The School Marm: A Western Serialby Winslow Parker and Joan Myles
Lucy started as if prodded with a live electric wire. “Quick!” she ordered, “get your men. Gather half a mile South of town. Do it quietly but quickly. I’ll meet you there. Bring your horses.” She stepped out onto the front porch. “Billy!” She called.
“Yes’m” he replied.
“I knew you would be there. Go get your father. Have him meet me at the livery stable.”
“Yes’m” he flung back over his shoulder as he ran.
Lucy dashed upstairs, rummaged in her trunk,. She quickly changed into men’s pants, buckled on her pistol and pinned her marshal’s badge to the collar of her shirt. She poured kerosene into a canteen and hung it on her belt. Taking the front steps two at a time, she broke the gate as she ran to the street. Panting, she slowed as she approached the livery stable.
“Sherriff,” she called. “May I talk with you a moment?” Billy’s father arrived as she finished her request.
“What’s happening?” he whispered.
“I’m arresting the sheriff. I see you have your gun. That’s good. Hold it at the ready.”
He slipped the weapon from its holster and looked at her curiously. He raised an eyebrow.
She pointed to the gold star she wore.
His mouth fell open, but he nodded.
“Whatcha want?” the sheriff slurred his words.
“You’re under arrest,” Lucy said, authority undergirding her words.
“Arrest?” he shouted, reaching for his gun, then stopped as two pistols pointed at him.
“Drop it and hand me your keys,” Lucy commanded.
“You have no right….”
Again, Lucy pointed to her authority. “My star trumps yours,” she said, her smile bleak.
She locked him in his cell, pocketed the keys and grabbed a rifle, shells and the sheriff’s shotgun. She handed both to Mr. Bushnell. Returning to the livery, they each saddled and mounted a horse and galloped to the meeting place.
As people assembled, Lucy gave directions. “Divide into two groups. One go South, around the butte, the other follow me on this trail. Those of you going South, follow Mr. Bushnell. I’ve given him information for the location of the guards on that trail.” She tore strips of material from one of the women’s underskirts then tore it into smaller lengths. These she wrapped around the ends of several branches. She handed them to two men. “There is a trail up the North side of the mesa,” she said, pointing. “Climb the trail and position yourselves near the West rim of the mountain. After dark, when you see a torch near the main gate, pour kerosene onto the cloth, light it and throw them onto the roofs of the buildings. Be careful not to throw a torch onto the building with flowers in window boxes. I think that is where they’re keeping the women, probably including Rosa.” Miranda sobbed.
Lucy mounted her horse and galloped ahead until she came near the spot where she knew the guard waited. She dismounted and carefully crept through the sparse vegetation. The sun was near the horizon and she took advantage of its bright red light, hoping it would blind the sentry to her approach.
Two men stood facing the road. Both wore pistols and two carbines leaned against a tree within easy reach.
?From behind A cottonwood tree, she said quietly, “Drop your gun belts.”
They turned, both reaching for their pistols.
“Don’t do that if you value your lives.”
One hesitated, the other continued to drop his hand toward his weapon.
He fell as the crash of her gun reverberated from the mesa wall.
“Drop your belt,” she repeated. He obeyed. She approached warily, kicked his gun and belt to the edge of the clearing, then knelt and tied his hands and feet.
“How many guards at the mine?” She asked, “And where are they located.”
“Not going to tell ya.”
“Easy way or hard way?” she asked.
He turned his head, looked at his dead companion and said, “Two on the gate, four scattered along the fence.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll be back to pick you up later. Just rest comfortably you hear?”
She gathered their weapons, untied their horses and led them to her own horse. She tied their reins to the pommel of her saddle, then trotted to the trail. The sun sank below the horizon as they rounded a bend. She brought them to a halt. They waited for darkness. She lit a torch and waved it. Fire fell from the top of the mountain in long arching streaks. Tarpaper rooves caught fire quickly. It spread. A voice shouted “Fire! Fire!” Men boiled from bunkhouses, searching for pails in which to carry water. In vain they threw it onto burning buildings.
Lucy led her group to the gate where Mr. Bushnell’s group waited.
They tied three horses to the front gate and slapped their rumps. The horses started to gallop but were caught short by the weight of the gate. They added two more horses and repeated the process. The gate fell with a crash, nearly unheard in the roar of flames and shouts of men.
Lucy chose five armed men. They crouched low, following the fence. When they reached the building with window boxes full of flowers, they crept around the building to the front door. Billy’s father kicked the door in. It crashed open. Two dozen women crouched in fear beneath tables and behind furniture. Miranda dashed past those standing in the doorway scanning the women frantically. Finding Rosa, she ran to her and gathered her into her embrace. They wept together.
“Everyone! Go quickly to the gate and get outside the fence.” Mr. Bushnell translated. The women ran.
“Mr. Bushnell!” she cried, “where is the powder shack?”
“Follow me,” he said.
Together they crossed the compound, sticking to the shadows beyond the firelight. He pointed to a corrugated iron shack.
“Do you have a key?”
“Yes, but no need. He pointed to a small hole dug beneath the iron wall. She nodded and ran toward the opening.
When she reached it, she shoved her torch as far as it could reach inside, then turned and ran. Side by side they ran for the gate. As they reached it, the black powder exploded with a flash and roar. Nearby buildings collapsed; bodies flew through the air. The following silence was broken only by the crackle of flames and the groans of wounded men.
The mine manager saw them and ran towards them, rifle at port arms. He paused to raise the rifle to his shoulder. Billy’s father shot him. He crumpled into the dust.
They seated the escaping women on horses, the men walked in order to accommodate them all. They were divided among the homes of the town where the womenfolk comforted them and tried to make them feel welcome.
Lights in town stayed on until well past midnight. There would be no mining on the morrow.
Lucy went to the jail.
She explained what the townspeople had done. “You’re in this very deep, sheriff,” she said. “How do you want to play this?”
“what do you mean?”
“You can testify against the mine owners and perhaps get a lighter sentence or you can protect them and spend a good part of the rest of your life in the territorial prison in Yuma. Up to you.”
“Can I think about it?”
“Sure, you have two minutes.”
“they’ll track me down and kill me. These are rich and powerful men. They don’t like being double-crossed.”
“How long will you survive in prison once it is discovered you were a sheriff?”
“Uh, I see what you mean….I’ll turn witness then travel the world with one eye checking my back trail from now until I die.”
“Good choice. I’ve telegraphed for a court stenographer and judge to come take your statement. They should be here day after tomorrow. In the meantime, you are a guest in your own prison.”
The mayor left town, riding as fast as his horses could bear him.
The town residents gathered in the church the next day, with the freed women to discuss their next step.
It was a comfort for the townsfolk of Furnace Wells to gather inside their regular place of worship. After all they had been through– the months of uncertainty, the fear and distrust– it felt good to come together as neighbors and fellow travelers. Reverend James Lucas–or was it Lucas James, no one was quite sure yet–was still polishing his opening sermon for the small congregation, but he welcomed them warmly, marveling at their eagerness to come inside, despite the unsightly appearance of some of them.
“Why, come in, dear friends,” he hurried to hold the door as the group scurried in, “it’s not a regular prayer time, but the Good Lord is always open for business.”
“We need a good word, Reverend,” Lizzie Grandbush spoke up without reservation. “Just found out the sheriff is a no-good so-and-so, and that our town’s been livin’ a lie, our young gals been stole away for devil’s play…”
“Lizzie!” a lady or two gasped
“It’s the truth, ain’t it?” she demanded.
“Well, ummm…do come in, friends, do come into God’s House, and let’s find a good word to share between us, to find our way back to His Care, back to peace, back to one another…”!
The faithful ambled into the cozy room, and everyone found a seat. After a bit, the mumbling dissolved into quiet attention, all eyes fixed on the young minister at the front of the room.
“Welcome friends,” he said again, “I’m delighted to find you all here on this occasion, this occasion of, well, coming together in fellowship, in the good faith of good neighbors seeking…seeking peace and harmony…the ready comfort only found”
“Great balls of fire, Reverend,” Lizzie was on her feet at the rear of the room, “ we come here to learn what’s to become of our town now that law and order’s been turned upside down.”
“Yeah!,” male voices sang out.
Just then, the side door burst open, and Mayor Willie Wadley bounded into the room.
“Friends, there’s no need…no problem we can’t…just settle down and let’s…”
A tall, white-haired gentleman rose slowly from among the gathered townsfolk, the editor of the newspaper, and drawled deliberately, ‘Got my tablet right here, Mayor, how’s about a statement for the Chronicler.” He knew he was baiting the mayor, knew he had spied him lurking about the jail when the sheriff was locked up.
Wadley stopped in his tracks, then slowly approached the front of the group.
“Reverend, if I may…” he said
The younger man stepped aside without a word.
“Friends,” Wadley began.
“We heard that part already,” Lizzie called out.
A chuckle from the group.
“We been through things like this before,” Wadley offered.
“I never had to rescue my girl from kidnappers !”
“Never knew a devil-dog sheriff like this one!”
“Never had to be the law myself!”
The shouting became more and more heated as every citizen of Furnace Wells proclaimed his personal grievance and utter disappointment in the mayor. At length it was only the lateness of the hour, and the exhaustion of those assembled that brought things to a close.