Picking up her trunk, Virgil told Chloe that the boarding house was not far, and led her a path through the bustle down the street. They turned a corner and small street leading away from the main thoroughfare revealed a row of smaller businesses, one of which was the boarding house, in a large rambling two story half covered in morning glory vines. A couple of men sat on the front porch, focused on a silent battle of cards, and two little girls played in the scraggly grass. They both looked up at her with interest as she followed Virgil up the steps and to the front door.
“Miss Belulah,” Virgil called through the screen door, beyond which was a large parlor. The smell of baking apples wafted through. “Miss Belulah, may I have a word with you?”
A few moments, and a womanly figure came bustling through the darkened room, rubbing her hands in a towel and looking a bit flustered and red faced, dusted in various places with flour.
“Now Virgil, jes’ because I fussed at you for tracking dirt into my home last week doesn’t mean you’re not welcome,” she admonished, giving him a good-natured glare. “If you got something to tell me, just come on in…”
“Miss Belulah, I have a charge to give you,” Virgil insisted, and stepped aside so Chloe could show herself. “I charge you with the need to give this poor travel weary young lady a fresh bed and a place to hang her bonnet. This is our new school teacher, Miss Chloe Grey.”
“Well, I declare!” Belulah cried, flinging open the screen door and practically yanking Chloe inside. “I was wondering when you’d show up. Come in, come in, child! Landsakes, I hope the coachride werent too hard on you…Virgil, wipe yor feet!…you jes’ bring your little self right in here and…”
Chloe followed, leaving behind a laughing deputy to scrape his boots on the scraper outside the door. Belulah led her to the central hall where a staircase led to the rooms upstairs. Someone in a room was practicing a violin and voices sounded from the kitchen, either an argument or spirited chatter. Belulah beckoned her to ascend, talking the whole while without a pause for breath.
“Is he going to bring your things? Lordy, that man just loves to yank on my apron strings, and then he flashes that badge and wiggles that…well, come on, child…what was yor name again? Pretty name, I knew a Chloe once, back in San Francisco, she had these long curls…”
Her room was a corner room, the best Belulah had in the house next to her own, and was where the last teacher stayed, God rest her soul, although she weren’t exactly the type to hang in her room. She did like to socialize. A little too much, Belulah told her, and seemed to eyeball her a good few seconds, as if to size her up. Would she be making plans to use the desk in the corner? If there weren’t enough kerosene in the lamp just let Josiah know, he was the handy man, and Gracious sakes alive, where was that rascal Virgil, he may think he’s deputy but he needs a…oh there you are, set it right there, that’s a good man, now scat! This is a lady’s room…!
After Belulah made sure she had plenty of water at the washbasin and gave her the time for dinner and would she meet with her in the parlor at four o’clock for some things about the school, Chloe found herself sitting in her brand new room. Everything was spotless, with whitewashed walls and a large wardrobe in one corner and the windows overlooking the vast wilderness that spread out beyond the edge of town. The desk sat in a corner next to the bed and it was empty except for a few books she would need to teach her class.
Not but a few hours she couldn’t wait to get here and now that she was…she sank down on her bed, with its crazy quilt softened by time, and leant against its brass bedpost. Dust motes floated through the sunlight pouring through the windows and Chloe wondered if this wasn’t the worst mistake she had ever made in her entire life.
He was stuffing the gun into the large barrel at the back of the storeroom just as he heard the bell tinkle at the front of the store, indicating that a customer had slipped inside. George Temple returned the flap of the heavy blanket over the barrel, a strategically placed article of subterfuge set to be a casual backdrop to the clutter of the mercantile’s back storage. Not that anyone ever came to the back to see, but George’s caution would take no chances. He had done what he had always done in the towns he lived in: cultivated a gun-free appearance. To be seen with a gun in his hand was to tip his hand: people would know instantly who he was…and that could very easily be more deadly than any shot he fired.
Brushing the dust off his hands as he reentered the store, he braced himself for yet another disgruntled rancher, or dissatisfied housewife. Seems as if all of them living within the fifty mile radius of Tucson had chosen that day to visit him for one reason or another, always picking apart the things they ordered through him or wore him down with haggling, when much of what he carried was as cheap as he could ever get it once it made it through all the passages of distance between Arizona and the coast. Ever since his wife and son died, ever since he had left Cross Creek, George had tried to carry on business as usual, but it was getting harder and harder. With a town like Tuscon, it was definitely getting harder and harder…
“Mr. Temple, and I am hoping you will let me look at your catalogues today. I am at my wit’s end.”
He couldn’t keep the smile from spreading over his face – it was Laurie Drake, a seamstress who patronized the mercantile on a regular basis. He couldn’t help it, she always seemed to brighten up the place no matter where she went. Her Irish coloring and faint lilt accentuated her sparkling blue eyes in a way that made him glow inside. This was not always a welcome feeling – it was two years since he lost his family, although it felt as if it were only months ago. It felt disloyal and disrespectful of the dead to be turned by a pretty redhead, but that was the way he reacted every time she walked in the door.
Realizing his relief was quite visible, George cleared his throat and asked, “What catalogues did you have in mind?”
“You see, Mr. Temple, it is my client who has newly arrived in Tuscon, but seems to think she is still in Boston. She has given me the name of a textile that I have never heard of, and insists that no other will do,” she replied, in her usual roundabout way. “Ribbons, Mr. Temple, and velvet and moire, and…well, Mr. Temple, I won’t bore you with our interview. Suffice it to say, she believes the only good and worthwhile dress will come if it were floated down upon us on the wings of angels.”
He laughed as he pulled out the catalogues.
“Sounds about right for some of the orders I receive,” he told her, plopping them down on the counter in front of her.
“Cort, did you see Virgil escorting that pretty girl to Belulah’s?” Cort looked up from his newspaper.
“I’ve been sitting here reading. How could I see what Virgil—“
“Her name’s Chloe Grey and she’s the new school teacher.” Cort returned to his paper. “She’s the best looking school teacher I’ve ever seen!”
“You said that about the last one,” Cort reminded him.
“And she was the prettiest—until she married Harold Green.”
“So once they get married, they become ugly.”
Morgan made a face. “No, I didn’t say that. Anyway, if Virgil thinks just because he has a deep voice and droopy mustache, he’s got it all sewed up, he can just forget it!” Morgan walked to the window and peered out. “All I need is a plan. Something to get her attention.” He snapped his fingers and ran over to Cort’s desk. “I got it!”
“You aren’t going to pretend you can’t read are you?
“Why not? What better way to spend time with her and get some sympathy to boot.”
“You’re a deputy marshal; you have to know how to read. Besides, everyone knows you can.”
“Okay, it’s a weak plan. I’ll think of something else. Let’s see…”
But Cort had already returned to his newspaper.