last July, after ye was gone, a band of outlaws came along, wanting some revenge on Sheriff Talbot. They wasn't gunned down, like we told the papers; them outlaws was given beers loaded with the potion. Things worked out fine, and since then the Judge has been giving lawbreakers the choice to either take a draft of it or go to territorial prison, or even be hanged if the crime is a bad one – like horse thieving.” She watched Myra for a reaction to that last part. “Those that pick the potion spend two months as waitresses in our saloon, learning manners and honest work. Then they get let go.”
“Last month, we found out that the potion could also be curing real bad wounds. A little boy named Elmer was dying and Shamus’s potion saved him. He's called Emma now.”
“That brings us to yuir situation, Missy. Ye’d have died if the potion hadn't dragged ye back from the devil's gate. I imagine it will be taking a little while before ye start appreciating how lucky ye are, but we're patient people. My advice is t’buck up and be grateful for being alive. Ye’re going on one hell of an adventure. Keep yuir head and take a step at a time until ye learn to run.”
“Ye're going home soon, and ye’re going to be Mrs. Fanning's responsibility, just like ye was a wee tyke. If ye get too frisky and hard to handle, well, she's welcome to bring ye over to me Saloon. Thuir’ll be plenty of cooking and cleaning t'be keeping a colleen yer age busy. For now, though, here's just one piece of advice.” Molly glanced up at Irene. “And, by the way, if yuir aunt don't care for anything that I'm saying, she can just tell ye to do something different. Ain’t that right, Mrs. Fanning?”
“I suppose so.”
Molly looked back at the girl. “Lassie, have ye stood toe to toe with a looking glass since ye turned out so pretty?”
Myra felt compelled to answer. “No.”
“Ye might as well get that over with. Scoot yuirself over to that mirror and take a gander. Ye don't have to be shy about touching yuir new parts, either, if ye want to. Thuir's only us ladies and the doctor who'll be watching.”
Myra couldn't resist. She confronted a reflected face framed with long auburn hair. It had blue eyes that made her think of pools of sky-tinted water. The lips were full and pouty. The girl in the glass had teeth as white as the pearls on a fancy necklace. But what bothered her, above all else, was the fact that this face looked familiar. Myra was so confused by all that had happened that she couldn't place where she had seen it, but her gut told her that she wasn't imagining the resemblance.
“Ye’re as charming as a little red wagon,” Molly adjudged. “Do ye agree?”
“That's – that's not me,” Myra stammered.
Molly had heard that sort of thing before and sighed. “It is now. How do ye feel about it?”
Myra turned, glaring. “Like I want to kill somebody!”
“I was afraid ye'd feel that way. Come back and sit down.”
When Myra was again seated, Molly said, “Ye won't try t'kill yuirself or anybody else. Ye won't even try t’hurt them, except t'protect yuirself, or to protect someone who's with ye.
“Me Shamus tells me that ye don't want everyone knowing that ye used to be a boy. Was he wrong?”
Myra thought about that idea for the first time and then answered emphatically, “He's right!”
Molly nodded. “That makes things a little more complicated. It won't be such an easy secret for the keeping. If a new girl shows up out of nowhere talking like a boy, dressing like a boy, acting like a boy, people are going to be noticing. Just how long do ye think it'll be before someone guesses that ye're Myron Caldwell living at his old home place?”
“No long,” Myra reluctantly conceded.
“So what are ye going to do about it?”
The girl turned her face away. “I don't know.”
TO BE CONTINUED IN TREASURE OF EERIE, ARIZONA, Chapter 2, Part 2