"Iragene, I would like your permission to court Cassie." Iragene's relief and joy were almost palpable. Cassie was like an adopted sister who had come to New Mexico with Iragene, her brother Daniel, and Daniel's wife Prudence. She had slavery in her distant past but resembled the hacienda owners in the area. Like Dr. Stein, she could have passed for a number of different groups formerly living here and those now coming to the United States. Cassie was an amazing healer, midwife, and cook. She was beautiful, forgiving, and talented. She had even won the trust of Iragene's sometimes-difficult sister-in-law after delivering a very challenging birth with both the baby and the mother coming out of it just fine.
* * *
Though Cassie had only known Dr. Stein for a few months, their similar interests made them a perfect couple.
"Dr. Stein, you don't have to ask me. It's Cassie you have to ask, but I do want you to know you have my blessing," and she smiled at him and even hugged him.
Her happiness was contagious, and he smiled as he told her his plans. "I can't get out to the ranch to see her, but I heard she's coming to town for the dance and the celebration. Do you think she would be interested?"
"If she's not, she's crazy!" Iragene knew Cassie was attracted to the doctor. She brightened up every time she saw the doctor, and
lately he had been taking Cassie with him on his rounds. They were both healers, both people persons, and both researchers—always
trying to learn new ways of helping their patients. Iragene was elated, and she felt that finally happiness would find its way into
Cassie's life. She too had lost her fiancĆ© after the gunfight last year. Esteban was Alejandro's brother, but unlike Alejandro, he didn't
die, he broke his engagement with Cassie because his mother insisted that he marry into a traditional Nuevo Mexicano family. He was now
the sole male and, she said, he owed it to his family.
"Well, I appreciate your enthusiasm," he smiled. "Now I think I'd better get back to my notes."
Iragene exited the doctor's office, and an immediate wave of euphoria washed over her. Finally the pain of the last year was in the past. Cassie had a chance at happiness, and maybe, so did she as she thought about the handsome cowhand in his cell. She almost skipped over to the hotel where she went up the stairs and into the room where the shooting had taken place. She slowly and carefully turned the handle on the door, and it opened into a room with a large bloodstained carpet.
She looked around and began to focus on the walls and ceiling, looking for any bullet holes that might have been shot from Fenton's gun. Finding a hole wouldn't be decisive, but it would at least indicate that Fenton had discharged his gun. She picked up the gun that remained on the carpet and looked at it. It hadn't been fired, though it was possible that the siblings drew faster. The fact that the gun was out indicated an effort to shoot his alleged victims or defend himself, but she was missing something. Of course, she hadn't gone through Fenton's pockets for information. She had been so involved in the discussion with the doctor that she had forgotten to go through Fenton's pockets.
She stepped out of the door and saw that Finn was now sitting in front of Clara's door. "Anything new here or with the Miller crew?"
"I talked to the lady inside, Sheriff, she doesn't want any food, and she's just moping with the curtains closed. As for the Miller crew, they should arrive any minute. They got the payroll out, and the men have been paid. The town's eighteen bars will be busy tonight."
"And, unfortunately, so will we," she answered. "But now I need to find Fenton's clothes and gear before the cowboys get to town." She bade him farewell and went down to the front desk. She approached him.
"Did the man who was killed have a room here?" she asked the clerk.
"No, I'm not even sure if he had a room in town, Sheriff."
"So he wasn't carrying a bag or his gear?" she asked.
"No, Ma'am. He asked to see the sign-in book, but I refused to open it to him, but he looked over and saw Miss McCarthy and her brother. I don't think they saw him, and he thanked me and followed them up the stairs after a minute. We got real busy about then, but by the time I alerted Mr. MacDonald, we heard the shots."
"Anything else you can think of?" she looked at the young clerk.
"No, Sheriff, but I'll let you know if I think of anything."
"Thank you, Charles," and she turned to leave. She walked back over to the doctor's office. She knocked and then entered. He looked up at her, surprise on his face. "How can I help you, Sheriff?"
"Dr. Stein, I'm sorry to bother you again, but I got so caught up with your autopsy information and your intention to court Cassie, I forgot to get Fenton's clothes."
"They're over there on the chair, Sheriff. I have to say, they are very expensive, and I am just a little envious," he said lightly.
"Well, Doctor, I guess you'll have to switch professions—you'll have to start taking lives instead of saving them."
"Too many years of training, I suppose. I don't want to have to start all over," and he smiled at her as she left the office.
She walked into the office with the dead man's clothes and laid them down on her desk and told Cruz where she'd been. Cruz looked at her, surprise on his face. "Sheriff, you're not able to concentrate today. You've doubled your work by having to retrace your steps. Are you feeling all right?"
She looked at Cruz and then she looked over at the handsome cowboy relaxed and sleeping in the cell. Inside she felt a flutter, but she turned her head to Cruz and said, "Just a lot of things on my mind, Cruz, don't worry. I'm fine." Her words were cut short when a dozen rowdy cowboys came riding down the street, shouting, shooting, and hee-hawing. "Come on, Cruz, the fun is over, time to get down to work. Miller's men have arrived."
Both officers put on their guns and checked their rifles. Quinn never moved, and the two walked out the door to protect the town from the raucous cowboys.
It was late before Iragene collapsed on her bed in the house that the town provided its sheriff. She washed her face, brushed her teeth with tooth powder, jumped into bed, and only then remembered that she hadn't eaten since breakfast over eighteen hours ago. Then, she closed her eyes and only opened them almost eight hours later.
* * *
Iragene jumped out of bed, washed up and pulled a brush through her hair. She changed her riding skirt and put on a clean blouse. Her stomach made music as she walked down the street to the office.
Luckily Cruz had already gotten green chili and eggs wrapped in tortillas for everyone, including the prisoner. He had a pot of coffee on the stove and a pitcher of milk for Iragene's coffee. As usual, she could have kissed this amazing man. They sat contentedly and ate without saying anything.
Iragene had felt light headed without the food, but now she felt herself, and she turned and looked straight at Quinn and wished him a good morning. Surprised, he returned her salutation and asked her about her evening out.
"What can I say?" and she looked over at the five cowboys passed out in the cell next to his. "Some of the others we couldn't
even find. Only half of them rode out of town. Some are at Mrs. Browns, oh . . . "
"Sheriff, it's quite all right. I can assume what Mrs. Browns is." He smiled and Iragene was delighted to see beautiful, white teeth. But his face turned serious as he asked about his sister. "How is Clara doing?"
Finn looked up. "I took her down to breakfast and then took her back to her room. Mr. MacDonald left a bartender outside of the door so I could catch some sleep. I'll be back over there about 3:00, mister. We'll look out for her for you," and he left to get some sleep.
Cruz stood up and grabbed his rifle. "I'll be out checking on those left-over cowboys and making the rounds, Sheriff." He left the room, and the door closed behind him.
"Sheriff," Quinn said, "I see you have Fenton's clothes. Did you get a chance to look through it for the letter?" He was standing up now, impatient to find the letter that could release him and his sister from being falsely accused of murder.
Iragene reached over to the suit. She picked up the jacket and felt in the pockets. She pulled out a wallet with money, receipts, and tickets. A clean handkerchief sat in his breast pocket. She looked over at Quinn who was beginning to sweat. She felt all around the jacket for any secret pockets but found none.
She picked up the vest and checked out all of the pockets. No letter was found. She looked toward the cell at Quinn. "We'll check the pants. Don't get discouraged."
Quinn stood up in the cell as close as he could to where Iragene was. She was now looking through the pants, every pocket, front and back. She was just about to give up when she found a second pocket behind a front pocket. Reaching inside she felt some paper. She pulled it our and found an envelope with feminine writing on it—addressed to Quinn McCarthy.
"You found it! Iragene, you are an angel. You never gave up on us. Is the letter inside?"
"Yes, do you mind if I read it?"
"No, no of course not. Go ahead."
I am fleeing for my life. I witnessed a murder ordered by Brook against his partner, Arthur Jury. His right hand man, Robert Fenton shot him right in front of me!
I am buying a ticket tonight for a stage to La Madera, New Mexico. I will be staying at The Hotel on Main St. I'll be taking meals in the room and staying out of the public's eye. Quinn, I don't know what to do! I can't believe the man that I thought I loved was such a monster. Quinn, he struck me!
I know that together we can figure out what I should do. Right now I am so afraid. Please meet me as soon as possible. I have enough money for both of us.
Your loving sister, Clara
"Why that son of a gun!" Iragene exclaimed. "He did take it from your room." The two looked at each other. "Can I exchange my suite for another room, Sheriff?" Quinn smiled and looked into Iragene's eyes. Their smiles and relief were contagious.
"I think that would be a good idea. We may have others in line waiting for that suite," and she opened the door to the jail cell. Quinn gathered his things, then set them down on the desk and lifted Iragene up off the ground. He whirled her around and she put her head back and laughed.
"Okay, Mr. McCarthy, put me down. You're free to join your sister, but you're not to leave town."
"Thank you, Iragene. Thank you for everything." He set her down and looked into her face. He looked at her closely, noting that her blue eyes and rich brown hair with mahogany highlights went perfectly with her face. She was beautiful in a wonderful and unique way. He stared at her, thinking about kissing her, and then he smiled and walked quickly out of the office into the street. She watched him walk away, and she wondered if his walking out was the beginning of something or the end. She sighed and smiled a bit as she gathered her things and walked over to the telegraph office.
"Got anything for me, Gus?" she asked the telegraph agent.
"Got one message for you, from the Charles Goodnight! Here it is Sheriff!"
"Thanks, Gus, I'll get the paper work back to you as soon as possible," and she walked out into the sunlight to read the telegraph.
Goodnight didn't seem to mind that the telegraph was costly as he described Quinn in great detail and then discussed the letter Quinn had received from his sister. Iragene's telegraph was timely as he was just about to set off to Colorado. He wished Quinn and his sister good luck, and said if needed, he would be at the Colorado ranch in a couple of weeks.
Iragene held the telegraph as if it was a letter written on gold leaf. The description of Quinn that Goodnight had described was perfect, and his comments about Clara's letter made it obvious that it was the same letter Iragene now had in her office. Now she had only to wait to see if Arthur Jury's body had shown up and if Fenton's bullets matched those in the dead man. Of course there was always a chance the body would never show up, but Iragene now felt confident that Quinn and his sister were telling the truth.
Iragene walked back to the office. When she walked in, Cruz was just letting out the cowboys they had put in the cells the previous night. He was giving them back their guns, all which were empty. When the final hung-over cowboy staggered out of the jail, Cruz took two buckets of soapy water and tossed it into the cell where the men had spent the night. He then took a mop and washed down the cell.
He never turned around but addressed Iragene. "Entonces, Sheriff. What did you discover at the telegram office?"
"In my hand I hold a telegram sent to me from the famous Mr. Goodnight. He verified McCarthy's identification and the information in his sister's letter."
He turned around, hoping to see Iragene's expression as she spoke. For the first time he saw happiness emanating from his boss. He was relieved to see that the shadow of the last year had disappeared.
"Now we can sit back and relax. No cattle crew arriving anytime soon, no new murders, and no new shoot-outs. Maybe we should think about some days off. I know you've wanted to visit my nephew and help pick out a horse for him. What do you say about taking off for a few days?" she asked her deputy.
"I'd like that very much, but I'll be back Friday at noon."
"Why so soon?"
"Because, and I guess you forgot, Friday is the beginning of the 25-Year Celebration of La Madera. There's a dance Friday and
Saturday, a chili contest, a rodeo, and I forget all else. I think you could use a third person here. Besides, I'll be bringing
Cassie back with two picnic baskets. Remember, you're participating in the auction where some lucky man is going to bid for your
fine company and Cassie's fine cooking—hmmmm, I might bid on that myself," and he scratched his almost hairless chin.
"Not bad company and oh that food!"
Iragene laughed and normally would have encouraged Cruz to bid, even given him extra bills to go into the town's building fund, but this time she held off for another possible bidder. Yet even if he wasn't even interested, at least, because of him, a great sadness was able to heal, and she now felt an unbearable weight had been lifted from her.
"Damn, ah darn, I'm glad you reminded me about the celebration. I forgot all about the anniversary weekend. You're right. I'll give Finn some time off after the affair. I don't think I need to have a bodyguard posted on Miss McCarthy's door since her brother is now out of jail. Let's hope that Fenton's death is the end of that affair. I'm hoping that Blackhurst just gives up after not hearing from his hired killer.
"But, he did send Fenton out, so just to be safe, we should keep Finn making the rounds of the stable and the stage, looking for any newcomers. We'll get a description of Blackhurst from Clara and pin it up around town," she paused in her thinking.
"Bueno, but Sheriff, don't forget you can send the Murphy boy to get me. Besides this Blackhurst fellow there are other concerns, the miners, the famers, and the occasional drunken cowboy."
Iragene began to laugh. "You're right, Cruz. La Madera is a potential powder keg with all those saloons. I promise I'll keep a vigilant watch. Come on, let's treat ourselves to a good lunch over at The Hotel restaurant before I send you out to the ranch." She put her rifle into the rifle cabinet and locked it up. Cruz put on his holster, and they walked out of the office together.
"Breakfast was excellent this morning, but it's only a memory now. I'm starving," she exclaimed.
"You're always hungry, Sheriff, and yet you remain slender and fit. I am not sure how you do it. Just the amount of cream you put in your coffee should put the pounds on you."
Iragene laughed again and began thinking about the possibility of meeting a certain hotel guest she hadn't seen for a couple of hours. In her mind she replayed his joy at being released and lifting her up and twirling her. Because she hadn't felt so light spirited in so long, the event played over and over in her mind.
The maĆ®tre d sat them and gave them the menu for the day. The first time Iragene brought Cruz into the swanky restaurant, the same maĆ®tre d almost refused to give him a menu, assuming he couldn't read and didn't belong there. Cruz not only proved he could read, but could speak several languages, sometimes serving as a translator for this same waiter. Cruz seemed to pick up languages as easily as dogs picked up fleas.
Both sheriff and deputy were concentrating on the menu when Clara and Quinn came in and were seated across from them. Iragene looked up and saw them at the same time they saw her. "Would you care to join us?" she said without thinking.
"We would love to join you," Clara responded, and the young maĆ®tre d moved their settings to Iragene's table. Small talk about the food followed, and then they ordered.
"I received a telegraph from Mr. Goodnight." Both siblings looked up quickly. Iragene focused on Quinn. "He verified your identities and your receiving Clara's letter. I'm now waiting to hear if Jury's body was found."
"I just wish this were all over and in the past," Clara moaned holding her head. "I feel as if I've been running for half my lifetime." Quinn looked over at his sister and rubbed her shoulders, saying some soothing words in Gaelic.
Iragene almost smiled when she saw Cruz's ears perk up at the new sounds. If the siblings were going to stick around, Cruz would surely corner them about their language.
Their food arrived, and again small talk ensued. They discussed their families briefly, the good food and excellent coffee at The Hotel, and finally the upcoming anniversary of the town.
"So, Sheriff, tell us about the celebration this week-end. Are out-of-towners able to attend?" Iragene hoped she wasn't blushing from sheer joy. She waited a second and then explained the upcoming events, including the picnic lunch and dance.
"Did I leave anything out, Cruz?"
"No, except the fact that you had forgotten the entire event was even going to take place."
"Really?" Quinn asked. "I can see why, you're quite a dedicated officer of the law. If we had been in any other town, we would both be sitting in jail with more dire consequences facing us."
"Thank you, but Cruz and I were just doing our jobs. Now how about some dessert?"
The waiter brought the dessert tray around. On it were flan, apple pie, biscochitos, empanadas, Mexican Hot Chocolate, and red chili pumpkin pie. The siblings ordered apple pie while Iragene and Cruz ordered red chili pumpkin pie. They all ordered coffee.
"I'm interested in bidding on a lunch on Saturday, Sheriff," Quinn said, feigning seriousness, "are you going to submit a picnic basket on Saturday?"
"I am, and it will be delicious."
"You're a good cook?" he continued with the banter.
"Oh, no, I'm a terrible cook. My friend Cassie always cooks up my picnic basket."
"So you're not a good cook?" he asked.
"No, Mr. McCarthy, I'm a terrible cook. Alejandro used to laugh and say . . . " and then she caught herself. Cruz looked at her, realizing she never mentioned the man's name to anyone but him and her family. She jumped up and said, "I really have to be going, I forgot I have so many things to do before Cruz leaves. If you'll excuse me, please." She awkwardly smiled and left the dining room.
"Oh, dear," said Clara, "did we open up an old wound?"
Cruz knew he really had no right to discuss Iragene's past, but a year had passed, and Iragene appeared to have turned a page on
her past and opened a new one with this cowboy sitting across from him. He looked at the man and then said quietly, "Mr. and Miss
McCarthy, I have never shared this with anyone—it was not and it still isn't my place to do so, but the sheriff has opened
up to you in a way she hasn't done with anyone. Alejandro was her fiancĆ©e. They both investigated a family of land grabbers, run
unknowingly by the old sheriff's wife and her brothers. This family murdered families and innocents in horrible ways, thinking
they could make it rich because they heard the railroad was going to come through here. The biggest irony is the railroad had
changed its plans due to lack of water and rerouted." He paused and looked at his listeners. They hadn't moved a muscle.
"When it appeared we would get no help from the sheriff, Iragene, Alejandro, and I got some ranchers together and we went after them. We thought we had them, but the brothers grabbed Esteban, Alejandro's brother. In order to take a difficult shot, Alejandro stood up, and the brothers shot him."
"Oh my God," Clara cried out and stifled her reaction with a sob. "How horrible."
"It was horrible. Iragene fell apart emotionally, but not before she killed one brother, emptying her rifle into him while he still held Esteban as a shield."
Quinn looked at him with amazement on his face. "You say she shot and killed the man while still holding this Esteban? She must be an remarkable shot."
"She's truly a sharpshooter. She'd been shooting since she was a girl."
"And did she shoot the other evil brother?" Clara asked with a touch of excitement in her voice.
"No, I did," Cruz modestly and quietly stated.
"Oh God, that poor women, and here I am feeling sorry for my situation," Clara said. "She is special." She turned toward Cruz. "Thank you for sharing this information. You know we shall be discreet."
"Thank you, I am trusting you to be so. I have to go back to the office. I'm leaving for a few days, and I don't want Iragene inundated with paper work." He got up to pay, but Quinn got up too.
"Please, for all you've done for us, please let me at least pay for your lunch. You and Iragene have gone out of your way to make us feel safe here." Quinn reached his hand across the table, and Cruz obliged by shaking his hand.
Cruz walked out of the restaurant feeling good about this man and his sister. Not every Anglo treated him, a small Indian looking Mexicano, with respect. He appreciated a man who recognized him for his strengths and held no bias against him for his background. Men like this, unfortunately were few.
The week passed by without any major incidences besides the usual fight or drunk having to be admonished or taken in to the jail to cool off. Iragene got all the paper work completed and felt relieved going into the weekend. She watched the wooden dance floor and the stands and tables being set up for La Madera's 25th Celebration. She had received a telegraph from the sheriff in El Paso. Yes, a body resembling the description of Arthur Jury had been found. When the officers went to the home of Brook Blackhurst, the maid let them in. They found blood on the carpet and the walls. They sent the size of the bullets in his chest so Iragene could compare them to the bullet size in Fenton's gun. They matched. Blackhurst was nowhere to be found.
Iragene contemplated telling the McCarthys all this information but hesitated. Perhaps they weren't in danger. After all, Blackhurst had apparently absconded with the company's money, so why should he risk coming to the same town where his hired gun had been fatally shot? And yet something niggled in the back of her mind. She decided to wait until Cruz returned. She would just continue to have Finn watch the hotel, stage station, and stable, making rounds every few hours. She neither heard from nor spoke to the McCarthys.
Friday morning arrived with a dark blue sky suggesting the slightest white build-up of the monsoon clouds. Thankfully the day was cooler than usual, settling into the low 80s and not the intolerable 90s of June. Iragene had just finished her flour tortilla with green chili and cheese. She was just wiping the last flakes off her mouth when two familiar voices were heard outside the door. She jumped up.
"Cassie, Cruz! Hallelujah, you're back. I have really missed you both, and she hugged her adopted sister."
Cruz stepped forward and smiled, then asked about the office. "Sheriff, how was your week? Do we know anything more about the El Paso situation?"
"I have all the information on your desk, Cruz. The new warrants are already up, and all the paper work for reimbursements has been submitted. So just relax and maybe practice your dance steps a bit. I hear Maria is coming to town and expects a certain someone to bid on her picnic basket and dance with her and not step on her toes."
Cruz played at being indignant, but he failed utterly and merely laughed. "Okay, Sheriff, I can tell you haven't had your coffee yet, so why don't you and Cassie get over to The Hotel and get some coffee and cake. I'll cover the office."
The two young women walked out arm and arm and headed toward The Hotel while trying to avoid the construction going on in the main street.
"Okay, tell me what's going on at home, Cassie? How is Alexander, my perfect nephew? He must be crawling by now. Cruz went out to help pick out a horse for him, but I think that's a bit premature."
"Maybe not now, but soon. He's trying to walk already, the rascal. He pulls himself up and drags himself around the room. Daniel wants to build him a play area to keep him in one spot instead of throughout the house."
"So tell me, what's been happening in town, lady? Cruz started filling us in on the excitement, but I want to hear it from you. I think he's leaving some of the good parts out."
"Well, I'm not sure what you mean by good parts, but I did have a request from a certain handsome, young doctor."
"Oh?" Cassie looked at her with curiosity, hoping that this news would be good news for her. "Tell me," trying not to sound too eager.
"Hmmm, how shall I say this . . . ?"
"Iragene, get to the point!"
"I was in Dr. Stein's office, looking at someone's grey brain sitting in a bowl with a bullet lodged in it when he asked me something," she deliberately paused, "he asked me if he could court you."
"Oh, what an image, thanks for the brain description," Cassie said feigning disgust, then paused before she asked, "what did you say?"
"I said, he has to ask you . . . but he had my blessings."
"Really?" she just sat there with a dreamy expression on her face. By now the coffee arrived and they had to choose a cake from the tray.
"I'll take that one," Iragene pointed to the pastry with jelly. Cassie chose the same.
Iragene took a bite out of her pastry and then asked, "Well, Cassie, what are you going to say to Dr. Stein?"
Cassie looked at her friend and smiled, "I think I'll say yes. What do you think?"
"I think you'd be crazy if you didn't say yes! You're perfect for each other! You both love people's insides, their sicknesses, their skin infections. Oh I could go on and on."
"Iragene I know he was interested in you when he first got here. Are you sure you're not interested? Or, is there someone you are interested in?"
"I really don't know, Cassie. I did meet someone. He was involved in the situation we had here, I'm sure Cruz said something to you about the fatal shooting by the brother and sister."
"He alluded to something about that. How do you feel? It's been a year, Iragene. Alejandro wouldn't want you to act like a grieving widow the rest of your life. You know he loved life and you too much to condemn you to a life of emptiness and celibacy. He was too passionate a man."
"Well, I don't even know how Quinn feels, that's his name. Maybe he'll ask me to dance tonight."
"Oh yes, the dance. Iragene, I not only brought a picnic basket for you, I brought your party dress."
"My party dress? Why I haven't worn that since the last baille we attended with . . . with Alejandro and Esteban.
I don't think I could wear that dress again, Cassie. I'm sorry. I hope you didn't go to too much trouble, but . . . "
"Now just a minute, Iragene. Before you say no, listen. This dress isn't the party dress you wore, that's way out of style, according to Prudence's mother, so she sent each of us a new dress. The colors and styles are in fashion. They're beautiful; the overskirt swoops up, leaving the underskirt exposed. They're so stylish. In addition to the dresses, she sent each of us a lace shawl. Iragene, I can't even begin to describe them. I gave the maid at the hotel the dresses to freshen up, so they should be back in the room by now."
"Prudence's mother? Why she didn't even approve of either of us, what happened?"
"Alexander happened. Pru's mama realized that you and I have been there for her and their grandson, also she wants to make sure that his aunt and his adopted aunt reflect well on Pru and her family."
"Cassie, you sound so cynical! You're not like that—I am." Cassie just looked at her and sipped her coffee. Then she responded, "I think this year has opened my eyes to what people are capable of doing, robbery, murder, betrayal."
"Yes, I understand, but I don't want you going into a good relationship carrying the past with you. Cassie, you have a new start!"
"You're right. Let's finish up and head for our room." They got up and paid and walked up the stairway. On the second landing a door opened and shut and Iragene heard two familiar voices.
"I don't understand why you need another shirt, Quinn. You already have a good, clean one. You could wear it tonight and tomorrow."
"Sorry, Sis, I want to have a clean one for tomorrow, and the General Store will be closed. You know you don't have to come with me."
"Of course I have to come with you, Quinn, you have terrible taste."