Sunday, April 22, 2018

CREEPERS Lawrence Sims part 2

Copyright (c) 2018 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.




By R. Peterson



There was a mixture of hate and adoration in Doris Hicks’ eyes as she stared as the new Sheriff’s Detective leaving the Comanche County Library. He was at least six foot two inches tall and wasn’t wearing a wedding ring – as if that meant anything in 1964. Ted Jagger was good looking, in a big city sort of way, but he was investigating Lawrence Sims and going through Robert Rowand’s old police files … there was going to be trouble.
Doris stood at the window next to the file cabinets and watched him climb into the unmarked police car as she sorted ten years’ worth of old police reports back into the law enforcement archives. The county desperately needed more funding. The police station, jail and courthouse were all crowded into one two-story building. Ted was new in town and had no clue what he was getting into. Still he had smiled at her when she told him she could help him find whatever he was looking for. And was that a wink he’d given her … or only her imagination? If only Fred hadn’t returned. The thing that preacher said about until death do you part obviously didn’t apply in in a town like Cloverdale.
There were only two others in the library, ten-year-old Jerry Doward looking at one of Edgar Rice Burrows books and that crazy lady Hamilton Fisk; the young hunchbacked woman was on day release from State Hospital North, who was of course browsing her long crooked nose through the section dealing with the occult.
Jerry was running his fingers across the torn and taped dust jacket of Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. “Would you like to check that out?” She could see the boy’s imagination swinging through the jungle.
“My library card is expired.” Jerry shrugged his shoulders. “My father said a dollar twenty-five is a lot of money and reading books is a waste of time.”
“That’s alright,” Doris said as she removed the card from the front of the book and stamped it. “I’ll trust you. Just bring it back in ten days.”
Jerry’s father Toby, and Fred had been drinking buddies. Too bad they hadn’t been drunk together when Fred’s pickup went over the cliff that night and exploded in Magician’s Canyon. But then, maybe Toby would have come back too. Doris shuddered.  Poor Jane Doward; Jerry’s introverted mother would never have been able to handle a beating from a dead man.
Hamilton Fish made three of her bony fingers into a fork shape and hissed at her when Doris told her the library was closing. Fisk pointed at a clock hanging on the wall over the circulation desk. “It’s only ten to five. What is it that you don’t want me to know?”
“It always takes me a few minutes to lock-up,” Doris told her. “I have a very large Bob Cat in the basement that I turn loose in here at night. It helps keeps mice from chewing on the book covers … and it also has a taste for witches!”
Doris watched the twisted twenty year old dressed in black, pedal furiously away on a 1938 Adler Damenrad ladies’ bicycle with a wire-basket mounted in place of a headlight and a woven picnic basket strapped above the rear wheel. If she were only forty years older, she’d be the spitting image of Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz.
Doris called Mayor Margaret Otter on the phone. “We’ve got problems,” she said.

-------2-------

“This new detective from Chicago seems to have all his ducks in a row,” Mayor Margaret Otter told the other women as they met in Black Rose Cemetery. “If he discovers Lawrence Sims is the dead Peeping Tom, he’s likely to discover his brother’s involvement.” She shook her head. “If Vincent Sims goes to jail he’s going to tell everyone where we buried Robert Rowand!”
“Oh what tangled webs we weave …” Madeline Bird chirped as she picked up a shovel and followed the others to the back of the graveyard.
“What was we supposed to do? Allow that bastard to keep beating on Mary?” Doris was carrying a leaf rake high above her head like crusader.
“Sheriff Walker knew his deputy was a wife beater; why didn’t he at least fire him?” Ermine Crane was tapping tombstones with the backside of a hoe.
“He would have moved away and then we wouldn’t have known where Mary was or been able to help her,” the Mayor said. “John and I both tried to have him arrested for domestic abuse but as you all know he had a keep out of jail card in his pocket. His uncle, Rufus T. Bone was at that time Montana’s Governor and his father was not only a district judge but a major contributor to the Republican Party. Rowand’s job was protected by graft, corruption and political influence.”
“I’d seen the cigarette burns on Mary’s legs,” Madeline said. “And the cuts on her back … I wish I’d been there when Ermine put three slugs into the creep’s face!”
“It wasn’t that spectacular,” Ermine Crane said. “Rowand came busting into that flea-bag motel room where we were hiding Mary. I don’t know how he tracked us sixty miles past Dillon. The bastard had a small propane torch in his hand and he was out of his mind focused on Mary; it was as if he didn’t even know we were there. “I’m going to burn rings around all your parts that you keep covered,” he promised as he stalked to where she was cowering in a corner. “I’m going to make you look like a red and white striped Zebra!” He was laughing like a hyena when the first shot tore off his nose. There was blood flying everywhere but I couldn’t seem to take my finger off the trigger.”
“We’ve all got a little of the old South Fork vigilante in us,” Margaret said. “Some times you have to bend the law to bring justice to the innocent.”
“Bend the law? We jumped rope with it!” Doris gritted her teeth.
“What made you decide to bury him in Black Rose?” Ermine asked.
“A cemetery is the best place to hide a body … too logical for most minds,” Margaret said. “Everything would have worked out fine if Vincent Sims hadn’t been watching from his bedroom window and saw us opening a grave and giving the resident corpse company. He must have crept out of his house and snuck over to see what we were doing. About a week later the phone calls and blackmail started. We paid the creep almost six thousand dollars before we figured out his brother was the Dead Peeping Tom and that Vincent whose hobby is taxidermy was most surely helping him with his gruesome disguises. It became then what you would call a Mexican Standoff  … we don’t tell what we know … and he keeps quiet about what we did.”
“We’ve all had the creepy feeling of being watched,” Ermine muttered. “I always keep my drapes pulled. I’m glad that part is coming to an end.”
“This new investigator changes everything doesn’t it?” Doris said. “I’ve met this new detective; he’s no dummy. It will take him about two seconds to figure out everything he needs to know about the nasty Sims brothers.”
“Are you sure he’s coming here tonight?”
“I’m almost certain he will,” Doris said. “So, we’ve got to dig up our secret and move it to a new location fast!”
“What if the authorities decide to dig up the whole cemetery?” Ermine’s eyes were like two white-wall tires.
Margaret laughed. “If that happens, and Comanche County’s closet skeletons are finally exposed to the world, then every person in western Montana and eastern Idaho is going to jail.”

-------3-------

They were just finishing reinterring Rowand’s body in a new grave, this time on the opposite end of the graveyard, when it started to rain. “Damn,” Ermine cursed. “If those dark clouds could have only held off for a few more minutes!”
“It’s about time we had a break!” Doris was all but laughing. “The rain will help wash away any evidence of our work!”
A pair of headlights suddenly glowed at the far end of Vineyard Road. “It’s him! It’s the new detective!” Doris squawked. “That unmarked police car they’ve provided him with has one headlight that is always shining to one side.”
            Margaret handed an armload of rakes and shovels to Madeline and Ermine. “Quick, hide these in the bushes across the road. We’ll have to think up a reason for being here if he decides to enter the cemetery.”
            “Whether he turns in here or not,” Doris said. “He’s not blind; he’ll notice our cars.”

-------4-------

Madeline and Ermine picked the wrong spot to cross the road. There weren’t any clumps of bushes big enough to hide the excavating tools and the car was approaching at a much faster speed than they expected. Madeline panicked and sunk the tools in an irrigation ditch half full of icy water then bolted across the road … Ermine followed. There was the sound of car tires skidding on the wet pavement then the unmarked police car plowed through the cast iron fence and crashed into a tree.
Four women stared as a broken radiator sent swirling steam into the air to dance with the rain. “What do we do now?” Doris was near bawling when she saw Ted Jagger open his eyes. He didn’t appear to be badly hurt.
            “When you’re in Rome …” Margaret said looking around at the tombstones.
The four women began to chant softly as they lurched zombie-like toward the car. Ted closed his eyes as Madeline reached her wet and cold fingers through the broken glass and began to pull him out. Ted moaned once as they lay him on the grass. “He thinks he’s having a bad dream,” Doris whispered.
            “We all are,” Margaret said.

-------5-------

            When Ted Jagger opened his eyes he was surrounded by four women. The flashing lights of an ambulance reflected off the wet trees as it pulled into the cemetery.
            “What happened?” Ted tried to sit up but Madeline pushed him down.
            “You have a concussion; you were in a car crash,” she said.
Ted looked at his car wrapped around the tree and then at the four women. “What were you ladies doing here?”
            “We were next door volunteering our companionship to the patients who don’t get regular family visits,” Margaret Otter said. “We heard the crash and came over to investigate.”
Ted stared toward State Hospital North. There were four cars in the parking lot that he didn’t remember seeing before … but it was raining and those damn streaky windshield wipers … still.
            “Two dark figures ran across the road in front of me,” Ted said. “I hit the brakes and lost control.”
            “Did these things vanish into the graveyard?” Ermine asked.
            “I think so.” Ted tried to sit up but Doris pushed him back down. Two EMT’s from the ambulance were bringing over a stretcher.
            “Those were darts you seen,” Ermine said. Her voice suddenly took on the serious, spooky tones of a late night campfire story. “Restless souls of the dearly departed dead wandering the back roads, hiding in corn fields and the dark corners of barns … they are usually invisible … but rain makes them appear to the living like glimmering shadows.”
            “Take it easy mister,” The first EMT said as he shown a penlight light in Ted’s angry eyes. “We’ll have you in Comanche County General Hospital in about twelve minutes.”
Ted pushed the medic away and stood up. “Darts? Glimmering shadows? What kind of bullshit are you lying bitches trying to feed me? Why won’t anyone listen to what I want? I said I’m fine!”
Ted limped to his steaming police car and retrieved a clipboard from the floor and a 38 special from under the seat. “I don’t know what’s going on here … but I’m going to find out!” He glanced back at the wreckage as he walked toward the Sims residence and shook his head. “I just hope Comanche County has car insurance.”
            “Are we sunk?” Doris asked Margaret as the EMTs carried the empty stretcher back to the ambulance.
            “Maybe,” Margaret said. “We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”

-------6-------

            Five minutes later, the women were just starting to walk toward the State Hospital North parking lot when a gunshot disturbed the stillness after the rain … followed, a split second later by another shot. The four ran to the Sims’ residence.
Detective Ted Jagger stood at the opening to the basement stairs with his gun drawn. Blood dripped from a gash in his cheek where a bullet had grazed him. Vincent Sims lay sprawled at the bottom of the stairs … the wound was dead center right between the eyes. His brother was huddled in a corner of the kitchen as if he were a child not quite sure where he was.
            “Lawrence seemed eager to show me his work,” Ted said gesturing to a gruesome row of human skin masks hanging on the wall in the basement made from tanned human flesh. “His brother obviously had other ideas.”

-------7-------

            I wasn’t surprised when Margaret Otter dropped by my office to see how I was coming along. I had been expecting her visit. “Any word on a trial for Lawrence Sims?” I asked her. I had spent the last week learning everything I could about the detective I was replacing. The guy was no loss to the community.
            “I don’t think there will be one,” Margaret said. “Sims’ court appointed attorney has agreed to admit him guilty on an insanity plea. His brother had more than a dozen grief stricken women believing their dear husbands had returned from the dead. Some of the more irrational ones even went to bed with what they thought were lost loved ones. Vincent promised them all return visits … for a dear price of course. The prosecution has no objections. So it looks like Lawrence will spend the rest of his life looking out a barred window from a north side of the mental hospital. He’ll be able to gaze upon the same graveyard he used to roam and skin corpses in.”
            “Just as well,” I told her. “We wouldn’t want him tangling with any darts!” I was momentary startled by the stricken look on the Mayor’s face. “Hey, I’m sorry if I was out of line before …. You might have some unusual ways of doing things here … and we all have our secrets but I think you and your friends are good people.” I paused waiting for a reaction … expecting a bad one but hoping I didn’t get it.  “I didn’t know you were my boss!”
Margaret smiled and I knew instantly I liked her. “That’s okay. We’re just a small town with our own peculiar ways. Welcome to Cloverdale” she said.

THE END ???
           

Sunday, April 15, 2018

CREEPERS Lawrence Sims

Copyright (c) 2018 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.




By R. Peterson


          It took me eight years to make detective on Chicago’s notorious South Side. I’d tossed my uniform away and had only worn plain clothes for three days when I decided to leave the madness. The ninth precinct received a tip that a black gang-member/street dealer named Edward R. Boggins was hiding out in his girlfriend’s apartment. Two cops wearing chest armor pounded on Nancy Benton’s door and shoved the warrant for Eddie’s arrest under the security chain while we guarded the hall. A stereo was blasting ACDC’s Highway to Hell at a volume high enough to peel paint off the walls.
        There was no way the blonde teen peering through the cracked door could read the document. Both of her eyes were bruised and swollen shut; her bottom lip was spit so bad in several places that you could see her broken teeth and her nose looked like  one of those restaurant wall-fountains gushing Hawaiian Punch. A baby was crying somewhere. It was enough for probable cause … we kicked the door down.
         I caught Boggins trying to go out a third floor window and pulled him to safety by his hair. Eddie thanked me by plunging a Tijuana Toad-stabber three inches into my left thigh. The other officers handcuffed Eddie and dragged him down the hall. They called an ambulance for the girl and another for me. She dragged her baby from child services two days later and refused to press charges for domestic abuse.
         A week after they sewed up my leg I got my promotion. Two days later I was back at the same apartment. Two short lines of white powder lay on a glass table next to a rolled-up five dollar bill … the razor blade was missing. Nancy had cut both of her wrists in the bathtub. The naked baby (with cocaine caked in both its tiny nostrils) had crawled behind the toilet and was bawling. Nancy left behind a bloody note that said she couldn’t live without Eddie.

        Something clicked inside me and I wanted out of the Windy-City and to be as far away from the insanity and violence as possible. My grandfather Frank Jagger was originally from a small town in Montana before he moved to Illinois just before the great depression. I saw a job opening for a detective/deputy in the Vanishing River Tribune and sent them my application. The sheriff who hired me smiled and said they’d been waiting three generations for my return. “We’re very pleased to have you working with us Ted! As you can see we’re very short handed.” I looked around the office. Me and him were the only ones there.
Cloverdale was a quiet, sleepy town of less than five-thousand … better still, the wind wasn’t blowing … I was home.

-------2-------

         It was quiet my first day on the job. I spent the morning organizing my desk and looking over a map of the city.
Robert M. Rowand, the detective I was replacing, had left everything in a mess including his files. I did a few enquiries. He had only worked for the sheriff’s department for two months before he vanished. He was still officially listed as a missing person.
That didn’t sound good!

Just before lunch I received my first assignment. Sheriff John Walker asked me to investigate a complaint. Some lady by the name of Edith Morris claimed she had a Peeping Tom at her house last night. I laughed as I drove to the Morris residence. The sun was shining and a light rain was falling … still no wind. This work was sure different than the dirty, crazy streets of Chicago.
Edith met me at the door wearing a housecoat and a frown on her face. She didn’t invite me to sit down; I took notes standing up. “Do you know what this Peeping Tom looked like?”
“Of course I know what he looked like!” Her hair was sticking out all over her head she looked like she hadn’t slept much. “It was my husband Herald!”
I stuck my hand in my pocket and pinched my leg so I wouldn’t laugh. “Is Harold home? Maybe I’d better have a word with him.”
            “Harold died seven days ago.” She was glaring at me. “I suppose you think that’s funny!”
I didn’t think it was funny. I thought the woman might be crazy. “I’m sorry, mam. But if you husband has been deceased for a week, how could he be looking in your window?”
            “You’re the detective! You tell me!” she sneered.
Edith led me into the kitchen and showed me where she was standing doing dishes; a window above the sink looked into the back yard. “I just finished watching Lawrence Welk,” she said. “So it must have been a little after eight O’clock.” She tapped the glass with her finger. “He put his face right against the window and smiled!”
            “And you’re sure this was your deceased husband?”
            “I lived with him for forty years,” she balked. “The old turd has a tooth missing on the front bottom left and a wart that sprouts hair like a tiny coconut tree on his chin. If it wasn’t him it was his damn twin and if he comes back he’ll be peeking into the business end a shotgun barrel!”
She began to mutter and I had to ask her to speak up. “It was his eyes,” she said. “Harold never had eyes like that … they was killer crazy!”

I asked every question I could think of and wrote everything down on a note pad. There was no way I could get Edith to admit that it might be someone else. I left her house thinking that Chicago must not have a monopoly on crazy people after all. On the way to my car I decided to go into her backyard and have a look around.
            There was a flower bed with tulips growing right under the kitchen window. The house sat on a one foot tall concrete foundation. Whoever looked in the window had to be well over six feet tall … probably over six foot four. There were at least five good boot-prints in the mud and mulch. I recognized the tread as the type railroad workers used. Tiny puddles of water hadn’t washed them away. I got the knees of my pants dirty. Whoever left the prints had a gimp left leg …. probably shorter than the other with a built up shoe. It may not have been Edith’s husband but someone was here last night. The intruder was standing close enough to press his face right against the window just like Edith said. I tried to follow the tracks … but lost them in the wet grass.


-------3-------


            When I got back to the courthouse/police station the first thing I did was look up Harold Morris’s obituary in last week’s Vanishing River Tribune. There wasn’t much there. He’d lived in Comanche County all his life, formerly worked for the railroad and for the last twenty-eight years was a used car salesman. There was no autopsy, but the cause of death was listed as a heart attack. I also looked at his driver’s license information. Harold Morris was five-foot six inches tall and weighed one-hundred sixty pounds.
In the afternoon Sheriff Walker returned from a court appearance in Missoula. I asked him if he knew Harold Morris.
            “All my life,” John said. “Harold sold me my first car … a forty-two Nash with a smoking and drinking problem.”
            “Sounds dangerous,” I said.
            “It was,” John told me. “Two quarts of oil every forty miles and blowing enough blue smoke to make the fire department and any other car on the road nervous.
We both laughed and I figured this was a good time to ask a stupid question.
“Harold didn’t happen to have a left leg shorter than the right and walk with a built up boot did he?”
The sheriff poured himself a cup of coffee and handed the pot to me along with an odd look.
“How did you know that?”
I missed my cup and made a small puddle on my desk. “Sheriff, I think we have a problem!”


-------4-------



Joseph Callahan retired the year before and his son Egbert was running the local mortuary. “Yes, Harold Morris’s funeral was held here at On a Cloud Garden,” he told me.
“I know this is a stupid question,” I said. “But are you sure Harold was dead?”
Egbert shrugged his shoulders as if this was a question he got all the time. “Most people would ask you to leave for even asking,” he said. “But this is Cloverdale. Strange things have to be born somewhere. Most people think they originate in our area.”
            “Then you’re not sure?”
            “I didn’t do the embalming,” Egbert said, “that would be my assistant Mr. Sims … he’s working on another dearly departed in the basement.”
Egbert punched an intercom button on his desk. “Lawrence, when you get a moment would you come up to my office please.”
Egbert apologized. “If Lawrence is right in the middle of something, it might take a few minutes.”
             I walked with Egbert through the mortuary and then we waited by the elevator. Several Japanese women were busy transforming the inside of the funeral home into an elaborate garden complete with waterfalls ponds and a stream. Something kept turning over in my mind. It was the name Lawrence. Edith Morris said she had been watching Lawrence Welk when the window peeper appeared. Now, I’m not the smartest, or the luckiest, but I never caught a bullet all the time I worked in Chicago.  A tiny but persistent voice that sounded like my late mother always reminded me of one simple fact as I worked the buildings and alleys downtown … there’s no such thing as coincidence. So believe me when I say, I believed that small still voice, but I sure as heck don’t believe in coincidences. I still didn’t believe in them in this small town. Like the famous Albert Einstein said in layman’s terms … everything is related.
           Ten minutes later the elevator door opened and Lawrence Sims lurched out. I’d seen a lot of really ugly people in Chicago but Lawrence took your breath away … in a bad way. “Howdy.” He smiled and shook my hand.  Looking up into that long fleshy face I noticed that he was missing a tooth … on the front bottom left.


-------5-------



            “Detective Jagger wants to know if Harold Morris was dead before we buried him,” Egbert said as we walked back to his office. The Japanese gardeners were planting orchids … the smell was intoxicating.
Lawrence smiled again. The hole in his teeth looked large enough to smoke a cigar with his mouth closed. “He didn’t kick, scratch or nothing when I turn on the formaldehyde pump,” he said. I thought he might be jerking me around … he wasn’t.
I was beginning to think Egbert’s assistant might be missing a few brain cells. Egbert shrugged his shoulders.
            When we got back to his office, Callahan showed me a copy of the death certificate. “I suggest,” he said. “If you have reason to believe Mr. Morris was not dead when interred that you take it up with the county coroner.”

There was something going on here, but I had nothing to go on …. Just a crazy lady who swore her dead husband was a Peeping Tom and a set of muddy footprints under a window. When I got back to the courthouse the first place I went was the coroner’s. His office was just down the hall from mine.
            “Massive coronary,” Paul Fisk assured me. “If this guy was dancing around in his back yard a week after his funeral … I want some of what they injected him with.”

            I spent the rest of the day doing a background check on Lawrence Sims. He was born in Comanche County in 1901, so that would make him sixty-three years old. Lawrence dropped out of High School and enlisted in the Navy in 1917. Four years after his discharge, he started working for his brother … a local taxidermist. Just ten years ago he went back to school and got his post-mortem cosmetology license. Edith Morris’s words came back to me like an echo in a recurring nightmare … “It was his eyes,” she said. “Harold never had eyes like that … they was killer crazy!”
            I went through Robert Rowand’s back files. This wasn’t the first Peeping Tom case reported by a recent widow … the incidences went back at least ten years. It didn’t look like Bob took any of the complaints seriously.
           
            I tried to reach Sheriff Walker on his car phone but the dispatcher said he was at the scene of an auto accident where the highway crosses the river near Motha Forest. “We never get good reception when you get too close to those trees,” she said.

            My shift was over but I decided to pay a visit to Lawrence Sims. His driver’s license file said he lived with his brother Vince on Vineyard Road just past Black Rose Cemetery. It figured.  My mother’s voice was nagging nonstop again in the far corners of my brain. There are no coincidences.


-------6-------

            It was raining as I left the courthouse. The unmarked car I drove was a three year old Chevy but it was already trashed. The windshield wipers were streaking the glass. The cemetery on the North side of State Hospital North looked like a park. Being from Chicago, I was driving way too fast, but was starting to slow because the Vincent Sims residence was just after Black Rose … that’s probably what saved my life.
            Two dark figures ran across the road right in front of me. I slammed on the brakes and slid sideways on the wet pavement. I tried to correct but it was as if the car had a mind of its own. The front end of the Chevy went through the wrought iron fence surrounding the graveyard and crashed into a tree. I was wearing my seatbelt, but was violently dazed. I kept seeing the car skid and then crash through the fence over and over like a video tape in a loop. Somewhere there was chanting like those who were once messed up on drugs … but were now messed up on the Lord … or his counterpart.

The hands that reached through the broken glass and pulled me out were cold … much too cold for the living … somewhere dark birds flew from a tree … and the wind began to blow.

To be continued …

Sunday, April 8, 2018

SISTERS OF THE SEA Slave Seed

Copyright (c) 2018 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.



By R. Peterson


Pollyanna Nottingham held her nose dramatically as she slid down a halyard line from a wooden platform nested high in the aft mast. She handed a stolen Dollond & Aitchison telescope, finely-crafted in London, to her captain.  “There, just off the port bow,” she said. “My keen sense of sewage takes it to be a rotting barrel filled with darkies … probably bound for the Virginia coast or some other skin market!”
Loretta DuPont took the expertly crafted optical device, part of the booty taken from an English freighter, and after scanning the horizon for a few seconds agreed with Polly. “It’s a slave ship all right!” She handed the instrument back to her first officer and called to the women lounging about the stern wheel. “Marry us to the wind and load two guns with grapes on the port side. We’ll wake the nasty buggers up and let them know we mean business!”
The frigate, Sea Witch, sped up as she turned thirty degrees to port and a brisk breeze off the coast of Africa filled her square sails.
  Loretta could see movement on the enemy deck and in the rigging, but the vessel was still too far away to see exactly what the slave haulers were doing. Suddenly three fire flashes erupted in quick succession from near the enemy stern. “They’re hailing us with a deck gun.” Polly laughed as the first two cannonballs splashed into the water at least a hundred yards short of the Sea Witch. “Pull us alongside and we’ll have Rella lecture them on the proper use of powder!” Fiorella Estella Mendoza had once been Loretta’s handmaiden but after following her mistress into a life of piracy was now one of the Atlantic’s best cannoneers.
            “Let’s not be too hasty …” Loretta said. She and Polly looked upward as the shriek from a falling projectile grew louder. “Bed the planks!” Loretta ordered. Thirty women flung themselves flat on the deck as an eight pound cannonball exploded almost exactly in the center of the stern-deck throwing broken chain, shattered decking and wood splinters high into the aft sails.
            “That was close!” Polly exclaimed as the air cleared. None of the crew members around her appeared to be harmed.
            “Too close for one!” Margaret Waldheim moaned. Gretchen Lewis, the ship’s apprentice navigator, who had been attending the ship’s steerage, now lay among the broken and twisted wreckage, a pool of blood, skin and bone was being partially drained into a large jagged hole in the decking. “We’ve lost a superior ship’s rudder … and a much finer Helm’s person!”
Death silenced the crew for several long seconds. “No time for a funeral,” Loretta finally said. “We owe it to the dead … to keep ourselves alive.”
The slave ship began circling around meaning to approach the disabled Sea Witch from the stern. “We’re in trouble,” Fiorella shouted. “With that big hole in the planking. I can’t roll a deck gun into position to keep them murdering dogs at bay!”
The converted cargo ship was now close enough to read D’or Chasseur carved just below the stern castle as it rotated one-hundred eighty degrees to port.
            “We won’t make it easy on them nasty buggers!” Loretta vowed as Polly began to pass out loaded muskets from the ship’s ordinance lockers.
Just before the slave ship came within boarding-line range she dropped sail and stopped dead in the water.
Loretta, Polly, and the other forty-two female crew members stared in awe as the captain and crew of the slave ship who all appeared to be in some sort of disorientation formed five orderly lines and began jumping over the starboard railings, plunging into the water like the fabled lemmings at the end of a four-year birth cycle.
Fiorella lifted one flabby hand high in the air and sniffed carefully around her arm pit. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a proper bath,” she muttered, “still … I didn’t think I smelled all that rank!”

By the time the crew of the Sea Witch boarded the D’or Chasseur the French captain and his men were all bobbing helplessly about in the sea waves like corks in a large laundry tub. “I’ve never seen seamen act this crazy before,” Polly said as she and Margaret lowered four longboats equipped with oars and water barrels over the side. “There must be a bad barrel or two of pork open in the hold.” She shook her head as she watched the drowning sailors flounder toward the boats. “Cast adrift in the South Atlantic in boats might be more than these ruddy buggers deserve …. but I’ll sleep better if I don’t have to listen to their piteous cries in my dreams!”
“Let’s see what barreled-poison lies below shall we?” Loretta lifted the hatch exposing wooden stairs going down into the ship’s hull and the other’s followed her. Halfway down they all pinched their noses.

-------2-------

Polly gagged and Margaret actually threw up. Four sputtering oil lamps mounted to iron plates attached to deck supports were all that cast illumination on the dank and deplorable gloom that saturated the hold. Four hundred and eighty dark sweltering bodies lay side by side … packed, layered and chained like salted sardines in a merchant’s crate. About a fifth appeared to be corpses … or almost there. The others appeared to be slowly succumbing to the nausea, heat, and misery of a nightmarish voyage only a week gone from the coast of Africa.
“I believe we were too generous with those long boats!” Polly turned her head away as she covered her mouth and nose with a scarf. “Most of these wretched souls are children!”
“Let’s get them on deck and see how many are still alive,” Loretta commanded. “I’ve a mind to burn this tub … once greed begins its rot … the stains become permanent!”
“Puis-je t'aider ?” a dark female face rose from one of the rows nearest the stairs. The voice quickly changed to English when there was no immediate reply. “I want help you!”
“Yes,” Loretta said. “I know nothing of African languages. If we are to transport you and your companions back to your homes, I will need an interpreter.”

-------3-------

Two days later, the African translator Uba stood on the stern deck with Loretta and Polly. She didn’t understand when they ask her how old she was but Loretta thought she couldn’t be much more than fourteen.
They watched as the French slave ship, set afire after all useable equipment and cargo had been salvaged, burned in the distance. The twin sisters Penny and Renny, master carpenters before they took up the pirate trade, were just finishing repairs to the ship’s wheel and rudder rigging. “I don’t understand why the captain and crew of the D’or Chasseur just jumped overboard,” Loretta said. “It was as if someone else was directing their minds.”
Uba pointed to a young black woman who appeared to be pregnant lounging with others near the main mast. “Dee na … she carry da seed an brings you to dis ocean. She no need the bad mans no more … so she give them fins … an makes them think day be like da fishes.”
Loretta was astonished. “Are you saying that Deena made the French sailors jump overboard?”
            “Dee na carry da seed,” Uba said easily. “She have all da power she need to do anything.”
            “If that be the case, then have your young Seed Queen conjure up a gale so that we can hurry you people back to Africa,” Polly smirked as she pointed to the ship’s wheel. Renny and Penny were testing the repairs and the rudder and steering system seemed to be working properly.
Loretta, Polly and Uba all stared as the pregnant black woman raised her hand in the air and smiled. A few seconds later a brisk wind filled the sails and the Sea Witch began to move. “Me and my quick mouth,” Polly moaned. “I should have asked for a white lace gown and a parasol.  A looted chest with a fashion dress inside is a rare bit of plunder!”
Fiorella plucked the strings of a lute. The sails were full - and the crew of the Sea Witch began to sing …
           
            “Hoist the sails and trim the winds, with rudder steady go.
            From morning light beneath the sky, till sunset’s wounded glow.
            With musket ball and chain and whip, and cannon’s lusty roar.
            No Royal fleet can yet defeat, we mighty forty four.”

-------4-------

            A week later, the Sea Witch dropped anchor just outside of an African port city on one of the many branches of the Bandama River emptying its waters into the Atlantic. “Are you sure this is where you were taken from?” Loretta questioned Uba to make sure they had the right location.
            “Bonauku lead many white men up river to burn villages,” Uba said. “They take small children … easy to catch … not run fast!”
            “Don’t the African villagers fight back?” Polly was disgusted. “Where are the children’s parents?”
            “Many villagers come … try get children back,” Uba said. “White men have many guns build wall … many villagers die!”
Polly was studying the river behind the port city with her telescope. “It looks like they’ve built a fort right on the river. Uba and these other slaves will never get past it to reach their homes. If they try, they’ll just be caught and sold again.”
            “Can we bombard the stronghold?” Loretta asked Fiorella as she walked over to one of the deck cannons. “Create enough of a distraction for the slaves to slip past the guards and make their way upstream to their villages?”
            “The fortress is too far away,” Fiorella told her. “Even if we anchor right next to their docks and I tamp the barrels half full of powder and adjust elevation for maximum range the iron balls will still fall almost a quarter of a mile short!”
            Deena had been watching the conversation with interest. She waddled over to where they stood. Her round belly showing she had to be at least six months pregnant. She stood next to Uba and spoke to her in a strange language. “Dee na want some of dat magic dust make thunder throw iron,” Uba told them after listening. “She want feel wid her fingers!”
Fiorella opened a barrel next to the cannon and used a metal scoop to pour some of the black powder into Deena’s outstretched hand. The pregnant black woman first smelled the gunpowder and then squeezed it firmly in her fingers as she closed her eyes. A few seconds later she opened her eyes and smiled. She held her hand over the fuse opening in the top of the cannon and allowed the powder to sift between her fingers into the torch hole. Loretta, Polly and Fiorella were all astonished. The black gunpowder was now as white as snow.
            “I don’t know what she did to my black powder but if this white stuff doesn’t burn I’m going to have to clean this cannon inside and out,” Fiorella grumbled. She found a place on the deck where a small amount of the white powder had spilled. She signaled to one of the deck women to bring her a torch. “It’s like she sucked all the black out of it!”
The torch was still several inches from the spilled powder when a violent explosion knocked all four women onto the deck planking. “I don’t think we have to worry about this stuff not burning,” Polly said as they struggled to their feet.

-------5-------

            It took another day for the Sea Witch to sail north up the coast so that Fiorella and the other gunners could practice with the new explosive.
            The new white gunpowder was so powerful that a six-inch cannon barrel ruptured on a first attempt and even tamping in a third as much powder sent the iron balls flying twice as far.
Loretta asked Deena if she could make the white powder in large quantities and the pregnant girl just smiled and pointed to one of the barrels, When Polly pried off the lid, the contents were as white as the powder that had first slipped through the black woman’s fingers.
            “I think that slave trading fort better batten down its hatches,” Polly laughed. “cause they be a big storm a coming!”

-------6-------

            Loretta made sure all the slaves were in the longboats and were nearly to shore before the barrage started. Twenty-six  cannons roared in sequence sending eight pound iron balls crashing into the fortress walls that guarded the port town from the native villagers. Twenty minutes later, the entire town and military complex appeared to be in flames. The crew of the Sea Witch  cheered.
            “Do you think the slaves made it back to their villages?” Loretta asked Polly.
            “If I was guarding that river I’d be gone after the first shot,” Polly said. “People who profit from slavery have neither courage nor honor!”
            “It’s too bad they had to leave,” Loretta said. “I rather liked Uba, and Deena was like a secret box that had something different inside it each time it was opened. Can you imagine the ships we could capture using that powerful white gunpowder?”
            “I think we’re going to find out,” Polly said. “The last time I looked in the hull every barrel of gunpowder we have is now as white as snow!”

-------7-------

            It wasn’t until the Sea Witch docked in the busy New Orleans harbor that one of the crew members found Uba and Deena huddled behind a stack of fresh water barrels in the hull. “Why didn’t you return to your homes?” Loretta was astonished.
            “Dee Na carry seed to new world,” Uba explained. “She friend … where she go I go!”
            “This is a big city with laws that protect the rich,” Polly gasped. “I don’t think we can stop the slavers from selling you in the market!”
            “Dee Na not worry … Uba not worry!” Uba smiled. “Big magic in seed!” she pointed toward Deena’s now extra-large belly.
            “I hope you know what you’re doing,” Loretta told her.
-------8-------

            It was almost a month later that Loretta and Polly attended the slave auction in a warehouse near the dock area. They waited for first Deena and then Uba to go up for sale.
Everyone could see that the young black girl was pregnant and the bidding started almost double what it did for others. “Fifteen hundred Dutch Ducat!” A rich plantation owner bid. The bidding had reached three thousand when a richly dressed businessman burst through the crowd and bid an astonishing five thousand.
            “You must have a large plantation and are looking for more breeding stock,” the auctioneer commented as the man paid for his purchase in gold.
            “I really don’t know why I bid on her,’ the bewildered man said. “I’ve never owned a slave in my life!”
Uba was being led onto the auction platform just as Deena and the wealthy merchant left. Suddenly the man turned “I’ll take that one too,” he said. Nobody bid against him.

-------9-------

Loretta and Polly watched as the rich merchant drove away in a buggy with his human purchases. “I wonder if he knows what he has there?” Polly said.
            “If he’s not a plantation owner I hope he’s at least a farmer,” Loretta replied.
            “Why’s that?’
            “A new kind of seed has been transported all the way from the dark continent of Africa,” Loretta said. “It has to be planted in just the right location and by just the right people for the magic inside it to grow.”
Polly remembered all the strange things that had happened over the last three months. “Somehow I believe that it will,” she said.

THE END ??
           
           




Sunday, April 1, 2018

THOMAS LANG "Blackjack"

Copyright (c) 2018 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.



By R. Peterson

Rising hot air mingled with an emerging cool night breeze and caused a nervous tumbleweed to jump the water-trough in front of the seed supply store and skitter across the deserted street. Most of the town’s residents were already tucked safely inside the two rows of clapboard buildings escaping the swirling sift that covered graves and smothered dreams. The wandering weed bounded into and then over the crate-filled alley next to the Territorial Emporium before vanishing. It was an hour before oil-lamp-time.
Sheriff Thomas Lang noticed five horses tied to the hitching post in front of the Four Bullets Saloon. Four of the animals belonged to local ranchers. The fifth, a black stallion frisking beneath a saddle ornamented with Nevada silver looked out of place in the small Montana mining town of South Fork.
The stranger sat at a far table facing the door along with John Weston, Joseph Glenn and Amos Fowler. He was dressed in ebony from the silk hat perched on the top of his swarthy head to a pair of square-toe riding boots. The sheriff noticed a pair of silver-handled Smith and Wesson 44’s with oiled holsters tied-tightly to the man’s St. Louis traveling pants. The man gave him an appraising look from behind an overgrown and thickly waxed handlebar mustache, then grinned smugly before he introduced himself as Jean Claude Noir and invited the sheriff to join them. The wooden table was cluttered with new playing cards, paper-money, coins, and three open bottles of Texas Red-Eye whiskey.
“Not when I’m working thank you,” Lang tipped his hat.
“Why not?” Noir’s smile reminded Tom of a crocodile. “We’re all friends here. My American friends call me Jack … Black Jack.”
The sheriff ignored Black Jack and walked to the bar where Otis Wilson poured him a tin cup filled with coffee. “This city slicker been in town long?” Tom asked Otis.
            “About four hours,” Otis said. “He cleaned out Spencer Grover’s ranch hands just before you come in. I’ve never seen one man so lucky at cards!” Lang turned and watched as Jean Claude Noir dealt another round of Acey Deucey. In the dim light the cards blurred between his long fingers. It was hard to tell if he was a cheat. Unless he slowed down you couldn’t tell where the cards were going … or coming from.
Weston and Glenn both threw their cards in right away. Amos Fowler did his best to hide a smile with an ace of hearts and a deuce of spades showing as he covered the twenty dollar pot. Noir who had a Queen diamond/seven clubs spread obliged him with a smile as he tossed in another handful of gold coins. It took almost a minute for Amos to cover the raise, searching through all his coat pockets and borrowing money from both John and Joe before matching the bet.
Amos exploded as Black Jack dealt him his last card … an ace of spades. “You no good fur skunk!” Amos bawled as Noir slapped down his own nine of clubs and swept the pot into his arms. “I don’t know how you stack them cards but I want a card count before that money goes anywhere!”
Noir stopped dragging the money toward him and his eyes went hard and cold. “You calling me a cheat … friend?”
A tomb-like silence descended over the saloon. The piano player’s fingers which had been pounding out a lively rendition of Oh Susanna suddenly froze just above the keyboard.
Amos gulped audibly. It sounded like a thirsty horse drinking from a trough. “I’m asking for a card count is all.”
            “I say the card count is fine,” Noir whispered. “You also calling me a liar?”
            “I’m just saying this game ain’t right,” Amos mumbled. “No one is that lucky!”
            “This is no longer a game of chance but a matter of honor,” Noir said pointing to the single action Colt that Amos wore tucked into his canvas pants. “You have defamed my good name and I demand satisfaction!”
Time slowed. Amos sat at the table trembling, obviously looking for a way out of his nightmare. Sheriff Lang was already moving toward the table trying to keep the old miner from doing something stupid. His boots felt like they were filled with lead. Jean Claude Noir’s voice rang above the saloon din like a ship’s bell. “… or are you yellow?”
Tom watched Amos’s swollen fingers yank the old revolver from the holster and point it at the smiling Noir. It took another long second for his arthritic thumb to pull back the trigger and then another second to aim. His arm was shaking so badly if he had been shooting outside he couldn’t have hit the sky. Still the Frenchman grinned. Fire and unburned gunpowder boomed from the end of the barrel as Amos’s shot went wild sending a lead slug into the wall at least four feet above and to the left of Noir’s head. There was a moment of silence then Amos slowly lowered his gun. “I ain’t no chicken!” The grizzled miner’s voice held a childlike wonder.
“On the contrary,” Noir laughed. “More like a plucked duck ready for a cooking pot.” His own guns flashed like two lightning bolts. The twin blasts blew Amos out of his chair and sent him spinning across the room. Blood gushed from an inch-wide hole in his forehead and from the socket where his right eye had been.
Sheriff Lang’s guns were already out. “Drop em!” he commanded Noir.
The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders and then lay both the fancy guns on the table. “There are plenty of eyewitnesses sheriff,” he said. “The unlucky fellow attempted to murder me.”
Thomas Lang looked around the room. He didn’t need to question anyone. They had all seen what happened.
“He’s right, sheriff!”  The dead man’s best friend, Joe, hung his head and a tear rolled down his cheek. “Amos fired first!”
“I want you out of this town tonight,” the sheriff stared at Noir. “Gather up your winnings and get out!”
            “I’m afraid that’s impossible,” Noir said as he stood, re-holstered his guns and then swept the money on the table into a large traveling bag. “I have business dealings with a prominent local rancher first thing in the morning.”
The saloon patrons all watched as Noir stopped to whisper in the ear of one of the young whores Otis Wilson hired as weekend entertainment. Her face was brightly painted but she couldn’t have been much older than fifteen. He slapped her on her ample hoop-skirted buttocks before drawing her close and clomping and singing softly as he dragged her, giggling, up the stairs to the rooms above.
Sheriff Lang walked to the bar for another cup of coffee and to clear his head as Amos Fowler’s friends carried his body out the front door. “I wonder who the lucky rancher is that Black Jack has business with?” the sheriff mused as Otis reached for the coffee pot.
            “I suspect that would be Miss Walker,” Otis said as he filled the cup with the black brew. “He was showing expertly rendered drawings and one daguerreotype just before you arrived that could be no one but Elisabeth.

-------2-------

Thomas Walker was up before dawn and was surprised to see Noir’s black stallion tied to Elisabeth’s barn when he arrived at the bustling ranch and gold mine just as the sun was rising. He didn’t want to interfere in any of Elisabeth’s business dealings so he waited under a bushy tree at the top of a hill until the gunman left. But he was worried … very worried.
“I see you had a visitor,” Tom said as he walked into the kitchen. Elisabeth had her back to him and she seemed upset.
“Spying on me now?” It was as if she had pulled a mask over her pretty head. He could now tell nothing from her expression. There was coffee on the stove but she didn’t offer him any.
“Jean Claude Noir is a dangerous man,” Tom said. “He shot and killed Amos Fowler over a game of cards. I rode out here to make sure you were okay.”
“Noir is from New Orleans and you’re right,” Elisabeth said turning so that he could see her sad eyes. “He is very dangerous. But his business with me has nothing to do with you … and I don’t want you coming around here anymore.”
“Elisabeth, if you’re in some kind of trouble let me help you,” Tom pleaded. He reached for her but she turned away.
“People can travel thousands of miles and they can cross oceans and grow big and fat or they can wither away to the size of corn sticks but they will always remain the people they are, Tom … nothing can ever change that.” Elisabeth shook her head. “You need to go now!”
“Elisabeth please!”
Elisabeth set her jaw in a way that Tom had only seen a few times. “Don’t make me call Pepe Mendez and have him throw you out, Tom … I know you two are friends.”
The sheriff noticed Elisabeth’s Mexican foreman lingering near the barn. Elisabeth was right. Tom didn’t want trouble between them either.
Thomas Lang hated riding away from the bustling Blue Bonnet ranch and mine but there was nothing he could do. Elisabeth didn’t want him there. He knew something was wrong but he couldn’t put his finger on it as he mounted Comanche.  For the first time he could ever remember he rode away from the ranch at a dead run pushing the wild mare from Texas for all she was worth.

-------3-------

The days that followed were a misery for Tom. He grew sullen and restless even as the stranger from New Orleans celebrated every night. Noir paid for drinks-on-the-house with refined Blue Bonnet ore bearing a stamped “B” in the gold and Tom wondered how much of the bullion Elisabeth had given him.
            Noir bragged of being engaged to Elisabeth and said a wedding was to be forthcoming. Tom couldn’t believe it and figured it was all made up lies from a braggart until he saw Elisabeth’s buggy parked in front of the Territorial Emporium and watched her come out followed by the proprietor Mrs. Vera James. “The alterations should be ready in a week,” Mrs. James said. “I’ll let you know when you can drop by for a fitting.”
It wasn’t until Elisabeth’s buggy disappeared down the street headed out of town that Vera noticed Tom and strolled over. “I must admit I’m a little disappointed,” she said.
            “How’s that?” The sheriff was still watching the buggy in the distance.
            “The wedding dress Elisabeth ordered,” Mrs. James said. “I always thought it would be you two getting hitched!”

-------4-------

            Tom pleaded an illness to the city council and then stayed drunk on his ranch for almost a week while a deputy replaced him. One morning, after soaking his head in a watering trough, he decided to ride to Elisabeth’s ranch and demand an explanation. Fall was in the air and all the leaves were turning red and brown. He was halfway to her ranch when he heard a familiar neigh and decided to investigate on foot. Elisabeth and Jean Claude Noir had a blanket spread on the grass and were having a picnic in the very spot that her and him had once enjoyed. “I don’t see why all of this is necessary,” Elisabeth’s voice sounded annoyed.
            “We’ll be man and wife in two days and I don’t want anyone to consider our marriage anything but legitimate,” Noir pushed her down on the blanket and Tom could see them kissing.
            In a daze, Tom wandered back to where he’d hitched Comanche and then rode hard. He would have ridden south all the way to Texas but there were too many loose ends … to many goodbyes to make.

-------5-------

The banner hanging across the main street in South Fork said Wedding Celebration tomorrow: Elisabeth Walker and Jean Claude Noir Esquire.
Tom had planned on only visiting the saloon to say goodbye to a few friends when he was met by Noir at the door. “Your services are no longer needed in this town, sheriff.” Black Jack grinned as he spat the last word. “With the help of my fiancĂ©e I’ve given ample monies to the city council - enough to hire a new sheriff and half a dozen deputies.”
Tom looked past him to see Lemont Hicks and a dozen dirty cowhands all of them wearing badges. Then it was over … everything. Tom had never felt so low. “I just need to say my goodbyes to a few friends …” Tom tried to push past him.
Noir grabbed him from behind and sent him tumbling into a street dusted with a fine powder of snow. “You’re washed up in this town,” Black Jack crowed. “If you got any man in you, you’d go for your gun!”
Tom realized for the first time in years that he didn’t have a Colt peacemaker strapped to his side. Whiskey and guns just didn’t mix.
Jean Claude pretended that he’d just noticed too … and tossed the sheriff one of his own guns. “Whenever you’re ready, sheriff!” He laughed loud enough that the whole town could hear. “Or are you yellow?”
Tom figured he had nothing to lose and was about to use the gun when Elisabeth kicked it out of his hand. She picked the fancy revolver out of the snow and then held it over her head pulling the trigger on empty chambers.
            “Black Jack Noir has never won a fair fight in his life,” she said. “He can’t beat you in a gun battle and he knows it!” Elisabeth looked at her intended with a face filled with venom and loathing. “He’s nothing but a cheap card cheat and a bush-whacker.”
            “Why you little tramp!”  Noir hissed. “You’ve ruined everything!” He drew his own gun but before he could fire Elisabeth dropped the useless gun in her hand and pulled a Walker Colt from her apron pocket. For years afterward citizens were still trying to describe what they saw. Noir was lightning fast but Elisabeth’s actions were like trying to watch an arrow fly from a bow. She blasted him three times while his gun was still leaving its holster.
And then Elisabeth was kneeling in the snow beside Tom crying. “Oh Tom, I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I can survive anything in this world as long as I know you’re in it … but I can never live without you.”
            “Remind me never to complain about your coffee,” Tom quipped pointing toward the body sprawled in the new fallen snow. This brought a fresh round of tears.
            “It’s okay …. Everything will be alright now,” Tom whispered as he held her tight.
            “No it won’t,” Elisabeth bawled. “Upstairs in Noirs’ luggage … you’ll understand why I wasn’t worth dying for.”

-------6-------

While the saloonkeeper and several of the new deputies talked to the witnesses, Tom headed upstairs to see what Elisabeth was talking about. Everyone agreed that Elisabeth had shot in self-defense. Inside a large carpet bag propped next to the bed Tom found several drawings of Elisabeth along with several wanted posters showing her as an accomplice to the notorious James Gang. So this is what he had on her … Blackmail! There were also several letters from New Orleans showing he had a wife and starving children waiting for him down south as well as his own wanted posters. Noir was wanted by authorities in three states for robbery and murder.
Tom shredded the drawings and posters and tossed them onto the coals inside a wood burning stove. He also found one of Noirs’ jackets with a springboard sewn inside both arms that allowed him to transfer cards from hidden pockets whenever he chose.
Tom tossed the jacket to the saloonkeeper as he came down the stairs. “Elisabeth was right,” he said. “The man was a criminal. There’s a pile of money on the table up in his room … make sure everyone he cheated at cards gets their money back … and his wife and children in Louisiana get what’s left.”

 As Tom drove the buggy back to her ranch, Elisabeth leaned on his shoulder to whisper in his ear, “Is my coffee really that bad?”
Tom laughed. “Do I dare say?”

THE END?