It hasn't rained for weeks. The early summer is so hot that already almost every creek in their part of the valley is drying up. Lancer has deep wells, so they're luckier than most and there's still plenty of water for the cattle. There's no well here in the Pearsons' yard. The grass is yellow and the flowers withered, their thin blooms drying on the stem. The dead flowers smell peppery. The ground has cracked and crazed itself into tiny ravines and canyons.

There are yellowy-brown thief ants everywhere. Cipriano told her once they're called that because they steal the babies from other ants.

Teresa finds herself hunting around the yard for a long stick. "When I was little, Ernesto was still living on the ranch."

Beth Pearson pushes her hair back, leaving little damp tendrils clinging to her forehead. Teresa has envied Beth her thick blonde hair ever since they were at school together. Except on a day like today, perhaps. With the sun beating down like a hammer, Beth's hair must be a heavy torment. Beth frowns. "Ernesto?"

"He's the Señora's nephew and he lived at Lancer with her and Cipriano for a while." Teresa finds a stick and pokes at the side of one of the miniature ravines. Little crumbs of soil, like tiny boulders, roll down the sides. Just one or two, slowly at first, then more of them, faster and faster until the ravine sides rush down in a diminutive landslide. The ants run around, frantic and frightened.

Teresa knows what that feels like, to be frantic and frightened.

"What about Ernesto?" asks Beth.

"Oh, I was just remembering that Ernesto always had a stick in his hand like this, to stir up the ants and make them run." Teresa pauses, looking down at the ants running about near her feet, scrambling around the crumbs of soil that have ruined their world as they know it. "He didn't like ants."

"He doesn't sound very nice."

Teresa sighs. Beth is bound to make a sermon of it, being a preacher's daughter. The Reverend Pearson is fearfully ranty in the pulpit. Daddy always said the reverend needed the dose of Irish humour that came with a good poteen—

She stops right there. No. She won't think of it. She won't think about her daddy, although she has to set her mouth hard against the anger. It isn't Daddy's fault he isn't there. He didn't deliberately leave her all alone when Murdoch Lancer was so sick. At least caring for Murdoch kept her from thinking too much, running backwards and forwards from the kitchen to the sickroom for so many weeks. It helped, then. There's nothing like that to help now. Daddy being gone is bad enough but to find out what he'd lied about, deliberately, all her life—

Teresa sets her mouth harder.

"Ernesto wasn't very nice, really," she acknowledges. "He liked to see things run. He didn't care what he stirred up."

Beth frowns again and fans her face with her hand. Maybe the heat is bothering her. "I don't remember him."

"It was before you came to live here. He went home to Sonora, years ago."

One or two ants catch onto the end of the twig and start up towards Teresa. She drops the stick, hurriedly. She straightens up and steps to one side, dusting her hands. Out beyond the Pearsons' yard, Green River dozes in the heat. If Teresa cranes her head, she can see a corner of Main Street. A brown dog trots out of the alley between the store and the attorney's office, hesitating before running under the boardwalk outside the store. Teresa can't see what frightened it. At least the dog is safe there, in the shady, shadowy place where no one can see it and make it do things it doesn't want to.

"Pa caught the Cheam boy the other day, tormenting that dog." Beth has come to stand beside her.

"Ernesto would have done that, too." Teresa sighs. "It's old Mr Denny's dog isn't it?"

"Mmn. That's Meggie."

"Why was the Cheam boy—was it Tad, the oldest one? He's a holy terror, that boy. Why was he tormenting Meggie?"

"Because he can," Beth says.

 

 

Because he can.

Yes, that sounds right. That's the way the world works. Men come and go across the world and they do what they want, because they can. And sometimes they're good men, like Daddy and Murdoch Lancer. And sometimes they are not. Yet still they do what they want.

Because they can.

Scott collects her after he's loaded the wagon with their monthly supplies. It's only been a few days since they got her home and they're very careful of her right now. If they let her out of sight, it's only when someone else is there to guard her. Sam or Jelly, maybe, or the Reverend Pearson when she said she wanted to see Beth. They've had a fright, losing her like that.

It's sweet, she thinks. Safe. It makes her feel safe and cherished. And as if she's still worth it, as if none of the badness has rubbed off onto her.

She hasn't talked about it much. Scott knows—they all know—what Carl Bolden reduced her to. Scott knows the most. He was the one to follow her into Potluck to try and get her out while Murdoch and Johnny brought the marshal. But they all saw what she was wearing when Angel finally got her away. It makes her shiver, what she might have come to. Even what did happen makes her shiver, because if Mrs Pearson ever got to hear of it, she'd never allow Teresa to see Beth again. She'd be right, too, to keep the corruption away.

Teresa doesn't talk about it on the way home. Instead she answers Scott's talking with a smile or a long drawn out mmmmnnn, and she lets the sound of his voice soothe the jitters away. He has a nice voice with a clipped way of talking, not all drawly and lazy like most men.

She goes with Scott to the barn, while he puts up the horses. Jelly isn't there, which is a boon and a blessing, because, heavens, that old man can talk and it isn't at all soothing. Johnny always says that if there are two legged donkeys in the San Joaquin, it can be laid fair and square at Jelly Hoskins' door because the old coot will have talked their hind legs off. Jelly means well, Teresa knows, and he loves her. But Teresa doesn't want his constant prattle right now, the waterfall of words saying how much they'd missed her and wasn't it a real good sight for his old eyes to have her back again? And even while his eyes fill with tears, and he coughs and bridles up and says it's right dusty today, she's thinking that the time might have come when they couldn't have taken her back again, no matter how much they loved her.

When she wakes up shaking, that's what she thinks of. How close she was to ruin, because Carl Bolden did whatever he wanted. Because he could.

 

 

The barn smells of warm hay and horses.

Johnny's there, currying Barranca until the palomino glows like molten gold. It's a wonder that horse has any coat left, Johnny spends so much time brushing it. Barranca is such a pretty horse. He and Johnny make quite the pair.

Johnny looks up with that quick smile of his. Beth thinks Johnny is so handsome, so charming and dangerous. She clutches Teresa's arm and her voice gets low and breathy when she says her heart goes pitter-pitter-pat whenever she sees the bright smile that lights up Johnny's face and makes his eyes crinkle with laughter. Beth thinks of Johnny a lot, but Teresa doesn't believe Johnny thinks of Beth at all. He's always real polite and tips his hat, of course, but she doesn't think he would know who Beth is if he didn't see her with Teresa there to remind him.

She lets Johnny hug her hello and goes to sit on a hay bale. She doesn't miss the look Johnny gives Scott, or the shoulder Scott hunches in reply, but it's not something she needs to do anything about. It's just them worrying away at how quiet she is. She'll get over it, she's sure. Maybe she'll talk a little bit more tomorrow, to keep them happy.

The barn roof is festooned with old cobwebs. Some of them are heavy, grey with dust. It's time for a good clean out. The webs shouldn't be allowed to sit there.

The web nearest her is new and clean, its strands glinting in the afternoon light coming through the barn door. The spider crouches in the middle of it, very still except for one front leg waving in the warm air. It looks like an ordinary yellow spider, like the ones in her garden, nothing dangerous. Maybe it came in here out of the heat. A fly is caught near the bottom of the web. Spider silk is wonderfully sticky stuff. Good to stop bleeding from an open wound, she knows, but not so good for flies. This fly jerks and pulls, one wing caught and one fluttering as it tries to get free. It reminds Teresa of the frantic, frightened running the ants had done earlier. But here, the fly can't run away, the way the ants could from the stick that poked them. Here, every jerking dance the fly tries meshes it in deeper and harder.

Teresa's chest tightens. She brushes her face with her hands and runs them down her arms, to brush away the cobwebs.

The spider stops waving its leg. It shoots across its web, so quick that she forgets to breathe while she watches it. When it reaches the poor fly, its legs move fast, turning the fly over and over and over, putting it into a silk winding sheet. It makes her feel a little sick. The spider is so quick, the fly doesn't stand a chance.

Carl Bolden had forced her into silk too. A shamefully short silk dress that showed too much of her chest and arms and legs. It would have been a sort of winding sheet, if she hadn't got away.

"Teresa?" Scott's voice is kind and quiet, but still she jumps, startled, and turns to look at him. It's better than looking at the spider with its prey. "Are you all right?"

She opens her mouth to speak, but not even a croak comes out. She has to close her mouth and work it a little, to get enough water into it before she can make her voice sound. She looks back at the spider and points.

"A web," says Scott, still soft and gentle, but there's a question in his tone. He doesn't see what she sees. "A spider's web."

Her voice comes back in a rush, but it doesn't sound much like her. "He was like the spider," she says. "He was slick and quick, and had everyone dancing in the web he made. Me, the Sunshine girls…"

Johnny says something in Spanish that would have Maria shrieking in outrage, and shrieking even louder that Teresa understands it. He drops the curry comb and in an instant he's crossed the barn to stand at her other side. His hand is warm and heavy on her shoulder.

"He knew. He knew what he was forcing me into. The Sunshine girls and… and her. Angel. They're already that way, aren't they? They aren't like me or Beth. They might have been once, but they aren't now. They're used to it. It's how they live, in the saloons and… and with the men all shouting and laughing and looking at me the way they did. Their eyes when they looked at me and what they said, those men…and they laughed…" Teresa rubs fiercely at her arms, as if she's trying and trying to wash away a stain. "I can't get clean again. I can't get clean. He knew it was wrong, making me go into that saloon. I'm not that sort… I'm not like them. He made me go. And he made me go onto that stage, with her… Angel… singing that song and making me be there while those men looked at me." Teresa chokes, and despite the way Johnny squeezes her shoulder and Scott catches her hands in his and murmurs things at her that she can't quite hear, she's shaking and struggling like the fly in the web. "Why did he do that? Why did he do it?"

"We think," says Scott, carefully, "that he did it to put pressure on Murdoch to pay to get you back. We don't think he'd have let any harm come to you."

"No," she says. "No. He did it because he could."

Johnny lets out a soft snort. He nods when she looks at him. "Yeah, carina, you're right there. No more morals than a snake. Scott did a good job, shooting him."

Teresa nods and shivers. She saw Carl Bolden die. For all his boasting and his silver pistols, the man had been no match for Scott. The spider's dead. "I'm trying to work it out. I'm trying to see if she, Angel, was a spider or a fly. She did what he told her, so maybe she was caught in his web, too. She knew what he was doing. She knew it could ruin me. She didn't stop him. She didn't stand up to him. Maybe she was a fly."

Scott was still careful. "I think she was very afraid of him."

Johnny's hand presses down. "She got you away, carina, in the end."

Teresa sighs. "Maybe she has some shame, then. I don't know. But she goes into those saloons and she has the girls with her. I think she's just a smaller spider."

The fly in the web is a bundle of spider silk. It's stopped struggling, defeated. It's nothing more now than spider fodder.

Teresa wonders where all her words have come from. She's tired, and her eyes are scratchy and heavy. "Have you ever felt like a fly? Trapped and helpless and the spider coming for you?"

Johnny lets out that soft snort again. "All the time, when I was workin'."

And Scott says, real quiet, "Yes. During the war."

"Oh." Teresa moistens her lips. "And the spider? Did you have a spider?"

Scott's smile is still kind, but there's a look in his eyes Teresa doesn't like to see there. "Oh, the Confederate Army, I suppose. At least, those guarding—" He stops, swallows and goes on, "And sometimes, it feels like, the ones on my side who had me jumping to obey orders. Not all of the orders were good ones or easy to live with afterwards."

Johnny draws his Colt so fast she gasps, and flourishes it at her for an instant before shoving it back into its holster. He doesn't need to speak.

She nods and bows her head. She's honoured that they trust her enough to tell her this. Honoured. It makes her feel less lonely.

Johnny's hand squeezes her shoulder again, then lifts away. "Here," he says, a moment later. He hands her a broom and nods towards the cobweb. "Bring the spider down, carina. Break the web."

She lifts the broom and hesitates. "Will it make me feel better?"

"It might help," says Scott. "It's worth a try."

"It's too late for that fly, though." She swooshes the broom handle into the web, breaking the strands. The spider swings free, legs waggling. It runs up its own thread, trying to get to the barn roof.

"You could kill it," says Scott, sly.

Teresa's mouth pulls itself into a little smile. "No. You did that for me already." He pats her hand and she looks at him, real solemn. "Did you get free of your spider?"

"Mostly," Scott says, with a nod. "Some days it's closer and I remember it all, but it's not as important now. You don't forget, but it's less pressing. You learn to live with it."

She turns to Johnny.

"I'm working on it," says Johnny. "It ain't so much that I need to get free of it for myself as other folks need to let it go. It's always going to be there. That spider and me stare each other in the eye every now and again and I don't back down. That's all."

"Eight." Scott looks up at the roof where the spider went, and grins. "Eight, Johnny. A spider has eight eyes."

"The he—heck it does! Still, that doesn't mean it's going to win. Right, carina?"

Teresa's surprised to realise she's laughing. Maybe it's the look on Johnny's face and the way he makes a movement to take the broom from her, as if the thought of eight eyes has him itching to finish what she started.

"Right," she says.

She takes a deep breath. She lets the broom handle slide down through her palms until the head is on the barn floor. The web's gone. That fly is gone with it, but other flies are safe.

Right. She can do this. She can learn to be content with the spider's web being broken, and one or two flies at least free of the silken winding sheet. She can learn to be content with it becoming less pressing, and staring it in the eyes until it's cowed. She won't back down either.

"All right?" asks Scott, gentle, and Johnny smiles at her.

She nods. She isn't really, not yet. But she will be. She knows she'll be all right. She knows she'll do this.

Because she can.

 

 

 

 

 

~end~

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This is an episode tag to Angel Day and Her Sunshine Girls. In this episode, we find that Teresa's mother isn't dead as Teresa thought, but is a showgirl who has her own little entertainment troupe. Angel left Paul O'Brien when Teresa was a baby. Her current husband, conman Carl Bolden, makes her claim guardianship of Teresa and they take Teresa away from Lancer, across the Nevada border to the town of Potluck. Bolden's plan is to get Murdoch to pay to have Teresa returned. In the meantime, Scott follows them to Potluck and Teresa is forced to take part in the show in a saloon, wearing a skimpy saloon girl's outfit. Angel, remorseful, gets her away at night to meet Scott. Bolden follows and is killed by Scott, as Murdoch and Johnny arrive. Angel gives up her claim to Teresa and the Lancers take the girl home.