The School Marm*A joint writing project by Winslow Parker and Joan Myles*
Heat-shimmered air blued a distant mountain range. Spiraling Buzzards marked the death of a desert creature. Mirages poured dry water onto every flat surface . A horse dropping hosted a constellation of desultory flies. A black and tan mongrel lifted a curious head, glanced around, lifted his tail once then dropped his head back into the dust. Humans pulled their tar-paper shacks over themselves like desert tortoises, seeking shelter from the sun.
A lone sun-weathered man leaned against the livery door, face in the shade, body exposed to the sun’s angry noontime rays. His hand lifted and lowered to the rhythm of slow draws on a black cigar. He blew lazy smoke rings toward the center of the empty street. His eyes flicked to the left, following the dry road south to its curve around the base of La Mesa Butte.
Dust puffed at the Eastern base of the vertical cliff then gathered strength, billowing into a cloud. Two miles from town, a stagecoach headed by six plodding horses emerged from the cloud. The man flicked his cigar into the street, straightened, turned and entered the livery. He appeared a moment later, a shotgun cradled in the crook of his right elbow. He reached into his pocket withdrawing a brass star, the token of his office. With a practiced wrist flick, he pinned it to his shirtfront.
The stage drew up to the livery door. The horses let their heads droop. Sweat carved stream through the brown dust caking their flanks.
The creak of leather and the shril protest of inadequately greased axles drew two men to the saloon door. They stayed in the shadow of its sign, watching. A boy, heedless of the heat, scuffed across the street toward the only action in town. His feet were two moles raising the dust from beneath.
“Howdy Frank! Hard trip?”
“Yep, wasn’t sure this team was going to make it. Heat’s got them tuckered nearly to death.”
“Looks like it. Need a fresh team?”
“Nah, just some feed and water. I’ll let them rest for a coupla hours in the livery to cool down. Any passengers back to Yuma?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Then it’ll be a light load and I can baby them a bit.”
Frank swung down from the driver’s box, lighting easily in the thick dust. He placed a wooden stool beneath the door then straightened to open it. He touched the brim of his hat.
“Yer here, ma’am,” he said. “This is the end of the line, Furnace Wells.”
A dainty booted foot extended from the door, seeking the stool . A second followed it, then a flurry of skirts dropped into place. A delicate hand sought and found the supporting door handle. A pretty young woman emerged and stepped gracefully to the ground.
“This here’s Miss Phillips, your new school marm.” Frank said byway of introduction, “And this is Fletch Furnace Wells’s sherriff.” He gestured at the man standing just inside the livery door.
Fletch touched the brim of his hat, “Pleasure, ma’am. We’ve been waiting a long time for ya.” His smile did not reach his hat-shadowed eyes.
She stood for a moment beside the stage, the heat pressing down upon her and the dazzling light bringing tears to her eyes.
“Furnace Wells. An apt name for a town on such a day as this,” she wiped her brow, then, squinting, looked up at Fletch and smiled, “Now really, I’m not so dangerous as to require a lawman’s welcome.”
But before Fletch could speak, the sprightly young woman was reaching back into the coach to retrieve her bulging cloth satchel, and calling out, “oh, my books. I’ll need my books, please.”
Frank cast a sideways look in Fletch’s direction, and slowly climbed back onto the stagecoach.
“Got your trunk right here, Ma’am,” he lowered the massive piece down to Fletch, touched his hat brim once more as he jumped from the coach, and strode into the livery like he was on fire.
“Thank yooooou,” Miss Philips sang out after him. To Fletch she confided, “I simply can’t do my work with out my books. And my typewriter.”
Leaning the trunk against the coach’s rear wheel, Fletch cleared his throat and thought for a minute. He wasn’t much with words. Careful deliberation and quick action were his usual methods. This school marm, though, was not like him. He could tell already. He pulled a few thoughts together, and took a deep breath.
“The reverend sent me to meet you, Ma’am, he started, “Ya see, old Lizzie Grandbouche is on her deathbed–has been for the last three years or so, I reckon–and ev’ry now an’ again she gets a hankering for a private, weekday sermon, like she ‘spects the angels are hovering’ right overhead.“
He paused to measure her sense of things, but coming up empty, just kept talking.
“So Reverend Krane and his wife–she leads the ladies in singing’–both scurry on over to Lizzies when she gets like that, pickin’ up a few of the ladies of the choir, cause she is the church’s biggest supporter, Ol’ Lizzie Granbouche, you know what I mean. Well, it’s a good ten miles up to Lizzie’s place, and the Kranes won’t likely get back, what with the singin’ and the prayin’ and the tearful rememberin’ Lizzie is likely to put them all through, and then dinner–no tellin’ how late they’ll be.”
Fletch noticed Miss Phillips’s smile was gone. She was frowning, gazing down at her dusty boots, then along the road, up to the cloudless sky, and back down to her boots again.
“Now don’t you fret,” he said.
his searching gaze landed on the boy crouched down the street drawing in the dust with his finger. He let out a sharp blade of a whistle that shattered the infernal dullness settling over Miss Phillips. Startled, the boy looked up, then jumped to his feet.
“I’ll see you get to the reverend’s, and all your precious books and things too,” Fletch said.
“Yessuh,” the boy stood panting before them, hopping on one bare foot as he scratched the other ankle.
“Billy, this is Miss Phillips. She’s your new School marm.”
Nice to meet you, Billy. She smiled at the boy, barely looking down.
“And you, ma’am. Gosh, a school marm.”
“Think you can haul that trunk over to the reverend’s? Miss Phillips is stayin’ there for the time being.”
“Heck, yeah,” he grabbed hold of the trunk and dragged it a few paces.
“And mind you take care, boy,“ Fletch warned, “Miss Phillips needs all those books and things. Reverend Krane says she’s some kind of scholar and we’re lucky to have her.”