Authors: Ceciliaand the Stranger
For Suzie, also known as Budro—equestrian, geneology freak and master of slang and hyperbole.
uthrie, Texas 1886
he man raised his head off the greasy bar just long enough to lift a sagging eyelid and make one last definitive statement.
“I ain’t going,” he announced with his strange Philadelphia cowpoke inflection just before his head again hit the wooden surface with a thud.
“You said that already, schoolteacher,” Jake Reed said.
“Don’ call me sh-schoolteacher,” the man slurred. “The name’s Pendergast. Eugene W.”
Jake tried not to weave on his bar stool as he looked at the slumped form. The Yankee’s newly bought Western duds, twill work pants and a plain cotton shirt, which had appeared comically pressed and new to Jake before, now seemed to have been worn just from hours of sitting in this smoky, smelly, dusty place. Even the black leather traveling bag at the man’s feet now had a fine layer of grime coating it.
Was he that drunk? Jake wondered. He hoped not. The sun was finally peeking in through the windows now. He couldn’t afford to let his guard down.
What he needed to sober up was another drink. He poured himself a generous slug from the sticky, near-empty whiskey bottle he and the other man had been sharing. “Well,
you a schoolteacher, Pendergast?”
“Not in this godforsaken place!” the man hollered, so loud that it echoed through the empty barroom, almost rousing the snoring bartender in the corner. “I ain’t going to proceed to Annsboro, or any other destination in this whole damn hot, dried-up, uncivilized state. Soon as I can get my money back on these clothes, I ain’t goin’ anywhere but back to Philadelphia.”
No doubt the heat wave they’d been having had colored the Yankee’s opinion. Amused, Jake quirked an eyebrow. “Do all teachers in Philadelphia talk like you do?”
“Huh?” Pendergast regarded him through half-open bloodshot eyes. A curly black lock of hair fell lazily across his forehead. “Oh, you mean the cussing,” he said, reaching for the splash of liquid left in the glass Jake had just poured. “I learned to talk this-a-way from my books. Nobody says ain’t or cusses in Philadelphia. Everything’s perfect in Philadelphia.”
A beatific smile played across his whiskey-numbed lips as his head once more descended to the bar. He was out. Jake took off his hat and laid it across the man’s head. A person deserved some privacy while he slept, after all. Shortly thereafter, a gentle rumble emanated from Pendergast’s still curved mouth.
Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love. Maybe that’s where he should be headed, Jake thought. He tried and failed to remember where he was now; Annsboro was the only name he could come up with. He’d never heard of the place before meeting up with Pendergast sometime after three in the morning. The schoolteacher had spent the hours since then alternating between romanticizing the little town he’d not yet seen and grouching about what he had viewed of Texas so far. Now Jake knew more than he ever wanted to about what sounded like just another little Western town the railroad had missed.
Annsboro probably had a lot in common with Redwood, where he’d grown up and been deputy for a short time. He had thought he’d found his calling when Sheriff Burnet Dobbs pinned that little piece of metal on his chest. It wasn’t much of a job, really, in a sleepy place, but it had given him the opportunity to get what he’d most wanted in life since the age of ten—revenge on Otis Darby, the rich-as-Croesus rancher who muscled Jake’s family off their land, and in so doing killed his father.
Jake frowned bitterly at the memory. Some revenge. After years of trying to get something on Darby, he had discovered that the man and his son-in-law had been stealing horses. The two had been found guilty, but some fool judge let them out of jail after only two years. Even though Jake had given up the lawman’s life by that time and was working as a ranch foreman in the next county, Darby and Gunter were out to get him.
Jake had been dodging the man and his crazy son-in-law ever since. It seemed as if all he’d done was run for over a year now. But never fast enough. Otis Darby would always send his henchman Gunter to find him, and Jake would hit the road two steps ahead. They had harassed employers he worked for by burning their buildings, or killing livestock, although Jake could never prove it. He just knew, like a sixth sense—just as he knew what would happen if he dared to pursue his own dream of trying to start up his own ranch. The place would be burned to a crisp within a week.
Once upon a time he could have gone to the law. Maybe Burnet Dobbs would have helped him out, but in the beginning Jake hadn’t wanted to drag his old friend into the mess. Jake fought his own battles. Sometimes he thought he might as well get it over with and face Gunter and Darby down; then, at least, he would have evidence of what they were doing. Of course, the proof would probably be his own carcass.
His mouth a grim line, Jake took another slug of the rotgut in front of him and ruminated as it burned its way down his gullet. They would find him here, too, in this tiny little railroad whistle-stop town, and the chase would start all over again.
Maybe in a place like Philadelphia he could get lost. He wouldn’t mind melting into a crowd and becoming somebody else, someone who wasn’t always either running or looking over his shoulder, or both. As long as he could become somebody Otis Darby wasn’t looking for.
A short sharp crack rang through the air, followed by the sound of glass breaking in the window. Reflexively, Jake collapsed to the ground—surprised, really, that he had any reflexes left. He scooted around the corner of the bar for cover. As his knees hit the floor, the large bar mirror and several bottles above his head shattered. For a split second it rained alcohol and shards of splintery glass.
“What’s going on!” the roused barkeep cried.
“Get down, you fool!” Jake hollered, not stopping to watch as the man dived behind the bar.
Damn, damn, damn! The timing was all wrong. Belatedly, Jake reached for the gun that hadn’t left his hip in what seemed like a lifetime. Another shot sounded.
“Who the hell’s out there?” the bartender yelled.
Sweat broke out across Jake’s brow, and he mopped his sleeve across his forehead. He knew who was out there. It was Will Gunter, Otis Darby’s son-in-law, although Jake had heard the daughter had died while her father and husband were in prison. Seeing a flash of white-blond hair through the window before a third shot rang out confirmed it.
A familiar venom surged through him, the anger of the trapped animal ready to make yet another last stand. He focused on the window, lifted his Colt revolver and took aim. This time he would kill the man. At the very least, he would wound him, leaving a souvenir of their encounter that would be proof of the man’s guilt later on.
His eyes narrowed on the small opening in the glass. His finger itched as he waited for just a glimpse, just a hint of movement. But there was only silence.
And then he heard hoofbeats. Retreating hoofbeats. Gunter had fled.
Jake’s legs straightened cautiously. Something was not right. Thirty seconds had passed, if that much. Three shots. Jake hadn’t fired. It wasn’t like Gunter to hightail it just when he had his target cornered.
Shouts sounded on the street as Jake’s eyes alit on a disturbing sight. Pendergast. In the few moments of excitement, Jake had forgotten about the sleeping schoolteacher. His stomach clenched. A dark crimson patch was spreading across the side of the man’s shirt. On the other side of him, a pool of blood was gathering on the floor from another wound. Pendergast wasn’t sleeping anymore.
“They got him!”
Jake glanced over at the now-standing bartender, whose face was filled with curious revulsion.
“I reckon it was some sort of vendetta,” the man continued breathlessly, wiping his hands anxiously on the apron at his waist. “Man said he’d been a deputy!”
Jake froze as the man’s words sank in. Slowly, he turned back to Pendergast and saw his own hat still perched on the dead man’s head. There wasn’t much difference in their sizes, or even their clothes for that matter, if one didn’t stop to consider the newly bought appearance of the dead man’s. Gunter had made a mistake. A fatal one for Pendergast.
Three men burst through the door of the saloon. “Lou! What the hell happened!” one of them cried.
A skinny, grizzled old fellow with a tarnished star stuck on the breast pocket of his work shirt pushed through the others to look at Pendergast’s slumped form. His eyes bugged. “This man’s dead!” he pronounced, shocked. “We ain’t had but one dead person in town all year!”
“That’s so,” another man said. “And old Mrs. Grizwald was ninety-three.”
“This here looks like murder to me!” the sheriff announced.
The men remained congregated around the dead man while the bartender recounted what had happened. As Jake shuffled closer he just barely heard the words
. The bartender had been asleep since the small hours, so it was no wonder he’d gotten his facts confounded.
Jake’s head was swimming. Gunter thought he’d killed him, that Jake Reed was dead. After five years of dreaming about it, and nearly two years of actively trying, the snake probably felt triumphant. More than likely, he was on his way back to Redwood right now to tell Darby the good news.
“I’d better find out the name of the deceased,” the sheriff said, beginning his official investigation.
Jake’s head snapped up. Four pairs of eyes were peering at him anxiously. He opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated, glancing down at the suitcase at his feet.
Darby and Gunter would stop looking for him now. Becoming someone else would make him free—free to hunt
when their guards were down.
“Reed,” Jake said, surprised at how easily the lie came to his lips once he’d made up his mind. “Jacob Reed, I think he said his name was.” If he was going to be buried, he wanted the formality of his full Christian name.
The men shook their heads. “Guess we oughtn’t even to call Doc,” one of them said.
“No, it’s like Arnie here says. This man’s dead.”
The sheriff shot glances at both Jake and the bartender. “Don’t reckon either of you recalls where Reed came from.”
Jake shook his head. “Nope,” he said.
“You didn’t see who was shooting, did you?” the old man asked.
“He was tight-lipped, that one,” the bartender piped up, nodding at Pendergast, the man who had talked until he’d passed out. “I had the feeling he was running from something.”
“That’s it, then,” said the sheriff, wiping his brow tiredly. “Maybe somebody around here saw something, but I doubt it.” In the sheriff’s mind, apparently, the investigation was now officially closed.
The bartender looked up as Jake picked up Pendergast’s suitcase and slammed some money on the bar. “Good luck to you, mister. Sure sorry this had to happen, with you from the East and all.”
“Could have happened anywhere.” For all he knew. This sad excuse for a town was as far east as he’d ever been.
“Where’d you say you were going?”
Jake stopped for a moment. He’d need to lie low for a while, and Pendergast had given him the perfect opportunity. “Annsboro,” he said.
The men nodded, then turned back to the more interesting matter at hand.
Annsboro. He didn’t know where it was, but he’d heard enough about it. Lucky town, really. Pendergast had been on his way back to Philadelphia. Now it looked as though Annsboro would have a new schoolmaster, after all.
ven in late September, Annsboro was cloaked in a dry haze. What few patches of buffalo grass there were in the town itself had long since withered and yellowed, their scorched leftovers, as well as the occasional scrubby mesquite or cedar, lending the place its only landscaping.
Jake pulled one of Pendergast’s white starchy handkerchiefs from his coat pocket. No wonder the schoolteacher had picked up new clothes, Jake thought as he raked the stiff cotton across his brow. The wool suit he had found in Pendergast’s suitcase, which was a snugger fit than Jake had first thought it would be, was so hot it felt like he was walking around with a brick oven on his back.
“If you’ll look to your left, you’ll see not only Annsboro’s mercantile, but also the sight of our future drug emporium.”
Lysander Beasley, Jake’s self-appointed guide to this wretched place, gestured grandly toward a squat brick building and the empty lot next to it. On a large wooden sign above the store, the word
was spelled out in red curlicued letters.
“Owned and run by yours truly.” Beasley pinched proudly at one end of his pointy mustache. His neatly greased hair, parted down the center, created a pulled-back curtain effect, as though his forehead were a stage. The loud check print of his expensive-looking suit was showy, too—a flashy display of wealth, like his shiny new gold watch chain that glinted in the sun. Pudgy, florid and fatuous, Lysander Beasley appeared every inch the prosperous model citizen—the kind Jake remembered from his deputy days who would rave for hours about law and order. Then, when one of their own, like Otis Darby, happened to land in jail, they would discover compassion.
But even putting his own feelings aside, Jake couldn’t see much to be smug about in Annsboro, although one glance down the town’s dusty main street confirmed that the mercantile was probably the town’s most successful enterprise, except perhaps for what looked like a saloon clear over on the other end of town. That would make sense. If Jake lived here, he was sure he’d want to do more drinking than buying.
You do live here, fool,
he thought, shaking his head in disbelief.
Incredibly, Lysander Beasley mistook his discouraged amazement for awe. “Oh, it’s a fine little town, all right. Why, I’d bet that in two years we’ll have a courthouse!”
“You don’t say,” Jake said, striking what he hoped was the appropriate note of wonder. He was rewarded with a hacking chuckle from his companion.
“But I’m sure you’re more interested in the schoolhouse than in buildings that don’t even exist yet.” Beasley guffawed again. “This way, Mr. Pendergast.”
Jake was staring at a dilapidated brick building directly across the dirt road from the mercantile. The place proclaimed itself to be a blacksmith’s, but the windows were boarded up. And other than some scattered houses, that was it as far as the town went.
Startled, he looked at Beasley and they continued walking. If he didn’t get used to answering to the name of Pendergast, he might find himself with a heap of explaining to do.
The schoolhouse, set down a rutted road from the rest of the town, was in considerably better shape than the other buildings. A new coat of paint made the white wood-frame structure a standout against the dusty terrain.
“On Sundays Parson Gibbons comes in and holds services in the school. Other than that, the school will be quite your domain,” Beasley explained. “Cecilia Summertree has been overseeing the children since our last schoolteacher left us. Wonderful girl, Miss Summertree.”
But his disdainful tone conveyed the fact that he meant just the opposite. “Her father’s quite a cattleman. The Summertree ranch is one of the biggest in the region.”
So Jake had heard. It was impossible to have passed through this part of Texas without having heard something of Summertree and his vast spread. Jake had dreamed of having a ranch that would be even a fraction as successful. He couldn’t imagine why a daughter of such a man would want to teach school in this barren place, though. “She’s a local girl?” he asked.
“Oh, yes. She’s not a professional academician like yourself, Mr. Pendergast. Mercy, she doesn’t even have a certificate. Sometimes out here we’re forced to bend all these new regulations, you know. She did spend five months at a school for young ladies in New Orleans this year.” Beasley stopped and raised a speculative eyebrow. “She was
to have been gone for a full year...” He left the sentence dangling tremulously between them.
Kid probably got homesick, was Jake’s first reaction...if a body could get homesick for this patch of dust. But what he thought wasn’t at issue. “Hmm,” he murmured suspiciously for Beasley’s benefit, knowing the man probably expected his Philadelphia schoolteacher to be loaded with moral superiority.
“Precisely,” Beasley said, pleased to have indoctrinated the new teacher in one of his own personal prejudices. He continued walking. “Now I wanted to tell you about my daughter, Beatrice. She’s quite the little student.”
As they approached the school, Jake only half listened to the litany of Beatrice Beasley’s accomplishments. Undoubtedly any child of Lysander Beasley, formerly of Louisville, Kentucky, would be nothing less than a prodigy. Jake was more interested in the laughter and periodic high-pitched whoops coming from the schoolhouse. It was late afternoon already—just finding the town had taken Jake the better part of a day after disembarking the train in Abilene that morning—and school was definitely out.
Noticing his companion’s distraction, Beasley broke off and cocked his head to the side, listening. “Hmm. Sounds as if Miss Summertree’s in her usual high spirits today.”
“It would seem so,” Jake answered, injecting a hint of disapproval into his voice.
“I might add that my daughter’s true genius would seem to lie in the area of literature,” Beasley droned on. “Her dear mother, God rest her soul, started her early. Why, Beatrice could recite Shakespeare by the age of three!”
Jake nodded at this impressive tidbit, but at that moment, his attention was completely derailed. Through a window, he saw a young man—a cowboy—and woman cavorting around the teacher’s desk. The woman, a pretty blond creature, let out a laughing cry and hopped nimbly on the high desk, revealing a glimpse of shapely leg.
“C’mon, Cici,” Jake heard the man saying. “You know you want to.”
“Not if you were the only man in Texas, Buck!” The woman’s bright blue eyes sparked with a mix of amusement and annoyance.
“But I am the only man for you, sweetheart.”
The cowboy reached for the woman’s waist. She attempted to back away, but was thrown off-balance and regained equilibrium only by allowing herself to be hoisted high in the air. She rolled her eyes in distress, and as she did, caught sight of movement outside.
As her eyes alit on Beasley, dread crossed her face. Then when she glanced over to Jake, her expression changed to one of complete mortification.
Jake couldn’t help it. He smiled.
Even caught slack-jawed with surprise, this Cecilia Summertree gave him hope for his short stay in Annsboro. Her figure, so easily held aloft by the rustic youth, appeared lithe and sturdy at once. It was encased in a blue muslin frock of practical design, but she wore the gown with a dash that would have made the cowboy’s forwardness with her person humorous, had not her own reaction to seeing a stranger peeping in the window—and catching sight of such a spectacle—been comical in itself.
After the initial shock passed, Cecilia Summertree’s eyes swept over him with feminine curiosity, making Jake groan at the memory of his ill-fitting brown suit. Not that he was normally a lady-killer...well, maybe he
made a few pulses flutter in his day. He instinctively tugged down his tight herringbone vest.
But the smirk that crossed the young woman’s face halted him in mid-preen. Obviously, she found nothing heart-stopping about his appearance. And she couldn’t even see that his pants nearly reached his shins! Jake silently cursed his suit as he watched her expression change yet again—to guarded anticipation.
“Put me down, fool!” the woman whispered urgently to her companion.
Beasley, beyond the sightlines of the window and therefore ignorant of the drama awaiting them inside, hurried his straggling companion into the building with a wave. Jake sobered his expression and eagerly stepped over the threshold ahead of Beasley, into a small hallway that held a coatrack. Suddenly, the subject of Miss Summertree’s early return from finishing school, or anything else about the woman, fascinated him.
Before he could step through the door, the man named Buck had set her down, and she was giving the bodice of her dress a firm straightening jerk. When their gazes met again, her brilliant blue eyes were narrowed on him suspiciously.
Jake was irked that he wasn’t able to make more of an impression. Not that what this woman thought made any difference, he reminded himself. He was just here to lie low, not to spark the local schoolteacher. Ex-schoolteacher.
“Mr. Beasley,” she said in a high feminine voice whose energy enchanted him immediately. “What did you bring me?”
“Looks too old for a student,” the cowboy joked, eyeing Jake with genial curiosity.
“Good heavens!” Beasley said sharply, as if the offhand comment had done grave insult to their guest. “This is Mr. Eugene Pendergast. Mr. Pendergast, this is Miss Summertree, who I was telling you about. And this is...”
“Buck McDeere,” Cecilia supplied. That Beasley wouldn’t know the cowboy’s name came as no surprise to Jake, or apparently, to Cecilia.
“Mr. Pendergast is our new schoolteacher, just arrived from Philadelphia.”
At the word
Cecilia Summertree’s mouth dropped open. Once again her blue eyes assessed his person, this time without mirth. She stiffened her spine and jutted her jaw forward. “Philadelphia, you say?” she said disbelievingly.
Jake bit back a laugh. No curtsy, no how-do-you-do. Just a question about his origins and another scathing once-over. Maybe Miss Summertree expected men from Philadelphia to have better tailors.
In spite of the cool reception, he bowed politely. Trying to think of a way to respond, Jake remembered his uncle Thelmer, from St. Louis. The one time Thelmer had visited his relatives in Texas, it was clear he had considered himself to be hands-down more civilized than his poor relations. And to give the man his due, the ladies had been impressed.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Summertree,” he said now in his best impression of Uncle Thelmer’s sophistication.
Cecilia Summertree pursed her lips. “You sure took your time getting here. We’d begun to think you weren’t coming.”
“I’m afraid I was detained.”
“Detained where?” Cecilia demanded sweetly.
“Now, now, Cecilia,” Beasley interjected, agitated by the girl’s curiosity. “It’s true, Mr. Pendergast, we’d expected you last week. Nevertheless, we’re simply glad that you had a safe trip.”
Jake breathed a sigh of relief at Beasley’s interruption. He hadn’t expected to meet with such skepticism. Obviously Miss Summertree wasn’t happy giving up her post to a stranger. He managed a weak smile. It helped to remember the reason he was late—the real Pendergast had apparently been on a week-long toot. What would Beasley have said to that?
“I’m certainly glad to be here.”
Cecilia’s eyes narrowed to fiery little slits. “He doesn’t sound like a Yankee.”
“My parents were from Alabama,” Jake retorted sharply. The woman was beginning to make him nervous. Besides, his parents
“There now,” Beasley said, as if Pendergast’s parentage settled everything. “I expect you’ll be a marvelous help getting Mr. Pendergast acclimated to his new surroundings, Cecilia. But all that’s left for you to do today is to hand over the building key.”
Cecilia crossed her arms. The young woman was at least a foot shorter than Jake, but that didn’t seem to intimidate her any. Nor, apparently, did the fact that Beasley was going to stand by him. Jake took in her honey blond hair and bright blue eyes with admiration and annoyance. She didn’t look as if she would be much help.
“I suppose you went to college,” she said sharply.
Jake grinned. “Of course.” Pendergast had looked like the college type. Soft, sheltered.
“Where?” she pressed, surprising him.
Jake’s smile froze. “You want to know where?” he asked inanely, fingering the hat he held in his hand with stiff, sweaty fingers.
“The University of Pennsylvania!” Beasley cried, angered by Cecilia’s inquisitiveness.
Jake’s gaze shot to the obnoxious man in gratitude. “Yes, that’s right.” He grinned broadly at Cecilia.
“Same as Watkins,” Beasley added.
“Yes, Watkins,” Jake agreed. Who was Watkins? “Good old Watkins.”
Beasley chuckled anxiously. “There. Now that’s settled...” He held out his hand toward Cecilia. “The key?”
“The key is on the desk,” she said proudly, nodding toward it. Then, impulsively, she glared at Jake and added, “But I wouldn’t trust it to this—this fraud!”
Jake felt the blood drain from his face as her accusation hit its mark. Yet fraud though he was, he hadn’t narrowly escaped death to let his future be snatched away by an ornery little rich girl. He clenched his fists at his sides and prepared to speak in his own defense.
But this time, chiming right in with Beasley’s shout of outrage was a mumbled warning from Buck. “Cici, I’d watch my words...”
“But it’s true!” she cried. “This man isn’t a schoolteacher any more than I’m a...a—”
“Lady?” Jake couldn’t resist drawling.
Her blue eyes flew open in shock. “How dare you!”
“Hey, now...” Buck said, as if he’d never heard a man speak unkindly to a woman before.
“He couldn’t even tell you what college he went to,” Cecilia argued.
“The University of Pennsylvania!” Beasley again cried out in exasperation.
“Like I said,” Jake said, smiling at her smugly.
Cecilia pushed past Buck and came forward menacingly, in spite of Beasley’s ineffectual sputtering. Before setting foot in this little classroom, Jake hadn’t given much thought to the difficulties of assuming another person’s identity. Having spent two years one step ahead of an assassin, he couldn’t imagine much danger in pretending to be a schoolteacher.