The School Marm: A Western Serial
by Winslow Parker and Joan Myles
Lucy dressed quickly in the predawn dark. Under her skirt without crinolines, she drew on a pair of men’s pants. She crept, silent, out the back door. The barn door creaked as she forced it open. She paused, listening for any evidence of detection. Pouring a measure of oats into the manger, she haltered the strongest horse, hoping it was broken. It whickered as she threw a saddle onto its back, tightened the cinch, then waited for the horse to release its held breath. After tightening the girth, she threw two saddlebags over the pommel, untied her mount and led it through the barn door. Closing the barn doors more slowly, she avoided a repeat of the earlier sound. She led the horse to the street. Mounted, she dug her heels into the horse’s flanks, and turned toward the mesa. Passing the livery, she saw the sheriff standing in the doorway. He tipped his hat, silent.
Traveling at a fast trot, attempting to cover as many miles as possible during the morning cool, she reached a fork in the road on the South side of the mesa. She turned the horse and slowed it to a walk. Early morning light began to spill over the eastern horizon. The shadow of woman and beast stretched out, elongated, before them.
As she guided the horse around an outcropping of rocks, a man stepped into her path and stood, hands on gun belt, facing her.
“Howdy ma’am,” he said, polite, but hard.
“Good morning, sir.”
“What is your business on this trail?”
“I’m just out for a morning ride.”
“Curious path to take on a lady’s morning ride.”
“Yes, well, I’m new in town and just like to explore a bit before I buckle down to teaching the wee ones their letters and numbers.”
“This trail’s closed to traffic.”
“This is a restricted area. No trespassing.”
Another man joined the first. His hand lingered near his holstered weapon.
“Just trying to learn my way around the country. No offense meant.” She turned the horse and retraced her steps. She looked over her shoulder. The second man mounted a horse and galloped away toward the mine.
“I’ll try from the other side,” she decided. She was met with a similar check on the second attempt to circle the mesa. She tried leaving the trail, but tangled mesquite and deep ravines protected those approaches. Finally, she looked at the mesa itself. “Is that a trail?” she mused inspecting the north face of the butte. She reached into the saddlebag and removed a pair of binoculars. She traced the apparent trail carefully from base to top. “Looks feasible,” she didn’t realize she was speaking aloud.
She opened the other saddlebag, took out a leather pouch of water, slung it over a shoulder. The binoculars and a pouch of bread and cheese settled into place.
She tucked her skirts into the waistband of her pants and began climbing. Her holstered gun rested against her right hip, tied to her thigh by a leather thong, ready for use.
Stopping several times to rest and drink, she was grateful that she was climbing on the north face of the mesa. “The east side,” she thought, “Must be a furnace by now, with the sun blazing directly on it.”
She clambered onto the mesa’s top. Before her lay a nearly level plane, Scrub mesquite and cactus plants dotted the surface. Blackened stones and faint paintings on boulders marked an ancient camp site. She stalked carefully along a very old trail to the western rim. Sinking down behind a concealing pile of boulders, she peered over the edge. Two-hundred feet below, a camp, enclosed by a fence and patrolled by guards spread out in a square. She examined individual buildings, attempting to determine the purpose of each. Some were obviously bunkhouses. One was a dining hall, made obvious by a pile of garbage at the rear door. Another building was quite different. There were curtains of bleached flour sacks at the windows, scraggly flowers growing in broken bowls on the windowsills.
“That must either be the married couple’s quarters or the hell that Aunt Beatrice hinted at.”
A strong wire fence surrounded three sides of the camp. The fourth side was the face of the butte. Ore-laden carts rumbled from the invisible mine entrance directly below her. They approached the gate which a guard swung open to let them pass. Each was drawn by six sturdy mules, plodding their dusty path to Yuma, 25 miles to the South. She wondered if they resented the dull life they led.
One man stood out from the scene. His dress was stylish rather than practical. He smoked a long cigar and, with quick hand gestures, directed the chaos around him.
She drew a quick sketch of the camp’s layout taking special note of one building set far apart from the others. “black powder storage,” she guessed. The return trip was more treacherous. Twice, stones rolled from under her boots, threatening to send her careening down the mountain to her death. She watched the falling stones as they tumbled and bounced their way to the bottom, dozens of feet below. Halfway down, she noted a man leaning against a large granite boulder. His horse was tied to the same mesquite tree as hers.
“Howdy sheriff,” she said as she adjusted her skirts at the trail’s end.
“Miss,” he tipped his hat. “Long ways from town, ain’t you?”
“I have only one more day to get to know the area. I like to take my children on field trips to help them learn to appreciate God’s creation and its wonders.”
“Dangerous place to take a passel of kids,” he said, nodding toward the mesa.
“Good place from which to see long distances and spot things that would interest them.” she lied.
“Getting’ hot. Best you get back into town. This ain’t safe country for a woman alone.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“I have no doubt about that, but you never know. People disappear every so often around here.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Take it any way you like,” he grunted, turning toward his own horse.
But he whirled to face her once again, venimus threats at the ready. His gaze bore into hers for a long, intense moment as the heat pressed steadily down upon them.
At last, it was the man who pulled himself away as he adjusted the brim of his hat, and strode purposefully toward his mount.
“mind my warning, Ma’am,” he growled softly. The horse let out a fierce protest when the sheriff jerked him roughly into action, then submitted to his spurs.
Lucy did not pause to watch him disappear into the distance, but turned to her own animal. She held her water out to it and stroked its twitching ear as the horse drank gratefully.
“What makes a man such a brute?” she queried softly into the air, climbed onto her mount and started for town, “And how do we repair what he has broken?”