Iragene and Cassie ran up to the third floor. Cassie looked at Iragene, "What was that all about? I feel like a schoolgirl listening in on another person's conversation. Do you know those people? Is that the brother and sister Cruz talked about?"
"Yes, did you get a chance to see him?" and she grabbed Cassie's arm.
"No, but I think you wrenched my arm. Maybe I need to see Dr. Stein?" she giggled and Iragene joined her. They walked into the room, and Iragene gasped as she saw the three dresses, each one beautiful. Next to each dress was a light, lacy shawl—perfect for the weather in June.
"We will be the belles of the ball, tonight, Cassie, but I need to get back to work now. I need to relieve Finn so he has a couple of hours to eat and rest. Oh yes, where are our baskets for tomorrow's picnic?"
"In a chest on the wagon. Daniel went up the mountain this morning to get some ice. Hopefully our lunches will remain fresh for tomorrow. Daniel and Prudence aren't leaving until about two this afternoon. Alex always takes a good nap in the wagon. They don't plan on participating in any event until tomorrow morning so they're taking their time."
"See you tonight," and they gave each other a quick hug.
Iragene was hoping to catch a view of Quinn, but the street was too busy, and she ended up trying to avoid the construction. She got back to the office. Looking in she saw Cruz. "Anything new since I left?"
"No, nothing new, Sheriff. I sent Finn to get dinner and get a good rest. I walked by the hotel just to see if all was quiet, and so far all is well. People are arriving in town. It should be a bit crowded tonight and tomorrow. Is Cassie sleeping at your house or at the hotel with Daniel and his family?"
She'll be with me, but we'll be getting dressed at the hotel. Pru's mother gave each of us a new dress! Did you see them?"
"No, but I heard about them. The three of you will be the prettiest women in town."
"And," Iragene reached into her side drawer, "you will be one of the handsomest men in your new shirts," as she pulled out two dress shirts—one was traditional Mexicano, and the other was from the March's General Store.
"Sheriff, you didn't have to do this!" Cruz said with embarrassment in his voice.
"Of course, I did since I know how little a deputy earns. Go out and have a good time. I think I saw Maria's father's buggy. See if you can find her—after you freshen up and change."
"Yes, Sheriff, I will," he said laughing, "adios," and he walked out the door.
Iragene put on her holster and started making the rounds. With all the celebrations and the eighteen bars in La Madera, she had a few hours of work ahead of her before she would be able to change into her dancing clothes. She walked down the street making sure no one was carrying a gun in the no gun zone where the food and the dance floor were. Tomorrow in this same area, there would be food contests and the auction for the lunch baskets. The extra money would go into the town's building fund to rebuild the old schoolhouse.
Iragene finally finished her rounds and headed back to the hotel to change clothes. She found her brother, nephew, and sister-in-law in the lobby. She hadn't seen her nephew in weeks so she sat down and began to play with the redheaded imp. The family had decided to stay put in the hotel that night after their long buggy ride and have a quiet dinner. She joined them briefly and then walked back up the stairs to get dressed.
Iragene rejoiced at the new dress. No sign of a bustle, and the skirts flowed beautifully onto another. Though she wasn't fond of white, she loved the cranberry trimmings and underskirt. She put the dress on and twirled in front of the mirror. She hadn't allowed herself to think about Quinn and the possibility of dancing with him, but now she couldn't think of anything else but him. She put on her lace shawl, put her handgun in her reticule, and headed out the door.
The music had just begun. The players, a piano player from one of the bars, a fiddler, a washboard player, and a tambourine player were starting out with a reel. About half a dozen couples were out dancing. Cowboys were cleaned up. Farmers had their hair slicked back. Housewives had on clean dresses, some the same they wore to church, and the townspeople were in their finest. The head of the Town Council was the caller of the dance, and he was doing a better job at calling than he was at handling the town's finances.
Lanterns were set up around the dance area and the food area. There were plenty of tables to sit and eat or sit and sip a punch. No hard liquor was being sold in this area. Iragene looked around and saw many familiar faces. Many of her neighbors; the bank president and his family; the new mine owner and some of his men were there, all looking nice after a good bath; and lots of cowboys were there, looking mighty fine as well. There was always a paucity of women, and Iragene hoped that Clara would come down from her room and finally allow herself some forgiveness. Though she had killed a man, she too was the victim of a brutal, selfish man who didn't feel he had to live within the laws of the society.
Iragene was walking around, checking on the people as well as saying hello. So far, no one had a gun or glass of whiskey. She spotted Cassie and Dr. Stein. They were sitting at a table sipping punch and laughing. Cassie looked wonderful in her dress, and Iragene wanted to share the moment in her own dress. They spotted her and enthusiastically asked her to join them. She did, and the good doctor left to get her a punch.
"Has he said anything to you about courting?" Iragene whispered.
Cassie looked at her with amusement. "Iragene, you are my dearest friend and sister, and I want you to be the first to know that we are officially courting. Now stop worrying about me and start looking for that handsome stranger you're so interested in."
Iragene leaned over and hugged Cassie just as Quinn and Clara entered the area where the punch was. Clara looked relaxed, but he just looked around trying to find something or someone. Finally he stopped when he saw Iragene. He assertively clasped Clara's elbow and led her toward Iragene. When he arrived, Iragene took the liberty of introducing Cassie and the doctor. After fetching his sister a glass of punch, Quinn settled in and made small talk with the couple. Cassie asked about his family.
"Our parents came to America to get away from anyone who might have ugly feelings toward the Irish. They had had enough of that in Ireland what with the British occupation and then the potato famine. T'was a hard time." Iragene was surprised to hear this Irish lilt come into his voice, but it certainly enhanced the story of his parents escaping Ireland and then coming to America. She felt his need to tell his story was for her benefit. "My father was a furniture maker and did well in America where he didn't have to work under a British land owner and give his money over to him annually. Our parents just died a few years back, and luckily for us, they left us each a little something to start our lives. I met Goodnight one night at a dinner party of some of my father's old friends. I had fallen in love with the open range and cattle, and Goodnight was willing to take me on. It was at that dinner party that Clara met Brook Blackhurst, the man you're all familiar with now. Well, that's enough about me, Doctor, do you have a story to tell?"
"I do indeed, but it will have to keep, because I am going to dance for the first time with the woman I am courting," and he smiled and led Cassie away. Charles, the young clerk from the hotel approached Clara. He turned and asked Quinn for permission to dance with his sister. Quinn looked him up and down and then remained silent for a moment.
"You may dance with my sister if you remember to take no liberties, young man." The young men gulped and then with a shaking voice promised to take no liberties. Clara rolled her eyes, and the two young people walked away.
"Well, Sheriff, I guess that leaves us two oldies. Care to dance?"
"Why Mr. McCarthy, I thought you'd never ask."
He offered her his arm, and they walked off to the dance floor where the musicians were playing a lively waltz. Iragene loved to dance, and Quinn obviously did so as well. He and she danced around the dance floor, not realizing that several partners cleared the floor in order to watch them dance. The other notable couple was Cassie and her doctor. They too were excellent dancers. Iragene and Quinn were representative of the new western waltz, while Cassie and the doctor were elegant in their old world refined waltz.
Iragene closed her eyes and allowed herself to be led around the dance floor with a slight breeze blowing the wisps of hair that had escaped. She pictured herself looking like a grand lady in a Viennese court, wearing long white gloves and gliding across the ballrooms marbled floor. Realizing she was probably looking foolish with her eyes closed, she opened them and turned to look at Quinn, and saw he was looking back at her. He gave her an elegant twirl, and then the music stopped. Time stopped and for a moment, Iragene lost track of where she was and who was holding her in his arms. She looked at her dance partner and it was Alejandro. Then she saw his beautiful face smile at her, and she thought she heard, "Adios, my love," in his gentle voice. She blinked and when she looked again, she saw Quinn. He was looking at her strangely.
"Iragene, are you all right? Something very strange just happened," he said concern written on his face.
"No, you're probably a little light-headed from that wonderful dance. In fact, I am too—but in a good way," she said, hiding her misting eyes. She took his arm and they walked back to where they were sitting. Her lace shawl and her reticule were there.
"Shall I get us both some punch?" he asked and when she nodded, he started to walk away and then looked back, "You know you are an amazing dancer, don't you? Dancing with you is magical, Iragene." She smiled and then sat down to think about had just happened.
She was about to relax when Finn came up to her. "The man in the picture that we have posted all over town, well he just left the stable and he's wearing a holster with two pistols."
"Damn!" and she looked guiltily around, but no one seemed to hear. "Finn, please give me your rifle and you go back to the office and get another one. Also see if you can find Cruz. Good work, Deputy."
She was just getting up to leave when Quinn came back. He looked at her and saw the rifle. "Nothing to get concerned about, just some drunks causing some trouble. I'll be right back, please watch my shawl."
"Like hell I will, Lady! You're not going anywhere without me," and he moved to her side. "Besides, I don't think you need a rifle with some drunks. I heard you can outshoot, outrun, and outkick any male in town—so why the rifle?"
"My deputy thinks he spotted Blackhurst. Do you have any idea where your sister might be? She went off to dance with Charles, but I didn't see them come back."
"I just ran into them at the punch bowl, and they asked permission to go for a walk to the hotel where McDonald is throwing a small party for his staff. The Hotel lies between the stables and the dance. Let's go! Since I'm one of the people that brought this monster to town, the least I can do is be there when you confront him. I promise I'll stay out of the way."
They almost ran down the street. They found Cruz and Maria. With a gesture from Iragene, he took Maria over to a chair and whispered something in her ear. She nodded and he quickly joined Iragene and Quinn.
"Finn said he saw someone like Blackhurst leave the stable, and he's armed with two pistols. Clara is in the hotel where MacDonald is throwing a private party for his staff. Since we haven't seen him walk past the hotel, we're assuming that Blackhurst stopped to see if Clara is staying there or that he saw her entering the hotel with Charles. Quinn and I will take the front entrance, and you can take the back. Are you carrying?"
"Yes, got my pistol in the back of my pants under the vest." She smiled at her deputy, knowing that he, like she, was always ready for the unexpected. They walked together until Cruz separated to cover the rear exit.
Iragene didn't know exactly where the party would be, but she assumed it was in the small banquet room on the first floor. She could access it from the front entrance, and Cruz could back her up in the rear of the building.
Iragene and Quinn slowly entered the hotel. At the desk was a clerk Iragene hadn't seen before now. She approached him to verify that the party was in the ballroom. The party was there, and now as Iragene turned toward the foyer that led to the ballroom, she saw some furtive movement ahead. She signaled to Quinn to stay still, and he stopped immediately. Iragene give Quinn the rifle and started walking toward the hall.
"Clara," Iragene said gaily, "is that you? Come out. I can't wait to show you the new dress I told you about." Iragene said in a soft, feminine voice. She waited and heard some whispering.
"I'll be out a bit later, I have an old friend visiting, and I want to spend some time catching up," Clara said in a shaky voice.
"Oh, enjoy your friend, I'll see you later at the party."
"Yes, see you then." Now that they were sure that Clara was there with Blackhurst, Iragene walked back to Quinn, "Don't shoot unless I tell you. We've got this covered," she mouthed to Quinn.
Quinn started arguing, but stopped when he saw her look. "All right, I'll do it your way but . . ." He felt Iragene's hand on his thigh. That shut him up as Blackhurst and Clara appeared out of the shadows.
Iragene stepped out with her gun in her hand. "Blackhurst! Stop there, drop your gun, and let her go!"
"What? Who are the hell are you? And why should I listen to you, bitch?"
"Because I'm the sheriff. Now let that woman go."
"The hell I will. This bitch is the reason why I'm on the run. I lost everything because of her. She could have lived like a queen, but no, she wouldn't stop screaming. Now, I have nothing to lose. Just let me through, and I won't hurt you, lady," and he confidently started walking. He had Clara in front of him, and he turned her around to keep himself shielded. "Don't worry, you'll find her when I'm done with her."
"I'm warning you Blackhurst, drop your gun and let her go!"
"No women is going to tell me what to do," he sneered and started pulling Clara toward the door laughing in an ugly tone. He continued to laugh even when the bullet from Iragene's rifle went through his neck, hitting his jugular. In a bloody mess, he and his gun fell on the floor.
Covered in Blackhurst's blood, Clara screamed hysterically and ran first toward Iragene but then saw Quinn behind her. He ran to her and put his arms around her. Cruz was already in the hotel. He had run in, kicked away the gun, and was kneeling by the man on the floor. "He's dead, Sheriff."
The clerk stood there with his mouth open. "Do you have anything to cover him up with?" Cruz asked him. The clerk went into the office to locate a sheet or cover.
Iragene walked past the body and went down the hall into the ballroom. Everyone there stood together silently. They had been warned not to move or Clara would be killed immediately. After they heard the shot they remained standing, not knowing what to do.
"It's all clear now. Clara is just fine, and the man who took her is dead. I know you're not exactly in a party mood, now, but if possible, please try to enjoy yourselves," she said, knowing the party was over.
Iragene stayed at The Hotel until Clara answered all her questions. Apparently Blackhurst saw her just as she left the dance and followed her into the hotel party. It was there that he took out a gun and pointed it at her and demanded that everyone remain where they were. What seemed like hours to Clara was only minutes.
After Clara had been taken to her room, Iragene then stepped out to where the body lay and pulled back the cover and examined the dead man. She needed to see the person that she had had to shoot. She didn't want to become a killing machine, she needed to remind herself that this was a living being, and whether or not the killing was necessary and justified, she had still taken a life.
She looked up to see the doctor coming through the door. "Really, Iragene, couldn't you have waited till the dance was over?" Behind him she could see Cassie.
"Are you all right?" and she came to Iragene and gave her a hug.
"I'm fine. Just relieved to have it all over. That bastard could have just let it be, but he had to go after that poor girl. The level of malevolency in some people sickens me."
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a masculine figure approaching. She waited. He walked up to her and took her into his arms. He put his face into her hair and whispered into her ear, "Thank you, thank you so much for saving my sister." They stood like that for a while. When they separated, he held her shoulders and asked, "Will I see you tomorrow? I took all my money out of the bank to bid on a special lady's picnic basket," he said lightly, "Will she be there?"
"I think so, but now I think she'd better get home and get some sleep." She smiled and turned, "Doctor, is your patient ready to go?"
"Yes, I'll have Mr. MacDonald get some of his boys out here to get the body out of the main foyer. I'm afraid they'll have some serious clean-up to do. The blood is everywhere. Ahhh, here they come already. I would imagine McDonald will want all memory of him out of here," the doctor said.
"Amen to that, Dr. Stein," said MacDonald, and he signaled to his men to get the body out now, while a cleanup crew followed.
"Can we go, now, Sheriff?" Quinn asked as he pulled his sister safely into his arms.
"Of course, and may I suggest a glass of sherry for Clara?" Iragene turned toward the clerk, "Please deliver that to Miss McCarthy, and put it on my personal account. Thank you."
The next day, the news of the killing was all over town. Once again Iragene was a celebrity after the story of her precision shooting got around. By the time Iragene got the paperwork done for the doctor's and mortician's services, it was time to go to the auction for the lunch baskets. As she left her office, the town cheered for her. She was shocked and embarrassed as she walked to where the other women stood. They made a space for her as she stepped next to Cassie. When the cheering finally stopped, the auction got underway.
Since there were few women and lots of men, the bidding was rather intense at times. Cassie's basket of chicken and her pies were renown, but the doctor easily outbid the crowd.
Clara wished she had been able to take part in the bidding, especially after she saw Marnie MacDonald, the hotel owner's daughter, receive the highest bid. Eventually Iragene's basket came up for bidding. Though beautiful, Iragene's skills as a sheriff were daunting to most men. They didn't mind looking at her, but they were too intimidated to bid. Quinn was the first to bid, then one of the oldest men in the county, Hiram Jackson, also bid on her basket. Whispers went around that Cassie had baked the food, and Iragene got another bid, but finally Quinn out-bid them all and walked up triumphantly to claim his prize.
After the final bid was over, the couples walked to the edge of town where there was some relief from the heat under some cottonwoods. The stream that usually ran by the town was pretty low, but there was enough water for kids to play in and get wet. Iragene and her family were amongst the group.
Alexander, with the help of his Auntie Iragene, took baby steps until the water was up to his knees. He laughed and kicked, making joyous sounds at the new experience. When his aunt brought him back, he was thoroughly wet but happy. Thirty minutes in the arid New Mexico weather would dry out his shirt but not his pants as Iragene discovered, and she handed him over to his father.
Iragene relaxed next to the family she loved. With them were Quinn and Clara. They discussed the quarter horses that Daniel was breeding, the completion of the barn and the new addition to the Joneses' house. The family asked Quinn about Mr. Goodnight and how it was to work with such a renowned man. Quinn and Daniel then discussed saddles and cattle and other things that were so much a part of their world. In addition, both men loved to build furniture.
Cassie and Dr. Stein discussed some local herbs to ease horse colic, and again the conversation got off to a lively discussion of European cures versus New Mexico cures. As the afternoon continued the clouds continued to build up. In the not so distant Manzano Mountains, lightening could be seen and thunder could be heard.
Prudence, Daniel's wife and Iragene's sister-in-law, and Clara were discussing the latest fashions until a lightening flash and the ensuring thunder was heard. "Oh mah," Prudence replied in her thick east Texas drawl, "Ah declare, our summer monsoons are starting early." Since it had already been several hours since they had eaten, and they were pretty much the last group to clean up and leave, they decided to move their party to The Hotel and have some coffee. The baby was asleep in his mother's arms, and the rest helped carry the remnants of their lunch back to town.
Quinn held Iragene's hand, and they walked to town. They began to quicken their pace as they felt large rain drops begin to fall. They just made it back to the hotel's veranda when the sky opened and a river of rain fell. "Made it," Iragene said and turned and smiled.
Quinn looked down at her and smiled back. "I don't know how this happened, Sheriff, but I think I've fallen in love with the town's lawman, ah law woman, and I don't know what to do. Clara and I wired El Paso for the remainder of our inheritance, so we'll be comfortable for a while, but honestly, I don't know what's going to come next, Iragene. I only know that if I don't hold you and kiss you at least once before the day is over, I'm going to burst."
Iragene remained silent for a while—she enjoyed the closeness and hardness of his body, and knew she was content for the moment, but she knew she wanted more than just a friendly relationship; she wanted all of him as much as he wanted her. "
"Iragene, I want to be someone special in your life. You saved us from one of the ugliest chapters in our lives."
"Quinn, maybe it's gratitude that you're feeling."
He looked down at her, lifted her chin and pressed his lips against hers. Their lips melted together, and she could feel the heat of his body next to hers. She had never kissed or been kissed in public, but she didn't care. They stood like that, not wanting to end this moment. When Iragene finally broke away, she smiled and said, "You're right, it's not just gratitude."
While it was still raining and no one was outside on the sheltered Veranda except the two of them, he once again lifted her chin and kissed her, again the gentle kiss became more demanding. Finally he opened his eyes and pulled back.
"Oh, I forgot to give you something," he said.
"Really? What?" she asked curiously.
"Your lace shawl. You left it near the punch. I thought about it in the middle of the night. I got up, went outside, and lo and behold, there it was—just a sittin' as lonely as could be. I folded it up to give it to you." He pulled the delicate shawl out from under his shirt.
She looked at him and pictured him prowling the streets, hunting for her lace shawl. "I had completely forgotten about it. How can I ever thank you, Quinn?"