Chapter 3, Part 1
All the way to the farm, Myra sat sullenly, refusing to say a word. Irene let her behavior pass without remark. The tension they both felt would quickly reduce any talk into an argument. The woman, emotionally drained, didn't want to deal with that.
Before too long, the pair could see the landmark hill that overlooked their stead. A few minutes later, Irene drew the carriage up before the farmhouse and, dismounting, dropped to the ground. When she looked up, she saw Myra's hard, resentful expression still unchanged.
“Unhitch the horse and get it ready for night,” the aunt told the niece, wondering if she would obey, now that Mrs. O'Toole wasn't with them.
Myra looked as though she was resisting the order, but that effort lasted only a moment. With a sour face, she climbed down in a careless, unladylike fashion. In such a mood, the girl started undoing the harness.
“What's the matter? Did Molly tell you not to speak?” Irene asked.
“Go to hell, bitch!”
The rebuke stung. Irene thought out a reply that wouldn't sound angry. “Maybe Mrs. O'Toole didn't tell you to be quiet, but I know she told you to be polite. People shouldn't be calling family members by wicked names. Remember that when you're speaking.”
It looked like Myra was going to shout something vile, but seemed unable to complete the effort.
“I know this day must have been a nightmare for you, Myron. I didn't want this. I wouldn't have allowed it to happen, except to save your life. No matter how much we both wish that things could have turned out differently, we're just going to have to deal with this somehow. When you finish your chores, you can rest. Come in for supper at the usual time.”
Then Mrs. Fanning went indoors. Irene could hardly put her mind around the idea of how much the world had changed. She, as much as Myra, needed time to overcome the shock. Only then would it be possible to sort things out. Despite all, there had to be some way for the two of them to live together and cooperate.
Once she had finished unhitching the horse and leading it into the coral, Abigail Myra Olcott needed to visit the outhouse. That interlude lent more insight into how much her life had changed. She emerged shaking her head. It was like she had died and was now living in somebody else's body. She felt too numb to feel her full range of anger. At a loss, Myra didn't have a clue as to what the rest of her life was going to amount to.
She had tried so hard to get away from this place, and yet here she was again, doing farm chores. She detested living at the edge of nowhere, an empty world with nothing to fill a person's time except hard work. It had actually been a little better earlier on, when Myron had still been going to school.
The boy had never liked learning, but some of the things that he'd read had excited his imagination. Books had taught him about faraway places. Now it seemed that Myra would never see any of those distant lands.
But the emptiness of farm-living was, for the young person, a very old gripe. Worse than that was being ordered to wear a dress, and a corset even! People would laugh if they knew whom she had been up until the day before. She couldn't help blaming her aunt for what had happened, even though, deep down, she realized that it had probably been the only way to save her life.
Myra started to wonder, 'Is staying alive a good thing? Is being alive all it’s cracked up to be?’ She didn't believe in either heaven or hell. As she saw it, living had no purpose, and the best way to spend one's time on earth was in having fun. After all, sooner or later, everyone's light would go out like a spent candle. If life lost its enjoyment, why prolong it?
‘What good is my life,’ she asked herself, ‘if old lady O'Toole and my crazy aunt can boss me around like some damned slave?’ The slaves were free now, but where was her freedom? ‘Out on the owlhoot trail, I was always afraid of getting shot, or getting caught and going to prison.' But what actually happened had turned out to be so much worse.
While she wrestled with her grief, Myra had been carrying out her chores. The horse was corralled and the manger filled with hay. The level in the animal trough seemed low, so the girl released the brake on the windmill and adjusted the blades to catch the wind. The fresh breeze started them spinning and she soon heard water flowing. But no water was coming into the trough. Myra quickly realized that the valve had been set for filling the cistern, and so cranked off the cistern valve. By diverting the flow into the pipe that ran to trough, the water would quickly fill it. She had done these tasks many times before as a farm boy, too many times in fact.
While he was away, Myron had sometimes wondered how his aunt was faring. From the look of the farm, Irene had been keeping up with the work well enough. Plenty of hay had been put away for winter, and haying was a daunting job for one or two people. Irene couldn't have done so much by herself, so she must have kept on using hired men. The last of those that Myra knew about had been George Severin; the girl hoped that her aunt had found different help over the last eleven months.
The potion girl clenched her fists as wrathful memories concerning George buoyed up. Myron had been able to whip any buck his own age, all except Severin. Myron had never liked being around kids he couldn't bully. With George coming by every day and doing what had been his chores, young Cadwell had been embarrassed. It was like someone else had become the man of the house. He couldn't stand it.
Remembering those victorious old fights with smaller boys, Myra drew up her left sleeve. The willowy bicep she beheld looked like it should belong to a stranger. No wonder everything felt about twice as heavy as before. The girl realized that, from now on, she probably wouldn't be able to beat down any male older than twelve.
Just then, Myra noticed movement out of the corner of her eye. She wheeled. It was her horse – her own horse -- the one that she had ridden from the robbery site. The beast was looking at the water flowing inside the coral. That gave the girl an idea.
She opened the gate and moved toward it slowly, not wanting the animal to spook and run off. When Myra got extremely close, she took the bridle and stroked its mane. It didn't mind being touched and allowed her to lead it into the corral. There was plenty of hay waiting there and the equine seemed to accept its circumstances contentedly. The bay had seen plenty of livery stables and unfamiliar people didn't frighten it.
While the horse drank and fed, the girl went back to finish her chores. When they were at last done, Myra was freed from the compulsion to keep working. She had been told to rest once she'd gotten her tasks done, but the girl had her own ideas about how to relax. She thought about going into the house to put on some of her old male clothes before riding off. But that would be risky. Irene wouldn't tolerate her disappearing again, and any command to stay put had to be obeyed.
But the auburn-haired maid still wanted to ride. Those thousands of dollars in gold ingots had been hidden up in the gap. She had to act before her aunt caught on to her plan and spoiled things. She knew that Irene had a compulsion to spoil things. Unadventurous, unimaginative, the woman didn't seem to complain about doing hard work, going nowhere, and almost never seeing anything interesting. In other words, she'd make Myra's life just as dull as the one she was living herself.
Myra had to get out, she just had to. There was no telling how soon the gang would come back. If she were them, she would have gone after some tools, and then laid low until the town posses around the area got tired of looking for outlaws. But how many days would they stay away? The smart thing would be for her to go after the gold as soon as possible.
There was another reason for speed. If any of the three polecats got caught, they'd spill their guts about where the treasure was. Then the authorities would dig it up and leave her a pauper.
What hopes could Myra still cling to? Not many. Gold was the last chance she had for a good life. Being a rich girl couldn't be as bad as being a poor one.
Myra looked down at herself. She wanted to get out of female clothes, definitely. With this in mind, she went to the buckboard and tore apart the bundle containing Myron's soiled garments. How repulsive! The jeans stank, and not only from blood. Myron hadn't been able to control either his bladder or bowels after getting wounded. There was no way she was going to put on those foul pants. The shirt, too, was a red-encrusted mess that Myra wouldn't have worn on a bet. The coat wasn't too bad, fortunately, and so she drew it on over her dress. Then she went into the barn and brought back a ragged, dusty old horse-blanket that, for years, had been hanging from a peg.
The sun still hung reasonably high. Myra thought that she could do her treasure hunting before dark and then head out across the prairie with a load of gold. The darkness would deepen the cold, naturally, but as Myron she had already spent a peck of chilly nights out in the open. The old blanket would come in handy then. Then there was the matter of provisions. The potion girl didn't want to confront her aunt while looking for food in the house. Instead, she hurriedly searched the farm sheds. It soon became obvious that there was nothing there that a human could eat, but she did find some useful tools -- a hammer, a chisel, and a crowbar that could be toted by a horseman. Nothing else seemed either convenient or useful.
By now, the bay had stopped feeding. Myra led it out of the corral and climbed into the saddle. Her garments, she discovered, were too tight for sitting naturally astride a horse. The girl therefore hiked up her skirt to give her legs room enough, while still leaving them protected from the chill by her calf-length drawers and high stockings. She jabbed the beast's sides with her heels and the beast moved off obligingly.
The trail to Stagecoach Gap climbed slightly along the way, but it didn't take Myra long to reach the robbery site. She gazed back down the road. Most of her memories of the old place were bad ones. The stead had ceased to be a real home when her mother and father had died of cholera, a day apart. Aunt Irene had come to Eerie a couple months later, but the loss of his parents had left a hole inside young Myron that Irene's companionship couldn't fill. It took more than someone mending his clothes and fixing his supper to put heat back into the cold ashes of what had become his life.
During his year away from home, Myron had felt no guilt. His aunt had seemed to like the farm better than he did, so he had left it to her. He had even left the farm’s horse behind, to make it easier for her to carry on. But doing that had made him a horse thief. The consequences of that mistake had taught him a lesson. The lesson was that a grown man should never let himself care about other people. Let them solve their own problems; one had enough problems of his own.
Myra was trying hard not to ask herself questions about how was she supposed to live. She couldn't imagine anything good ever coming her way again after such a disaster – except for one thing.
Myra came to the mouth the little side canyon and drew up. She'd been visiting Stagecoach Gap since the Caldwell family had come to the region, when Myron was about ten. It had no proper name, but the boy had called it Secret Canyon. The youngster had once looked at its narrow confines with eyes full of imagination, pretending to be one of those English lords who explored Africa's darkest corners. It was a place to hunt wild tribes, tigers, and elephants.
Myra slid down from the saddle and removed the tools from the saddlebags. So that the horse wouldn't wander off at the worst possible moment, she tied the reins around the slim trunk of the nearest desert willow. Then the girl started up into the defile.
Climbing over the rocks was tricky while wearing slippery wooden-soled shoes. She wasn't sure which spot would have looked like a good hiding place to the other robbers, so she paused to search her memory.
Ike, along with those damned fools, Jeb and Horace Freely, couldn't have done much to conceal the strongbox without picks and shovels. The canyon, which had no exit, was only some three hundred feet long. It was not easy to climb up to the rims on either side. The slopes of fallen rock ended well before they reached the top of the walls. Taking a heavy box out of Secret Canyon that way would have been impossible. It was hidden somewhere very near.
Since the three were all lazy sidewinders, the gang member would not have taken time to do anything fancy or smart. The chest would have to be close to the floor of the canyon, hidden with nothing better than rocks piled on top of it. Most probably, Ike would have looked for a natural dip or cavity to place it in, and then piled stones on top of it. It had been years since Myron had last explored Secret Canyon, but Myra still knew the general layout. Really, there wasn't much to know.
The girl observed that after about a hundred feet, the flatness of the canyon bed gave out and the Freely brothers would have run into the beginning of the talus slope. She looked left and right, up and down, trying to spot any place where she could remember a hidey-hole that the gang might have noticed. Right now, it would probably be the site of a low mound of loose stone.
She made a lot of educated guesses and checked possible spots by means of trial and error. In the process, she was again reminded of how much weaker her new body was, as she moved rocks here and there. After only about forty minutes of searching, her heart leaped. She had found what she was looking for! The stones at one location had looked slightly different from the surrounding ones; they didn't seem like they could have come together naturally. She had started moving the limestone chunks aside and soon found the metal-reinforced edges of the missing strongbox. When it was mostly uncovered, she stood back, contemplating the box that would make her ruined life worth something.
But this box also brought back evil memories. Ike's brainless shooting was responsible for the fix that she'd found herself in. That ricochet had turned her whole existence upside down. Could the chest, even by half, hold enough dust and nuggets to make up for the damage that it had caused?
Myra took the tools she'd brought with her and worked hard at breaking the lock. For a person who didn't care for intense physical labor, she applied herself furiously, with only short rest periods. She skinned her knuckles several times with the tools, and still kept at it, until both her hands were aching with bruises and burning with scrapes. The crowbar was a clumsy implement that kept slipping, while the hammer and chisel could make no certain progress, despite all the din that they raised.
Her arms began to ache seriously, and all that kneeling on rock had started her knees hurting. Myra had begun to doubt her ability to conquer the chest by herself. She sat back on a stone, searching her imagination for another plan. If the strongbox were left in place, the returning outlaws might take it away before she could come back. To prevent such a thing, it should be moved and hidden elsewhere, so that the gang couldn’t find it. But easier said than done. It had taken two strong young men to lug the locked chest to its present depository. She was all alone and a lot less strong than either of the Freelys. Despair began to grip at her.
Her tools now seemed pathetic. It might take a sledgehammer and a mining bar to overcome those locks and reinforced hinges. She'd need a helper of considerable strength. A still better approach would be using explosives. She knew that a lot of miners around Eerie handled blasting powder and dynamite. But how was she to get some? She could hardly walk into Styron’s hardware and buy a keg. Any way that she looked at it, she was stumped.
Myra went back to the idea of getting a sledgehammer. Who did she know with muscles enough to help her? This was bandit loot and most people would want nothing to do with it. Who did she know that wouldn't go running to the law, hoping for a reward? Myra would not be able to claim a reward for herself, since the local sheriff knew that she had been one of the thieves. The stage company wouldn't look too keenly on that idea, either.
Who did she know? Myron didn't have many friends around Eerie. Or anywhere else, in fact. Of those few, the best choice that came to mind was Lydon Kelsey. He'd talked a lot about finding gold in the mountains, but had always been too work-shy to actually go looking for it. His best assets were his strength and dishonesty. Myron and Lydon had done some petty thieving together. To a layabout like Kelsey, this could be the score of a lifetime.
But Lydon wouldn't recognize her in the shape she wore, and Myra surely didn't want to tell the loudmouth who she really was. He'd spread the word all over town, that Thorn Caldwell was the newest “potion gal.” Everyone from thither and yonder would come to take a look and give her the horse laugh.
What if she pretended to be just an ordinary girl, new to the town? She might act like she wanted to cozy up to Kelsey. Then she could give him some made-up story explaining how she knew about the strongbox. He'd go for it quick if there were a chance for gold. But there was a catch. Would Lydon be honest enough to share the swag, or would he just shove her aside and take it all for himself? Would she have to be prepared to shoot him once the box was opened?
And what about that order that old lady O'Toole had given her, about not hurting anyone? What would Lydon do if she stood there pointing a gun at him, unable to fire?
Myra just didn't know what that accursed magic left her capable of.
For now, she had no choice but to conceal the chest again. Her hands, already sore, became sorer still by the time she'd gotten the box covered with rocks. She was bone tired, too.
Myra glanced at the sky. The sun could no longer be seen over the canyon rim. She knew that supper-time was not far off. The very thought of not getting home for the meal unsettled her more than it reasonably should have. Irene had wanted her back by supper. To make the deadline, she needed to hurry.
Taking the tools with her, Myra re-secured them, swung herself up over the bay's back, and hastily started down Riley Canyon Road.
The girl kept the gelding moving at a canter. The anxiety about being tardy loomed larger and larger within her. She hated acting like a slave, but couldn't help herself.
Myra was about halfway home when she saw someone trotting up the dusky road on a mule. Myra preferred to avoid him, whoever he was, but her compulsion to beat the clock didn't give her any option except to continue along by the shortest route.
“Whoa!” the rider said as she cantered close. “You have to be Myra, Miss Irene's niece!”
The girl reined in. The youth on the mule was no stranger. It was George Severin.
“Severin! I – I've got to go! Aunt Irene wants me back by supper!”
The youth frowned bemusedly. “I know,” he said slowly. “She asked me to go looking for you. Whose horse is that, anyway? Your aunt said you came in by stage.”
Myra shrugged. “I don't know where it came from. It was grazing nearby and we took it into the coral. I just felt like taking a ride.”
He regarded her with curiosity. “Be that as it may, you gotta get on home.”
“That is what I was trying to do, when you started jawing at me.” She tapped her heels to get the horse moving again. But George didn't consider their conversation finished and rapidly caught up with the unusually attractive maiden.
“You don't need to come,” she said in annoyance.
“I don't mind. Hey, Myra is a pretty name. Your aunt should have told me I was looking for a gal who was every bit as fetching as her moniker.”
Myra felt like cussing, but said only, “Myra was my grandmother's name.”
“Yeah? So where are you from?”
“You ask too many questions, for a stranger.” The more she urged her horse to speed, the more determinedly George spurred his mule to keep up.
“We won't be strangers for long,” he said. “I work for your aunt. Unless you're going to be assuming all the chores that she can't handle.”
“I don't know anything about that,” Myra replied, refusing to look at him.
“Are you from the East?”
“How do you like things -- this far West, I mean?”
Myra scowled. “So far, I haven't liked anything about it. And did anyone ever let you know that you talk too much?”
“Now and then,” George responded with a tolerant grin. “Say, did you hurt yourself? That looks like blood on that coat of yours. It was made for a man, wasn't it? Your uncle's?”
It took the girl a couple seconds to come up with an answer. “Yeah, it's my uncle's. Irene said she was wearing it when she butchered a chicken.”
To her relief, George stopped trying to force a conversation, even though he persistently kept pace until they reached the corral. “If you still work here,” Myra told him, “get the horses ready for the night!”
She swung out of the saddle and dropped to earth, like one accustomed to riding. As she bustled toward the door, George called from behind: “I'll take your advice, since that's what I think Mrs. Fanning would want.”
Before Myra reached the door, Aunt Irene stepped outside, her arms crossed. “Where on earth have you been?” she demanded.
Her niece stopped abruptly. “I found my horse. My chores were done, and I felt like taking a ride.”
Irene glanced over Myra's shoulder and saw George. “We'll talk about this later, young lady.”
“Don't call...” Myra began, but Severin's voice interrupted her.
“Excuse me. I was wondering if you'd like me to unsaddle the new horse, ma'am.”
Mrs. Fanning nodded. “Yes, please. And when you're done, come take supper with us.”
“Much obliged,” he remarked.
Irene watched the youth draw off and then said to Myra, “Come inside.”
The girl followed her aunt through the door and glanced around the interior. It hadn't changed much. And it still represented the last house on earth that she wanted to live in.
“Where did you go?” Irene asked.
“Nowhere important. I came back on time, didn't I?”
“Yes, you did,” Irene began slowly. “So I’ll ask you again, where did you go? And this time you will answer me honestly.”
“Yes,” Myra responded, wincing as a compulsion to tell the truth kicked in.
I-I rode u-up to the stage… to Stagecoach G-Gap. I-I w-wanted to… to l-look… around.”
Her aunt nodded. “The crook returning to the scene of the crime, as they say?”
“Y-Yes, ma’am. I wa… wanted to just… to ride off and n-not come back.” It was the truth, but not the whole truth.
“So why did you come back?”
“You told me that I couldn't miss supper.” Told… ordered… it was all the same to Myra, thanks to that damned potion.
“So, you admit that you were planning to run off again?”
Myra didn't want to answer that one, but it came out anyway: “Y-Yes...ma'am.”
Aunt Irene regarded her sadly. “Why...? Why do you want to leave again so soon?”
The girl threw up her arms. “This isn't any kind of life that I want.”
“You went off and became an outlaw before. Was that better than the peace and safety you can enjoy in your own home?”
“Better than anything that happens in this home!”
Mrs. Fanning shook her head. “I – I don't know what to say. I just don't understand you.”
“Well, who says you have to understand?”
The aunt sighed. “Sit down and eat your supper. But before you do, set a place for George."
TO BE CONTINUED in Chapter 3, Part 2