Episode 13: Messages | Scryer's Gulch
The wretched Rabbit woke up at dawn inside the wire cage, naked and shivering. "John?" he called weakly.
"Sheriff's asleepin," said Aloysius. "Hey! Runnels! Wake up! Yer brother's lost his fur!"
John scrambled up from his cot, instantly awake. "Sorry, Rab, sorry! I'm coming." He opened the latch on the cage and helped Rabbit to stand; he wrapped his brother in the still-warm blanket from the cot. "Are you all right?"
"Did I scratch or bite?" said Rabbit. "I'm so afraid I'm going to bite you some day, Johnny--if I ever brought this on you, I'd throw myself in the river!"
"Don't talk about that now," said John. "Are you hungry?"
"Starving!" said Rabbit, sucking on a tooth. "Dang it, I always get clover stuck between my teeth."
"Get dressed and we'll go see what Mrs Smith has for breakfast."
Once at their own kitchen table, with huge stacks of their housekeeper's pancakes in front of them, John finally allowed himself to think about what Rabbit said. Some day, he'd bite John, or worse, Jamie. What could be done? He didn't know. Rabbit had more than once talked about ending his life, but John always talked him out of it. "You can't do that to Jamie, little brother. There has to be something someone can do. Some day, someone will find a cure," he'd say, and his good-natured brother would nod and say, "Of course they will, Johnny," and give his sunny, lopsided smile. Such dark thoughts usually put him off his breakfast, but he was so very hungry, and Mrs Smith was such a good cook.
He waved Jamie off to school and sent Rabbit back to mind the jail. There was only the one prisoner: the man who'd knocked his mining partner over the head at the Lucky Pint. He'd never fully woken from his drunk, still sprawled on the bunk in his cell and occasionally muttering to himself. Doc Horridge said the man had a wet brain, and might never wake up to face the noose. But then, his injured partner still lingered on, so maybe it wouldn't come to a hanging after all. That'd disappoint a fair number of folks in town, thought John as he put on his hat and left the house, but they'd just have to make do with other entertainment.
He glanced over at the Prake house and caught sight of Georgie, staring despondently out of an upstairs window; Mayor Prake had kept him home from school. He spotted the Sheriff. John kept his gaze cool and neutral, but Georgie flushed angrily; unshed tears shone in his eyes before he turned away. That could be the look of a boy caught out, thought John, but it also looked a lot like outraged innocence. Maybe Miss Duniway was right about the schoolhouse vandalism.
Miss Duniway. He absently patted his pistol, and walked out to Main Street. He checked himself; there she was, coming toward him down the boardwalk on her way to the school. He touched the brim of his hat. "Miss Duniway. Good morning."
He expected her to greet him and keep moving, but instead she stopped before him, putting out a white-gloved hand; he wondered if she still had the derringer rig on, and whether she'd ever pull it on him. "Sheriff Runnels--your brother...?" Her face was all concern, genuine concern as best he could tell, and he usually could.
"Thank you for inquiring. He is much better this morning, though I fear his complaint will return again this evening."
"To be sure," she murmured. "Can I be in any way helpful to you or your brother--perhaps care for Jamie?"
"Mrs Smith is our housekeeper. She's there for Jamie while Rabbit and I are otherwise occupied."
"I do like to be useful when there's trouble, you see," she said.
"Oh, I'm convinced you're drawn to trouble, Miss Duniway, and that you make yourself quite useful."
Her face changed minutely, that hidden, wary look in the back of her eyes re-appearing, and he almost regretted saying anything. "I had better get to school, I'm nearly late. Good day, Sheriff."
He touched his hat again--"Miss Duniway"--and continued on his path toward the ethergraph office. His instincts conflicted. One told him she was not what she seemed and to run her out of town before she did something terrible; the other told him to take her in his arms and help her do it. If hermetauxite could influence people's minds, he'd think she was 'casting on him somehow. He had no evidence she was a spellcaster, anyway. Unseemly thing for a girl, especially one like her.
John found Simon behind his desk, writing a letter. "What can I do for you, Sheriff?"
"Can we go into the back room?"
"Certainly," said Simon, standing up in surprise. He put the letter into a drawer and locked it. Showing the way into the tidily cluttered office, he added, "What's up?"
John shut the door firmly. "I need you to do something for me. It's important, and I don't want to hear about scruples. I need you to watch someone's communications for me."
"I can't do that, John!" said Simon. His curiosity got the better of him, though, and he added, "Who is it?"
"Simon, I know it's hard to believe, but that girl is no schoolteacher. Has she sent any messages through the ethergraph?"
"I'm not saying she has or she hasn't."
John flattened his lips into a line. "Listen. I can't tell you how I know, but she's a Brinkerton. Or worse. Do you know what that means? Trouble. Trouble for the town, and trouble for your father."
"Oh." Simon furrowed his smooth, dark brow. "I don't know. Our clients' privacy is paramount. It's against everything we do as ethergraph operators."
"Are you under any kind of vow? I doubt it."
"No, no, of course not. It's just that..." Simon sighed. "All right. What do you want me to do?"
"I want to see copies of any messages she's sent or received."
"Can't do it. I burn them as soon as they're sent, and the rough copies of the ones I receive."
"I want those copies from now on. Get them to me as soon as possible--before they're sent or delivered if you can." John opened the door to the outer office. "I know I can rely on you, Mr Prake. Thank you for your help."
Simon gave a resigned nod. He waited until John left the office, then unlocked the drawer to his desk and pulled out the letter he'd been writing to his former partner in the hardware store and ethergraph office. He wondered what Cole would think if he knew Simon had agreed to compromise the privacy of a client. There was no way of knowing; Cole hadn't answered any of his letters or ethergraphs in a year. He didn't even know where Cole really was. In his last letter, Cole said he was leaving their old firm in Jackson; he'd accepted an offer at the Treasury Department for a job so important he couldn't talk about it.
Simon read over what he'd written so far. Too formal. It must be from the heart or not at all. He crumpled it up, and threw it in the basket of paper destined for Mrs Jenkins's cookstove back at the Prake house. He pulled out a new sheet, abandoned his best copperplate hand, and wrote:
I don't know why you haven't responded to any of my letters. None have returned to me, and I can only think that you are not writing me for a purpose. I tell you again: I had to leave Jackson. The nearness of you was intolerable to me, knowing we must live as brothers there, when here in Scryer's Gulch we could be everything to one another with no one the wiser.
Cole, please come back. Please come back to me. Or tell me where I may come to you. I miss you and love you more than you will ever know.
Simon stuffed down a sob, folded the letter carefully into an envelope, and searched for a stamp.