Episode 7: An Accusation | Scryer's Gulch
So you're back, huh? Well, it's a good story. I think I might be keeping you from reading it. I get so wrapped up in all this stuff I know about the Old West, about how the Brinkertons would come in and take over a town, how girls would arrive thinking they were getting a nice job as a maid or something and get stuck in a whorehouse, all the exciting discoveries in technology that came straight out of the western expansion. Can you imagine a time when 35 miles per hour was breakneck?
But I digress.
The thing is, I worry that all my jabbering is more like a lecture. Well, it is. So I might stick my oar in from time to time from now on, but mostly, I'm just gonna get out of the way. That's what happens when you're old. You just get in the way.
The first day of school arrived. Georgie and Amelia stopped next door to pick up Jamie, who stood in the small garden, feet firmly planted, his uncle Rabbit even more firmly pushing him out the gate. "No arguments! If we catch you--and you know we'll catch you--your Pa will whip you till your behind lights up Main Street! And I'll just stand there and laugh, you watch me."
"C'mon, Jamie, it won't be so bad," said Amelia.
"Says you," he scowled.
"Jamie, c'mon," said Georgie. He grabbed his friend by the collar and marched him down the street toward the schoolhouse. "I see Lily in the schoolyard, Amelia, go on ahead." His sister ran to meet her best friend, leaving Georgie alone with Jamie. "Now, listen, Jamie, you can't do that again."
"You know very well what! Harry Lockson's only six, which leaves you and me. No one'll think it's you, you're the sheriff's son. Which leaves me. T'ain't fair! If you're gonna do stuff like that, you should be a man, and not blame it on other folks!"
"I didn't do nothin, an I ain't blamin it on anyone!"
"Now, I ain't sayin it wasn't a fine thing. Made me laugh, anyway! But I'm still in trouble from tying Mr Hopewell's shoelaces together at our house when he wasn't paying attention. That was funny," Georgie said, his face full of fond memories.
"I didn't do nothin."
"Aw, c'mon, Jamie!"
By now the two boys had reached the schoolyard. Miss Duniway stood in the door ringing the bell; it was time for class. They walked past the rebuilt fence and into the repainted schoolhouse.
As soon as they entered, Annabelle's bracelet pricked at her wrist; she hid her surprise. "Children, please sit down. Little ones to the front, older ones to the back. I'll return in a moment."
"Wonder where she's going," she heard Georgie whisper to Jamie.
"Maybe she's gotta pee," said Harry Lockson. Georgie and Jamie guffawed. "But maybe she does!" Harry repeated in earnest concern.
Annabelle rolled her eyes, and walked quickly up and down the street, as if looking for errant pupils; her bracelet made not a tickle. The schoolhouse stood off to itself enough that she knew nothing came from a nearby building. No, it was in the schoolhouse, and it came from either Jamie or Georgie.
Neither of them were old enough to be fooling with the magical structure of hermetauxite--but someone in their families might be. Simon Prake was already on her short list of suspects; she sadly added another mark against him.
Now, she had the Runnels to consider, too. Sheriff John didn't check out as at all trained in the engineering way, but she'd had bigger surprises. Deputy Rabbit was a blank slate; he hadn't shown up in her research at all. She returned to the schoolhouse and began the lesson, wincing to herself every time she passed Georgie and Jamie's bench.
The schoolday ended, just in time for Annabelle's patience to give out. Teaching a couple of squirming benches full of children was not as easy as she'd thought; as she entered her rooms, she sighed in relief at the relative quiet.
She'd savored it a full minute when Misi came tearing through the window. "Well? How'd it go?" he yowled. She recounted the day, and Misi whistled through his sharp teeth. "A kid, huh?"
"No, of course not! It's a member of the family, if it's really one of them."
"Not looking good for that Prake fellow, Annie."
"No." She worried her lip. "I really don't want it to be him, kitty."
"Hm, sweet on him, are we? I'd've thought the sheriff was more your type. Tight-jawed lawman and all that."
Annabelle ignored him. "What's going on around town?"
"A drunk guy knocked another drunk guy over the head down at the Lucky Pint. Now drunk guy number one is in the jailhouse, and Doc Horridge is standing vigil over drunk guy number two. He's not expected to make it, so we may have a hanging. Um, lessee. Oh! Chen gave me two chicken hearts! I like that man, even if he is a man!"
"I'm sure that was splendid for you. I meant, what's going on that might pertain to our reason for being here."
"Oh, that," he grimaced. "Annie, that stuff tastes so bad!"
"Next time go on patrol first, and then finagle chicken hearts out of sympathetic cooks. Well?"
"It's all over the ethergraph office. I saw traces at the assayer's office, too--actually traces all over town but nothing I could pinpoint. I can't get a really good whiff unless I'm right on top of it, and then, you know, it leaves me a little vulnerable." He shivered his whiskers. "But it's strongest at the ethergraph office."
"All right, then." Annabelle fetched her valise and brought it into the bedroom, where the curtains were closed. Carefully, she reached inside and pulled out a false bottom; within it was a small black book. "I need to send Chief Howman a message, Misi. Be quiet while I work out the code." She carried it back to the sitting room and began a complicated scribbling, flipping through the cipher book as she went.
Misi fell asleep, purring in the patch of sun from the sitting room window. When the patch shifted, leaving him in shadow, he woke up and stretched. Annabelle was just closing the book back up in the false bottomed valise; she wore her gloves and bonnet. "Where are you off to?"
"The ethergraph office. I'm sending a message to my 'Cousin Daniel' filled with all my news. I don't know how he's going to take our current hot suspect being an eight-year-old boy!"
"I'll be right here when you get back," yawned Misi. Once the door closed, he moved to the new patch of sun and promptly fell back asleep.
Meanwhile at the jailhouse, Jamie Runnels sat on the bench by the corner cell, kicking his legs. "I hate school, Aloysius," he said. "Did you hate it?"
"Cain't say whether I hated it er not, son," said the voice. "Never went. Mighta liked to. Woulda been nice to read, an sign my name as more'na X."
"But you got by, didn't you?"
"If'n you call this gettin by. Didn't really see myself stuck in a jailhouse cell fer all eternity. Didn't see it as my fate. Buuut I doubt school woulda helped me avoid this'n." Jamie pulled a little nugget out of his pocket, rolling it in his fingers. "Watcha got there, son?"
Jamie put it back. "Nothin."
"Aw, now, Jamie, you know ol' Aloysius ain't gonna tell nobody."
"What about that guy over there?"
"Him? He ain't even woke up yet. They're prolly gonna hang him by the neck anyways. Shore hope he don't end up here. Bad enough without gettin crowded to boot. Watcha got?"
Jamie crunched himself up in the corner, trying to get close even though there was nothing to get close to. "It's a piece of hermetauxite!" he whispered. "Found it just lyin there in the street by the ethergraph office!"
Aloysius let out a low whistle. "That's a fine thing, Jamie! Watcha gonna do with it?"
"Just keep it. I like lookin at it. I feel funny when I hold it in my hand, like I'm stronger or somethin."
"You be careful, Jamie Runnels. Who knows what's been spelled on that thing."
"It ain't been spelled on, Aloysius, it's just a nugget! My nugget. Don't tell!"
"I promised I wouldn't, didn't I?"
"All right, then." Jamie sat in the corner, throwing it up and catching it, until it was time for supper.