Chapter 5, Part 2
December 17, 1871, Continued
Myra, seated uncomfortably on a crate, was glowering down Riley Canyon Road. Behind her, George continued chopping wood, using rapid, powerful blows. Myra didn't want to be anywhere near the neighbor boy, but she had received her orders and the spell held her fast. The slaves in the South must have felt more free than she did. They, at least, could run away.
The young workman finally paused to catch his breath. Though Myra faced away from him, he started talking. “The stage that brought you into town in must have been the same one that got robbed right afterwards, when it moved up into the Gap. Ain't that right?” he asked.
The receipt of another prying question made the girl scowl. She hadn't worked out every detail of her made-up story, but had to bluff through. She met him eye to eye, and said, “Yes.”
He shook his head. “It must have been awful, to hear about your cousin dying on the day you came in.”
She shrugged. “Well, I've heard better news.”
“I've been wondering. Where did that new riding horse over yonder come from?”
Another hard question. “I don't know.”
“Didn't your aunt buy him?”
Myra pondered. She couldn't tell George the same story that she'd already spun for the gang. “It wandered in by itself. It was trying to get at the hay when Irene and me came from in from town.”
“Does you aunt recognize the critter?”
“She never saw it before. The saddle neither.”
“If it was saddled, it must have strayed away from its rider. Do you think it could have been Myron's horse? It might easily have walked a couple miles from the Gap.”
“I haven't thought about that.”
George glanced at the animal in the corral. “It's a fair-looking cayuse. It'ld be nice if you and your aunt can hold on to it. I don't know about Mrs. Fanning, but you ride as smart as an Injun. How did you learn?”
Myra didn't like the way he'd asked that. He had the eyes of a hunter tracking a coyote. “We kept horses back home,” she answered.
He suddenly changed the subject. “I've been wondering. If the stage men saw Myron shot, and if he was dead, what happened to him afterwards? Your aunt didn't mention that there'll be any funeral.”
She tossed a hand into the air. “Search me. The bandits must have hidden the body.”
“Could be. But you don't seem too broken up about your cousin not getting a proper burial.”
Myra changed her tone. “I – I feel sorry for Aunt Irene. But I never met Thorn. He never did so much as send us a card back East.”
“If you didn't really know Myron, when did you find out that he wanted people to call him Thorn? I've never heard your aunt speak that name in front of me.”
Damn him! “That – That's the name the judge and the deputy were using when they came to talk yesterday.”
“Judge Humphreys was out here? Why so?”
Blast it! Did he have to haggle over every word?
“The judge knows Aunt Irene. He wanted to let her know that Th – Myron was suspected of robbery, and also to express his sympathies.”
“Was he already sure that Myron was dead, even with no body?”
“The stage people's message said that he was shot bad. The sheriff sent somebody up to look around, but there was no sign of anything. So everyone just assumes. If he wasn't fit to ride off, he must have died and his body was hidden.”
George's brows knitted. “It seems kind of odd that those outlaws rode out for three days, but then came back to Myron's house for no reason. Or was there a reason?”
Myra thought quickly. “They knew Myron lived close-in to the Gap, but that wasn't why they came. They needed some pack horses to carry off the gold that they'd hidden before.”
“So, if they only came for horses, why did they need to take you back up there with them?”
Myra was again tempted to tell George to go to hell, but held herself in check. “A couple hours before they showed up, I'd gone to the Gap with that Deputy Grant, to search around. We found the gold and then Grant hid it in a different place, so the robbers wouldn't be able to find it if they happened to sneak back. But by the time we left the canyon, the gang was already hiding up there, watching us head out. They must have followed us, out of sight, and saw where I stopped at. Then they barged in after dark to make me show them where the box was.”
“I thought you said they just came to steal a couple horses.”
“They did steal horses!” she replied sharply. “They would have come to get horses no matter what. It's just that they had two reasons to come.”
“What I can't get is why the deputy seemed to be so all-fired sure that the chest was hidden up there in the first place, if nobody told him.”
George wasn't put off. “Another thing makes me wonder. Why on earth did you need to ride up to the Gap with the deputy? I figure he already knew where Stagecoach Gap was.”
Myra glanced away again. “No reason. I just asked if I could go along, for the adventure. Buried treasure; that's exciting.”
“That gets back to the main question. How did anyone know there was buried gold?”
The girl's fists were clenched; her nosy neighbor was just begging for a slam to the jaw. Carefully, she said, “Nobody knew anything, but they suspected. The law in town knows how strong and heavy those stage company boxes are, and how the drivers don't carry the key with them. The deputy and the judge were talking about how the outlaws might have needed to hide the gold close by, so they could come back later, with tools and pack horses.” Then she added, “Also, one of them said that a lot of stage robbers did that sort of thing.”
“I see. But how did the deputy find the chest so quickly? Wasn't it buried?”
Myra stood up to storm away, but couldn't move her feet. Sitting down again, Myra finally replied, “Sure, it was buried under a pile of rocks. But the stupid outlaws left a corner of the box still showing.”
The youth again shook his head. “They surely do sound stupid.”
“I met them. Believe me, they're as dumb as they come. Why are you so interested?”
George shrugged. “There's not much excitement around Eerie. Anyhow, a little conversation might help us get acquainted. I already know you've got spirit. My oldest sister would still be shaking like a leaf if she'd been put through all that you were. If you think I’m asking too many questions, you can get even by asking me anything you want to.”
She sniffed. “Why should I be interested in anything that concerns you, Mr. Severin?”
“No reason; we're just passing time.”
“It seems like time isn't passing half so quickly as I'd like it to.”
“Whenever I'm busy, it just flies by. Did your aunt ever write and mention that she had someone helping her work the farm?”
“She never wrote.” Damn; that didn't sound likely. “Almost never. Just a card now and then, like at Christmas. She never said much more than 'I hope you've been well,' or 'Merry Christmas.'”
George nodded and resumed chopping for a few minutes. Then he took another break, drew a sip from his canteen, and said, “You mentioned you're from back East. Whereabouts?”
She raised her chin. “My aunt told me that I had to...that I should...chat with you, as annoying as you are. But she didn't say that I had to answer a thousand snoopy questions.”
The youth leaned the ax against the stack of cord wood. “Why not let a person know a little something about yourself? Are you some kind of outlaw on the dodge?”
Myra felt a jolt, then quickly forced a laugh. “Do I look like an outlaw?”
“No, but... ” he paused. “No, you surely do not. By the way, why is it that you don't want to go with me to the Christmas dance next week? Do you have a fella already?”
“Stop the questions!”
“Okay, no more questions. What would you prefer to talk about?”
“I don't want to talk at all.”
George sat down on the woodpile. “So, you're a girl who doesn't like to talk too much? I didn't know that kind existed.” He grinned broadly. “Finding a sensible gal is like finding buried treasure. I definitely want to get to know you better, Miss Myra.”
“I've only known you for four days and I already know everything I want to. It's as plain as the sun in the sky that you can't stop jabbering like a parrot.”
“People say I grow on them.”
“Yeah, like a wart!”
He chuckled. “Yessirree, you're a girl full of ginger. I like that.”
“Maybe so, but you bore me to tears!"
This reply only added to his mirth. “If you really don't like me being around, you can tell your aunt that you want to do all the chores by yourself. Is that what you're aiming for, Miss Back-East Girl?”
Myra frowned. “I can learn farming easily enough if I want to. For all I care, you can go off and annoy someone else.”
He gazed at the cut wood he was seated upon. “The chopping you did earlier seems decent. You're already used to doing certain chores, ain't you?”
She stood up again, rested her hands on her hips, and faced him boldly. “Certain chores yes, some chores no. When are you going to stop jawing and start earning your pay?”
“I'm not getting paid in coin. Chatting with the pretty new girl in town is my pay; I said that straight-out to your aunt.”
“Hah! My aunt thinks I'm a kid. She's got no call to be deciding who my friends are going to be.”
“Don't you care for your aunt? I like her just fine.”
“You aren't the one she's always bossing around.”
“Of course I am. She pays me to do things for her.”
“If you think she's so nice, you should take her to the Christmas dance. Lord knows that no other man is going to ask her.”
George made a click at the side of his mouth. “She's got a few years on me. I want to spend time with the calibre of gal that I could get serious about.”
“That sure ain't my kind of...gal.”
“I hope that won't always be true. There's precious few young ladies of the right sort out here. The two of us are about the same age, I reckon we go to the same church, and neither of us is seeing anybody. Maybe we're neighbors because Providence is working its magic.”
She suddenly looked like a volcano ready to blow.
He smiled again, in a way to let her know that he'd only been funning.
Myra, still holding in her temper, said, “Providence is like a mule, if you ask me.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because a mule is stupid and stubborn, and all it's good for is kicking a man in the teeth when he least expects it!”
“You sound like you've been kicked lately. What happened?”
She gave that a second's thought, then answered carefully. “I lost both parents, or maybe you didn't get the news.”
The youth look abashed. “Pardon, Miss Myra. I plum forgot.”
“If that's the case, you should be working on your memory, and also working on that wood pile. If you don't, there's no reason you should be keeping me out in the wind jawing with you.”
George seemed to accept that observation and set to work in earnest.
About an hour later, the light was failing and the air was getting colder. George went to put away the ax for the night. At the same time, Molly O'Toole got back into her carriage and set out for town, while Mrs. Fanning stood waving goodbye from the front door. Suddenly, Irene started toward the wood pile. At first sight of George, she called him over to speak, but Myra didn't wait to listen. She no longer felt compelled to stay put, and so went back to the house. About five minutes later, she heard the farm boy riding off. Her aunt joined her indoors a minute later.
“Did you and George have a good talk?”
“No, we didn't. I don't care much for the fellow, but you told me I had to keep him company!”
“I suppose I did. Anyway, did you two discuss the Christmas party?”
“He talked about a lot of things. He almost talked my ears off.”
“Young men often jabber when they happen to like a girl.”
“I know what boys do! And I especially know George Severin. If he hadn't been around so much when I lived here, I probably wouldn't have headed out as soon as I did.”
“You didn't like any of my helpers.”
“Good riddance to the lot of them!”
Irene changed the topic. “I asked George if he'd be willing to clean the hog pen as soon as he has time. If you don't care for having him hereabouts, would you be willing to take on that job yourself?”
The girl looked fit to be tied. “Hell, no! That work is too hard for...”
“For a girl?”
“I'm not a girl. The work is too hard, period. But what does it matter what I want? Go ahead and bust my back. You'll get me crippled.”
“You're so dramatic about everything!” Irene stated in exasperation. “Girls clean pig pens, and do even harder chores. I need help to work this piece of land. Whatever you do on this farm helps us make a living. George is at least willing to pitch in while he earns a wage. We could save a parcel of money if you would do more of the things that I've been asking him to do.”
Myra looked away, annoyed.
“By the way, Molly suggested that I should make it clearer when I'm...I'm telling you something that is really necessary.”
The girl turned. “When you're giving me an order, you mean.”
“That's not the way I'd like to put it. But this is my idea. For now, when I making a statement and call you 'my girl,' it means that I'm telling you something important and I want you to do what I say.”
“You're always bossing me around. You're not either one of my parents.”
Irene shook her head. “I loved your folks, too, Myra. What happened to them wasn't anyone's fault. Or are you only using them as an excuse to avoid necessary work?”
“I just want to have some time to do the things that I want to do."
“I don't like ordering you about like a servant, not at all. What would you prefer? To run off again and become a girl outlaw?”
“What's wrong with trying to better myself?”
“Better yourself with stolen money? Look what it's cost you already? Would you ever have robbed people if you knew that it might get you turned into a young lady?”
The girl threw up her hands. “My only mistake was coming home to the craziest town in the world. I don't see why a person should be criticized just for taking care of himself, as long as he doesn't get caught.”
“But you did get caught – caught by a strange fate that you truly did bring upon yourself. Every time you look into the mirror from now on, think about how different your life could have turned out if you'd only worked a little harder at being honest.”
Myra swung away again, her arms crossed.
Irene sighed. “You certainly don't seem in any mood to talk sense. Now, listen, my girl. Change out of your nice clothes, and take care that you don't dirty or tear them!”
The girl felt this new form of command taking a grip upon her. Angry, with teeth clenched, Myra scooped up her pile of cast-off everyday clothing and stomped into the pantry, preferring to change out of sight.
Irene then went to finish supper. This new quarrel had gotten her thinking. Myra didn't like farm work, no more than Myron had. Would the girl take to household tasks any better? She considered asking Myra for help with the evening’s meal. Then she shook her head. That would probably be pushing things too quickly. Patience would be needed. If Molly knew about these things from experience, Myra should eventually start looking at life the way that most young ladies did. It might be wisest to nudge her in the right direction bit by bit, trying not to force things too insistently, especially when she was in a mood to get her back up.
December 18, 1871
The next morning, George Severin returned for a full day's labor, already game to take on the pig sty. Irene appreciated that her youthful neighbor was able to give her so much of his time It would have been different, probably, if he hadn't had four younger brothers and sisters at home, all old enough to take over the chores while he was away. The youth deployed the manure cart in a convenient spot before entering the pen carrying the farm's four-tined manure fork. He had worn his wet-weather boots; the mess at his feet was gummy; the exacting task required a strong back.
Mrs. Fanning's niece had slipped away the instant that she'd seen the young man coming in. The girl's aloofness disappointed her aunt; one thing that hadn't changed from when Myra had been Myron was the way that she still wore a chip on her shoulder. Locals generally liked George and he wasn't known to misbehave – other than by pulling a few pranks. Myron, she was aware, hadn't found it easy to make friends – at least not nearly as easy as he made enemies. He had often complained that no one liked him, and that had probably been one reason why he had left home at just sixteen.
Irene was starting the noonday meal when someone rode in through the gate. Through the window, she recognized the same big man who had been helping Paul Grant. The deputy and two others, including this one, had, finding her tied up in the kitchen, cut her loose. The two posse men had spoken with some sort of Scandinavian accent. Her visitor was large, broad-shouldered, and very strong-looking. She recalled that his eyes had been the color of shadowy ice.
The townsman was getting down from his horse when the farm woman stepped out to meet him.
“Is there any news about the outlaws?” she asked.
“Some gude news,” he replied with a single, exaggerated nod. “That pack horse of deirs must have bolted loose when dey vere running and vee found it vit lots of gold in da saddle bags. Paul kept after da bandits vith two of da men, but he sent my brother and me back to town with the gold. They're slippery as seals, deese outlaws, and dey yoost may git avay.”
“If they do, I hope they never come back to Eerie!”
“How is Myra doing?” the Scandinavian asked.
“She's doing well. She's a brave girl.” Irene then frowned perplexedly. “Excuse me. I can't seem to recall your name.”
“Tor,” he said with a good-natured grin. “Tor Johannson.”
“You're from... Norway?”
“Sveden! I come over vith my brothers during da var and right off we got drafted into da army. After a lot of bad things, it vas over, and ve vent gold-seeking. Ve came down to Eerie dis year. Ve've been finding gold enough to pay for our beer and beans, but not much more!”
“You speak very good English. Gracious! I don't think I could learn Swedish in a hundred years.”
“Tank you, Mrs. Fanning. You are very kind.”
“Did you come to tell us about the robbers?”
“Yes, and no. It's a funny ting. Out hunting outlaws, I kept tinking that it vas too bad dat you and me didn't get to speak a little more. I t’ought you vere... a handsome woman.”
“You flatter me, sir.”
“I am very sad dat your nephew was killed.”
Irene regarded Tor. Obviously, the deputy had not shared the whole story with him.
“Paul said dat the boy was shot by da outlaws,” he continued. “He said dey hid his body somevhere.” Then the man winced. “I am sorry. I shouldn't be talking about anyting so awful.”
“Yes, it's very hard.”
“Vhat I came for vas to ask if you vhould let me take you to da Christmas dance next veek. Please forgive me if you are already planning to go vith someone else.”
This surprised the widow. She had almost no social life in Eerie and, when she thought back, she realized that she had kept making excuses to avoid socializing, until the local men had stopped asking her.
“No, I haven't been going to the Christmas parties. I haven't been invited in a long time.”
“Dat is a shame! A lady like you!”
“I don't wish to be rude, Mr. Johannson, but there are bad stories about gold miners. Do we have any mutual friends who...who could vouch for your good character? Other than Deputy Grant, I mean?”
“Vell, I go to Styron's hardware store. Dey know me at da Lone Star Saloon, and at da Eerie Saloon.” He looked abashed. “I know dat deese do not sound like very gude places to a church lady like yourself. I yoost to go to church a lot in Sveden, but not so much in America. Ve've spent a lot of our Sundays up in da hills.”
“Myra has said that you fought bravely to rescue her. I'm very grateful.”
“I did vhat I had to. I'm sorry you don't troost prospectors, but I von't be one for long, I tink. Paul says dat da sheriff is tinking about hiring a new deputy... Say, Paul mentioned you know Molly O'Toole. I know Molly, too, and her husband, Shamus. I think they vill tell you dat I am a gude person.”
She smiled, liking the way that Tor Johannson pronounced his long 'O's', as when he said O'Toole. “I was planning to take my niece to the Christmas party,” she said, not entirely truthfully. “We might meet one another there on the dance floor.”
He returned the smile. “Yes, it is very possible that ve may. I von't be vith anyone else.”
“I'm quite sure that I won't be either.” She made a daring decision. “Mr. Johannson, I am forgetting my manners. Myra and I owe you so much. Won’t you stay and join us for dinner?”
He beamed. “I vould be very pleased.”
Irene led him inside and showed him to a chair. “The table will be set in about an hour,” she said.
He nodded thoughtfully. “Vell, dat is a good long vhile to be joost sitting around. Vhould you mind if I helped out vith da farm chores till den?”
“Oh, Mr. Johannson. That's not at all necessary! You have done so much already. But if you really want to, maybe George, the boy outside, will have some suggestions.”
He excused himself and exited. Irene went outdoors at the same time, around to the west side of the house, where Myra was doing the laundry. The homemaker had earlier decided to test Myra's willingness to be helpful. The girl had been predictably resistant to her suggestion, but Irene had ordered her to stop complaining and try to do the wash as best she could. At the very least, Mrs. Fanning hoped, having some busy task to perform would take the edge off her brooding.
She now addressed the girl. “Myra, I've decided that it would be a good idea for us to attend the dance. I'll drive us to it in our buggy. George will also be coming, with his family, I suppose. You won't have to speak to him there if you don't wish to.”
The girl stopped scrubbing. “What do you want to go to that dance for?” she demanded. “You'll only be a wallflower, and I'll be miserable.”
“I'll fare all well enough. This is a chance for both of us to make new friends. Anyway, I might even find someone willing to dance with me once or twice.”
Myra frowned. “Who are you talking about?” Then she remembered the man who had ridden up. “You're planning to see that foreigner, aren't you?” she accused.
“He's Swedish. Anyway, he helped you, didn't he? Wasn't he a good and brave man?”
Her niece, looking peevish, said nothing.
“Please answer, my girl, wasn’t he?”
“I got no complaints,” Myra felt obliged to reply. “But it sure was irritating, listening to him mispronounce everything, all time.”
Irene was not really listening. She was considering Myra's hair, liking the way that Molly had arranged it. It had looked even nicer before her niece had slept on it. Mrs. Fanning then, on impulse, reached back and touched the tight bun that she had been wearing ever since her widowing. The style had grown to be so much a part of her sense of being that she hadn't even considered changing it. But now, for some reason, it no longer seemed that tomorrow always had to be exactly like the day before yesterday.
“Dinner will be ready in about an hour,” she said absently. “Mr. Johannson will be joining us. I'll call when things are ready.”
Myra was left where she stood, feeling infuriated. ‘Aunt Irene’s acting like a gooney bird,’ the maiden thought. 'And I’m gonna have to go to that tomfool dance and be a public spectacle, if she gets her way!’ It was at moments like this one that she almost wished that that dumb yak Ike Bartram had shot her dead.