Summary: The ladies of Four Corners are having a bad day - set after Serpents.
Third story in the "Seven Scrolls" series. Follows The Faithful.
"Damn!" Mary Travis swore profusely within the confines of the walls of the Clarion News premises, glaring venomously at the printing press, she nicknamed Lucifer, for daring to jam for the hundredth time. Cursing all kinds of hatred at the machine in exasperation, she took a step back from it, staring at her palms covered in stencil ink and oil, trying to calm herself down. Only when she forced the bubble of rage to subside inside her, did she try again.
The wheel refused to move.
Swearing, she refused to cry defeat, wrestling with Lucifer for a few more minutes until her hands and her yellow dress were smeared with dark ink, despite the leather apron covering herself. With rising despair, she knew if Lucifer were on its way to a major breakdown, she would have to get the thing repaired in Sweetwater or Eagle Bend and until then, the Clarion News would cease to run.
With an exasperated sigh, she leaned back into the wall and muttered to herself. "I had to be in the newspaper business. I could have stayed in Boston or married that nice Gerard Whitman. So what if he is dull as dishwater? I could have gotten used to it�and then died of boredom by the time I was thirty." She groaned at the thought of such an uninspired life, where she would spend her time going to teas and taking endless turns of gardens, like a heroine in a Jane Austen novel.
Staring at the printing press, she felt the frustration reach climax. "Lucifer, you are hell spawn!"
The machine stared back at her indifferently and Mary decided it was definitely time to finish off for the day. The weekly edition was not due until the end of the week. Mary always gave herself a few days grace so delays such as these would not impede the paper's scheduled release. Perhaps she could get it fixed before that. Staring at the machine critically, Mary debated whether or not she ought to be responsible and try to get it working again. After all, she was a pillar of the community and the Clarion News was an important part of Four Corners. She should be proud to be a part of all that.
"Mrs Travis," she drawled in an imitation of a particular gunslinger she knew well, "I think it's time you moseyed on out of here and into a hot tub."
Moseyed? What kind of word was that anyway? Maybe she would take the dictionary into the tub with her, just to see if such a word really existed. In any case, she was done for the day. Removing her apron, she went through the motions, abandoning Lucifer to its tantrum, before realising if she wished to get the press fixed, she needed to send a telegram to Sweetwater and make the appointment for it to be looked at sooner, rather than later. Locking up, she headed towards the telegraph office. It was only until after she locked the door and emerged into the hot summer's day, did she realised that she had forgotten to clean herself up.
"Good day Miss Mary." She heard Buck Wilmington's cheerful greeting. Meeting his eyes as he tipped his hat, she saw his expression change from casual politeness to that of bemusement at her current state.
"Mr Wilmington," Mary's eyes narrowed, suddenly feeling a mean streak the size of Texas running through her. "If you know what's good for you, you will not say a word."
Buck had seen enough killers in his lifetime to know there was murder in those eyes. "Not a one Mary."
Mary continued up the street, displaying all the signs of having a truly bad day of the office as a mood as black as a thundercloud hovered over her head. Even in the foul mood she was in, Mary Travis was a magnificent sight when she was on a tear. Her blond hair glistened under the hot July sun and her blue eyes seemed to darken whenever she was in deep thought. If she bothered to ask, she would have learnt there wasn't a man in Four Corners who thought of her as anything but beautiful, even if she were covered from head to toe in mud.
Glancing at her reflection in the window of the general store, Mary uttered a groan of embarrassment at what a sight she was. There was a smidgen of ink across her nose and a neat set of fingerprints under her jaw. She had even left a thumbprint above her brow when she brushed away a strand of hair that came loose from her braid. Strangely enough, she was just irate enough to not give a damn about it at the moment.
"JD!" She heard Casey Wells calling after JD Dunne who was striding across the street towards the saloon. The youngest of the seven men who acted as the law in Four Corners, JD turned to the young woman impatiently.
"I can't help it Casey," he shrugged. "I promised Buck and Josiah I'd go with them!"
"You promised me first!" She insisted.
"I'll make it up to you," he grinned, hastening his steps in case she decided to pursue the matter. "I promise!"
Casey said nothing as she watched him disappear into the saloon, feeling embarrassed at her public display. She seemed to shrink further behind the farmer's hat she was usually wearing. A few of the town's more respectable women folk were staring at her with reproach. After all, a decent girl was not supposed to make such a spectacle of herself in front of everybody. As it was, they didn't think much of her since she was rarely seen in a dress.
Living on a farm with her Aunt Nettie, Casey wasn't raised to be genteel when it was necessary for her to do back-breaking chores. Casey learned long ago, it was far easier to do such work in a pair of pants than having to contend with the numerous layers a dress would require.
"Are you all right Casey?" Mary asked, her foul mood disarmed by the disappointment she saw in the poor girl's face. Men could be such boors.
Casey nodded slightly but Mary could see she was not. Casey might have been a tomboy who could probably ride and shoot as well as any man but she was no different from any young girl with her first real beau. Mary was not so jaded she forgot what that was like and she empathised completely with Casey's situation.
"I'm fine, Mrs Travis. JD's got important things to do." She raised her brown eyes to Mary, trying to put on a brave face even though Mary could see her lips were quivering. "I'm sure he'll make it up to me later." Her disappointed look said otherwise.
Mary let out a sigh, her anger almost completely evaporated, although her general state of unhappiness remained. "I think this is one of those days."
Casey looked at her puzzled. "What sort of days?"
"The kind of days where you just need to dive under the covers of your bed and stay there." Mary smiled at her kindly. "As long as there are men in the world, we'll always have days like this."
And a printing press named Lucifer, she added silently.
Casey laughed a little at that and started to feel her disappointment at JD's lack of regard dissipate a little. "I know what you mean Mrs Travis. Sometimes I don't know why I bother."
"Because you're young," Mary touched the girl's cheek. "And when you're young, you bother."
Mary's gesture made Casey smile. Mrs Travis always seemed so collected and proper, Casey sometimes felt a little afraid of her. However, the last few minutes made the girl regard her with a different emotion, awe perhaps. At that point, Casey blinked, noticing Mrs Travis's appearance. "If you don't mind me asking, what happened to your face?"
"Ugh," Mary groaned, shaking her head, remembering her current state of dishevelment. "You have JD problems and I have a printing press named Lucifer. At least yours takes you out once in a while."
Casey laughed again. She did not have many female friends and although Mrs Travis always seemed more comfortable in the company of her aunt, she was still nice to Casey. The young girl admired the woman who managed to run a business on her own, champion the community's rights and even go toe to toe with Chris Larabee on occasion. This was the first time however, the newswoman had ever spoken to her with such empathy, almost as if she saw Casey as an equal not some misfit. It pleased Casey enough to forget JD's behaviour.
"You know something," Mary said after a moment. "We're women of the world."
"We are?" Casey looked at her.
"Absolutely," Mary quipped and placed a friendly arm over Casey's shoulder. "We don't need a man in our lives for us to have a good time, do we?"
Casey was not so sure about that but nodded mutely in response, curious at where Mrs Travis was going with this.
"Let's go to dinner," Mary suggested.
"Dinner?" Casey's eyes widened. "With me?"
"Yes with you, How about the restaurant?" Mary glanced at the building across the street from the saloon. It was one of the more respectable places in town where women could frequent without creating any scandal to their reputation. "I don't drink, not much anyway, I don't gamble and I haven't bought a dress for myself in ages, so I think I can afford to take a friend to dinner."
"Mrs Travis, I can't let you�." Casey began to protest.
"Of course you can," Mary cut her off before she could say anything. "How about you meet me there in an hour after I get cleaned up and we can have a nice talk."
Casey nodded mutely, still trying to overcome her astonishment at this overture of friendship from a lady like Mary Travis. "Sure, Mrs Travis."
Mary waved at her as she headed home, pausing long enough to catch another glimpse of herself in a window Reminded of how she looked, Mary shook her head and muttered, "I really need to get cleaned up."
+ + + + + + +
"Come on Inez," Buck Wilmington leaned over the bar and gave the sultry, Latin beauty his most charming smile. "You gotta say yes to me sometime."
The saloon was full at this time of the day, even more so with the unseasonably warm summer they were having. It seemed as if every gunslinger, cowpoke and ranch hand was in town today and all of them were at the bar, waiting for drinks. Inez Recillos was performing a minor miracle, keeping a vigil behind the counter and making sure no one was going dry for too long. While the large number of patrons seldom bothered her, she could not say the same about the interruptions.
For some reason, the heat had affected Buck Wilmington in more ways than one. He had been hounding her for most of the afternoon, like a prized fighter who kept coming back after every hit. By late afternoon, his repertoire of charming proposals had worn thin but not as much as Inez's patience.
"Buck, go away!" She declared as her ears picked up another order from a man at the far end of the table.
"When are you going to admit, you're crazy about me? I mean I fought for you and everything. How many men are willing to do that?"
"A hundred," she quipped dismissively, reaching for the bottle of scotch on the shelf behind her. "If they're stupid enough."
"Now that wounds me." He flashed her a look of puppy dog hurt.
"Buck," Inez paused long enough to take a breath, trying to tell herself under normal circumstances, this flirtation might be charming, but today, today she had work to do. While Inez would never forget how he came to her rescue, challenging Don Paulo to a duel to free her from the man's obsession, his forward behaviour could be annoying at times. She didn't want to hurt Buck, or wound his masculine ego. After all, he did not mean any real harm, he was just very determined and he never said anything truly offensive...
"I mean, if you don't let yourself feel a man once in a while, things are going to dry up."
She stared at him, unable to believe he had just said that to her. Inez slammed the bottle down on the counter with such force; it seemed the entire bar went dead quiet. Her eyes narrowed as she glared at Buck, her voice rising in a fury.
"DRY UP? Did you just say I will dry up without a man's touch? Pray tell me Senor Wilmington, what I have been missing? Ever since men like you decided I needed a man's touch, all my troubles began! Do I look like I am withering away by not having a swaggering, drunken pig in my bed? If I am, then you will forgive me if I crawl into the dark somewhere and die!"
"But honey�" Buck opened his mouth to speak when she shot him a look of such warning it shut him up immediately. What was it with him today? It seemed like all the women in Four Corners were acting like bears with sore paws. Had his animal magnetism abandoned him?
"Inez," Ezra Standish who was at a table with the rest of the seven, looked up as she stormed past him. "The bar?"
The words she swore at him made Ezra blush.
The gambler could do nothing but stare as she disappeared through the batwing doors.
A series of guffaws broke out throughout the room in the wake of her fiery departure, most of which centred on Buck who was staring after her, dumbfounded.
"I think Inez is really mad at you," JD remarked, stating the obvious from the table where he was playing cards with Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah, with Chris and Vin in earshot near the bar.
"You think?" Ezra snorted rising to his feet. The natives were beginning to get restless with the sudden void behind the bar. "Excuse me gentlemen, I fold. It appears that my partner's unexpected departure requires my presence at the bar." He tossed an accusing glare at Buck as he said that.
Ezra did not mind really. Playing bartender for a while was infinitely more preferable than having to admit he had little more than two pair when he folded. It would do his reputation as a cardsharp serious injustice. As he passed by Buck, Ezra added. "I ought to make you get behind the counter Mr Wilmington, since you are the one who upset Inez."
"I can't figure it," Buck said truly bewildered. "What is it with the women in this town today?"
"Animal magnetism." Nathan Jackson sniggered, glancing over his shoulder. "Its powerful stuff."
Buck shot the man a look and ignored the obvious jibe. "Very funny, but I'm serious though. I saw Mrs Travis this afternoon and she was meaner than a mountain lion with something stuck in its craw."
"Mary?" Chris Larabee suddenly paid attention. Those present were perfectly aware when it came to discussions about women in general, there was only one in town in whom Chris had the slightest interest. Then almost as suddenly as he spoke, Chris fell silent again.
"She bit my head off!"
Although Vin Tanner was not at the card table and was sharing a drink at the bar with Chris, he had been listening intently to the conversation. After all, not one man in the room could have possibly missed Buck's exchange with Inez. Like Chris, Vin was an observer who rarely took part unless he felt strongly enough to do so.
"No offence Buck, Inez had a lot on her plate today without you hounding her like a dirty ol' coot."
"What did I say that I never said before?"
"Buck," Josiah met his gaze with an expression that always made Buck feel like he was ten years old. It was easy to remember Josiah was a preacher when the man gave him that reproachful look. "What didn't you say?"
Buck stared back at him blankly.
"Lord!" Nathan exclaimed exasperated. "Buck, you have about as much respect for women as I have for southern Confederates."
"I will try not to take umbrage at that," Ezra deadpanned from behind the counter.
"What do you mean?" Buck asked truly shocked by the notion. "I'll have you know I love women! Ask any one of them in town and they'll tell you how much."
"I don't think that's what Nathan means, Buck. There's a subtle difference."
"Like what?" He turned to Nathan again.
"Allow me," Ezra remarked, "if a southern confederate is allowed." He knew Nathan meant no malice towards him by his earlier statement. Having seen the way Nathan, whom he now considered a friend, was treated by some of his fellow southerners, he could understand the man's hostility.
"Use short sentences." Nathan grinned, pleased Ezra had not taken offence.
"What Mr Jackson is alluding to," Ezra began as he continued pouring drinks with the same sleight of hand that made him a renowned cardsharp. "Is that while you love the ladies as you say, you do not exactly show them the proper respect that is their due. Your idea of a lady does not extend beyond her ability to fall into your waiting arms. After a night's entertainment and the thrill of the chase is done, so is your relationship with the maiden in question."
"That's ridiculous." Buck protested but suddenly the amusement drained from his face. He didn't like the implications both Nathan and Ezra were making, especially since there was a kernel of truth in their words. "I like 'em well enough."
"Liking them and respecting them is two different things." Nathan explained. "Take Mrs Travis and Inez for instance. These are women without family or husbands to fall back on. They're here in frontier territory holding their own. Inez has had the worst of it with Don Paulo dogging her heels. I think it's safe to say she is used to doing for herself without any man's help. We all know while it's a nice idea to meet someone and settle down, it's not the end all and be all of everything for us. We don't need a wife and children to be happy. It ain't so far-fetched the same thing could be said for Inez and maybe Mrs Travis too."
"But women always think about getting married," JD spoke up in Buck's defence.
"Did you, when you were sixteen years old?" Josiah looked at JD critically.
"Of course not!" JD declared. "I had my whole life ahead of me."
"Lots of girls feel that way too. Imagine not being sent to school because your daddy thinks it's a waste time when you are gonna be bearing kids and being in a kitchen. Your whole life depends on how well you marry, not what you can do in the world but the man that makes you his wife." Josiah stated firmly. As a preacher, he saw so many broken spirits because of that unfortunate reality of life.
"That's life isn't it?" JD said uncertainly, thinking about his exchange with Casey earlier on. Suddenly, he didn't feel very proud of the way he treated her.
"No it is not." Ezra said firmly. Of all the men in the room, only he had an idea of what it was to have a mother who wanted more out of life and pursued it with a passion. "During the war, southern women on the plantations were left to fend for themselves for the first time in their entire lives. No husband, no slaves to do their bidding, just their own two hands. Most of them could not bring themselves to work and so they starved and some of them died. Why? Because they had been raised all their lives to believe it was not a lady's place to do menial work, that they could not exist without a man to protect them. My mother, thank God, never learnt that lesson. Although my upbringing was not exactly rosy, I am here because she refused to believe she could not raise a child on her own, no matter what anyone said."
"Mary could have left." Chris added. "She didn't. She stayed and she's been fighting for this town. If she did what was expected of her, she would have packed up and gone back east a long time ago and this little group of ours might never have been."
"To Mrs Travis and Inez," Josiah raised his glass and looked at the rest of the seven who quickly followed suit. As their glasses rose, Josiah concluded the toast, "Wherever they might be."
+ + + + + + +
Inez had no idea where she was going. She only knew she had to get out of that saloon before she was forced to break a bottle over Buck's head. That man was so infuriating! While she found his persistence oddly satisfying at times, most of the time she wished he would speak to her like a person. She was not one of those love-struck girls who always seemed to find their way into his bed but an intelligent woman who wanted more than belonging to some man!
Even though she worked in a saloon, Inez did not intend to let the notoriety of the lifestyle taint her virtue. Despite her fiery manner, Inez was just as concerned about her reputation as any respectable woman in town. Buck's attentions were not only forward but bordered on offensive. She knew the big oaf did not mean anything by it but it still galled her.
She walked up the wooden sidewalk aimlessly, not knowing what to do. She did not feel like going back to her room and after the display in the saloon, she was a little embarrassed about returning to the bar so soon. It was moments like these Inez missed her mother Paloma and sister Calla and the loneliness of the life she chose for herself impressed itself upon her most fully. Returning to Val Verde was impossible. Even if Don Paulo was dead, his father would not appreciate her homecoming. Even if she hadn't killed his son, she was the cause of Paulo's death and it was a sin the old Don would not forget easily. As long as she stayed away, Paloma and Calla would be left alone.
Further along the boardwalk, she saw Mrs Travis staring at her reflection in a store window with distaste. Instead of her usually immaculate self, the woman was a mess. Approaching her gingerly, Inez wondered if the printing press had exploded, seeing the black ink on her dress, face and hands.
Mary looked up at Inez's approach. "I know, I know, I look a mess."
Inez chose not to comment on her appearance. She guessed this was a sore point. "Bad day at the office?"
Mary let out a long sigh. "You would not believe it."
"Trust me," Inez glared darkly at the saloon. "I could very well believe it."
They stared at each other, feeling the walls between their different lives disappear in an understanding needing no words to express. A slow smile stole across each other's faces, and they started laughing softly. Neither Mary nor Inez concerned themselves with the curious looks they were getting from passers-by who wondered what both women found so funny.
"Oh, my," Mary replied catching her breath. "I needed that."
"I think we both did." Inez agreed.
"I wonder where Casey is." Mary scanned the street to see if the young woman was still around, however Casey was nowhere to be seen. She was probably getting ready for their dinner engagement at the restaurant later this evening.
"Is that JD's girl?" Inez ventured a guess, having only heard about Casey at this point.
"Yes," Mary nodded. "The poor child was heartbroken because JD cancelled an outing."
"I'm not surprised," Inez replied. "I think Josiah and Buck," she could not hide the irritation in her voice as she said his name, "are going to Sweetwater tomorrow morning."
"Boys will be boys." Mary shrugged. "Anyway, she seemed so upset I offered to take her to dinner at the restaurant this evening." Suddenly a thought came to her. "Inez, why don't you join us?"
"I don't want to intrude." Inez said hesitantly. Although Inez found Mary Travis far more approachable than some of the haughtier members of Four Corner's female community, she did not know her enough to feel comfortable imposing.
Unfortunately, Mary Travis was not in the mood to take no for an answer. Not today. "Inez, I would not ask you if you were. Come on," she urged. "You need to get out of that bar for a while and Casey and I would love the company. Let's face it, none of us are ever going to be comfortable in a sewing circle."
To that, Inez could not disagree.
+ + + + + + +
So it was that Mary, Inez and Casey found themselves in the tasteful setting of the restaurant an hour later. The conversation was polite during the entree section of their dining experience, limited to the local gossip and the non-committal things women spoke of, when still uncertain of one another. Casey who had actually worn a dress for the occasion, much to both Mary and Inez's surprise, had least to say although she did listen intently. However, Mary did notice the young woman paying careful attention to her table manners.
"That's a lovely dress." Mary commented and saw Casey's cheeks flush. She was a pretty thing when she made the effort, especially when she wore her hair loose instead of hiding it under a hat or braided in pigtails. Mary started to see why JD was so smitten, even though he behaved typically boorish to the poor girl. JD's effort to be accepted as an equal member of the seven meant he also picked up their bad habits regarding their treatment of the women in their life.
Not that Mary counted herself as one of those by any means to make such a judgement.
"Thank you.' Casey answered softly. "It's the only one I got."
"Well I think it's very nice." Mary remarked. "You should wear dresses more often."
"I was going to wear it tomorrow." Casey could not help saying with fresh resentment bubbling inside her. When she heard it in her voice, she started feeling badly. "It ain't JD's fault." She quickly stammered. "He is the sheriff after all."
Mary and Inez exchanged similarly sceptical glances before Inez spoke. "You don't have to apologise for him."
"I'm not!" Casey started to protest and then realised that she was of course. "I am so mad at him Mrs Travis." She finally admitted and strangely enough, the knot in her throat suddenly began to untangle.
"Call me Mary, please."
Casey's eyes widened at the thought of addressing Mrs Travis so formally. "He knew I was looking forward to our ride tomorrow and he just made plans elsewhere, like I did not even come into his head!"
It was a story Mary knew all too well. She remembered what Steven was like during their marriage. The missed dinners and promised outings that were always buried under his dedication to his work. She loved him and missed him dearly but enough time had passed since his demise to allow her to see their relationship with some objectivity.
"Men are like that," Mary confessed. "It comes from the passion for their work, ambition and in JD's case, a need to be accepted."
"I know," Casey said begrudgingly. "He wants so much to be like Mr Larabee and Mr Wilmington."
The mention of Buck made Inez snort derisively. "Why he wants to be like Buck, I'll never know. The man is a pig." There was enough vehemence in her voice for Mary to realise something else as well.
"You know," Mary looked at Inez with a wicked smile. "They say there is a narrow margin between love and war."
"Senora," Inez said with dignity. "The line at the moment is as a wide as the Rio Grande."
They started to laugh as a waiter approached. "Mrs Travis, would you like to see the wine list?"
"Oh," Mary stopped short and looked at the others at the table. Inez gestured she would not mind it if Mary wanted one and Casey seemed content to let her take the lead. Mary could not see the harm in it. After all, a little wine at dinner was far from inappropriate, especially when she was dining with two other women. "Just a bottle of red, if you please."
It was about the last sensible moment of the evening.
+ + + + + + +
Two hours later, the tall bottle of Californian wine was almost empty but its effect on the three women on the table was obvious. The initial unease with each other had faded completely and they were talking and laughing, confessing things to each other that remained unspoken for sheer lack of female friendship. The waiters were clearing the tables around them and preparing to close for the night. No one had approached Mary Travis and her party about departing yet, choosing to leave it until the last moment. After everything the woman did for the community, the establishment was willing to accommodate her, for a while anyway.
"Then he says to me," Inez manage to say through a series of giggles. "Senorita Inez, you can lead a horse to water, but only Buck Wilmington can make him drink!"
"And he thought this was the way to turn your head?" Mary laughed in disbelief. "My goodness, I have underestimated Mr Wilmington's technique. I thought he was simply limited to the tried and true club over the head!"
"But JD says that Buck is a real ladies man." Casey retorted, remembering those endless hours (and they truly were endless sometimes), where she sat listening to JD going on about Buck and how successful he was at everything.
"He is a legend in his own mind." Inez corrected. "For every woman that goes with him, there's at least three who's told him to shove off."
"Yes, so I've heard." Truth be known however, although Buck was always overtly charming to her, Mary had to admit she was never on the receiving end of one of his proposals. As fuzzy as her thinking was at the moment, she could not understand why that was. "He's never done it to me, fortunately."
"He wouldn't," Casey blurted out giggling. "Chris would kill him."
Mary turned sharply to Casey, the statement had caused a moment of clarity in her foggy mind. "What do you mean?"
"It's nothing." Inez intercepted quickly. The wine had affected her as well but she was still reasonably in control of her faculties to diffuse the situation. "Mr Larabee is very particular you are afforded every courtesy, Mary."
"Oh," Mary nodded, somewhat satisfied by the answer but unable to shake the feeling there was more to it than that. "That man is a puzzle." She sighed resting her chin in her palms as she leaned forward on the table. "With Buck and the others, it's easy to know what is going on inside their heads but Chris," she let out a deep breath. "I can never figure out what's going on with Chris. Why is that?" She looked to Inez first and then Casey.
"He's a private man." Inez answered unable to illuminate Chris's character any more than that. Being the bartender in the saloon most days made her privy to a great deal, especially about the seven. Chris, she had to admit was indeed the enigma Mary believed him to be. However, Inez observed enough about the man to know he had some very strong feelings about Mary Travis he tried hard to disguise as simple concern. "He never says much and he drinks alone but he tips well."
The women looked up at each other and started laughing again, even though they had no idea if the joke was funny enough to warrant it. Still, it was good just to be absurd sometimes.
"Looks like they're closing up." Casey announced as the young woman looked around the restaurant. They could hear the washing of dishes behind the closed door of the kitchen. At this point, theirs was the only table with table cloth and chairs not upturned. "I told Aunt Nettie I was dining with you Mrs Travis...I mean Mary, so she don't mind me being in late but I better get going any way."
"So soon?" Mary said dejected the night was drawing to a close. She could not remember when she had enjoyed herself so much in the company of other women. When she had moved out west, Mary left most of her friends behind. Since Steven's death and assuming his role at the Clarion, she had little opportunity to make new ones.
"It is almost nine o'clock." Inez remarked glancing at the clock on the wall. "You don't want to leave it any later than that." She said to Casey. "It will not be safe for you."
"JD should still be in town," Mary suggested. "We'll get him to escort you home."
"I don't know if I want to talk to him yet," Casey grumbled. "I'm still pretty mad at him."
"Well," Inez smiled. "Once he sees you in that dress, I'm sure he'll be falling over himself to take you home. You can make him suffer all the way back there." She burst into laughter and saw Casey giggle in agreement.
After settling the bill, the trio of ladies found themselves out in the night air. The heat of the day had evaporated into a cooler night, perfect for walking and the full moon illuminated the dreary town with a blue lustre. The saloon was still alive with activity, but it would be inappropriate for either Casey or Mary to enter it at this time of night.
"I'll go find JD." Inez offered, being the only one of them who could enter the establishment without causing any raised brows. She crossed the road and disappeared through the front doors in a matter of seconds.
"I'm just going to check on my horse," Casey remarked as she proceeded to the horses tethered across the street.
Mary watched the young woman go, thinking how pretty Casey would be when she was older. She was a flower coming into bloom and while she might be a little tomboyish, one day she was going to turn heads. Momentarily deserted, Mary raised her blue-grey eyes to the sky and took in the full moon, glowing with incandescent beauty. She remembered spending hours stargazing with Steven, bathed in the moonlight. The memory of him stabbed her with a profound sense of loss. It was so hard having to go on without him and although he left her Billy, the void inside seemed achingly deep at times.
Today, it felt as if it would go on forever.
The voice made her jump even though she knew who it was instantly.
"Mr Larabee." She greeted once she had regained her composure. "I thought you'd be enjoying the rest of the evening indoors." She shifted her gaze briefly in the direction of the saloon.
"I needed some fresh air. What are you doing out at this time of night?"
The way he asked the question irritated her. "It's not that late."
"It's dark," he pointed out. "That's late for a woman alone."
"I never said I was alone." She bristled with annoyance. It showed quite clearly in her eyes.
He did not respond for a few seconds, but his gaze bore into her and Mary felt uncomfortable by the scrutiny.
"I'll escort you home." He said finally. The tone of his voice indicated it was not a suggestion. He took a step towards her and Mary saw his expression shift as he caught a whiff of something in the air.
"I'm not ready to go home just yet Mr Larabee." Mary stared at him hard, stepping back
"You've been drinking." He pointed out.
"It's none of your business Mr Larabee if I had." What was this interrogation? Mary felt the resentment bubbling inside her at his presumption. However, she did not need the reputation around town she was drunk so she felt compelled to add, "If you must know, I shared a bottle of wine with dinner."
"It must have been a big bottle."
"You are the last one to point fingers, Mr Larabee." She turned an accusatory eye at him. "Now, I'm staying right here, if you don't mind."
"I do mind." He said unperturbed by the anger in her voice. If anything, he enjoyed the banter. "I also think that it ain't proper for a lady to be out at this time of night alone."
"Compared to what?" She bit back. The evening's libations as Mr Standish put it, had given her courage an unsettling boost. "If I knew what was proper at all, I would have packed up my bags and run home to Boston as soon as Steven died. Nothing I do in this town is proper according to the good people of Four Corners, so what do I care really?"
"You're respected, Mary." He reminded, sensing they were reaching the heart of the matter.
"Respected maybe," she snorted. "Liked, no. The men in this town think I am too independent to be running the paper on my own. Since I happen to be young and unattached, the women look at me like I'm likely to steal their husbands once I get it in my mind to do so."
"Mary," he met her gaze with those astonishingly blue eyes of his. "You're an important part of this town." He did not add she was also important to him. "You have a position in the community that depends on your reputation. Now I am taking you home." His voice was calm as ever but it was a tone she knew would broke no argument.
Unfortunately, Mary was in the mood for one.
"Did it ever occur to you that I might have plans?" She demanded, trying not to let him get the better of her. Subconsciously however, she knew it was too late. She was angry and in the rare instances she allowed it to escape the facade of composed practicality expected of her, it was impossible to control.
The prospect she might have company at this hour was one Chris did not at all like to entertain. He looked up and down the street to see if there could be anyone with designs on her but saw nobody. "Who is he?"
There was enough tension in his voice for Mary to realise this was not just a matter of her personal safety. There was something else at work here. Jealousy perhaps? "Mr Larabee, this wouldn't be a personal issue for you, would it?"
His eyes hardened and Mary knew instinctively she delivered the winning blow in their verbal jousting. She could see the withdrawal in his eyes and a flash of something so passionate and tantalising she was almost curious to investigate. On any other night, she might have.
But not tonight.
"Not at all." He said casually, hiding the effect her question had upon him. However curiosity, intermingled with jealousy, refused to let him leave.
The attempt to hide his emotions in a mask of indifference struck Mary as funny for some reason. She tried hard to keep herself from laughing because she knew it was definitely the wrong thing to do and she would regret it tomorrow. It was almost a relief when Mary saw Inez come out of the saloon with JD in tow. The Latin beauty pointed the youngest member of the seven towards Casey who was waiting for him by her horse. Mary found herself smiling as the couple greeted each other. Judging by the way JD was gawking at her, it would seem he did appreciate the dress Casey was wearing. After a moment, the two young people rode off into the night just as Inez reached Mary and Chris.
"Hello Chris." Inez greeted. After seeing the man on a daily basis, the formality between them had been discarded. "Sorry I took a while," she apologised to Mary. "It was impossible dragging that boy out of there and keeping Buck's hands off me."
Mary looked over her shoulder just in time to give Chris a 'don't you feel stupid' look. "I'm amazed you got him out of there at all." She remarked as she took a step away from Chris towards Inez. "Why don't you and I take a walk, Inez? It's a nice night."
"Sure." Inez nodded wondering what on Earth she had walked into.
"Goodnight Mr Larabee," Mary said coldly and brushed past him.
+ + + + + + +
"What was that about?" Inez asked when they left the seven's leader far behind.
Mary was still feeling light-headed from the wine and guessed it was why she was so short with Chris. Normally, it was far easier to just agree with everything he said rather than protest. Chris could be a force of nature when he desired. Mary like most of the women who came across a man like that, was just as susceptible to his magnetism. Poor Buck, Mary thought to herself, he did not possess one-tenth the animal magnetism Chris Larabee had when he walked into a room.
"He was acting like a juvenile," Mary said sharply.
"He tends to do that around you."
"I noticed." Mary admitted. Her relationship with Chris Larabee was a source of gossip, she knew that. She heard the whispers and rumours and ignored it. Mary refused to let innuendo force her into a situation which neither Chris nor she seemed ready for. "However, I don't belong to him."
Deciding that a change of subject was definitely in order, the two women fell silent for a moment as they walked across town. Four Corners was not that big so it was not long before they could see the impenetrable darkness of rugged bushland before them. For a moment, they stared into the darkness, until their eyes become accustomed to the night and the faint outline of the horizon against the indigo sky became visible. The stars stared back at her with indifference even though there was a time when Mary was certain they were keeping watch over her.
"I miss Steven." Mary admitted softly, finally allowing herself to reveal what had been the cause of her short temper today. It had bothered her all day there was no one in her life she felt comfortable enough to confess the significance of the date. People respected Mary Travis. They called her the pillar of the community but what did that mean exactly? She accepted the men and women of Four Corners chose to stay on good terms with her for differing reasons but would not offer anything resembling a friendship. It was a lonely existence. How lonely it was, did not become apparent until this afternoon.
"It's our wedding anniversary today."
Inez looked at her immediately and her warm, brown eyes filled with sympathy and understanding. "I am sorry Mary, I did not know."
"Steven and I weren't out here long enough to celebrate one before he was killed." Mary confessed, feeling the well of grief rise so powerfully inside her, she could do little to contain it. "I told myself all day I could handle it." Her voice was starting to shake. "Then that stupid printing press decided to jam and I kept thinking to myself when I was trying to fix the thing, Steven could probably do it in a minute..."
The wall around her emotions broke then and Mary caught her breath as the first sobs broke through. When the tears finally came, she found Inez's arms around her offering comfort. Through her loud audible sobs, she managed to stutter. "Damn him Inez, how could he do this to me! We had it all planned out, we were going to raise a house full of kids and make the paper into something we could be proud of. We were going to live out the rest of our lives, sitting on a porch somewhere watching the stars. I can't do it alone!"
"Yes you can." Inez said, making Mary look at her. "You are the strongest woman I know. I'd give anything to have your courage. You've made it on your own already Mary, there is not one person in town who would say otherwise."
Mary composed herself after a moment, drying the tears in her eyes with a handkerchief. It felt good to let it all out after keeping the pain inside. She wondered how Chris controlled the emotions he felt about Sarah's loss. After a moment, she realised he did not control it at all. He merely suppressed it with such practice, it was now something that could not be rid of unless he was willing to sacrifice part of himself.
It was not a trade Mary was willing to make under any circumstances.
"I'm sorry to be in such a state." Mary faced Inez, wiping her tears. Her cheeks and her nose were flushed red from her weeping and felt embarrassed for making such a spectacle of herself. She invited Inez to dinner for the company, not to be her confessor.
"Don't be foolish," Inez said gently, remembering how Mary had been the only one who was nice to her when Don Paulo rode into town and called her a thief. Except for the seven, most of the town were ready to believe the lie. Mary was the only person who was willing to hear the truth from her. Inez had not forgotten the gesture and she was glad to be able to repay it with similar kindness. "We are friends, Si?"
At that, Mary brightened visibly. "Yes, we are."
"So, its nine o'clock and we are women of the world," Inez grinned. "What shall we do?"
+ + + + + + +
"Maybe this isn't such a good idea."
The house before them stood on a hill several hundred yards out of town. Even as they made their way up the broken steps leading to the front door, Mary and Inez could still hear the sounds of the saloon behind them.
"I told you I saw a light," Mary stated pointing to the enormous house.
"But I thought you said it was deserted."
"I also said it was haunted," Mary replied, her eyes focused on the uneven path before her.
"No, you did not." Inez declared. "All you said was you thought you saw a light."
They had been on their way back to the Clarion News office when Mary caught sight of something flickering in the windows of the deserted Chesterton House. Perhaps it was the wine or the need for the night not to end that led Mary to suggest they investigate and Inez to agree.
"It's just a legend," Mary said dismissing the whole notion. "Darryl Chesterton who was one of the original settlers in the town, killed his wife and two daughters when he found out she was having an affair."
"That's awful!" Inez exclaimed as they reached the front landing. The house looked like something from a Victorian novel, with tall spires, too many rooms, and gargoyles keeping watch at strategic corners of the building. The light that Mary had seen was still distant but she could see it through the window. "What happened to him?"
"He killed himself with a double barrel shotgun." Mary continued as they stepped onto the creaky boards of the front porch. Cobwebs hung from every corner of the decrepit house, with windows covered with dirt or were smashed. The lock of the front door was hanging from the wood by a fraction of splinter. Judging by the dust covering the broken fragments on the floor, the damage was inflicted some time ago.
"And that's why it's haunted?" Inez replied looking around nervously. The moon disappeared behind the clouds and there was not enough illumination from the town to keep the place visible.
"No," Mary pushed the door open. "You know what they say about rich people who die with houses like this. There's always the myth there is money hidden somewhere in the building so you have your treasure hunters breaking in to find out if there was anything to it. Some of them confessed to seeing the ghosts of Mrs Chesterton and her daughters roaming about the place. I think it's just a load of bull myself." She entered the house and immediately brought her handkerchief to her nose. The smell inside was musty and she could hear small things crawling through the dark. Although it was difficult to see, she saw the silhouette of a lamp and a customary box of lighting matches at its side.
Although the matches were old, there was still enough oil left in the lamp to burn. After a moment, light flooded into the darkened room.
The place had been thoroughly ransacked by one looter or another. Upholstery had been torn off the wooden frames of the chairs and furniture lay upended on the floor. There was dust and cobwebs everywhere. It appeared no one had been through the place, judging from the thick layer of dust settled over everything.
"No one has bought the place?" Inez inquired, looking around curiously. The portrait of Darryl Chesterton and his family was hanging on the wall, although the frame was askew to the right.
"No one wants to own a haunted house," Mary said as a matter of factly as she picked up the lamp and started towards the staircase. "Come on Inez."
"You have a strange sense of adventure." Inez commented as she kept close behind Mary. The place was starting to get to her a little and she hoped whatever they found would satisfy Mary's curiosity and not place them in any undue jeopardy. The effect of the wine was replacing sense with too much audacity in both of them.
The flight of stairs they proceeded was in the same shape as the rest of the house. As Mary proceeded up the narrow steps, she noticed several of the family pictures were on the floor. She leaned over and picked up one of the fallen frames. The picture it held was of a young girl. Mary assumed it was one of the Chesterton daughters whose life ended so tragically. She could not have been more than thirteen years old and she was a beautiful child. Had she lived, she would have been just about Casey's age.
"She was a lovely girl," Inez stated when Mary showed her the frame.
They continued walking up the stairs but each step was met by a loud uncomfortable creak. They could hear the wood straining beneath them and Mary began to question the wisdom of what she and Inez were doing. They were almost to the first floor with two more flights to go when suddenly a loud crack shattered the silence. Mary and Inez looked at each other with wide eyes when the realisation dawned just in time for the rickety stairs beneath them to give way completely.
There was only time to utter a short scream before they were both plunged into the darkness below.
+ + + + + + +
Chris had not meant to follow them. Unfortunately, what he said about it being dangerous for Mary to be out at this time of the night would not allow him to join the others in the saloon. Even with Inez, two women did not make any less of a target than one, especially when they were both beautiful. Chris followed at a respectful distance because he knew Mary would not appreciate the effort. Sometimes, her need for independence was maddening. However, seeing where the two women had went reinforced his decision. At the time, he questioned how much trouble they could get into so close to town.
As he hurried up the stairs, Chris reminded himself never to underestimate either woman again.
+ + + + + + +
Although dazed, neither women were hurt too badly but clarity returned sharply when they smelled smoke. Mary suddenly became conscious of the lamp she was no longer holding and tried to sit up at that discovery. She and Inez were covered in dirt and debris from the collapsed stairway. She pushed away the pieces of rotting wood trapping her in place and sat upright to find herself in what appeared to be the cellar. Beside her, Inez was swearing in colourful Mexican expletives while trying to free herself from the same debris.
"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea," Mary replied but her eyes were transfixed elsewhere.
"Now I know why my mother said drinking is bad for the health," Inez complained. "It makes you do the stupidest things."
"I did see a light!" Mary protested and then added. "I think."
Inez turned sharply towards her. "You think?"
"It could have been the moon reflecting off the top window." She admitted somewhat embarrassed she could have been wrong by what she had seen. A situation that was not improved by the groan of exasperation from Inez. "It was an honest mistake!"
Inez treated her to more of those colourful Mexican expletives.
"Look, we have bigger problems," Mary said feeling sillier than she had in a long time.
"Like what?" Inez said throwing a stray plank off her legs.
"Like that!" Mary pointed.
Inez's eyes widened as she saw the lamp that made the journey with them had shattered against the wooden floor before them and started a small but rapidly growing fire. With all the junk stored in the cellar with them, the flames were finding a great deal to feed its fury.
"This is not bad," Mary said standing up quickly and dusting herself off. "We'll just get to the cellar door and get out of here."
"Finally," Inez sighed in gratitude. "Something that makes sense."
The two women skirted the edge of the flames and hurried up the creaky staircase without much thought as to its strength. The fire had now found the pile of debris that came down with them and quickly engulfed it in flames. The room was starting to fill with smoke and Mary could feel the heat through her clothes. She reached the handle of the door and twisted it.
"What?" Inez exclaimed horrified.
"It's locked!" Mary repeated anxiously
"I heard you!" Inez barked and looked at the fire that had now overtaken half the room. There was a window on the other side of the cellar but a wall of flames ensured they would not be using it. Mary tried the door again out of sheer futility. It absolutely refused to budge.
"What kind of idiot locks the door inside a haunted house?" Mary shouted trying not to panic. However, the rising smoke was not making it any easier.
"The kind that doesn't want trespassers!"
Suddenly, a familiar voice spoke from the other side of the door. "Stand back."
With a sinking feeling, Mary recognised it immediately and wondered if dying here would not be such a bad thing after all.
Both women went retreated the cellar stairs as far as they could before she responded to their unseen saviour. "We're clear!" Mary called out.
No sooner than the words had escaped her lips, the door flew open with a loud bang. Splinters flew from the torn wood of hinges and a gush of musty stink immediately invaded the room. Compared to the smoke they were forced to inhale during the last few minutes, the air was almost as good as fresh.
Chris Larabee stepped in casually through the doorway, showing none of the concern he felt. "If you don't mind cutting your evening short ladies, this might be the time to leave."
Mary swore at him in some of those colourful Mexican words.
+ + + + + + +
"Good morning Inez." Buck Wilmington grinned at her from across the bar counter.
"What do you want?" She groaned. Inez was not much of a drinker and this morning she learned why she had stayed away from alcohol. After seeing so many drunks come and go in the saloon, she should have known her ordeal was just beginning. Her head was throbbing from the effects of a massive hangover, not to mention her mouth felt as if it was full of cotton wool and her stomach seemed to be rejecting last night's dinner. If it was not for the responsibilities to the saloon, she would have spent the whole day in bed and attempted to forget the embarrassment of last night.
Unfortunately, it was not meant to be.
"I just came to see how you were," the rogue said with an annoying grin plastered across his face. "After your little adventure last night."
"I heard the Chesterton House burned to the ground," Ezra replied trying to stifle a smile from the table he was occupying with Vin.
"Completely?" Inez squeaked.
"There ain't even a fireplace standing." Buck said triumphantly. His face inches away from hers. He was clearly enjoying her embarrassment to the hilt.
"Stop talking so loud." Inez hissed, before resting her head on the counter. This only succeeded in drawing a hearty round of laughter from everyone in hearing distance.
"A little hangover Inez?" Ezra inquired politely. "They say Californian wine is as rough as the hills. I prefer the French variety myself."
Inez responded with a venomous glare.
"Now come on," Buck said reproachfully as he rounded the corner and got behind the bar with Inez. "Leave the Senorita alone." He told Ezra gallantly. "The lady should not be made to suffer more than she already is." He reached for a glass and pulled out a flask from his coat. Inez watched in mild fascination as he emptied its contents into a glass and then presented it to her. The liquid was dark red, like tomato juice with sprinkles of something dark she did not recognise.
"Now this is Buck's sure fire remedy for hangovers. Guaranteed to cure your ills in one healthy glass."
Inez looked at it sceptically. "Are you sure this works?" She was just sick enough to try it.
"Trust me." He said with complete and unabashed charm. Whether or not there was any sincerity in his voice was beyond her ability to detect this morning. "This is how I make my spectacular departure after a night with a special lady."
"As opposed to jumping out of her window?" Vin smirked.
"Before that part," Buck growled, throwing him a look.
"Why not? I couldn't feel any worse." She took a deep breath and downed the liquid before discovering she was wrong. She could feel worse, a lot worse. She had not downed any more than four gulps of it before Inez slammed the glass down on the table and started turning green. "I think I'm going to be sick." She felt the nausea hit her so badly from the foul drink she was forced to run outside and retch.
Buck watched her go, mystified. "It always works for me!"
"What is in that?" Ezra asked, shocked by Inez's pallor.
"Just the usual," Buck answered innocently.
"Being?" Vin pressed, looking up from his hand.
"Tabasco, mashed jalapeno peppers, coffee grinds, tomato juice and just for some kick, gun powder."
There were audible groans around the table when JD walked into the bar and strode towards them.
"Hey, what's wrong with Inez? She's throwing up something fierce out there."
Ezra started to chuckle before he looked at JD. "Mr Dunne, I think for Mr Wilmington's sake, you ought to make an early start to Sweetwater. Preferably, before Inez returns."
"Why?" JD asked confused.
"Don't question the man," Buck jumped over the counter and strode purposefully towards the young man. "Let's just go." He fairly dragged JD out of the place, using the rear entrance, just to be on the safe side. Inez mad was something even Buck Wilmington was not about to face unarmed.
Ezra and Vin started laughing as Buck disappeared. "I wonder how long he'll have to stay in Sweetwater."
"Let's just say, I hope he has more than a day's supplies with him." Ezra grinned.
+ + + + + + +
Wonderful, Mary groaned as she saw Chris Larabee walk into the Clarion News office.
Was it not bad enough she was responsible for burning down the Chesterton House, the embers of which were yet to cool on the hill? Now she had to endure his company while he gloated over having to rescue her and Inez yet again.
"Mr Larabee." She said forcing herself to be pleasant though she was suffering a massive headache resulting from an even more ferocious hangover. Mary wondered briefly how Inez was feeling this morning. If it was anything like the square dance going on in her head, Inez had her complete sympathy. Now she knew why she didn't drink often.
"Good morning Mary." He said with the barest hint of a smile.
"What can I do for you, Mr Larabee?" Mary looked up at him, flinching involuntarily as the sun got in her eyes like the glare of stage lights.
Chris saw the reaction and said nothing although he was thoroughly amused by the whole thing. "I just came to see how you were."
"Oh, I'm fine." She lied. "Just have a lot of work to do, so if you excuse me..."
"Hangover that bad?"
"I do not have a hangover!" She hissed vehemently and then regretted doing so because the stress just made her head throb even more. She settled down and met his eyes with increasing annoyance. "Are you here just to torture me or do you have a specific reason?"
"No," he shook his head and then let a smile steal across his usually impassive features. "No, specific reason, just here to torture you."
"Out!" She stood up and once again felt her head swim. It took a few seconds to recover, but eventually, she was capable of meeting his eyes again. "You are really enjoying this aren't you?"
"Why would you say that?" Chris asked, all innocence.
"Because you're sick!"
"Evidently, not as sick as you."
"That's it! Get out of my office!" The last vestiges of her patience had run dry.
"Okay," Chris answered, not at all upset by her behaviour. He found it rather illuminating actually. Even in this state, she was beautiful and he appreciated the chance to savour it. "Incidentally, Buck wanted me to deliver this." He reached into his dark coat and produced a bottle filled with a strange red concoction. He placed it on her desk on his way out.
"What is it?" She asked as she picked it up and examined the insides closely.
Chris Larabee made sure he was out the door before he answered. He did not want her to see the grin his face.
"Buck's sure fire remedy for hangovers."
Next Story: Mary Travis and the Cult of the Staring Eyes
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