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Published on Friday, May 22, 2015

A Woman Comes to Hazy

By Stephanie L. Rose

 

The day she came to live in our little town the sun was shining bright. No one had seen anything like her before. The darkest brown hair you ever did see, and when she stepped off the train and into the sunlight, why, her hair fairly sparkled red. Everyone on the street stopped and stared, even the womenfolk, and folks inside crowded to the windows to see why it'd got quiet all of a sudden.

Well, I'm no greenhorn. I've been a marshal long enough to know that you can't have a fetching woman in a town like Hazy without trouble a-comin' with her. And that there woman was mighty fetching.

I was sitting out front of my office when she came, just like I always do when I ain't got nothin' else to do. I figger it don't hurt none to remind folks I'm around. Sometimes the way to avoid trouble is to make your presence known.

'Course, when she came, no one was payin' my presence no never-mind. I sat back and took another look at her. She was wearing widow's weeds, which sort of surprised me. Somehow I didn't picture a widow woman to be so pretty and shapely, if you know what I mean.

   

Adam Sloane, that two-bit gambler who calls himself a lawyer, was the first to break the spell. He leapt forward, snatching the hat from his head at the same time, and bowed so low he coulda et dirt. "Allow me to be the first to welcome you to our town, ma'am. You'll find us a friendly sort of people. I'm Adam Sloane, and I sure do hope you plan to stay a while."

The widow took a long time to answer. I started to think maybe she was mute. But when she spoke, her voice was soft and small, like a child's. "I'm flattered, I'm sure, Mr. Sloane. I wonder if you might point me to the hotel or a boardinghouse?"

"Just across the street, ma'am. Can't miss it. Perhaps you'll permit me to see to your luggage."

That was when Tate Johnson stepped in. "You move over, Sloane, an' let someone else be friendly. I'll take the lady's luggage."

The thing about trouble is it don't take much to start it, but it takes a heap a' doin' to stop it. I stood up and made sure my hat was on tight. Lucky habit, you might say.

I was just fixing to go on over there when Jack Bush decided to join the conversation. "You already got yourself a woman, Johnson. I'll be escortin' the lady."

The lady looked like she was having second thoughts about staying. "Please, don't argue on my account."

Sloane glared at the others. "You two numbskulls are giving the lady a bad impression. Allow me, ma'am." He took the widow's hand and tucked it in his elbow.

"Now you wait just a cotton-pickin' minute!" Bush grabbed Sloane and spun him around. "Who are you callin' a numbskull?" The next instant Sloane was on the ground, out cold.

Leave it to a woman to stir up a town that for the most part was peaceable. Leastways, more peaceable than others. I started toward the ruckus.

Johnson and Bush were tugging the woman between them like a bottle of whiskey. Then all the other men who'd been standing there gawking jumped in to rescue her. Pretty soon Hazy had itself a little riot. A woman could get hurt, what with so many knights in armor a-fightin' over her like that.

I shot my Colt in the air. The whole street got so quiet you could hear a body thinking. And everyone was looking at me. They'd never seen their marshal be quite so dramatic before. But then, I'd never seen the men of Hazy lose their heads quite so fast before neither.

I holstered my gun. "You men ought to be ashamed of yourselves. That ain't any sort of proper welcome." I turned to the widow and doffed my hat. She had mighty big eyes, hazel, and they were staring at me. I ain't gonna lie--my heart skipped a beat, it surely did. For a moment I forgot what I wanted to say.

Then I pulled myself together. "I hope you won't judge Hazy too harshly by what just happened, ma'am. I reckon you're the most excitin' thing that's happened around here since Abel Todd bought one of them fancy washtubs for his hotel last year."

The lady raised an eyebrow. "Oh. I see. That must have been quite a sight, I'm sure." She began straightening her dress and patting her hair.

I jammed my hat back on my head. Was that the best I could do? I figured I was a little out of practice when it came to womenfolk. Being a marshal don't leave much time for talking sociable-like to women.

I cleared my throat. "Well, if it's a room you want, ma'am, I'd be plumb honored to escort you to the hotel."

She stopped her primping and glanced at the star on my vest. "Marshal?" she asked, even though that's what my badge said.

"Yes, ma'am. Been the marshal of Hazy quite a few years. If you ever got trouble, just find me, Jeremiah Cutter. Office is down the street, next to the saloon."

She searched my face long and hard. I got to looking into them big hazel eyes, and right then I pegged her for a woman who already had trouble.

 

*         *        *

 

That evening I figured I'd better keep an eye on the hotel. Since Mrs. Sarah Jacobson had taken a room, men had been in and out of the hotel the better part of the afternoon. After that scene on the street, no telling what would happen next. Oh, not that I thought anyone meant any real harm to the little lady. But a body's got a right to their privacy, I don't care how good-lookin' they might be. Mrs. Jacobson must have had a mighty good reason to stay in Hazy if the treatment she'd gotten so far hadn't chased her out.

And the way the men were acting, that's what they were fixing to do. Why, you'd think they hadn't seen a female in ten years.

The womenfolk didn't hold well with the widow's presence, let me tell you. There was an awful lot of dishes broke in Hazy that night. I could only hope that after a few days things would settle down.

After a fine supper of beef stew and corn pone down to Ma McCreary's, I moseyed on over to the hotel. I parked myself in the lobby, sat just inside the doorway where I had a good view of the stairs. I declare, if that hotel didn't look just like an anthill with the men running back and forth. Only thing was, I couldn't figure what made them keep comin'. Mrs. Jacobson wasn't letting them in, 'cause I heard a powerful lot of knocking upstairs, but no door opening or shutting. Maybe they thought to wear her out with their pestering.

I'd just about decided enough was enough when I heard a woman scream upstairs.

Well, sir, that lobby came to a holy standstill. Nary an ant so much as moved.

Then a woman's voice said loudly, "I didn't invite you in! Now you get out of here. I've got a gun."

I ran for those stairs faster than you could say Tom Sawyer. I could hear two voices, a man's and the widow's.

"Aw, don't shoot afore you hear me out." Nahum Barker. I shoulda known he'd be the one to cause trouble.

I heard a shot, more like a pop really. Mrs. Jacobson cried out. Near the top of the stairs I swung myself over the banister. I ran down the hall to the widow's room. The door was open and I darted inside, Colt first.

Just as I went in, Barker grunted and collapsed to his knees. His hands were pressed to his groin, but I didn't see no blood. "Marshal, you better lock that woman up!" he said between groans.

I glanced at the widow. She was backed up to the wall, a lady's handgun on the floor, almost under the bed. She was pale, but didn't cower.

I put my Colt away and picked up the revolver. It was so small I could close my hand around it. "Well, I surely wasn't expectin' to find this at all."

"Me neither!" Barker said, still on the floor.

Mrs. Jacobson just raised her chin.

"Get outta here, Barker," I said.

He sputtered. "But--marshal, ain't ya gonna arrest her? She's a menace to society, I tell you! Look what she done to me!"

"Out!"

Grumbling, Barker retrieved his hat and limped away.

I checked the tiny revolver. One bullet missing. I glanced out into the hall to make sure there were no eavesdroppers, and noticed a fresh hole in the doorframe. "I'll be doggoned," I said, nodding at the hole. "Lucky thing for Barker you missed."

"I didn't miss."

I eyed her. Those hazel eyes never wavered. I handed her the derringer. "I see your knee don't miss its mark neither."

"A woman learns how to protect herself, marshal. Especially--"

I cocked an eyebrow. "Especially?"

She crossed the room and placed the derringer on the vanity. She stayed there with her back to me, but I could see her in the mirror. She had the bearing of a duchess. Her black dress showed off that hourglass figure of hers real nice.

"Been widowed long?" I asked.

She met my gaze in the mirror. "What business is that of yours?"

"Well, if I'm going to have to watch you like a cake in the oven, I'd like to know more about who I'm watchin'." I knew about cakes. Ma always said they was the dad-gummest things to bake. Pa would chuckle and say the woman who could bake a cake was worth the trouble of courting and wooing.

Mrs. Jacobson let her shoulders drop. She didn't lose her posture, just didn't look so stiff. "A few months," she said. Her voice was clear and her words defiant. She didn't look at me when she answered.

"I'm sorry, ma'am."

"Anything else you'd like to know?"

"Well, where you came from, for one thing."

"Texas."

That was a lie. Her accent was pure northern, or I was a Chinaman. Besides, the train had come from Montana, not Texas. "You plan to stay in Hazy?"

"Perhaps." She turned around and faced me. Her dress rustled when she moved. "You don't have to watch over me, you know. I can take care of myself."

"Yes, I've seen that. But that there Nahum Barker, he's a widower with nine kids, an' he's bound and determined to find a new ma for them young'uns. He ain't gonna let up so easy, 'specially since every other eligible female in Hazy's already turned him down. And there's others like him, sure as shootin'. I don't figger you're in any real danger, mind you, but if they're gonna be a-breakin' in your room and not takin' that little derringer of yours serious-like, I can't be havin' that a'tall. No, ma'am. Your coming here has stirred a fire out of dyin' embers."

"Why? I coughed. "Well, ma'am ... I expect you're just about the pertiest woman that ever set foot in Hazy. Even if you are wearing them widow's weeds--beggin' your pardon, ma'am."

Something flickered in her eyes, but I couldn't tell if it was amusement or disappointment. Or maybe it was just the kerosene lamp. "Why, marshal," she whispered. "Do you think I'm beautiful?"

All of a sudden I felt choked up. My face got hot and I couldn't look at her. I cleared my throat. "I reckon so, ma'am." I touched my hat and got out of there faster than a cat from a washtub full of soapy water.

 

*         *        *

 

Things quieted down the next day. At least the men had stopped wearing a path to the widow's door. But there was more than one pair of eyes watching the front of that hotel. She never came out, which suited me just dandy. I didn't want no more fights or arguments.

All the while I sat out front of my office gazing across the street, I was pondering my talk with the widow. She wasn't like any widow I'd ever met with, that was for sure. And in my line of work, a man meets a lot of widows.

Then round about mid-afternoon, one of Abel Todd's boys ran over from the hotel. "Got a message for ya, marshal," he said.

I took the square envelope from him. I didn't see no handwriting on it. "Who from?"

"The widow. Want me to wait?"

"No, you run along. Thanks, Billy."

There was just one piece of pink paper in the envelope, folded in half. In perfectly scrolling letters it read, Please come as soon as possible.

 

*         *        *

 

I found the widow pacing. "Marshal, you've got to do something!"

"That Nahum Barker bother you again?"

She shook her head. "No, no. It--it's ... a man."

"Sorta figured that. What's his handle?"

"Matthew Gideon."

"Not a Hazy man."

"He--he followed me here."

I lifted one eyebrow. "From Texas?"

She stopped pacing and glanced at me. "No. From Montana. He came on the train this afternoon."

"What's he want?"

She clammed up. She started pacing again and rubbed her arms like she was cold.

I watched her a minute. Then I cleared my throat. "Well, I'll just be on my way." I reached for the doorknob.

"Wait!" Mrs. Jacobson rushed toward me and reached out as though to grab my arm. Her hand was trembling. "Where are you going?"

"Back to my office, 'lessn you want to tell me who this Gideon fellow is an' why he followed you here."

She let her hand drop to her side. She looked up at me, and those watery hazel eyes made my knees go weak. But I couldn't be sure they weren't fake tears. I'd seen them before.

"He says my husband owed him money. That's one of the reasons I left. He says if I marry him he'll forgive the debt." She clasped her hands together. "Please, marshal, you've got to make him go away."

I stood there pondering, watching her. She'd look at me, then her gaze would flit about the room like a bee going from one flower to the next. She began to wring her hands.

I don't trust folks that can't look at me straight. Pa used to say you could tell a man by his handshake or his eyes. 'Course, she sure weren't no man, but the principle's the same.

I reached for the doorknob again. "Good day, ma'am."

"Marshal! Haven't you heard a word I said?"

"Every one. Sure would like to help you, but it'd be a sight easier if I knew the truth, Mrs. Jacobson."

She sighed. Suddenly she looked wore out and beat. She moved to the window and looked outside for a long time. Then she came back to me. This time she looked at me straight as an arrow.

"My name is not Sarah Jacobson, and I am not a widow. I'm Ruby Giles. I worked ... at a parlor house in Helena. Matthew Gideon owns the parlor house."

I'd heard about parlor house women. Soiled doves, some called them. "So you quit and now Gideon wants you back, is that it?"

"Yes. I finished my contract, but he won't let me go. He says I--bring in the business." Her cheeks flamed red and only then did she look away. She put her hands to her face and started to cry. "Oh, marshal, I can't go back to that miserable existence. But now--he'll never let me go."

She turned and flung herself into my arms. I could feel her warm tears soaking my shirt. My hands went sweaty like they did just before a gunfight. "Marshal, you've got to make him leave me alone. You've just got to!"

Well, sir, I'd be a blame liar if I said I didn't like the feel of her pressed close. She came just up to my chin and I could smell her hair, like roses. And her bein' in a puddle like she was, well, it made me want to hunt down Matthew Gideon like a dirty coyote and string him up.

Ruby Giles lifted her head and those big, hazel eyes just seemed to swallow me up. "Please, marshal," she whispered.

Now, I'm not one of these here Joes who go around kissing women for the heck of it. But for that one moment, I sure as Moses' burning bush wanted to. But I didn't.

I backed away, pulling my hat on tight. "I'll ... see what I can do, ma'am." I opened the door.

"Marshal?"

I stopped and half-turned back.

"Why didn't you kiss me just now? You wanted to."

I swallered and looked at her standing there all alone. "Well, ma'am, I reckon I always figgered to do my kissing when I's married."

I skedaddled before I could change my mind.

 

*         *        *

 

Abel Todd had a Matthew Gideon listed in his registry, but told me he'd gone out. So I went a-lookin' for Gideon in the first place anybody looks when they're trying to find a person, the Hazy Hill Saloon.

There was the usual crowd for a late afternoon. I went to the bar and ordered apple whiskey. "Seen any strangers in here today, Mort?" I asked the bartender.

He nodded his bald head. "Just him, over there with the expensive duds."

I followed his gesture and spotted the man instantly. He was playing poker and winning, judging from the pile of cash in front of him. He wore a tailored three-piece suit, and his black hair was neatly trimmed and slicked into place. He was clean-shaven except for a thin mustache.

I leaned back and watched him, taking a swallow of my whiskey every now and then. Ruby Giles didn't quite understand what she was asking. I couldn't just run the man out of town for bein' there, much as I might have personally liked to.

I didn't much care for the man's looks, and it didn't take me long to make up my mind about that. A man learns to trust his instincts about folks. Sometimes the difference between whether or not he enjoys another plate of beans hinges on that split second of reading his instincts and deciding to follow them. And standing there watching Gideon, my instincts were telling me what such a man put stock in and what he'd do if he lost it.

Adam Sloane was watching Gideon too. I caught his eye and with a jerk of my chin, motioned him to join me at the bar.

"I haven't been cheating, marshal, honest."

"Didn't say anything of the sort." I glanced at Gideon, gleefully sweeping the center of the table to add to his pile. "What's it take for a man to be that lucky?"

Sloane grinned. He reached into his right shirt sleeve and withdrew a seven of hearts. I gave the card a once-over, feeling every surface. "Edge's been marked."

"He's been going like this for over two hours," Sloane said.

"Has he now? Well, I think it's high time his luck changed." I looked at Sloane.

I'll be hogtied if the man didn't blanche a little. "Now marshal, I told ya, I haven't been cheating. Not at cards, leastways. I'm not going to walk into one of your traps, no, sir. Not today."

"The trap ain't for you, Sloane. Can you beat him?"

Sloane rubbed his jaw so hard he wouldn't need to shave on the morrow. "What'd you have in mind?"

"Clean him out."

He whistled. "He must have two thousand on the table." He cut his eyes toward Gideon a moment, then back to me. "You got it, marshal."

He started for the table, but I held him back with a hand on his arm. "Every man gets his starting bet returned to him."

Sloane frowned. "Aw, marshal."

I'll never forget the look on Matthew Gideon's face the first time he lost. Like a little boy watching his prize marble sink to the bottom of a pond.

But Sloane wasn't hasty in his mission. He let Gideon win here and there. Gideon began to get impatient and placed bigger and bigger bets. In less time than it had taken him to gain it all, Gideon lost every penny.

As Sloane scraped together his winnings, Gideon slammed his hand on the table and rose to his feet. "Nobody is that lucky."

Sloane looked up innocently. "No? Seems to me just a few minutes ago you were that lucky."

I sauntered over. "What seems to be the trouble here?"

"He's nothing but a dirty cheat, marshal," Gideon spat. "Playing with marked cards, I'll wager."

Sloane stood, thumbing a roll of bills. "Care to make that a real wager, Gideon? They're your cards, remember."

Gideon stared Sloane down through narrowed eyes. The saloon was quieter than Reverend Candles' church on Saturday.

Then Gideon turned and stalked from the saloon. Every man resumed his business, the confrontation already forgotten.

Sloane picked up his winning hand, four aces and the ten of spades. "Sort of opened up the trap and turned him loose, didn't you?"

I took the cards, felt the marked edges, then let them float back to the table. I smiled. "Trap ain't been closed yet."

 

*         *        *

 

Ruby Giles was in my office waiting for me. When I walked in she rushed to my side and latched onto my gun arm. She stood a mite too close for comfort.

"Marshal, I'm so frightened! You don't know what Matthew Gideon is like."

"I've got an idea."

"No, no, you don't! He'll fool you. He's charming and debonair on the outside, but inside he's--cruel and manipulative."

If she gripped my arm much tighter, I wasn't going to have any feeling left. I put my hand on her arm and tried to turn myself loose. She held on like a petrified kitten. Her fingers about felt like a kitten's claws, too. "Miss Giles, you don't have to worry. I'm workin' on it."

She took a step closer so that we were almost touching. She surely was a woman that had been put together well. But I would have breathed a heap easier if she'd been on the other side of the room.

She lifted her face to me and whispered, "I'll do anything, marshal." Then she reached up on tiptoe and kissed me sound and square.

Well, sir, I'd never kissed no woman as perty as Ruby Giles. I might have enjoyed it, but in an instant I saw what she was tryin' to do. It made my stomach turn.

I pushed her away, so hard she stumbled against my desk. I hadn't meant to be so rough, but now was not the time for apologies. I glared at her. Yes, sir, I glared at her. She trembled beneath my gaze.

"You hated that life, did you? 'Pears to me you're still livin' it. You been manipulated so long all you know is to manipulate other folks. You think all men are like Matthew Gideon. You think a man won't do something for nothin'. But you don't have to do me no favors, Miss Giles. All you had to do was ask."

She stood there crying quietly. Her voice cracked when she spoke. "I'm--sorry. You are right, marshal. I've ... forgotten what kindness was like. I feel so foolish."

"No need." I dug my bandana out of my back pocket and handed it to her. She touched it daintily to her eyes.

I cleared my throat. "Now I've got a plan that'll lock Matthew Gideon up, but you have to trust me."

"What do I need to do?"

"Just stay in your room. And don't worry. I'll be watchin' every move Gideon makes."

She gave me back the damp bandana. "Thank you, marshal. I'm glad I got off the train in Hazy." She left and through the window I watched her cross the street to the hotel. Then I unlocked the chain to my gun rack and got a shotgun ready.

 

*         *        *

 

Just before dark I situated myself in the back alley. I sat beneath a flight of steps that led to the back of the hotel's upper floor. Through the stairs, I could see the livery stable in the moonlight. I rested the shotgun on my knees and leaned back against the hotel wall. And I waited.

I suppose I didn't need a shotgun. My Colt would've done the job all right. But the way I figured it, Matthew Gideon was desperate now that he'd lost his money. The shotgun would make a bigger impression on a desperate man.

It must have been well after midnight when I heard a muffled commotion. The back door of the hotel opened above me and two people started down the stairs. It was Matthew Gideon and he had his arms around Ruby Giles' waist. He kind of half-dragged her, half-pushed her ahead of him. Her arms were tied behind her. She was trying to make noise, but her mouth was gagged. They were headed for the livery stable.

I eased the shotgun into my hands. I didn't have time to congratulate myself that my plan had worked.

I followed them down the street, sneaking like I was playing Blind Man's Bluff.

Just when Gideon pulled open the door of the livery stable, I made my move. "Goin' on a picnic, Gideon?"

He spun around, shielding himself with Ruby. "Who's there?" He peered in the dark.

"It ain't Frank and Jesse James. And that ain't no way to handle a lady."

THE END

 

Stephanie L. Rose is a native Pennsylvanian now living in North Dakota. She writes historical fiction and Westerns. She enjoys reading other Westerns and watching honest-to-goodness Western movies.

 

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