by J. Brooks
Spoilers: Passing reference to The New Law
Notes: This is a sequel of sorts to my short story, Tea and Sympathy. Pure silliness. Caveat lector.
Vin set the steaming mug of coffee down on the table and, mimicking a gesture he'd seen others perform a thousand times, unfolded the morning newspaper with a snap of his wrist. Smoothing the front page flat on the table, he inhaled the sharp tang of fresh ink and new paper. It was a good way to start a day, he decided. News and coffee. He picked up the mug and took a sip, staring at the printed page with its complex patterns in black and white.
If he waited long enough, Vin knew, the patterns would come clear, like the trick picture Josiah showed him once. Everybody else swore it was two silhouetted faces looking at each other -- but all he'd seen was a white vase against a black square. He'd puzzled over the thing for the longest time, until, like a camouflaged animal breaking cover, the image shifted. Two faces. A vase again. Two faces.
Same with reading. He knew all his letters now. Knew how they could be strung together to make words and sentences and paragraphs and stories. But still, it took a little time, and a little caffeine, for his mind to adjust to the unfamiliar work of picking out the patterns of words among the letters.
Vin watched the page patiently while Four Corners began to wake around him. A farmer's wagon rumbled toward the grain exchange. A few early risers exchanged greetings on the street outside. Behind him, Mary Travis moved quietly around the newspaper office, searching through her files for some bit of information. Giving him the time he needed to begin the reading lesson.
And there it was. A word. A word he recognized. His eyes traveled the printed line, picking out other familiar patterns.
He cleared his throat and began to read aloud. "Clarion News An-- Annie--," he squinted at the word. It went on forever. Break it down and sound it out, he reminded himself. An-never-sorry. Annie-verse-ary. . . Aha! He didn't need to read to know this one. It was all Mary had been talking about for weeks. He closed his eyes and chanted from memory: "Clarion News Anniversary Commemorative Edition Available Monday."
"Vin! That was wonderful!" Mary exclaimed, hurrying over. "For that, you deserve a special treat."
He eyed her warily, pretty sure what was coming.
Mary stooped to retrieve one of half a dozen bright scarlet parcels crammed in a bottom cupboard. They were a gift from a traveling local spinster who was determined to keep the folks back home apprised of every step of her trip. The fudge was the first and only thing Miss Pauline Pratt had found in her travels that met with her approval -- and she'd taken to shipping it home to Four Corners in bulk.
The fudge was loathsome stuff. Hard and heavy as lead, shot through with all manner of bizarre fillings. Unloading fudge on hapless guests had become a townwide obsession.
"Oh yes, I insist," Mary sang out, straightening and spinning quickly with the box. Vin heard something pop. The next thing he knew, Mary Travis was flat on the floor.
"Mary?" he scrambled to her side. "What's wrong?"
"Oof. Too much . . . fudge," Mary wheezed, heaving the heavy box off her midsection. It hit the floor with a solid thud.
"Ya okay?" Vin crouched anxiously beside the prone newswoman. She smiled unconvincingly and raised her head, ready to sit up. She fell back with a yelp of pain.
"No," she grunted. "I don't think I am."
Vin bolted for the door, yelling for Nathan.
+ + + + + + +
"Nathan?" Chris Larabee prompted, squinting down at Mary, who was still sprawled on the floor with the healer prodding gently at her limbs and spine.
"Looks like you threw your back out, Mary," Nathan said. "Gonna need to lie real still for a week or so 'til things slip back into place."
Mary let out an unladylike snort and began to slide and hitch her way across the floor toward her printing press, muttering unprintable things under her breath. Chris and Nathan watched her progress with a mixture of curiosity and awe.
"Look, Mary, we know the anniversary edition is important to you . . ." Larabee stuck out a boot, trying to stop her without getting within smacking distance. The top of her head hit his heel and earned him a filthy glare.
"Mary," Nathan soothed, measuring out a dose of laudanum. "You're in a world of hurt. You can't put out a paper in your condition."
Mary stared up at the two men through narrowed, calculating eyes.
"I can't," she conceded. "But you can."
+ + + + + + +
"We can't!" JD Dunne gasped, looking for some backup from the other lawmen sprawled around the saloon table. He didn't get any. "You don't understand! We can't put out a newspaper by ourselves!" He tried again. "Do you have any idea how much work that takes? And look at all the extra stuff she wants for the anniversary edition!" He flapped a hand at the piles of notes Mary had dictated.
A forkful of scrambled eggs flew past the young sheriff's ear, propelled by a dramatic utensil gesture from the half-asleep man next to him.
"C'mon!" Buck Wilmington yawned. "Mary puts that paper out all by her lonesome every week. How hard can it be?" He waggled the butter knife at JD, spraying greasy droplets around the table.
Nathan Jackson snorted into his coffee mug.
"We told Mary we'd do it. We're doing it," Larabee's tone cut off debate. He turned back to Mary's to-do list. "Looks like the paper needs a bunch more of those whaddaya-call-ems."
"Articles," Nathan mumbled, busying himself with his toast.
"Articles," Larabee confirmed, squinting at the list. "At least eight more of 'em. So everybody had damn well better find a whole lot of news by tonight."
Josiah's eyebrows shot up. "A tall order, brother," he rumbled. "It's been a mighty quiet week. Can't think of two interesting things that have happened in town. Never mind eight."
Nathan opened his mouth as if to say something, then bit down hard on his toast instead.
"Find news," Larabee shot a quelling glare at his men as rebellious grumbles sounded around the table. "Make news, if you have to."
He turned back to the list. "Also, somebody has to go out and sell some more advertising . . ."
Ezra Standish, dragged from his bed at the unwholesome crack of dawn, snapped out of a light doze. "I would be more than happy to--"
"Forget it, Ezra." Larabee tucked the list of potential advertisers into his shirt pocket.
Ezra subsided, pulling his hat brim over his eyes and resuming his customary morning slouch. Larabee scowled and shuffled through the stack of instructions. "Here, Standish, this one looks more your speed . . . the gossip column."
He slid a list of instructions across the table toward the gambler, who stretched out a hand and caught it without opening his eyes or shifting position. Cracking open one eye, Ezra studied the paper with interest -- then passed it to Nathan under the table.
Jackson slouched lower, almost hidden by a stack of buttered and uneaten toast.
Larabee brought both hands down on the table with a sharp slap. "Okay. It's Saturday morning. The anniversary paper goes out on Monday. Should give us plenty of time."
He passed other slips of paper with more of Mary's instructions to the rest of the men. "Get what you need today and meet up at the Clarion tonight. Oh, and somebody needs to wire the Judge and ask him to keep Billy for a few more weeks."
Josiah raised his hand, volunteering for the task. The others pushed back from the table, and headed out the door, comparing lists.
Vin folded his list without looking at it and cocked an eyebrow at Chris.
"Can you cover our patrols today? Keep an ear out for anything that sounds . . ." Larabee curled his lip around the word. "Newsworthy."
+ + + + + + +
"I have here some news," a heavily accented voice broke into Nathan and Ezra's argument about who should get to write the next item for the gossip column. The two lawmen-turned-newsmen slouched comfortably on the front porch of the Clarion offices with two notebooks, one pencil and a tray of tea and cookies between them.
Ezra's chair thumped back onto all fours as he leaned forward and plucked the pencil out of the healer's hand. He flourished it over the notepad and struck a pose of avid journalistic inquiry.
"What noteworthy tidbit have you to report, good citizen?" he smiled brightly at the figure before him -- a tall, stooped man with a bristling mustache and a prevailing air of gloom.
Nathan grabbed the pencil back. "Nice to see you again, Frenchy," he greeted the old fur trapper. "We're filling in for Mary today. What can we do for you?"
Frenchy reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out a rumpled sheaf of papers. "I have here a death notice," he announced ponderously. "For printing in the paper."
"Whose obituary is it?" Nathan asked with a frown, mentally running through the list of likely candidates.
Frenchy rolled his great, sad eyes at them and ran one hand through his shock of bushy white hair.
"Mine," he sighed.
+ + + + + + +
"Say again?" Chris Larabee asked incredulously.
Old Man Conklin cringed. "I said, 'I don't believe I will be buying any advertising in this edition of the Clarion News,'" he repeated, edging sweatily away from the man in black.
Larabee leaned across the counter, closing the distance between the unhappy shopkeeper and himself.
"And why is that?"
"I-I simply assumed there would be no Monday edition, considering Mary -- er, Mrs. Travis's -- condition," Conklin was babbling now, pinned between Larabee and his own display shelves. His shifty eyes searched the room, searching for an escape route. They lighted on the cash register.
"But I am, of course, delighted to hear otherwise." He broke left and lunged for the receipt drawer. "I would be happy to purchase my standard two-column advertisement."
Larabee's eyes narrowed.
"Er," Conklin stammered. "That is . . . a quarter-page notice might be better suited to the festive nature of the anniversary edition." He turned to the cash register, muttering something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like "blackmail."
Conklin paled. "I meant to say, of course, a . . . half-page ad?"
The scowl escalated to full-blown glare.
+ + + + + + +
"A full-page advertisement? Conklin bought up an entire page?" Josiah's eyebrows shot up in disbelief. "Impressive salesmanship, brother. How did you fare on the rest of your rounds?"
Wordlessly, Larabee pulled a bulging envelope out of his duster and dropped it on Mary's desk, where Josiah sat poring over her notes for the upcoming edition. The preacher let out a low whistle as he counted . . . and counted.
"Anything else?" Larabee handed over the list of the merchants and the amounts of money each had been persuaded to part with.
Josiah shook his head absently, still staring at the money roll. "Not at the moment, but you might want to check on Mary."
"Said he and Ezra were heading out of town for a few hours. Something about an obituary."
+ + + + + + +
"An obituary?" Buck yelped, tightening his grip on Badger's stirrup. Nathan's horse rolled an eye at him with an expression of mild interest. The healer, unable to mount up with Buck in the way, rolled his eyes as well. Buck swept his glare over to Ezra, who was already in the saddle and waiting beside Frenchy and his swaybacked mule.
"You two ain't sneakin' out of here and leaving me to do all the dang work!" Buck complained, whipping his fingers out of the way as Nathan shoved his foot into the stirrup. The three men wheeled their mounts and headed out of the livery, with Buck trotting alongside.
"Rest assured, Mr. Wilmington, we shall contribute our fair share of news coverage," Ezra called back to him. "Upon our return."
Buck sputtered more protests, as the horses broke into a canter and moved quickly out of earshot. He threw his hat on the ground, swearing, then turned to scan the town for any signs of news.
News . . . news . . . His eyes fell on the Standish Tavern. Saloon brawl last night! He'd been otherwise occupied with sweet Lorraine at the time, but JD had said something about it over breakfast. He pulled out his notebook and pencil, clapped his hat back on his head and made for the saloon.
"Inez, darlin!" he bustled in, pencil at the ready. "What can you tell me about the dust-up we had in here last night?"
The bar manager looked up from the glasses she was polishing with a bemused smile
"The three vaqueros? What about them?"
"Details, darlin.' The public has a right to know."
"The public has a right to know that three cowhands could not handle their liquor?" Inez shrugged. "If you say so, senor. Very well. The fools came in, drank all night, threw a few punches and were thrown out by senores Standish and Larabee. Anything else?"
Buck frowned at his notes. He was never going to fill a whole newspaper at this rate.
Inez shook her head. "Not even the ranch hands -- much. They will have to pay a fine and repay me for everything they broke."
"Ah ha! What'd they break?"
Inez grinned, getting into the spirit of the exercise. "You may tell your readers that one chair and five beer mugs were lost in the incident." She struck a tragic pose. "It was the greatest loss of glassware suffered by the Standish Tavern since . . . last Friday's saloon brawl."
Buck's pencil flew across the paper. "This is good stuff, Inez. What else?"
"The men were arguing among themselves. Something about money. They threw a few punches. Ezra came over to break it up and one of them took a swing at him with a chair."
Buck straightened. "A chair?"
"He ducked . . ."
"But what it he hadn't? You can do some serious damage to a body when you start tossing furniture around!" Buck insisted, making a note of it.
"If the chair had hit his head," Inez said slowly, eyes widening. "It could have bashed his brains in!"
"He ain't hardly healed up from that last gunfight and they go throwing chairs at him?" Buck gripped the pencil tighter, outraged.
"He could have been killed!" Inez gasped. She and Buck paused for a moment, overcome by the magnitude of the near-tragedy.
Buck jotted down a few more details -- the size of the chair, how close it came to actually touching the gambler, the force of the punch Larabee delivered to the kidneys of the man who'd swung the chair -- then left in search of more breaking news. Hadn't he heard Yosemite say he was looking for homes for a bunch of kittens whose mamma had been killed by a fox? Marauding predators! Orphaned young-uns! Buck could smell big news coming on.
Behind him, Inez poured a healthy shot of bourbon into the glass she'd just cleaned and downed it in a gulp, hoping to steady her frayed nerves.
+ + + + + + +
"NERVES SHATTERED <STOP> CHICAGO REEKS OF CATTLE <STOP>" the telegraph operator announced in a flat monotone, eyes fixed on the yellow scrap of paper in his hands.
". . . 'reeks of cattle,'" JD repeated, scribbling the words down. "Okay, what's next?"
"HOTEL BELLHOPS IMPERTINENT <STOP> WORSE THAN ST LOUIS <STOP> ON TO CLEVELAND NEXT <END>"
JD blew his bangs out of his eyes and studied the latest intelligence from Pauline Pratt, would-be world traveler. Not for the first time, he wondered when the woman was going to give up and come home. If she suffered culture shock in Chicago, Paris would kill her for sure. Then again, this telegraph and the two letters from her that arrived today had the makings of a nice long story for the paper, so it was fine by him if Miss Pratt wanted to carry on. So long as she didn't send any more fudge.
"I appreciate you letting me hear the telegram, even though it's addressed to Mary," he thanked the operator.
The man shrugged. "It's not like anything that goes to that woman stays private for long anyway," he said. "How's she doing, by the way?"
+ + + + + + +
"Oh . . . I'm FINE!" Mary beamed up at Chris, her eyes wide and glassy, her face split in a big, dopey grin. She was stretched out on a quilt smoothed over her bedroom floor, with blankets pulled snugly up to her chin. One of her hands drifted lazily across the floorboards to his boots. With an uncoordinated flick of her finger, she set one of the silver rowels spinning on his spurs.
"Yeah . . . I can see that." Whatever Nathan had poured down her throat must be working, because it was clear that Mary Travis was feeling no pain.
Gloria Potter, who had volunteered to look after Mary for the day, watched discreetly from a rocking chair in the corner of the room. She exchanged an amused look with Larabee, then turned her attention to her knitting.
"Psst . . . Chris!" Mary tugged at his pants leg, trying to beckon him down to her level. Larabee crouched down carefully, mindful of the spurs. She made a vague grab for the notebook in his hand. She missed by a mile.
"Mary!" Chris yelped, shocked. Mrs. Potter made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snort of laughter.
"Oopsie," Mary mumbled. "I need you to do something for me. Important newspaper business."
"Okay," he said warily, pulling out the notebook, but keeping his distance.
"Need to write the editorial," Mary said, pronouncing each word with care. "Am the editor. Must editorialize."
Larabee studied her dubiously. She was trying to brush her hair out of her eyes, but her hand kept missing her head. He reached out and smoothed the hair back for her, earning himself a hazy smile.
"You got a topic for this editorial?" he asked her, tapping the notebook.
Her eyes widened in delight.
"Oh my, yes . . ."
+ + + + + + +
"Pancakes! And kill the rhododendrons. We as a nation can no longer stand idly by as the scourge of water chestnuts winds our clocks. This appalling lack of apple dolls has too long fluffed our lettuce beds. Who let that squirrel in here?"
Larabee paused in his recitation to shoot a quelling look at his so-called friends. Josiah was bent double, clutching his ribs and shaking with suppressed laughter. Vin had collapsed on the floor, howling.
"This is not funny," he tried to tell them. "This means more work. This means we got to do the damn editorial too."
"This," Vin wheezed, staggering over and grabbing the notes out of Larabee's hands. "Is worth a little extra work. 'Vote asparagus and polish the goats,'" he recited from memory.
Josiah looked up, gasping and wiping at his eyes. He snagged the paper from Vin, who slid bonelessly to the floor, giggling. "I particularly liked the part where she issued that bold call to waffles . . ."
Larabee gritted his teeth. "This--"
+ + + + + + +
"-- ain't funny!" Nathan scolded, staring down the double barrels of the shotgun trained at his head. "What the hell're you playing at, Frenchy?"
The old trapper looked hurt by Nathan's tone. "You said you were going back," he said, his accent thickening, sounding anything but French. "That, I could not allow you to do. Come the rest of the way with me, share a meal, hear my story, and I swear by all that no harm will come to you."
Nathan and Ezra exchanged dubious glances, but handed over . . . most of their weapons as instructed. With a jerk of the gun, Frenchy motioned them to continue ahead of him on the trail.
+ + + + + + +
"What made you think you could assault a peacekeeper and get away with it?"
The three hung-over cowboys squinted painfully at Buck through the bars of their cell.
"Weren't no thinkin' thing," one of them ventured finally, rubbing at his throbbing head.
"We assaulted a peacekeeper?" another gasped, elbowing the third man accusingly. The man tipped over from the force of the blow, missed the bunk, and fell, snoring, to the floor.
Buck banged on the iron bars with his pencil. The two conscious prisoners groaned in protest.
"C'mon," he prompted. "This is for the paper. What's your story? Unhappy childhood? Money problems? Is that it? You needed money? You were planning to rob the bank and ole Ez got in your way?"
"So, you claim you ain't here to rob the bank? Well, ain't that just like a bank robber," Buck shook his head and shut his notebook with a snap.
"Hey! The first cowboy staggered over to the bars. "We gonna be in the paper? Don'tcha wanna know our names or somethin? I kin spell 'em fer ya."
"You ain't worth the ink," Buck sneered over his shoulder. Bunch of low-down, yellow-bellied chair throwers . . .
The rowdies watched him go.
"How you like that, Otis? After all that, we ain't even gettin' in the paper."
"T'ain't fair, Bert. Ain't never been in the news before. Bet I woulda enjoyed it."
"Me too. What's it take to get in the newspaper in this town, anyway?"
+ + + + + + +
Turnips. Vin studied the crates of tubers stacked in the wagon hitched outside the grain exchange, spelling out the letters stenciled on the side with some satisfaction. This was the second wagon load of turnips to roll through town this morning. Is that 'newsworthy?' He'd seen Mary write more about less.
Vin continued on his patrol, keeping a sharp eye out for wagons. Who the hell was growing all those turnips? Who the hell was supposed to eat all those turnips? Oh yeah, there's a story there . . .
The sound of a great clattering crash from somewhere in the Clarion building sent him sprinting toward the newspaper office. Inside, Josiah and JD stood frozen, staring at the floor. The floor that was covered with hundreds -- no, thousands -- of tiny bits of metal, each one stamped with a letter of the alphabet.
Sizing up the problem in one glance, Vin turned and slipped away before either of them could spot him and rope him into the job of returning every one of those little letters to its proper place in the overturned type drawer.
+ + + + + + +
"Is this a 'p' or a 'q'?" JD asked for perhaps fifth time in as many minutes, holding up the tiny, backward-printed letter for inspection.
Josiah, grimly picking through the alphabet soup on the floor, shot him a look that should have melted the lead type waving in front of his face. "It's a 'b.'" he growled.
"You sure? It kinda looks like a 'd.'" JD twisted the block of type around and squinted at the pinhead-sized letter.
"Perhaps, brother," Josiah ground out through his teeth. "It might be a good idea for you to turn your energies to sorting through the capital letters for a while?"
JD smiled apologetically and burrowed back into the pile, pulling out uppercase Bs and Ps and Qs and dropping them into the marked slots in the wooden tray. For a while, the click of lead on lead was the only sound in the office.
Then. "Josiah? Is this an 'O' or a zero?"
+ + + + + + +
Ezra paused in the clearing in front of Frenchy's cabin, searching for something polite to say. "My, what an interesting . . . lawn ornament. Makes quite a bold statement. Perhaps, Nathan, we should consider including a Home and Garden section in Monday's edition, yes?" He took a cautious step back toward the cover of the woods.
The healer nodded vigorously, backing slowly away from the crazy codger with the odd taste in landscaping. "Good idea there, Ezra. Mary, she loves a good garden story. Let's go tell her."
"No!" Frenchy stamped his foot in frustration, leveling the gun at the gambler this time. Nathan froze. "You will stop! You will stay! You will sit down to a nice meal with me or I will shoot you in the head!"
He waved the shotgun in little exasperated gestures until they moved toward his neatly tended cabin, skirting carefully around the Viking longboat beached in his front yard.
+ + + + + + +
"What on earth is that?" Alvin Bucklin wrinkled his nose at the dirt-covered root sitting on his produce counter.
"Turnip," Vin said proudly.
"Is not," the grocer pushed the gnarled tuber toward Tanner with one finger.
"Is too," Vin insisted, pushing it back at him. "Said so on the crate. Wanted to ask you about it."
"About turnips? Why?"
"Turnips," Vin lowered his voice confidingly. "Are big news. Wanted to talk to an expert."
The grocer looked flattered in spite of himself. "Well. Ahem. In that case, what would you like to know about turnips -- aside from the fact this isn't one?" he poked it again. "Not sure what the heck this thing is. Looks kinda like a chopped-up tree root."
"Yup. Turnips don't even grow 'round here. Wrong soil for 'em. Is there something else I could help you wi--" he trailed off.
The tracker was gone.
+ + + + + + +
"What do you mean 'gone?'" Buck scowled at the young sheriff. "How could you let them go after they tried to kill Ezra like that?"
JD looked up from the slowly shrinking pile of spilled type and blinked. "Huh? Who tried to kill Ezra? When?"
"Last night! Those three yahoos you just let outta jail!" Buck waved a fistful of papers under Dunne's nose. "It's all right here! Read all about it!"
Josiah stepped between them before Buck could overturn the type drawer again.
"Ah, finished your first assignment for us, have you brother?" Josiah held out a hand for the papers. "Let's see . . ." he squinted at the haphazard scrawl of Buck's handwriting, his expression darkening with each line.
Still reading, he reached down and grabbed the sheriff by the ear, hauling the startled kid to his feet. "YOU LET THEM GO??"
+ + + + + + +
"Break it up, ladies." The order, delivered in Larabee's most threatening hiss, had absolutely no effect on the combatants. The man in black took a menacing step forward -- only to reel back as a dainty, beaded purse flew out of the fray and whacked him upside the head.
Oblivious to all, Euphemia Conklin and Harriet Watson battled on -- egged on by their fellow members of the Ladies' Benevolent Aid Society of Four Corners.
"Ladies!" Larabee tried again from a safe distance, waving his notebook in an effort to divert their attention. "I just need somebody to tell me what happened at Tuesday's meeting."
Mrs. Watson paused for a moment, panting heavily from the effort of trying for force Mrs. Conklin's head into the horse trough. She batted her eyelashes at him, both hands clenched in Euphemia's hair. "As the NEWLY ELECTED president of the Society," she trilled sweetly, through clenched teeth. "I would be more than happy to speak with you."
Mrs. Conklin took advantage of the momentary distraction to wrestle her opponent into a headlock. "As the CURRENT president of the Society, I alone speak for the group," she growled, angling her head in an attempt to preserve her hair. She tightened her grip around Harriet's neck. "You won't be sworn in until next month and you know it, you covetous witch!"
"Ladies! Enough! Write the story yourselves. Hell, write two of 'em," Larabee threw up his hands and headed for the news office as quickly as he could without actually breaking into a run. The Ladies' Benevolent Aid Society stood stunned into silence for a moment, then burst into loud cries of protest and took off in hot pursuit.
Larabee picked up the pace and burst into the Clarion offices, looking frantically from Josiah and JD, who were planted comfortably behind the main desk, to Buck, who was crouched on the floor, grumbling over a pile of lead type.
"Chris," Josiah greeted. "You're just in time to witness an object lesson on the importance of factual reporting. Isn't he, Brother Buck?"
"No time," Chris grunted. "Need Buck."
He grabbed his old friend off the floor and yanked him out the door. He whirled, holding Buck out like a shield before him as the Benevolent Aid Society thundered to a halt.
"Ladies," he cut in before they could kick up a fuss. "Buck here would be more than happy to help you with the story." He slapped the notebook into Buck's chest and gave him a shove toward the group.
Buck didn't miss a beat. "Afternoon, ladies!" he swept his hat off his head and held it to his heart. "You're all looking lovely as the flowers in spring . . ." he extended an elbow to Euphemia and Harriet and ushered them away, keeping up a steady, flirting banter as they moved. "Now I know the peach cobbler at the restaurant can't hold a candle to yours, Mrs. Conklin, but I'm sure hoping each of you would do me the honor of joining me for a bite while you tell me all the news. Is that a new dress, Mrs. Watson? Sets off the roses in your cheeks . . ."
Blowing out a sigh of relief, Chris stepped out the shadowed alley where he'd taken cover. Peach cobbler sounded pretty good right about now, but there was no way in hell he was going to cross paths with the Benevolent Aid Society again today. He set off for the saloon to see what Inez had cooking for lunch.
+ + + + + + +
"That was real tasty. What do you call it, Frenchy?" Nathan Jackson held out his empty bowl for a refill, trying not to let his eyes wander to the other side of the table, where Ezra was silently unloading the cartridges from the old man's shotgun.
Frenchy straightened proudly and rattled off a string of indecipherable gibberish, apparently the name of the dish. "My mother's own recipe," he concluded, ladling a heaping second helping of stew into the bowl.
Ezra returned the gun to its place by the wall and slid back into his chair.
"Delectable," he drawled, swirling his wooden spoon through the lumpy substance in his bowl. "Such an interesting texture. Such intriguing fishy undertones. If Mr. Jackson would be kind enough to pass me a writing implement, I believe I'm inspired to jot down a few notes for the Clarion News recipe column."
Nathan gritted his teeth and kicked at the southerner under the table. The old man might not have any bullets in his gun, but he was standing over them with a scalding cauldron of stew.
Blissfully unaware of the sarcasm, Frenchy slopped an extra helping into Ezra's bowl. "Is good, yes?" The lawmen nodded quickly around mouthfuls of stew.
"And now," Frenchy plopped down on the bench next to Ezra. "We will eat. We will drink. And I will tell you my story so that you may write it up in the newspaper when I am dead."
"You ain't dying, Frenchy," Nathan sighed. "I checked you out in town and there ain't a thing wrong with you that I could find. Why do you think you need you obituary written today?"
Frenchy rolled his eyes, like he was dealing with God's own idiot children. "I need it written today because I will die tonight."
Ezra surreptitiously palmed the table knife.
"You ain't planning on doing anything drastic to yourself, are you Frenchy?" Nathan frowned disapprovingly at the old man.
Frenchy looked offended. "I would not kill myself, if that is what you ask. I simply know that my time is coming." He paused and shot an almost embarrassed glance at the two lawmen. "And I did not want to die alone."
Ezra and Nathan exchanged another look. Slowly, they leaned back in their seats and made themselves comfortable. Ezra reached over and snagged the earthenware jug in the center of the table.
"In that case, my wizened friend, why don't we all raise a glass of cheer while you tell us the story of your life?"
+ + + + + + +
"Long story," Vin sighed, waving a hand to cut off the questions before Chris could ask them. The trapper was crouched behind a stack of packing crates near the grain exchange, staring fixedly at the two loaded wagons hitched out back.
"Anything we need to worry about?" Chris asked, cocking his head to study the wagon from a different angle, unable to see the menace in a load of turnips.
"All right then," Larabee thumped Vin on the shoulder and turned to go. "Rest of us'll be at the Clarion if you need us."
+ + + + + + +
As evening shadows began to darken the Clarion office, Josiah pushed back from the table with a satisfied sigh to admire the sheet of lead type that would soon be page eight of the Clarion News. His back was numb from hunching over the metal plates. His neck was stiff. His fingers were cramping. His eyes ached from the strain of reading each tiny backward letter and placing each in its proper place on the page, but he had finally finished. And if he did say so himself, Page Eight was looking pretty good.
"Looks pretty good," JD piped up from his place on the floor, where the mountain of spilled type had been reduced to a few handfuls. He stood, stretched, and bounced over for a closer look.
Josiah's head whipped around to glare at the sheriff. "What? 'Uh oh' what?"
JD took a nervous step back, then another, just to make sure he was out of range. "I'm not sure how to tell you this, Josiah, but um. It's backwards."
Josiah turned back to study the page. "I know the letters are backward. They have to be so they'll print correctly when the plate is inked and pressed onto the newsprint."
"Yeeeeeah " JD took yet another step away, deeply regretting the single day he'd spent as Mary's apprentice. Ignorance really was bliss. "The thing is, EVERYTHING has to be backward. The letters and the words and the sentences -- you have to put the words on the template from right to left, so it reads from left to right on the page."
JD pointed at one of the headlines. "You print that now, and that's gonna say, um, 'DENAHPRO SNETTIK EERHT SEVAEL XOF.'"
Josiah took a deep breath. "So, son, what you're saying is, I need to start over?"
"Re-do this entire page?"
"This page that I have been working on for the past two hours?"
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