The School Marm
*by Winslow Parker and Joan Myles*
“First, you must tell me why I should not call you ‘Birdie’”
“Well, it’s a long….” Began her aunt. She was interrupted by curses, the sound of galloping horses, then a single pistol shot.
“Oh, my goodness!” cried Mrs. Krane. She rushed to the front window and stared in disbelief. “Oh, Jonathan !” she wailed, opened the front door and rushed out.
Lucy moved through the door, quickly assessing the tableau. None but Mrs. Krane moved. Within the half-circle of mounted horsemen, Reverend Krane lay face down in the dust of the street. Blood pumped from a hole in his back.
Beatrice released her apron, folded it three times and pressed it against the wound. She could feel no breath, no pulse.
When she regained her own breath, she demanded, “What happened? Who did this?”
The horsemen, in unison, turned their horses and galloped northward toward the Bar-J-Bar ranch.
Billy suddenly reappeared at Lucy’s side. . “Can I help, Ma’am?”
“Get the sheriff, please. Be quick about it,” Lucy commanded.
Billy ran to the livery stable. “Sherriff!” he shouted through the open door. “The rev’s been shot.”
“Coming, coming, Billy. I was out in the privy. Can’t walk down Main Street with my britches around my ankles.” He grabbed his shotgun from its wall pegs and ran toward the reverend’s house.
He knelt in the dust, felt for a pulse, then put his ear to the prone back.
“Sorry ma’am, he’s gone.”
Beatrice’s weeping increased in volume and pitch. Her fine singing voice lent power and emotion to her grief. She rocked on her knees, then threw herself over her husband’s prostrate body. “Oh, Jonathan, Jonathan,” she wept.
Lucy knelt beside her, drawing her close. Beatrice turned and clung to her, shaking and weeping.
The sheriff nodded toward the house. Lucy helped Beatrice to her feet and turned her toward the open door.
“Billy, go find Walt. Tell him to start digging a grave. He’ll know where. Tell him I’ll pay the usual price.” For the second time that day, the sheriff dug into his pants pocket. This time he merely handed the coin to Billy.
“Much ‘bliged.” He leaped to his feet and ran to the saloon where he knew he would find Walt that time of day.
That evening, yellow lantern light cast a warm glow over the kitchen table, pushing darkness into the corners of the room. Beatrice held a cold cup of tea between trembling fingers. Silent tears coursed down her cheeks. Lucy drank her tea in small sips. She stood, rounded the table, and knelt beside her aunt. She wrapped her arms about her and held her as her aunt wept.
Only a few townsfolk gathered at the graveside that evening to bid Reverend Crane a respectful good-bye. Most of his congregants huddled in their homes, fearful to venture into the street, and trying to puzzle out why such a thing should happen to quiet, unremarkable Jonathan Crane.
Lucy supported her aunt as she wept without ceasing–dressing for the church service, throughout the recitation of Psalm 23 at the graveside, and during the long dark hours they passed until the morning light crept over the garden gate.
Then, as if on command, Beatrice recovered. And more than tearless, she was suddenly calm, uncharacteristically calm for her usual nervous nature.
“I need to tell you a few things,” she said to Lucy as they finished their morning tea and biscuits.
“Yes, because my Jonathan wasn’t just any random shooting victim. Those gunmen knew what they were doing, who they were doing away with.”
She became suddenly conscious of voices coming through the parlor window, and ran to look out.
“Just youngsters out for a lark,” she sighed in relief. But she closed the window and the curtains nonetheless.
“Come sit beside me, dear. We need to keep our talk as quiet as we can. There are too many uncommitted hearts in this town, too many who would just as soon turn away from the cruel things that go on when nobody speaks up. That’s why he was killed, you know, my dear, darling Jonathan, because more and more he was using his pulpit to speak out, to shine a light on the ugly, unspeakable goings on in this town–even after they burned down the church, or maybe because they did–they had to silence him.”
Lucy settled in close beside her aunt, and said, “Tell me aunt Birdie, I’m here to do what I can.”
“It has to do with the gold mine, all the men coming to town, all the gold, the greed, the ugliness that greed sparks, the lust and ugliness…” she shook her head and turned her face away from Lucy for a long moment.
The young woman waited, bracing herself for what might come next.
“…you know how greedy men are, how they expect all their lusts to be gratified.”
Beatrice looked deep into Lucy’s face to measure her understanding.
“I understand,” Lucy assured.
“The Mexican girls are especially easy prey,” the words were almost whispered, “because this town…these folks…don’t always care about what happens to brown folk.”