The Old Maid's Tale, Part One

An episode tag to The Kid

To be an old maid, that is fine, but it is cold.
 Victor Hugo  Les Miserables


(Note: one or two lines in this story are taken from the episode, and so belong not to me, but to the copyright owners of Lancer).

 


Reverend Williams' sister lived someplace back east; the same place the Reverend came from. 

"Rockport, Cape Ann," explained Mrs Williams once at a Ladies Aid Society meeting when she was describing their journey west to follow the Reverend's Call.  "It's in Massachusetts, right on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.  It's so pretty there, so green…  and the sea…"

Mrs Williams had sounded sad as her voice faded away, and she'd looked out onto the dry dust blowing along Main Street and sighed, before shaking her head and brisking up as if nothing had happened.  She sounded cheerful again as she told of the voyage from Boston to San Francisco and everything that she and the Reverend had seen on the way.  But Dorrie had thought that, maybe just for a moment, Mrs Williams had wished the Reverend had never had a Call at all.  But it would be a wicked thing to set yourself up against the Lord's will and Reverends' wives didn't do wicked things.

Dorrie had never heard of Rockport or Cape Ann.  She had some memories of the world east of McCall's Crossing, but not so far as that.  The farthest east she knew was over the mountains to Utah where she'd lived when Ma and Pa had first moved west, but her Pa's Call had been for land, not the Lord.  She'd been born farther east than that, too, but the south-east corner of the old Minnesota Territory was too far back in memory to be more than a vague sense of trees and water.  She'd never seen an ocean, though the Pacific was a few days' journey the other way, west over the Diablo mountains.  She figured it had to be something like Lake Utah, but bigger. 

Twice a year, Reverend Williams' sister sent a missionary barrel from the Reverend's old church back in Rockport.  Dorrie was at the Williams' house one time when a barrel arrived.  She was helping Mrs Williams with the sewing.  Five children all under the age of ten sure took it out on their clothes, and Mrs Williams was always glad to pay Dorrie a dollar for a day's work, having shirts made or pants mended, tucks let out to lengthen hems or bodices taken in for narrower chests, or just turning sheets sides-to-middle.  Dorrie came at least once a month to work her way through the sewing basket.

Now and again when she was there, Mrs Williams would bring in some of the other girls from church and they pieced gaily-coloured blocks together and quilted them, stretching the joined blocks out on the wide wooden frames, chattering and laughing as a cheerfully-patterned quilt took shape under their skilled fingers.  Dorrie loved the patterns and the names: Churn Dash, and Storm At Sea and Pharlemina's Favourite, all made with scraps of cloth from worn out curtains and dresses and quilted over an old blanket to make something new and bright.

"There's a sermon in there somewhere," said the Reverend once, when he came in for his tea, and saw Mrs Williams had a quilting bee.  He was smiling and kind, as always, and the girls blushed and fluttered because he was a tall and handsome man, and he was the minister and important.  He had a fine education.  He read Latin and Greek, even.

But all Dorrie cared for was the laughing and the stitching and knowing that when the winter came, the Williams children would sleep warm.  Dorrie liked stitching.  She was a good plain sewer; nothing fancy, but she was proud that her seams were straight with tiny stitches that could hardly be seen without Old Widow Tracy's magnifier on its polished mother-of-pearl handle, proud too that she could set a sleeve and that her gathers were the neatest of any she'd seen.  Ma had seen to all that, ripping out bad stitches and resetting the calico practice strips before showing Dorrie again, until Dorrie learned to get it right first time.  Dorrie made her first nine-patch quilt before she was ten.  Its blue and red and green squares still made her narrow bed bright and homey. 

She was grateful to Ma for that patient teaching.  She sewed for more people than the Reverend's wife.  Most weeks she spent one or two days in town, making shirts with the Widow Tracy for the Widow's son to sell in his General Mercantile store, mainly to the local ranch-hands who had no womenfolk of their own to sew for them.  Dorrie liked to work and the money she earned was a help to Pa when times were hard.

Times were mostly hard, it seemed.

So Dorrie was there that one time when the two men from the stage company came with the big barrel held between them, the lid nailed down tight to keep it safe on its long journey west.  Reverend Williams pulled out the nails with a claw-headed hammer.  She was surprised that he did it any old how.  Pa wouldn't have done that.  Pa would've pulled them straight and clean if he could or hammered the bent ones straight if he couldn't, setting them aside to be reused.  Nails cost more than Pa liked to pay or had to spare.

The Reverend didn't seem to care about that.  He pulled the nails quickly and prised the lid off with the hammer's claw, stepping back to let Mrs Williams set out all the good things his sister had sent.  Mrs Williams unpacked the barrel onto the table near where Dorrie sat in the window, her sewing angled towards the light.  Mrs Williams' mouth was tight, and although she made her face not say anything at all, Dorrie knew something was wrong.  There was a sort of patience around her eyes that said so.

"It's very good of Jane," said Mrs Williams, her voice a little high, like it was forced out of her; and Dorrie ducked her head to hide how hot her face had got, wishing she was someplace else.  She thought that her being there made it worse for Mrs Williams, who had to be grateful for the missionary barrel and show Dorrie—and herself too, maybe—humility and how to receive the Lord's bounty with a grateful spirit.

Most of the things, clothes for the children, Mrs Williams set on one side with a murmur about which child might be the lucky one and the tightness round her mouth softened some.  There was a pretty soft shawl in rose and grey stripes that brightened her eyes for a moment, and the Reverend looked pleased when she unearthed a parcel of books.  He claimed them for himself.  Mrs Williams smiled a tiny smile at that and shook her head.

"I don’t know what in the world Jane was thinking of," said Mrs Williams, unpacking a big parcel and staring into the contents.  "I can't wear this!"

Dorrie glanced over and away again, ashamed because it was none of her business and she should just sit quiet and work hard and not embarrass Mrs Williams any more than she did already.  She caught a glimpse of something a bright greeny-yellow—or maybe yallery-green—in amongst the folds of brown paper.

Reverend Williams said something, low-voiced, that Dorrie couldn't quite catch, but when she looked up, Mrs Williams' mouth was hard again and the patience was back.  Dorrie excused herself for a few moments and hurried out back, hoping the barrel would be out of sight when she returned.

It was.  Reverend Williams was in his big chair by the other window when Dorrie came back into the house, one of his new books open on his knee and his face calm and happy.  Mrs Williams was in her own chair near Dorrie's, sewing on the Reverend's Sunday shirt, the baby sleeping in the basket beside her feet under the little quilt that Dorrie had made for a christening gift.  Dorrie smiled at her as she slipped back into her seat, and picked up young Jack's pants to mend the rip in the knees.  Jack was nine and a caution for ripped knees in his pants, just like Dorrie's own little brother.  Andy was 'most two years older than Jack, but he wasn't that much better at keeping his pants unripped.

Mrs Williams said no more about the barrel until Dorrie was rolling up her apron and had slipped her needle though her collar, not to lose it.  But when she gave Dorrie the promised dollar, she hesitated then offered her the big parcel.

"There's a whole dress length here, Dorrie, that I wondered if you could use?  I… Mister Williams' sister is so very kind, but I don't think she realises that a minister's wife… I really couldn't wear something so very colourful.  Folks don't expect a minister's wife to dress so gaily."  She laughed.  "Besides, this is a young girl's colour, not for an old married woman like me!"

Dorrie stared into the parcel, seeing the bright yallery-green sateen that she'd glimpsed earlier.  It had a sheen on it that caught the light, like sunlight on McCall's Pond.

"It will go well with your colouring," said Mrs Williams.

Dorrie opened her mouth, but no sound came out. 

"I'd be glad if you'd take it off my hands," said Mrs Williams, as if she was asking Dorrie for a favour.

"I can’t take it," said Dorrie. 

It was so beautiful.  The rolled fabric was tied with a length of pretty green ribbon and a darker green silk-floss trimming.  She touched the dress with one finger, carefully.  What with helping Pa on the farm and keeping the house, her fingers soon roughened with all the heavy work; without the cream Ma had taught her to make from rose-water and hog lard, her hands would be a disgrace.  Still, she was careful not to snag the beautiful dress, barely letting her finger touch it.

"Dorrie," said Mrs Williams, putting one hand on Dorrie's shoulder and using the other to take Dorrie by the chin and make her look up.  She smiled.  "You're a good girl, Dorrie.  A very good girl."

Dorrie tried hard not to let the tears well up.  She'd never had a dress so pretty.  "I…  oh, I want to, but I can't…"

"I know," said Mrs Williams.  "I know.  So I'll tell you what we'll do.  The Reverend is going to slaughter our pig next week.  If you come and help me with the butcher work, to salt the pork and make the head-cheese, then instead of paying you a dollar, I'll pay you with this dress instead."

"Oh," said Dorrie, and took in her breath in a long sigh.  Earning the dress—that was different.  She'd helped slaughter dozens of hogs and her Pa said no-one could touch her for making sausage and chitterlings and head-cheeses.

"A deal?"

Dorrie nodded.  "Yes.  Oh, thank you!"

"I have some copies of Godey's Lady's Book here, too that Jane sent … Miz Williams, I mean.  This one has a paper pattern in it for a lady's day dress."  Mrs Williams flicked open the pages to show Dorrie the coloured illustration of the dress and looked doubtful.  "It's two years old, though, Dorrie, and the fashion won’t be up to date."

"Do fashions change that quickly, even back East?" said Dorrie.

Mrs Williams just laughed and shook her head.  "I don't suppose it matters."

Dorrie, clutching the yallery-green sateen to her with both hands, agreed.  She didn't care how fashionable the Godey's pattern might be.  She looked down at the beautiful dress length, her eyes dazzled by colours bright as new leaves and yellow roses, and she smiled.




For a week or more, Dorrie kept the sateen wrapped up in its brown paper, and if she ran half a dozen times a day to fold back a corner of the wrapping and stare at the dress… well Pa was out working and Andy was at school, and there was no-one to see her being so silly.  She was careful not to touch the dress though, until she thought her rough fingers had smoothed enough.  Every night she scrubbed her hands in soft brown soap, rubbed Ma's cream well in and teased on a pair of old cotton gloves, too soiled and dingy to be worn in church any more. 

Andy laughed and hooted when he realised she was sleeping with her hands in gloves, until Pa stopped him from his teasing.  Pa's eyes twinkled at her, like he'd like to tease her too.  But he didn’t and Dorrie continued to wear her gloves.  Gradually her hands softened until they looked like Mrs William's hands and Dorrie could think about making the dress.

At first, she wasn't sure about the pattern in Godey's Lady's Book.  The lady in the fashion plate was so tall and willowy and elegant that Dorrie despaired that she herself could ever wear the dress and look so well in it.  She'd look dumpy, instead.

"She looks like one of them critters in the book I got out of the Church Christmas barrel," said Andy one evening, bringing his chair close to her rocker, to see what she was studying in the lamplight.  He scuttled away to the shelf where their few books were, and came back with Marvels of the Animal Kingdom.  He pointed to the picture.  "See?  She's like one of them—"  He hesitated, then said, "One of them gee-raffes."

Dorrie looked at the strange creature in the book with its long legs and long, long neck.  She laughed and agreed, and felt better.  "Godey's say it's a simply-styled day dress that would not offend the most modest taste," she read out, and Pa looked up from the San Francisco newspaper, only a week old, that he'd got from Mr Tracy in town.  She met his gaze and laughed again.  "It has real pearl and diamond buttons, Pa!"

Pa laughed too, and said he wished he could buy the buttons for her,

"I don't need pearls and diamonds," said Dorrie, and looked again at the fashion plate.  If she found some pretty buttons in the button tin, and ignored the six inch deep flounces of real Chantilly lace, the matching parasol and mantilla (whatever that was), and the hoops to hold out the skirt so wide that Dorrie wondered how the lady got through a doorway or sat on a chair, she knew she could make the dress.  She thought she might not look such a dowdy in it, after all.

The tissue paper pattern was as thin as a baby's breath.  Dorrie had to be real careful not to tear it.  She made the bodice lining first from cambric, sewing the whalebones into the seams with tiny, tiny stitches, making sure that it would fit snugly over her stays.  She fitted every piece of that paper pattern to use the fabric with no waste—and a fine job that had been, to match the pattern at the seams at the same time!  There was even enough left over for an extra flounce around the hem and a narrow belt stiffened with scraps of buckram from her ragbag.  But still, when it came to cutting the fine sateen, to putting her scissors to it, she hesitated and checked and checked again.  In the end she took a deep breath and went right at it before she could hesitate again.

When it was done and hanging on the hook in her little bedroom, the dress was beautiful.  She made the bodice tight-fitting with a plain front, letting the soft gathers at the tops of the sleeves be all the decoration it had other than the darker green silk-floss trimming edging the soft, scooped neckline and the pretty little elbow-length sleeves.  It buttoned up the back with a row of little pearl buttons that Mrs Williams had found in her button tin and that came, she said, from the prettiest walking dress she'd had before she even met John… I mean, Reverend Williams she said, and Dorrie smiled to see a Reverend's wife blush.  Dorrie bartered for the buttons with a day's help with the spring cleaning.  The skirt was gathered full all round, double flounced at the bottom, and the bodice buttoned down over the waist band, the buttons holding it in place hidden by the matching belt. 

"It's better with the narrower skirt you've made" approved Mrs Williams, when Dorrie wore the dress for the first time, for church.  Dorrie had run over to the Reverend's house to show her the finished dress before the service started.  Mrs Williams was wrestling little Jenny into her Sunday best as she spoke.  "Hoops and full skirts are all very well back East, but we pioneer women don't need such fol-de-rols."

"Can't use them," said Dorrie, taking Jenny from her to put the ribbons into the little one's hair and letting Mrs Williams deal with Baby.

Dorrie hadn't thought of the Reverend's wife being a pioneer woman, but she hadn't made the skirt narrower because of that.  She just didn't have any hoops and wouldn't waste Pa's money on a set.  She was more anxious about the scooped neckline showing her throat and the elbow sleeves leaving so much of her arms bare, but Mrs Williams said it was perfect and that Dorrie was a wonder when it came to using her needle.  She admired the little belt that Dorrie had added and thought it set the dress off.

Pa and Andy had consulted together, and they'd given her an early birthday present of a cunning little belt buckle, made from metal enamelled dark green to match the trimming.  You're a good girl, Dorrie, Pa had said when she protested, horrified at the cost—she'd seen the buckles in a glass case in Tracy's General Mercantile but she hadn't even dreamed of spending a dollar-fifty on fripperies—and he'd bent to kiss her forehead the way he used to do when she was a little girl. 

The dress was very beautiful.

She'd never had anything so pretty.  She loved it.  She looked nice in it.  Pa said so when she asked him.  And when she went across to the church with the Williams children, Widow Tracy took her to one side.  The widow leaned in to whisper, her breath tickling against Dorrie's ear so she could gossip and be confidential.

"Did you hear what Bill Wilson said?" she asked.  She nodded her head at Dorrie, pleased and smiling, the lace on her cap stirring Dorrie's hair.  "He said that you looked pretty in your new dress, Dorrie.  There's a compliment, if you please!"

Bill Wilson drove the local stage some days and in between stage times, he hauled anything anybody needed hauling with his wagon and his team of big Mamouth mules.  He was probably older than Pa.  Probably, said Pa, laughing when Dorrie told him, older'n sin itself.  Dorrie laughed too, the way she'd laughed and blushed when the Widow Tracy told her, but she hugged the compliment to herself to think on it, sometimes.  No-one had ever said she was pretty before and even Bill Wilson was better than nobody.

But it didn't make no difference what Bill or any other man thought.  

Ma had been dead ten, twelve years now and Dorrie'd been Ma to Andy for all that time, all the Ma he ever knew or remembered.  Dorrie couldn't remember Ma real well now either, it had been so long.  There'd been three more between her'n Andy, but they'd all died with Ma in the fever that time, Mary and Eliza and Tom, and it had just taken the heart out of Pa to have to leave them all behind when he and Dorrie and Andy came west over the mountains from Utah, looking for a new start.  Dorrie had been fourteen, and Andy was more'n twelve years younger.  He'd still been a clutcher and a staggerer, following her around the cabin or around the campsites as they followed the migrant trails, one hand wound in her skirts as he found his feet.

It was like he still was clutching and holding on to her, like the baby learning to walk.  She couldn't leave him or Pa, even if a man had come a'courtin.  Not Bill Wilson, of course, but no man could have done it.  She had her duty to look after Pa and Andy, and there was an end of it.

Still, knowing that Bill Wilson had said she was pretty in her yallery-green dress was better than no-one ever saying it at all.




Andy was just fourteen when Pa was killed, three years later. 

It didn't rain much that spring.  It was hard for the big ranches around the town to find enough water for their cattle.  The ranchers and the farmers didn’t get on, even in good years.  The ranchers liked the range open and free, the farmer liked fences to keep the deer out of his crops.  The two sides never talked much.  When the ground started to dry, the ranchers wanted to drive their herds to water across the famers' lands and the farmers wanted to stop them.  Pa wouldn't be bullied, not by the likes of Dan Marvin and Toby Jencks.  He tried to stop them and he died doing it.

They said it was an accident, that Pa caught his foot in his horse's stirrup and got dragged.  They said there was nothing they could do.  And they said they were sorry.

Marvin and Jencks offered her and Andy a different piece of land, 80 acres of good farmland with its own spring and a mile or more closer to town.  They gave her a whole two hundred dollars when she signed the land deeds.  She had never dreamed of seeing that much money all at once. 

She wasn't Pa.  She couldn't fight them or organise the other nesters the way Pa had been doing.  She had to do what was best for Andy.  It was a sort of blood money, she knew, but she took it for Andy's sake, banking it to pay for his schooling later.  She didn't want Andy to be a farmer all his life.  Pa used to say that it was a fine life, wresting a living from the land, but Dorrie knew that he'd been whistling down the wind.  She wasn't afraid of work, not for herself, but she didn't want Andy ground down by it, old and worn before his time, poorer than the dirt he worked in.

They built the house on the slope of the hill near the spring.  The water ran down to the river where Pa had died.  Bill Wilson and his mules hauled over the old farmhouse, and some of Dan Marvin's hands put it up again.  Dan Marvin made sure they rebuilt it strong and neat, and Toby Jencks sent his hands to lay out the corral and put up a small barn for the stock.  They brought the water to the house from the spring in a long, lidded wooden trough and made it so she could pump the water straight into the kitchen.  She would never have to carry it to the house or to her vegetable garden, ever again.  It was the sort of contriving thing that Pa would have done, and she had a hard time of it thanking Jencks's men and not showing them anything but politeness and pride.

They had bad consciences, she thought.  She believed them when they said that Pa had been dragged by his horse accidental-like, but Jencks and Marvin had been fighting the farmers, trying to drive them off the land.  They'd been there when Pa had been dragged.  They didn’t do nothing to stop it, she reckoned, and now they felt bad.

Lucky Morgan was supposed to be Toby Jencks's top hand but everyone knew he was a gunman, pure and simple, brought in to frighten the farmers.  Dorrie thought, sometimes, that Lucky might be kinda sweet on her.  A little bit.  Maybe.  When Lucky came with Jencks's hands to oversee the work, he didn’t swagger and puff out his chest, the way he did in town or when he was facing down the farmers, as if daring them to face his fast gun.  He was quiet and respectful, and he took his hat off the instant he saw Dorrie, and called her Ma'am or Miz Cutler like she was a lady like Mrs Williams.  Lucky was the one to come up with ideas to make things easier for her: building the little barn in just the right place, making the hands chop a couple of months' worth of logs, setting up her cookstove for her, even putting in the water trough and the pump.  Lucky did all that. 

She and Andy had stayed at the Widow's in town while the house was hauled, and on the last day, Lucky came and helped her load the wagon with everything they owned.  Andy stood off to one side and sneered and brooded, hurting bad for Pa, she knew, and refusing to do anything.  Lucky didn't drive them to their new home, though.  She'd been able to drive a team since Andy was a pup and she didn't need him or any other man for that.  So Lucky had touched his hat with his hand, real respectful, and stepped back.

"I'm real sorry about what happened to Mister Cutler," he said.  "Send word if you need anything more, Ma'am." 

"Thank you," she said, though the words burned.  She kept one hand on Andy's arm to keep him silent and sulky beside her.  She nodded to Lucky and clucked her tongue to signal to the horses to start off.

She didn't think she'd send.




Andy disappeared a few weeks after Pa died, with no more than a note left to tell her not to worry and that he'd back with help, real soon.

For the first time in years, Dorrie didn’t know what to do.  She was too frightened to think.  Andy was fourteen now, and thought himself a man grown.  She didn’t think that, but she knew he wasn't a little boy any longer.  She was trying hard to let him be the man of the house now it was just the two of them, but all she could see was the little round-faced toddler who'd clutched at her skirts as he learned to walk.  Her heart couldn't ache more if he'd been her own child.

Sometimes she thought that he was the only child she'd ever have.

"Help?  What help?" she kept saying, on her fruitless trip to town to seek advice from the local law officer. "Help with what?"

Mrs Williams put her hands over Dorrie's, stopping them from their endless writhing over each other.  Dorrie's hands shook in her friend's kind grasp.

"I don't know, Dorrie."

"He can't have much money.  He took this week's egg money, but that ain't much.  He can't go far, can he, with just a few dollars?"

"I'm sure he can't.  What does the Sheriff say?"

"That boys do run off and nothing comes of it.  That Andy'll be back when he's finished kicking up a lark."  Dorrie shook her head.  "It's not like that.  It's not.  He doesn't do them kind of things.  He wouldn't leave me just for a lark.  And he ain't been right, not since Pa…"

"John," said Mrs Williams, and the Reverend walked behind Dorrie on his way to the door, and touched her shoulder as gently as Mrs Williams held her writhing hands.

"I'll talk to Sheriff Kinsey," he said, took his round hat from its peg and was gone.

Dorrie barely noticed, all her mind on Andy.  "He's been so mad since Pa died.  I can't talk to him.  He doesn't mind me the way he used to."  She choked out a laugh that was more than half a sob.  "He's getting too big for me to whale him.  He's near on as tall as me now."

Mrs Williams smiled at Dorrie's funny little laugh.  "I thought when I saw him in church that day, how much he'd grown this last year." 

Mrs Williams didn't need to say which day; the day they'd buried Pa in that closed-up casket.  Dorrie hadn't been let to see Pa, and when the Sheriff and the Reverend told her Pa'd been dragged, she knew why they'd got the undertaker to seal the lid down real tight on the plain pine box.  It had hurt Andy so badly, though, that he couldn't say goodbye.  She remembered him standing beside her in the church in his Sunday suit, rigid with a grief he refused to show.  He'd cried a little when she'd given him Pa's watch, and even then he'd jerked away from her and run out to the barn where no-one could see him.  Dorrie's heart ached for him, but she didn’t cry much either.

What couldn't be cured must be endured.  Ma used to say that, and she was right.

"Andy… Pa was Andy's hero, you know," said Dorrie.  "It's eatin' at him, that Pa died and the Sheriff said there was nothing he could do.  Andy blames Dan Marvin and Toby Jencks." 

She choked down the words that Andy had tossed at her so many times since Pa had died: that Pa was murdered, that Marvin and Jencks had dragged Pa deliberate-like, that the two ranchers had to pay for what they'd done, that he'd darn well make them pay.  She feared for what Andy might do, what help he'd gone to find.  No-one in McCall's Crossing would sell Andy a gun, of course, but the Lord alone knew what might happen in a bigger town where folks cared less.

"I know things are difficult," said Mrs Williams.

"I don’t know what happened.  I don’t know who's to blame.  All I know is Pa's gone and I have to keep Andy safe.  He's so angry…"  She let her voice falter and for one dreadful moment, thought that she might cry in front of the Reverend's wife.  She blinked back the tears and said no more.  She let Mrs Williams fuss over her.  She drank the sweetened tea that Mrs Williams made for her and she even let Mrs Williams touch a linen handkerchief, drenched in lavender water, to her hot and aching temples.

The Reverend came back within the hour, and by that time Dorrie was calm and thinking hard about what she could do. 

"I talked with Bill Wilson," said the Reverend, taking the chair opposite Dorrie's and looking at her, his face calm and grave.  "He said that Andy got on the stage yesterday evening—"

"The stage?" repeated Dorrie.

So it seems.  He headed south towards Fresno.  Bill says he didn't think much about it—"

"He wouldn't," said Dorrie, not scornfully but just because that's the way it was.  Bill was built like one of his Mamouth mules but he wasn't anywhere near as smart. 

"Bill doesn’t know where he went after that, but I talked to Sheriff Kinsey and he's sent out telegraphs to as many lawmen down there as he can.  If Andy's in the area, they'll find him."

Dorrie nodded.  "I've been thinking," she said.  "I could go after him, but I don't know where to go.  I could miss him.  And if he comes home and I'm not there…"

The relief on Mrs Williams face was almost funny.  "I think you're right, Dorrie," she said.  "Why, I'm sure that Andy will be found and brought home in a few days.  You're much better off waiting for him there."

"Yes," said Dorrie.  She got to her feet, looking around rather blindly for her shawl.  "I'd best go back."

"The Reverend will drive you home," said Mrs Williams, giving the Reverend as grave a look as the one he gave Dorrie.  "And as soon as we hear anything, the Reverend will come and tell you."  She hesitated, then kissed Dorrie's cheek.  "Let's pray, Dorrie."

They did, right then, all three kneeling in Mrs Williams' pretty living room, and afterwards the Reverend drove Dorrie home to the emptiest little house in the world.




The only way Dorrie knew to keep busy was working.  With Pa gone and Andy the Lord alone knew where, she worked and worked to tire herself out.  Each night she was almost too tired to pray before falling into bed and despite the gnawing ache, she slept without dreams.

Dorrie cleaned that house and everything in it as if it were to have a visitation from the Lord Himself. 

She washed every sheet, blanket and quilt that they owned; even Ma's treasured wedding quilt was taken from its careful wrappings, lavender sprigs shaken from its folds and taken to the tub.  There was something comforting about the rhythm she set up, pushing the big quilts into the hot, soapy water again and again, watching the colours brighten as the dust washed out of them.  She was a strong girl, sturdy with a lifetime of keeping house, but her arms ached with lifting the heavy quilts soaked and dripping from the tub to put through the wringer Pa had made from two logs, shaped and smoothed and fitted on a crank handle like the boughten ones he'd seen in the stores.  She lugged out the straw ticks, emptied them and washed the covers and when they were dry she filled them again with fresh sweet-smelling hay from the stack behind the barn.  While the sun warmed the ticks and the hay, she scrubbed the bedsteads and then the floors until the boards were white.  She scrubbed walls and polished windows until they glittered.  She scrubbed the chair and table, scrubbed the kitchen shelves, blacked the stove every single day, and washed every dish in the house.  She scrubbed everything once, and when Andy still wasn't home, she got up the next day and started all over again.

She was almost angry at Lucky Morgan for his contrivance to pump water into the house.  She would have welcomed the labour of taking the milk yoke and trudging backwards and forwards to the spring with heavy buckets of water.  One day, the third full day that Andy was missing, she did just that,  She pretended the hand pump in the kitchen wasn’t there.  Instead she forced herself to carry water until her legs trembled with weariness beneath her and her shoulders bowed under the weight of the yoke.  The little pains made the greater one more bearable, somehow.

What can't be cured, she'd say to the quiet house. 

What can't be cured.

And then she'd start cleaning again.

Throughout her labours, all she saw in her mind's eye was Andy, sleeping safe and warm on the hay-filled mattress, under the bright quilts that had dried in a sun that shone through windows pure as clear air.

There was no word from the Reverend. 




On the sixth full day since Andy had taken the south-bound stage, Dorrie was once again washing his few clothes—the strong workpants and the shirts she'd made him—when he came back.  He didn't come alone.

He brought a gunfighter home with him.




Dorrie didn’t know who the man with Andy was then, of course, nor what he was. 

The first few minutes after Andy jumped down from his horse and ran to her, her little baby brother was all she could see.  She held on to him, shook him, scolded him, and almost disgraced herself by crying over him.  He was startled, she could see that.  Maybe, boy-like, he just hadn't thought about how worried she'd be, how much his not being there would rip and tear at her.  He stammered and squirmed, but he hugged her back in a way he hadn't done for a while now, not since he decided he was too grown for his sister's hugs.

The man watched them from the corral fence, leaning against it as free and easy as if it were his own.  When he saw her looking, when she stepped back from hugging and scolding, and Andy introduced her, he swept his hat off his head and bowed to her with a graceful flourish. 

"This here's Johnny Lancer, Dorrie," said Andy, and his tone was filled with the same respectful worship he'd once kept for Pa.  "Johnny's come here to help us.  You should see him handle a gun!"

Dorrie couldn't hold back the little gasp.  And just like that, all that anger and fear she’d kept in check through hard work surged right through her, sharp as a knife.  It made her sharp, too, and unfriendly to the stranger, and even so hard with Andy that he didn't stop to argue when she sent him into the house.  He made a little move to go towards Johnny Lancer, the man she should see handle a gun, but she tugged him back and swatted at him, and he went inside, grumbling but minding her.

Dorrie and Johnny Lancer stared at each other.  Widow Tracy would have said that he was a well-favoured man, she thought; a year or two younger than her maybe.  At first she'd thought he was Mexican with his pants with their silver conchos running down each leg and his shirt… she blinked.  The shirt was almost the same pink as her work dress, the front plackets heavy with embroidery.  He dressed Mex, but when she looked closer she saw that his eyes were a deep blue; a startling colour against his tanned skin.

He was more than well-favoured, she realised; he was downright good-looking.  Too good-looking.  She was annoyed to realise that her hands were smoothing down the front of her apron and she only just stopped them reaching to smooth her hair as well.  She pushed them into her apron pockets where they couldn't betray her, her arms rigid and her hands formed into fists, straining against the fabric until she felt the apron strings tighten.

"The boy said you had trouble," said the stranger.  He had a soft voice, and she had to listen hard.  He didn’t have a Mex accent.  "He said you needed some help.  I figured I might be able to do something."

She couldn't help but look at the gun on his right hip.  Most of the men she knew in town wore guns.  Most of them, though, didn't wear their guns so low on the hip.  She'd read somewhere—or had Andy told her, from one of them dime novels he used to hide from Pa?—that men who made their living by their guns wore them low, to make the gun easier to draw fast and deadly. 

Dorrie wet her lips.  "I think we'd better talk, Mister.  Come on inside."

She saw the little grimace he made but he followed her without a fuss.  She knew he was there, walking behind her, but she had to strain to hear him.  Even with them fancy spurs on his boots, he didn't make much noise.

Andy was sitting at the table when she walked in.  His face lit up when Johnny Lancer followed her into the house.

"Go and see to the stock, Andy," said Dorrie.

"Aw, Dorrie—"

"Don't whine!" she snapped.  "You left me here for near on a week to do all the work, including all your chores, Andy Cutler, and you will go and see to the stock right now.  Do you understand me?"

Andy looked shocked.  She had never been so sharp with him.  Never.  He opened his mouth, but Johnny Lancer stepped in before he could say anything.

"Water Barranca and the bay for me while you're at it, will you, Andy?  We rode them pretty hard to get back here.  They could do with it."

Andy glowered at Dorrie for a moment but then he straightened up his shoulders and turned away from Dorrie as if she weren't there.  She'd hurt his pride, she knew, when he got himself all puckered up like that.  "You want me to unsaddle 'em, Johnny?  I reckon Barranca'll let me,"

"I reckon he will, too," said Johnny Lancer, "seein' how he let you steal him right from under me.  No, don't unsaddle him yet.  Go check on things like your sister says."

He moved to let Andy out at the door, but stayed on the threshold himself.  He watched her for a moment or two, waiting on her next move.  She didn't know why that made her madder, him being polite and not coming inside without being asked again, but it did.  She caught up an enamelled basin and, for something to do while she chased this man off their farm, she went to the pump to fill it with water to heat on the stove top.  For an instant her hand felt like it was burning as it touched the pump handle and she almost snatched it away.  The hot anger in her rose against Marvin and Jencks, and especially against Lucky Morgan who contrived the water pump for her, who might have helped kill Pa and who might be a little bit sweet on her.

She forced the thoughts aside.  The water ran clear and sparkling into the bowl and she tried not to think of Pa.  Pa would have made something like this to help her, given the chance.  He'd have done it better.

"What did he tell you?" she asked, turning to put the bowl on the cook-stove top.  There was a little hissing noise as droplets of water hit the hot plate, and spat up at her.

"That you were having trouble."

"Well, we're not having any trouble.  And we don't need you or anybody like you."

She turned to get a second bowl.  Andy had looked trail dusty and dirty, and he would be having a bath before she let him anywhere near those clean sheets and quilts.

"Well, I'm real pleased to hear that, Ma'am," said Johnny Lancer.  But he didn't sound as though he believed her.

Dorrie reached for the pump handle.  Her hand was shaking and she was glad to close it around the handle, to have something to grip onto.  She tried to keep her voice from shaking too, staying brisk and businesslike and not let any of the sickness she felt inside show through.

"Bet he was filling you with all kinds of nonsense about our Pa, huh?  How he was killed by Dan Marvin and Toby Jencks?"

"The boy said that your Pa had to scare 'em off your waterhole."

When Dorrie turned, he was still on the threshold, those blue eyes watching her.  She couldn't make out what he might be thinking behind them.  She had to get rid of him.  She had to.  She couldn't let any more trouble come to her and Andy.  She had to keep Andy safe.  She'd always had to keep Andy safe.

"Scare 'em off?" she said.  She took a deep breath, stuck her trembling hands into her apron pockets, and started in on telling the biggest, blackest lies of her life.  "With all due respect, Mister, my Pa couldn't scare flies off biscuits…"





When Johnny Lancer left, she walked to the door to make sure he rode out, forcing legs that felt like jelly under her skirts to move and work.  Her knees were shaking so badly that she had to put one hand on the door jamb to stop herself from falling over.  She was still there when Andy flung himself past her back into the house, after calling for Johnny to come back.  He almost knocked her over and she tightened her hold on the door frame until her knuckles whitened.

"What did you say to him?" demanded Andy, red-faced.  His mouth was working and he looked about ready to cry.  She wasn't sure if he were hurt or just so angry he could barely breathe.  "What did you say to make him go?"

Dorrie made herself walk to the table.  She sat down in her usual chair, the one to the left of Pa's, and stared at Pa's empty place. 

"Dorrie!"

She folded her hands on the table top.  She'd scrubbed the table until the grain had swelled with the water, and the pine was almost white.  She liked to keep the table clean; she used it so much to knead bread on, or mix biscuits, and she was used to seeing how brown her hands were against the whiteness of flour and bleached pine.  She knew her hands were good for work, were strong to wring out soaking wet washing, were skilled with a needle.  They weren't pretty hands—they worked too hard for that—but while they were small, they were capable.  She let her hands clasp together.  Her fingers trembled and ached.

"He's gone," she said, and was surprised at how calm she sounded.  Inside, her heart was thumping and she felt sick again.  Pa, poor Pa!  He'd never had more'n a beer or two in his life, and she'd just told Johnny Lancer Pa was a drunkard and a wastrel and he'd fallen from his horse, dead drunk and…  "And good riddance.  We don't need the kind of trouble he'd bring."

"You had no right!  I hired him to come here to help us get justice for Pa.  Why'd you do that, Dorrie?  Why'd you do that?" Andy's face was redder and his chin was wobbling.  He threw himself into his own chair, opposite her; the chair that had been so empty for the last six nights.  "Dorrie," he said, whining out her name between his teeth.

Dorrie straightened in her chair.  "Andy Cutler, if you ever do anything like this again, I swear I'll take a switch to you and you will not be able to sit down for a week.  How dare you!  How dare you try to make more trouble for us!  How dare you scare me so much—"

She stopped on a choke, as if someone had her by the throat and she closed her mouth very, very tight on the words that would come tumbling out if she'd let them.  The words tasted sour in her mouth.  Andy didn't need to hear those words.  He was too young for the bitter truth about what he cost her and what he'd continue to cost her until he was grown and not her responsibility any longer.

She thought Andy would always be her responsibility.

She made her voice calmer, and quiet when she thought she had swallowed down the bitter words to where no-one would hear them, not even her.  Andy was staring at her, his mouth open.  She had never spoken to him like that before.  Never.

"Andy, I'm real tired.  I've been worried out of my head for you—"

"But, Dorrie, I left you a note," he said, whining again.

"—and I can't be dealing with this foolishness now."  She spoke as if he hadn't interrupted, her gaze on the hands clasped on the table top before her.  "Pa's gone, Andy.  Nothing will bring him back, and you and me, we’ve got to keep on going.  You want to be the man in the house, Andy.  Start acting like it."

She said no more.  She didn't answer Andy's choked out complaining and reasons-why and his See here, Dorries.  She sat there long after Andy had stormed out to the barn to take out his temper by kicking at hay bales.  She just sat and looked at her brown hands clasped together on the whiteness of the bleached pine.  And after a while, she raised her hands to her face and cried for Pa and the dreadful black lies she'd told to keep Andy safe.




She didn't cry for long.  Work cures all ills, Ma used to say, and Dorrie knew that was true.  She didn't have to think of Pa or anything while she kept busy.  She made herself get up and start to get supper. 

Andy came in when she called.  He was sulky at first, but he always liked her beef stew.  His sulks melted away and he started talking again as they ate.  He told Dorrie what he'd left to do, and of his plan to go south to the border towns and find a gunman to help him fight Marvin and Jencks.  She hoped the horror she felt didn't show on her face. 

"It's where all the best guns work," Andy said.  "All the dime books say so.  Anyhows, I couldn't get any further south than Green River, an' I started walkin' …"

Dorrie listened to Andy's tale of trying to steal Johnny Lancer's horse and holding Johnny Lancer up with that old rifle that Pa had given him to teach him how to shoot—"But the firin' pin's broken.  I wouldn't have really shot at him."—and how well trained Johnny Lancer's horse, Barranca, was.

"Johnny whistled and called him, and then that darn pony was bucking like a devil, Dorrie.  He bucked me right off and run back to Johnny, like he was more hound-dog than a cow-pony."  Andy sighed and spooned up second helping of stew.  Whatever adventures he'd had, it sure hadn't affected his appetite any.  "I want a horse like Barranca one day."

"They hang horse thieves," she muttered, pushing the stew around her plate.  She couldn't eat for the lump in her throat.

"I know.  Johnny said so." 

And Andy went on with the tale of Johnny Lancer and Johnny Lancer's ranch ("A hundred thousand acres, Dorrie!  Makes ol' Marvin and Jencks look small.") and Johnny Lancer's Pa ("Johnny doesn't call him 'Pa'.  He calls him Murdoch.  Pa woulda whaled me if I called him Andrew."), and Johnny Lancer's brother and sister ("Scott talks funny and Teresa's just a girl.") and even Johnny Lancer's friend, Jelly, who'd made Andy have a bath ("He's an ornery old goat, Dorrie, who near scrubbed my skin off down to the bone!") and more about how clever Johnny Lancer's horse was ("Johnny says Barranca's the best cow pony in the whole state of California.").

Andy finished his second plate and said, through a mouthful of beef: "I sauced Scott and Johnny some, and Johnny belted me."

He sounded more admiring than mad about it.  Dorrie had never switched Andy, and before this little adventure, she'd have always said that she'd scratch out the eyes of anyone who'd whomped Andy and who wasn't Pa, who had the right.  She was surprised to think that what she felt most was gratitude.  The Lancers had cared, she realised, and Andy might have fared much worse.

She listened to Andy's account of Jelly boasting that once Johnny had been a hired gun—"He said Johnny was the fastest gun west of the Mississippi and east of China.  Well, I knew that I'd never heard of no Johnny Lancer being a gunhawk, but I'd never heard of Lucky Morgan, either, and look at him!"—and Andy explained his cock-eyed plan to steal Barranca again to make Johnny follow him and maybe persuade him to help.

"But it worked, Dorrie.  He did say he'd help us.  He said he'd hire out for short money, and I'm going to pay him twenty six dollars and thirty-seven cents," said Andy.

That brought her head up sharp, to stare at him.  "Where'd you get so much money?" she demanded.

"Oh, Johnny said the most I'd get for Barranca would be twenty-five dollars, seein' as how I don't have a bill of sale.  I already had the dollar thirty-seven."

Dorrie felt her mouth drop open, and she closed it with a bit of a snap.  "A dollar thirty-seven of my egg money," she reminded him, and he had the grace to blush.

He squirmed.  "Dorrie!"

She shook her head.  "All right, I can see that Mister Lancer meant it all kindly.  But listen to me, Andy—"

"It ain't right, what they did to Pa," said Andy.  "It ain't right."

Dorrie felt so very weary.  She pushed her plate away, and managed a little smile for him.  "I'm glad you're home and safe," she said, and saw, satisfied, that the change of subject had startled him.  "I missed you.  I was scared."

He grimaced but got up to come to her.  "I'm sorry, Dorrie.  I didn't mean to scare you."

She accepted the hug.  "I know."  She sighed.  "It's been a long day, Andy.  Go to bed.  You look tired."

He grumbled a bit more, but he was looking tired.  He'd had an exciting few days and a long ride, and she didn't have to do very much to persuade him to trail off to bed.  Dorrie sat at the table long enough for the uneaten stew to congeal on her plate, her heavy head propped on one hand as she tried to think about what she should do.  That Andy was burning for Pa, to do right by Pa, frightened her.  She didn't know what she could do to make him see sense.  She knew he didn't repent his adventure, not one bit.  And she feared he'd do it again.

Andy had been asleep for the best part of an hour, and she had just roused herself to clear everything away, when Johnny Lancer rode back into the yard in front of the house.




"I don’t want any more trouble," she said, when Johnny demanded to know why she'd lied.  She felt sick.  She hadn't reckoned on him going into the town and asking around about what happened.  She folded her arms across herself to stop herself flying to pieces.  She shot another glance at the closed door to Andy's room, praying he was sleeping sound.

"What happened to him?"  Johnny Lancer's voice was gentler.

"He was dragged," she admitted.  "His neck was broken.  He was dead when they managed to stop the horse."

"Marvin and Jencks?"

"I dunno."  She said, with a sudden burst of energy that surprised her: "They said they didn’t have anything to do with it, that it was an accident.  I don't know.  They were nice to Andy and me and gave us this place and two hundred dollars."

"Uh-huh," said Johnny Lancer, his mouth twisting.

"Eighty acres; enough to keep Andy and me going.  I've got to look after Andy, Mister.  This place is all we have.  I've got to take care of him."

"He needs more than this, Dorrie.  He's hurtin' bad over your Pa.  Real bad."

"He'll get over it," she said, having to believe it.

The look he gave her startled her.  It was like he was sorry, so very sorry.  "No, you're wrong.  I was kid pretty much like Andy.  I grew up hatin'."  So fast that she didn't even see his hand move, he was holding his gun and waving it in her face.  She didn’t even have time to gasp.  "I spent all my time learning how to use this gun.  Some education, huh?"

She tried to speak, but the croak that came out didn't sound right.  She put one hand to her throat, the other clenched at her side.

He pushed the gun back into its holster.  Her gaze followed the movement.  He looped the gun back into place to hold it, without even looking.  It was like it was second nature to him.

"Andy's got killing on his mind, Dorrie.  Hate, and killing."

"He's just a boy." she faltered, her voice shaking.

He looked so sorry, and something inside her chest curled and ached.  "It's the boy who makes the man, Dorrie.  I don’t want to see Andy take the road I walked."

The curling, aching thing in her tightened.  Fright made her sharp again.  "Well, what do you want me to do about it?" she demanded.

"Make sure Marvin and Jencks get what’s coming to them, before Andy's big enough to pick up a gun and take them on himself."

Dorrie almost laughed.  She threw out her hands.  "Well, that's good advice!  You tell me how when everyone said it was an accident, and the Sheriff won't do anything and they own half the town anyway—"  Her voice broke and she had to fold her arms around herself again, to hold everything together.

"Well, that's where I come in."  He glanced towards the house door.  "I was going to stay in the hotel in town, but I'd better lay low for a few days.  I'll camp out tonight.  Tell Andy I'll pick him up first thing in the morning.  I'll be here at dawn."

The door to Andy's room wrenched open, and Andy stumbled out, half-asleep.  Dorrie flung out a hand to catch him by the arm.

"What's all the talkin—" Andy started in to grumbling.  He caught sight of Johnny, and the grin threatened to split his face in half.  "Johnny!  You came back!"

"Yeah," said Johnny.  "Your sister and me come to an agreement.  I'll help you find out what happened.  That right, Dorrie?"

Dorrie could have closed her eyes and slept where she stood.  She was too tired for this.  She looked hard into the bright blue eyes watching her.  They were kind and he looked sorry, still.  She glanced at Andy's glowing face.  "But I—"

"The boy makes the man, Dorrie," said Johnny, again.  His voice was very soft and gentle.

Dorrie looked at Andy.  He was as tall as her now, and skinny as a long drink of water.  He was outgrowing a nightshirt that barely reached below his knees, showing his thin white legs.  His feet were bare, his toes wriggling against the night chill.  The sight of him wriggling his toes like a little kid made the lump in her throat so big that she almost couldn't speak past it.

She swallowed hard.  "That's right," she said, in a dragging voice, hoping to the Lord that she was right to trust this man.

A brilliant smile rewarded her.  "Good.  It'll be all right, Dorrie.  You have school tomorrow, Andy?"

"Awww—shucks, I can miss another—"

"Yes," said Dorrie.  "Yes.  He does."

Johnny nodded.  "That's okay.  You can show me some of the lay of the land on the way into town.  Do you have a riding pony?"

"Just the wagon team."  Andy pulled a face.  "They ain't comfortable to ride."

"I'll pick up the bay from the town livery and bring him back here.  I'll be here at dawn.  You be ready, Andy."  He smiled at Dorrie again.  "It'll be fine."

She nodded, and put an arm around Andy's shoulders, holding her boy as close as he'd allow her now he was almost grown.  She couldn't keep him safe, she realised.

Maybe Johnny Lancer could show her how.

Johnny turned in the doorway.  "By the way," he said.  "I don't go by Lancer when I'm workin'."  He slapped his hat against his leg and put it on, before allowing it to fall down his back to be held by its storm strings.  "The name's Madrid.  Johnny Madrid."

He closed the door.

 

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