Although the sun shines as brightly as ever, the dark cloud in my heart leaves my world awash in gray. As typical for August, oppressive heat beats down with as little mercy as a vigilante crowd. I have just retrieved a parcel from the post when I hear his voice, an echo from the past nearly forgotten over the years, but the memories it brings up...
I stood in line with the other young ladies, each in a fancy dress purchased for the occasion. Across the room, young gentlemen, clad in suits befitting their station, formed a row. One in particular caught my eye, and presumably those of every other female in the room- a dashing fellow with what appeared to be ribbons and military awards on a burgundy jacket which sported golden epaulets and braided cords the same color. My best friend, Melisande, whispered, "I understand he's visiting European royalty. Supposedly looking for a wealth heiress because he's a younger son. Doesn't he look handsome?"
I made no response as the matrons in charge of the cotillion chose that precise moment to allow us to move across the floor in an attempt to garner a dance partner of our choice. Alas, the prince spotted Annabelle Vanderbilt and made a beeline for her, as she did him. Annabelle may be rich, and beautiful, but her personality resembles nothing more than a magpie, a metaphor with extends to her harsh and croaking voice.
Then a young man collided with me, which is to say, he stepped right in front of me. Not quite as tall as the prince, and attired in the same sort of dark woolen suit as his peers, he stopped, our eyes met, and he asked, "Would you care for this dance?"
The voice, a smooth baritone, woke in me a flood of emotion which I could never quite forget...
"Nathaniel van Rijn, is that you?"
He turns to me when I speak. The intervening decades have not been kind. Where once stood a dashing, lean, young man with rowdy auburn locks, now it is a portly man of middle years with a receding hairline- and what remains is as gray as my humor.
"Elizabeth, is that you? My lord, you've hardly aged a day." He strides over and takes the parcel, despite it being a modest size. "Let me give you a hand with that. After I returned from Yale, you had disappeared with never a word. Who would have thought to meet you out here of all places."
"After my father died at Shiloh, my uncle left me with small option." I smile genially. His voice is so rich and warm that I barely notice the man. With just the tiniest bit of imagination, he remains the young beau of my tender years. "He sent me upstate to Elmira Women's College. Once I graduated, with honors, I found work as a teacher here, a position I still enjoy. So what brings you to our sleepy little spot on the map?"
"After graduating from Yale, I began a very successful law career." He walks beside me to the cabriolet, or arana as Jane might call it. Nate starts at the sight. He turns to me, his face red. "I did not realize teaching paid so well. I thought you an impoverished spinster and thought to rectify the matter. I could certainly influence your Uncle Martin to provide you a stipend."
"My salary is quite generous. I hold more in common with a schoolmaster than a teacher." I give him a coy smile. Flirting, which is truly unacceptable for a lady in my position. "But you were telling me of your law career."
"Made a bundle handling affairs for some very prosperous railway men, particularly Mister Morgan." He gives a self-satisfied sigh. "Retired after only fifteen years and went into politics."
"How fortunate for you," I step up into my cabriolet and reach for my packet. "Will you be here long?"
"As long as it takes," He answers before handing it over. His eyes glance at my hand, but my ring is at the jeweler in Austin, having the setting reworked. I recall his comment about me being a spinster and wonder if he hopes to court me.
That evening, when Mike gets in, he asks, "You know a fellah goes by Nate Reen or some such? He's a-"
"Lawyer from Yale." I have his attention. "Down in Austin for politics and here no doubt for some reason of his own?"
My husband of sixteen years, Mike remains lean and muscular, no doubt because he does much of the hard labor on the ranch. He knows why I am sorrowful and respects my grief as I wish I could aid him with his. Although a light frosting of gray touches his temples, and his dark eyes are wizened by the sun, he might easily pass as a man in his mid-thirties. Our three living children, ranging from age six to thirteen, will roam in as supper approaches. But this moment is ours.
"Howfore do you know him?"
"We attended dances as youths. Until today, I had not seen him since before i went to college."
"I got you ask a favor o' you." This is trouble. I already manage the books for our, increasingly prosperous, ranch so a favor means something to do with Nathaniel. I simply wait and he takes that as permission to continue. "Let Nate think y'all are single. If'n he knows better, let him think you got an itch what needs scratchin' and he's the fence-post you done picked."
"I beg your pardon."
"Hold your horses, let me tell er all." He best have a good explanation is all I can think. "He's here for Jimmy Schneider. Gonna lawyer him off if he can. But he got hisself one evil past. One I like pert near as much as polecat for supper."
"Eww dad, we're having skunk?" Jennifer, our youngest, and boldest, sneaked in while we spoke. Now she surprises us. Mike laughs and turns to go with her as they both wash before the meal.
"Mike." I move close and lean near his ear to whisper, "Tell me details after the dears are in bed and I shall certainly do as you ask."
Late the next morning, I again have my cabriolet out, proceeding down main street and right in front of the county courthouse as the clock strikes a quarter past eleven. Mike arranged to ensure Nathaniel will be exiting at that time and I have chosen my approach well. I spot Nate's portly form, not six feet from Mike. I wave and Nate returns it, so I call, "Mister van Rijn, would you care to join me for luncheon at Carnitas?"
We quickly ensconce ourselves at one of the front tables, with a view of the street and order barbacoa. Nate opens with, "Never thought you the type to associate with darkies."
"I administer and teach at the school for Negro children." I nod toward Rosario. "Mexicans are just as human as we. And the food here is exquisite, far better than the hotel's fare."
"I can say it was not up to snuff."
We chat amicably, catching up on the intervening years, though I weave the web of lies Mike and I fabricated the previous evening.
"Pity you're a spinster, but I can see how teaching negro students would keep honorable men at bay." His eyes flash with desire.
"I might ask how you are still a bachelor, for I see no wedding band." I try to imagine him as he was, but that stirs no desire. Then I pretend he is Mike, just in from a hard day's work, coated in sweat and grime. My breath catches, even after all these years. "Surely, a man as wealthy as you should have no shortage of eager young ladies."
"You see me as i was," he bemoans. "Young women only see me as a fat old man and desire my riches but not my embrace. Further, I am a widower. My wife dies some six years hence."
"I do apologize. It was not my intent to stir up painful memories."
"Nonsense, I buried Melisande. She is finished." He pulls out his pocket watch. "We have some minutes remaining. We should talk about our future."
My dear friend Melisande, trapped in a loveless marriage, for I imagine such, arranged by her parents. Oh how lucky I am to have Mike. Would that our son yet lived.
"You seem upset."
"It is nothing. Melisande was a dear friend, but we lost contact before she wed. Postal service here was dreadfully inefficient when I first arrived. Tell me about yourself. Why are you here?"
"I have to free a boy from the local law. Falsely accused, that sort of thing. You should see how they abused him. His ribs are stove in on the side. Brute of a lawman you have."
"I find Marshal Hobbes benign, if a mite on the young side."
"Sheriff Carson. Fought beside Bloody Bill at the Lawrence massacre."
"I rather doubt that. Mister Carson is a ranger and photographic evidence exists of his presence at many times with the Texas Cavalry in the Army of Tennessee. The local paper had an entire series printed up in eighty five, to commemorate twenty years of peace and the man who brought it."
The entire length of my impromptu soliloquy I think of Jimmy freed from his just deserts.
"I see you're as fond of the man as I."
"I can admire a man, despite him murdering my father." His eyes get wide, he hangs on my every word. "It is all I can surmise. Carson brags about his exploits. As a boy of fourteen, he rode to Shiloh, joined the Texas boys, and rode over a union artillery battery. He shot a captain in the face with his shotgun at point blank range. My father, an artillery captain died there when confederate cavalry flanked them and rode through the gunners. Killing many and scattering the rest."
"How can you admire him?"
"Because he is honest. I do accounts for the county during summer, when school is out."
"What does that have to do with Carson?"
"I work for him, to assess taxes. The man may be brave and honest, but he is handy with a gun, not accounting." I have one more thread to weave and we shall see if I trap this fly. "Thus, I ride out, make notes, then go work the county tax rolls in the summer evenings, when a stout adobe building is pleasant. They pay me sixty dollars for working two weeks."
"A handsome sum, particularly for a woman." He catches his breath. "Surely you don't mean to go tonight."
"Tides and taxes wait for no man." I smile, hoping it looks girlish. "I hope when you finish here, I can impose to travel with you to Austin."
"Nothing would please me more." He's sweating, but it is a blisteringly hot August day. I need to pressure him.
"So soon as we settle the bill, I had best be off. No rest for the weary."
"Please avoid the jail tonight?"
"Why ever would I do that?" I allow some temper to show through. "Do you intend to propose on such shortly renewed acquaintance? For only that could balance the goodwill and regular income of performing tax services for the county."
"With that felon, it may not be safe."
"You indicated earlier that James was both innocent and badly injured. He is certainly incarcerated in a stout cell. How then might he pose a threat?" I wag a finger. "Is this an intrigue to debauch my maidenhood?"
"No, I just worry for you." He reaches across the table to clasp my hands in his. "I worry about you. That jail just doesn't seem safe. Who knows what could happen."
"I shall consider your words, but I still have an obligation."
"Then be sure not to go tomorrow. Just as a favor for me."
"You have grown to be a rather queer man, Mister van Rijn."
"Better odd than dead."
"Quite."The town clock chimes and I rise. "I must depart Nathaniel. I do hope to see you again soon."
"Just be certain not to be in the jail tomorrow night."
"I shall do my best."
Mike's sister, Jane, lives near town with her husband- Pedro Alvarez, So I drive out to send her in to Mike with the essential detail from my conversation with Nate- the attack on the jail is planned for tomorrow night. Then I prepare for a chance meeting at the hotel, including placing a Smith and Wesson lady's thirty-eight in my reticule. Mike planned this, though I know not why.
In the early evening, Nathaniel arrives, looking worn after a long day working at whatever he does in the court. I walk over to his side as he retrieves his key from the desk. "Don't you think it's a lovely evening for a stroll, Nate?"
"I rather intended to retire early."
"This hotel is dreadfully hot. Thin bricks and a large stuffy attic keep it warm throughout the evening, but horribly cold when a northern wind blows during winter."
"I noticed the mosquitoes swarming through every open window." He loosens his tie and undoes the top button on his collar. "Feel like that courthouse baked me through the afternoon."
"I had no idea the trial was today. Everyone has heard about the incident."
"Which is why it needs a change of venue. An innocent boy against a corrupt lawman, and I must professionally differ with your evaluation of the man, has no chance at a fair outcome when folk talk of hanging him without that nicety."
"None have been lynched in my entire time here." I fix Nate with a cold stare. "The sole hanging was a man who murdered an entire family, including a mother and her infant daughter."
A hullabaloo sounds from down the street. Nate smirks, not an honest smile, but a cruel sneer. A shotgun blast rends the air, echoing. This is followed by a flurry of pistol shots and then a loud crack, like a rifle. Nate smiles then. "It sounds as if your husband had a very bad day."
"From before I arrived." He laughs, a wicked sound. "All Austin talks of Ranger Carson's reputation for planning. I used it against him. He knew the attack would be tomorrow, so he went out to the honest crowd today and someone shot him."
"An assassin, you mean."
"My dear, you are a very valuable widow now. Heir to his range and over three-thousand cows." He grabs for my arm, but I pull the pistol from my bag. Another of his wicked grins. "You cannot pull the trigger. You don't have it in you."
"My son was murdered by your client. I watched from our porch, as he gunned down my son."
"Every man is presumed innocent until their guilt is proven in a court of law."
"There were three witnesses."
"If you can credit a pregnant hussy. Claims Cecil is the child's father." Again with his wicked smile. "That shot means there are only two. I advise you against testifying."
I want to shoot him. Once Nathaniel was my prince charming, my Galahad, my Fitzwilliam Darcy. Now he is the fiend who arranged the murder of my husband. But my finger won't pull the trigger. He grabs the gun from my hand and points it at me.
"I will shoot," Carlotta Sanchez points a heavy Colt at Nate. "I hear you talk. You murder my father-in-law to save dog who shoot my husband."
"You have no more ability to pull a trigger than this widow." Nate leers at her, ravishing her youthful body with his eyes. Then he spins, raises the gun he took from me, from me, and two shots sound as one.
Carlotta clenches both hands around her Colt, which bucks and knocks plaster from the ceiling. The other lashes across the room, fired from my sister-in-law's Buffalo rifle. Her round strikes Nate in the left ribs, dropping him to the ground before he can shoot.
Jane slings the gun over her shoulder and crosses the lobby. She toes Nate and announces, "We ladies got to stick together."
Ignoring Jane, I ask, "When did you marry Cecil?"
"June nineteenth, day Americano's free people."
"An elopement?" I ask. Carlotta looks confused, but Jane comes to the rescue.
"Say yes when she talks pretty." Jane glances down at Nate as he gives a moan, then stills. "Looks like Nate paid his price."
"Did his crimes truly warrant death?"
Jane says. "Livin' and grave ain't but a few feet apart. Everbody pays the same."
I know not why, but Jane's simple words comfort me over the loss of Cecil. Then the gloom parts and Mike is there, my true Galahad, asking, "All y'all OK?"
"We yet continue our parts, playing them as we can."
"'Cause all the world's a stage." Jane likes to get in the last word and I don't stop her.