The School Marm
by Winslow Parker and Joan Myles
An elegant coach drawn by six matching horses stirred the town like a beehive poked with a stick. It paused in front of the livery. The driver leapt from the driver’s seat and strode into the livery. He returned and opened the coach door. Onlookers heard the exchange of a few muffled words. He climbed back onto his perch and drove to the mayor’s house. The driver descended, opened the coach door and set a stool on the ground. A spotless black boot stepped onto the stool, paused before lowering it into the street dust. Its owner finally let it sink delicately into the powder. Almost as wide as he was tall, the man turned in a slow, deliberate circle, looking at each person in turn as if searching for someone. He turned and made his way to the mayor’s front door. Using the gold head of his walking stick, he pounded the front door, peremptorily summoning the mayor.
Willie Watley opened the door, gasped and retreated into the house, leaving the door open to follow.
“W what are you doing here, Mr. Ackley, sir?”
“I’ve come to learn what has stopped production at my mine.”
Stammering and meandering in his explanation, the mayor told the story.
“You let them take a town girl?”
“Well, the miners were getting tired of the girls you furnished. They wanted some um, well, someone new.”
“You stupid man. Didn’t you know what would happen?”
“N no sir. I thought we had ‘em pretty well cowed. We owned the Bar-J-bar ranch hands who were supposed to provide protection. I found out this morning that the men of the town ganged up on them, shot a few. The rest hightailed it for other regions.”
“Where’s the sheriff?”
“Wellll,” he let the word hang in the air. “Well, you see, sir, he’s locked in his own jail.”
“Jail? How did that happen?”
“You see, sir, there’s this school marm, new this year, right pretty and smart as a whip. She’s got all the kids wrapped around her little finger and…”
“Shut up,” demanded the rotund little man,” stamping the floor with the butt of his cane. “Get on with the story.”
“Oh, yes, um, yessir. Well you see sir, she’s not just a school teacher…”
“Will you get to the point, Willie! I’m getting damned tired of the sound of your voice.”
“Yessir. Well, she came to town and when they stole the local girl from her mother, she used her badge to get all the men in town to help her rescue the girl, actually, all the girls.”
“I’ll have a word with this young lady after you and I pay a visit to the mine. Come with me.”
“Yessir,” mumbled the mayor. “Let me just get my hat.”
“No time. Let’s go.”
The mine owner stepped up into the coach. The mayor made as if to follow.
“No, up on the box with the driver. Don’t want to dirty my coach with your dusty boots.”
The mayor let his eyes drop and mumbled something under his breath.
He started up the ladder to the driver’s seat.
“No room up here with me and the guard,” the driver spoke down into his face. “Scoot behind me onto the luggage rack.”
The mayor’s face flamed red..
“I’m the mayor, you can’t…”
“Do as he said,” floated up from within the coach.
The mayor, humiliated before the gathering towns folk, sat cross-legged on the bare boards of the coach roof. The driver’s whip flicked past his right ear as he started the horses, turned and headed South out of town.
At the mine, the stranger and the mayor walked through the wreckage.
“That ragtag village did all this?”
“Yessir. Mostly it was that young snip of a girl, . She led them, planned it all out, so to speak.”
“Where is she?”
“Staying with her aunt near the North end of town.”
“Bring her to me. I’ll be in your office. Be quick about it. I need to be in Tucson tomorrow.”
“So you’re the missy that’s been causing me all this trouble.”
“If you mean the rescue of the women held at your mining camp, then yes, I am that missy.” She eyed the guard and the coach driver, each holding a shotgun.
“This is a big desert Miss Phillips.”
“You’re threatening me.”
“Absolutely. Actually, it’s more like a promise. I get what I want, young lady. I’ll make sure you never cross me again.. My mine is the foundation of all my enterprises and I’ll not let anything interfere with its operation.”
“You’re pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you, Mr. Ackley.”
He leaned back in the mayor’s chair, drew deep on a cigar, and blew smoke into her face. “You might say that. It’s worked for me ever since I inherited my grandfather’s businesses.”
“You’re about to take a big fall, Mr. Ackley. Right on that little round backside of yours.”
“Oh? How so?” he sneered.
“Well, for one thing, sheriff Griffith has turned on you. He has agreed to give testimony against you.”
He waved his cigar, describing a smoky arc in the air. “Pshaw, he’s nothing. My lawyers will poke holes in his testimony big enough to drive a stagecoach through. In the meantime, what am I going to do with you?” He eyed her, speculatively. “Perhaps you could be used to my advantage elsewhere. I’ll think on that a bit.”
Lucy saw a flash of movement from the corner of her eye. She recognized Billy’s tousled hair.
“There is something you don’t know, Mr. Ackley. I am a U. S. Marshal.”
“You?” You’re a girl. You couldn’t possibly be a U. S. Marshal.”
“I’m not demanding you believe me, but you have stepped into something that is going to be a bit difficult to clean off your dainty boots.”
“How so? I run this territory. The governor is a good friend, if you take my meaning.”
“Thank you, Mr. Ackley, you have just fitted in another puzzle piece.”
His face reddened. “I’m afraid you won’t be around to interfere much longer. We’re on our way out of this Podunk town. You’re coming with us, but only part way.” He grinned. “Like I said, it’s a big desert out there with all kinds of varmints. Tie her up, boys.”
Arms tied behind her back, a gag in her mouth, the two men pushed her through the door. The street was as empty as if the entire population had been sucked into the burnished copper sky by the heat of the sun. Dust devils danced in dry arroyos. Distant mountains shimmered in the heat haze. Mirage water reflected bright sunlight in the road a mile North of town. A sleeping dog twitched in the narrow shade of an awning.
The guard stepped out of the door, swept his eyes left and right, then took another step, holding his sawed-off shotgun at the ready. The coach driver prodded Lucy’s back. She stepped through the door followed by the driver and the mine owner. In a line, they headed for the coach.
A sudden commotion stopped them. The six matched horses whinnied, bucked and then began running down the street trailing their traces.
“someone’s cut the lines,” shouted the driver.
Lucy saw the grinning face of Billy poking through the spokes of the front left wheel. He winked.
“grab her!” cried the mine owner.
The guard whirled and took her arms, shielding himself with her body.
The near-unison click of several guns made him pause and turn around.
Eight townsmen each holding a rifle or pistol aimed their weapon on Mr. Ackley and his guard and driver. The guard raised his shotgun.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” said Billy’s father. “Drop the gun.”
The guard aimed the weapon and pulled the trigger just as Lucy flung herself forward, throwing the weapon off target with her shoulder.
The shotgun roared, taking Yancey Bushnell’s hat and gracing his scalp with buckshot. His scalp began to bleed.
Three bullets tore into the guard. He twisted, then fell heavily to the ground, dropping his still-smoking weapon.
“OK, you two, back away.” Growled Mr. Bushnell. He held a red bandana to the wound.
The driver dropped his weapon.
“Untie me please,” Lucy asked. “Billy,” she addressed her mischievous student, go fetch it. You know what I mean, our secret.”
“Yes’m,” Billy smiled and ran to Beatrice’s home. He returned a few moments later, holding her badge. He handed it to her.
She pinned it to the wide collar of her shirt. “Mr. Ackley, I’m placing you and your driver under arrest awaiting trial in Federal court for murder, kidnapping, accessory to murder, exploitation and enslaving of women.” Turning to the men around her, she said, “Tie these two up. Search Mr. Ackley carefully. Little men often carry little weapons with which to defend themselves.”
They found a tiny two-shot derringer in an inner pocket.
“Here are the keys to the jail. Lock them in with the sheriff. I’m deputizing all of you. Please arrange for two men to be on duty at all hours to guard the prisoners. I’ll wire Tucson for more agents. If a couple of you could find and bring back the horses, I’d appreciate it.”
Two men mounted their horses and trotted North, following the dust cloud raised by 24 galloping hooves.
“You’ll all be sorry for this,” blustered the mine owner. “I’ve got friends in Congress and even higher.”
“thank you for that information. It will be quite useful at your trial,” said Lucy.
Even inside the stagecoach, Lucy could not escape the oppressive summer heat of Furnace Wells. Instinctively she pulled the brim of her travel hat down to shield her eyes, but she found no refuge against the harsh afternoon sunlight, and no comfort for her broken heart. The coach would be pulling away any minute now, and she would be carried away from Furnace Wells and all it had come to mean to her.
“You’ve won the hearts of this town you know,” Aunt Birdie had told her again as they said their final good-byes. “No one can ever take that away from you…or from us.”
But the tears exchanged by the two women held more than regret for separation. They had grown very close over the last two years. They had endured a devastating yet heroic chapter in the town’s history. They had witnessed Furnace Wells reclaiming itself as a unified community, its citizens asserting their loyalty to the law and to one another. By coming together to protect the young kidnapped women of their town–regardless of their heritage or social standing–they were declaring Furnace Wells to be a place of safety, a home to them all.
“You’ll always have a place here,” the older woman wept, ‘in the town…with me…like my own girl you are now…”
Oh, Aunty…like your own girl, she sighed, and you are like my own mother.
She became aware of the coachman calling out some final remarks to a livery worker, then felt the thud of her trunk as he heaved it into place.
“Ready to depart, Ma’am,” he announced more quietly as he neared the coach.
“I’m ready,” she called back.
But he was already in his place, already slapping the reins to signal the team forward.
But am I ready? she asked herself. Am I ready to forget Billy and his father and the other children at the school–Rosa, and Philip–the women who were learning so much from our sessions? The town which has finally gotten past everything? Will I ever see any of them again?
And just as quickly, her thoughts turned to Oregon.
Oh, dan…my dear brother, gone. What will I do …, she felt the tears beginning, what will Sally and his children do without him?
Without thinking, she drew the tear-stained telegram from her pocket . Once more she read the tragic lines , folded it methodically, and slipped it back into place. Then she searched in the overstuffed satchel for her handkerchief.
It must be here somewhere, she was already overcome and unable to fully focus.
At length both hands were in the bag searching. They found no handkerchief, but kept returning to the tooled journal Dan had given her, tracing his handiwork, caressing his memory. Slowly she brought the volume out, her very breath eased by its presence.
Again she sighed. For a long moment, she sat transfixed, smoothing its cover. At last she opened the journal. Her own face peered back at her. The face of a new teacher as seen through the eyes of a young boy.
“How long till we get there?” she called out to the coachman in a sudden rush.
The stagecoach lurched violently with a sudden jolting creak as its wheels crossed a deeply rutted spot on the road, and whatever the coachman had intended to say was swallowed up in curses. But as Lucy strained to keep her seat, her gaze caught sight of the horizon, the vast cloudless sky, and the road stretching into the distance.
And she smiled to herself.
No matter how long, she thought as her fingers traced the pencil lines on the page, “we’re moving, we’re all moving forward.