By Christopher Leeson and Ellie Dauber
Chapter 3, Part 2
With a huff, Myra did as her aunt told her. The only food on the table was some slices of canned oranges, a loaf of fresh bread, and a dish of churned butter. For a beverage, they had coffee in an enameled pot and a small pitcher of milk.
“There's hot food on the stove,” said her aunt. “Load up with whatever you like,”.
Myra went to the steaming kettles filled with boiled beef, green beans, and mashed potatoes. Hungry, she shoveled large portions onto her plate.
“Mrs. Fanning!” called George from outside. “I'm finished with the horse.”
“Come in, boy,” Irene shouted back. “Have something to eat.”
“Don't mind if I do,” George replied upon entering. His eyes darted around the shadowy interior, and came to rest on Myra, who had taken her place at the table.
The boy paused to hang his broad-brimmed hat on a nail driven into the wall boards. “There's food on the stove,” said his hostess. “Help yourself and then draw up one of the chairs.” Following her advice, he filled a plate of his own and, a moment later, was seated opposite Myra.
The girl stubbornly concentrated on her eating, already impatient to leave.
“George,” said Irene, “I suppose you young people have already introduced yourselves.”
“We have. I was pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Myra,” he said.
Irene knew that she had to speak as though Myra were new to the area. “George's family lives about a mile from here on the other side of the ridge,” she explained. “He helps out as much as his folks can spare him.” When Myra said nothing, Mrs. Fanning added, “Be polite and say hello.”
“Hello,” said the girl.
Irene smiled tightly and put a question to the house guest. “Have you heard anything about the posse, George?”
The youth responded, frowning, “Mr. Singer dropped by with some news just before I left home.”
The farm woman sighed. “He must have told you that Myr... Thorn was one of the robbers. It makes me very sad.”
“They say that he was... shot,” the youth offered delicately.
“Yes,” replied Mrs. Fanning. “At least that's what the rider told the sheriff.”
“Did the posse find … anything… up at the Gap?”
Irene winched. Of course someone would have been sent to search the Gap if there were known to be a wounded outlaw up there. “The men haven't returned yet,” she said. “But a man was sent to look just as soon as the news came in. The talk is that there was...no trace.”
“You're a very brave woman,” George remarked. “I'm surprised that you're still able to smile, having gotten such terrible news.”
Irene glanced down. “I – I think I'm still quite stunned,” she stammered. “Deep down, I haven't really come to grips with the enormity of the tragedy.”
“It is very terrible.” The boy then glanced with interest toward Myra. “You were coming down from Stage Coach Gap. What did you see up there?”
“Nothing but rock and mesquite,” the girl answered stiffly. “I actually didn't go too far. I... I don't even know where this gap of yours is.”
George grinned. “If a person follows the road to where it becomes a rock pavement, he's in the Gap.”
Myra shifted uncomfortably when she realized that the nosy neighbor seemed to be watching her face rather closely.
“The gap is where the rough country meets the prairie,” the boy explained while cutting off a peace of meat. “Mrs. Fanning, is Myra going to be staying with you for a while?”
“I expect so,” affirmed Irene. “Her mother passed away a couple months ago. She doesn't have any other close family.”
“That's good.” Then George caught himself. “I mean, I'm sorry to hear about your misfortune, Miss Myra. I only meant that it's always better to stay with kinfolk than with strangers.” Myra's expression remained cold, so the youth addressed her aunt. “Will you still need me for chores, ma'am, now that you have a healthy young lady to take up the slack?”
Irene considered that question thoughtfully. Finally she said, “Myra has a few things to learn about homesteading, so, for the time being, you can keep on coming as before. Even if she takes to farming well, there will always be occasions when we'll be needing extra help.”
“I'll be glad to keep coming over,” George said as he reached for another piece of orange. “I love these oranges, ma'am. Dad planted a few trees last spring.”
“We get our fruit, except for apples and plums, from Ortega's grocery in town. I tried planting some oranges of our own a couple years back, but they all died.”
“I hope ours do better. But about work tomorrow... ” began the boy.
“I think we'll hold off for a couple days. Myra is going to need a little while to settle in.”
“She'll be needing a warm coat, too. I noticed her wearing her uncle's jacket, instead of one of her own.”
Irene thought quickly. “She... lost her trunk when the stage she was on went over a bump while crossing a fast stream. A friend is going help out by picking her up some replacement things in Phoenix.”
“Why go all the way to Phoenix?” George asked.
Irene had said more than she should have. Being unused to lying, she found it not easy to do well. “The lady was going there anyway. She says that prices and selection are much better in the big town.”
George smiled, “A lady from church?”
“No. Mrs. O'Toole.” Mrs. Fanning hadn't wanted to mention the O'Tooles and, by inference, the potion, but it was better to get that detail out now, instead of being caught in a lie later.
George blinked. “Molly O'Toole? How did you two happen to meet? She doesn't go to our church.”
“We were at the same shop a couple weeks ago. She's very nice.”
“She seems to be,” he conceded with a nod.
Irene dearly wanted to change the subject. “So you're visiting the saloons now, George? It seems only yesterday that you were just a little scamp.”
He grinned. “Ma says I still am, but Pa took me to get my first beer last month when I turned eighteen.”
Mrs. Fanning shook her head. “Men and their beer. It would take the fiery angel of Eden to keep them apart, I'm afraid.”
“Well, men and women have their different ways. Wouldn't you agree, Myra?”
The girl, frowning, replied, “I reckon they do.”
Myra felt relieved when Severin finally rode off.
“Myra, I've been thinking... ” Irene began.
The girl spun. “Don't call me that name!”
Her aunt drew a deep breath, bracing for a quarrel. “How long would it take for someone like George, or maybe neighbor Singer, to guess who you really are if they overheard me calling you Myron or Thornton?”
“Humphh!” was the only response Myra gave. She had found that if Irene didn't frame a question like a command, she didn't have to answer it.
“If you aren't worried about people finding out, I'll be glad to call you Myron. Otherwise, it has to be Myra -- unless you prefer Abigail.”
“That's even worse than Myra. It sounds like some old granny's name.”
“Perhaps your cousin Abigail thinks so, too. She signs her cards 'Gail.' I suppose she supposes that it sounds more modern. Anyway, I'm glad you didn't say anything to offend George. You're almost the same age. You can be friends.”
“Humphh!” she repeated.
“If he likes you, I bet he'll be persuaded to help with some of your heavier chores.”
“I don't need any help from the likes of him!”
“I see. Well, it's about time we talk about more serious matters. We can't have you riding off and never coming back. The bad things that befall a boy out in the world can be so much worse for a girl.” Myra looked indignant at hearing the word “girl,” but held her peace.
“I should have told you this before, but I'm telling you now. I want you to be home – and I mean here at the farm – by sundown every day, unless you've asked for and have received permission to stay out later. And don't try to sneak away at night, either. If you go outside after sunset, don't go any farther than you could walk in five minutes, unless, like I've said, you've gotten permission.”
Myra's face hardened. “So I'm just a prisoner.”
“I'm sorry that you think so. You're walking a strange path, but robbers become convicts; that's how life works. If you had been caught by a posse, you might have received that same potion from the judge as punishment. Then everyone would know that it was Myron Caldwell who was cooking, cleaning, and serving drinks as the newest potion girl at the saloon. But you were blessed. That concoction not only saved your life, it also disguised you. No one has to know what really happened to Myron.”
“Too many people already know!”
“Some people had to be told. I needed advice when when the doctor found out that he couldn't help you. They're good people and I think they will be willing to help you settle into the community without causing suspicion. I won't tell anyone else, and I certainly hope that you don't accidentally let anyone know.”
Myra let out a frustrated sound.
“You're alive and you're home,” Irene reminded her. “You now have a future. This property will be yours when you turn twenty-one. If you would just help me manage it until you're an adult, you'll have a good nest egg by the time you take over.”
Myra shook her head. “Living like a peon isn't anything to look forward to. I'd be better off inheriting a champion race horse instead of some dusty old homestead in the desert. Farmers usually work all their lives and still end up with nothing. Anyway, why should I believe that you'll turn over the land when I'm twenty-one?”
“Why shouldn't you believe?”
“Because if people think Myron's dead, there's no one to inherit anything. And even if you hand back what should be mine already, you'll probably keep ordering me around like you're doing now.”
Irene sighed. “Tell anyone you want that you're Myron. It's all up to you. But you have my word that the farm is yours when you come of age. When that happens, I'll respect your likings.”
The girl looked at her suspiciously. “While I'm running the farm, where will you be?”
“If you don't want me to stay and help out, I'll get along somehow. The Lord provides.”
“I hope the Lord provides me with a buyer. I'll be ready to sell this place on my twenty-first birthday.”
Irene grew somber. “If you don't change your mind by then, I only hope that you will use the selling price wisely. Your attitude worries me. How are you going to support yourself once the money is all spent? You can't be an outlaw anymore. So how do you expect to be making a living a few years out? A person who owns land always amounts to something. You're so lucky that your father left the farm without any debt.”
Myra couldn't think of a good reply, even though she wasn't ready to accept her aunt's view of the world.
December 16, 1871
A couple days later, just after the midday meal, Irene heard a coach coming from the direction of Eerie. Going to the door, she saw a small one-horse, canopied buggy kicking up dust. Judge Humphreys was driving and, behind him, a horseman followed. It was Paul Grant, the sheriff's deputy. The Judge turned off the road and passed through the open gate, the lawman following close behind.
Mrs. Fanning waited on the rock-slab step.
“Howdy, ma'am,” Paul called, dismounting.
“Has the sheriff caught the outlaws yet, Deputy?” she asked.
“Not that we know of,” her rangy visitor replied, stepping around his companion's vehicle. “Some of the posse's straggled back, but Sheriff Talbot is still out with most of the men.”
“How is... the young lady?” Judge Humphreys asked, carefully climbing down from his rig.
Irene grimaced. “She's doing about as well as one can expect.”
The jurist joined the other two. “No problems?”
“She's sour and sulky. I suppose a person can't blame her.”
Humphreys nodded. “We need to know more about the robbery. Paul here will ask the questions and I'll make sure that your niece tells the truth.”
The woman shook her head. “I'm so sorry that a member of my family has to be involved in something as awful as this.”
“Boys will be... .” began the judge, but then thought better of it.
“Come in. I'll find Myra.”
The two men followed the young woman into the main room and made themselves at home in two of the four available chairs. Then their hostess went back outside, calling her niece's name.
A couple minutes after, the bright rectangle of the doorway was broken by Myra's silhouette, giving Paul got his first look at Eerie's newest potion girl. When she suspiciously came closer, “pretty” was the first word that sprang into his mind. Every time Paul saw the effects of Shamus' concoction, it amazed him all the more. She looked Thorn's age, about seventeen, but that was where the resemblance ended. The gal's auburn hair gave off red sparkles where sunlight touched it; her form was lithe but ripe and blooming. Paul reckoned that Myra Olcott would soon be catching the notice of every young man with an eye for beauty.
Just then, Irene returned from outdoors.
The judge stood up and pointed to the empty chairs. “Good day, Miss Olcott, Mrs. Fanning. We have a few questions for your niece.”
Myra remained standing, her face like stone. Irene had told her that the rotund man was people – rattlesnakes -- who had played a part in in her transformation. She thought she recognized the bravo with him as a local cowboy, but now he was wearing a deputy badge. “How much does he know?” Myra asked the justice, making a gesture toward Paul.
Humphreys shrugged. “With the sheriff away, it was necessary to brief him fully.”
“Oh, fine! Why don't you just tell the whole damned town while you're at it?”
“I'd like you to sit down,” the old man informed her firmly.
Myra did as told, having no other choice. Judge Humphreys had power over her, just like Molly O'Toole and her aunt did.
Humphreys turned toward Paul. “Deputy Grant, the floor is yours.”
“Miss Olcott,” Paul began.
Myra refused to acknowledge the man's address.
“Miss Olcott,” the lawman repeated, “tell us about how the robbery came off.”
“Why, do you need some pointers from a professional?” mocked the auburn lass.
“Young lady,” interjected the judge, “respond to Deputy Grant's question. Tell us about how the robbery occurred, and tell the truth.”
Something was forcing her to answer accurately. “We w-waited for…for the stage up in th-the Gap. We'd barri…caded the road. When...When they st-stopped, we made – uh! -- made them thr-throw down their g-g-guns and the guard… umm, he gave us the st-strong… b-box. We hadn't br-brought any t-tools, so Ike…Ike tried to shoot the…l-lock off. The bounce hit…hit me in the g-gut.”
She had paused. “And then?” coaxed Paul.
Myra felt like a damned fool, the way she was stuttering and stammering. 'Maybe,” she thought, 'I shouldn't fight against answering so hard, just to protect the bastards that shot me and left me for dead?' She decided to tweak her answers in a way that would nail the gang down good, but would not hurt her so much.
“Reply to the question, Miss,” Humphreys interjected sternly.
Myra sucked in a breath. “It hurt like h-hell. Ike just… just left me in the dirt. He told everyone to get out of the coach and c-clear away the barricade. When they did, he ordered them to head on out, a-away from Eerie.” It was easier to deal with the interrogation by letting go of those items of truth that she didn't mind telling!
“Who is this Ike?” Paul inquired.
“Ike Bartram! He said he and his folks came to Arizona T-Territory after the w-war. His pa had to hightail it out of Missouri, 'cause he'd been working with guerrillas and the army was looking for people like him.”
“The other robbers?”
“Jeb and Horace Freely. They're from California, where they'd ended up w-wanted for rustling.”
“Where did you meet them?”
“Antelope Spring – at Whipple's Saloon.”
“A new town – up near that Grand Canyon.”
“When was that?”
“Late October. From there we went toward Yuma. All that the three of them could ever talk about was getting an easy take. I told them about the Prescott-Tucson Stage here at Eerie.”
“All right,” the deputy said. “You were hurt and on the ground. Then what happened?”
“Jeb and Horace lugged the chest back into that arroyo up there. Ike came my way and said that if I wasn't fit to ride, they couldn't afford to leave me for the law. He was afraid I'd spill my guts.”
Paul chuckled. “It looks like he was right about that.”
Myra glared. “If I wasn't full of that potion crap, you'd see how much I'd be telling you!”
“Yeah, sure, I bet you're just as brave as Bill Hickok in the dime novels. What did Ike do then?”
“He said that if I was still alive after they finished with the gold, they'd have to do something about it.”
In the background, Irene gasped.
“Where did they hide it?” asked the lawman.
Here Myra snatched a sly thought out of thin air to conceal the fact that she knew exactly where the gold was buried. She said, “I couldn't see where they went once they got inside the canyon. All I was thinking about was dodging away. I guess I wasn't as far gone as Ike supposed. The hurting was bad, but I was able to reach my horse and make it as far as the farm. Once I got to the yard, I don't remember anything, not until I woke up like... this.”
Paul frowned. “So, as far as you know, the gold might still be in the arroyo?”
Myra didn't want to admit to that, but didn't think that she could come up with a lie good enough to put them off the track. If the judge ordered her to tell the whole truth, any hope of getting that box for herself would be done for. “Yeah, sure. Is there a reward for finding it?”
The deputy grinned with incredulity. “Not for you. How well do you know that little canyon?”
“I went into it hundreds of times, back when I was a kid.”
Paul regarded the judge. “Why don't I go up there with Miss Olcott and see what we can find?”
Humphreys nodded. “That makes sense. I'll head back to town. If you find the strongbox, you'll be needing a wagon and a couple men to help bring it back. I'll get things ready.”
Grant nodded. “Right, Your Honor.” Then, rising, he extended a hand to assist Myra to her feet. She sneered and got up under her own power.
“Young lady,” said Humphreys, “when you're out with Mr. Grant, you'll do what he tells you to, just like I was speaking to you myself.” The justice paused, sensing a nagging deep inside, telling him to go easy, as if Myra were an ordinary girl. He ignored the impulse. “It looks like everything you went through to get your hands on that gold was for nothing. Some people can only learn the hard way that crime doesn't pay. I hope you're capable of learning at least that much.”
“Go to hell!” the farm girl snarled.
TO BE CONTINUED IN CHAPTER 4, PART 1