Episode 19: A History Lesson | Scryer's Gulch
Annabelle was waiting for Misi when he slipped back in the window. He stretched out into his humanoid form and told her the story. "Remind me never to get crosswise with Charity Bonham," he said. "She's a bad customer."
"She's up to no good, I'm sure," said Annabelle, "but I doubt she has much to do with the business at hand. What did you find out?" Misi quickly gave her the gist of his conversation with Mamzelle. "We know who the werecritter is--Deputy Runnels. There's only the one, then," she said. "More importantly, we've got a timeline for the tainted ore. The contamination started almost two years ago, and stopped six months ago. Now we just have to figure out the correspondence. We need to find out what happened two years ago that might've stopped six months ago."
"Who would know? Who's been here that long?" said Misi.
"I think I'll make a social call tomorrow on Mr Lockson."
"The newspaper guy? What for? That newspaper wasn't here two years ago--this place was a widening in the mud then."
"Yes, and now it's a sprawling in the mud, but a sprawl with two newspapers. You can't report on the present without knowing the past. The town's history is Lockson's business. The other paper is Bonham's creature, and I don't want him hearing what we're up to on any account. Since tomorrow's Saturday, I believe I'll stop by the newspaper office on some pretext or other and pick Mr Lockson's ample cranium."
In point of fact, L. Luther Lockson was possessed of an abnormally large head. Were you to enquire at the local haberdasher, you'd discover that it was upwards of a size seven and seven-eighths, depending on the hat. That's in the neighborhood of twenty-five inches. Don't ask me about centimeters. That's un-American. I like to hang onto a few remnants of national pride.
Oh yes, it's me. It's always been me. You kids, you never pay attention.
But I digress.
L. Luther Lockson, as I was saying, had a big noggin. Purple prose stuffed the brain inside, but he wasn't a bad newspaperman. He knew his town inside-out, and did his unsuccessful best to stay out of politics; he itched to leave his stamp on the town, but wanted to hold onto his paper. The Voice of the Gulch considered itself independent, though the town, and certainly Jed Bonham, considered him in the pocket of Mayor Prake; certainly the Voice's editorial page agreed with the Mayor and boosted his ideas.
But while Jed out-and-out paid Rowland Barnes, the publisher of the Independent Mountaineer, no one supported Lockson but himself. Had Bonham wished to starve Lockson out, he could have persuaded the local business owners that advertising with the Voice was bad for their health, or he could have just sent goons to smash the presses. But as long as Lockson didn't make too many waves, Bonham left him alone, if frustrated.
It was with some surprise that Lockson received the schoolteacher in his office this Saturday. "Why, Miss Duniway! What can a simple newspaperman do for an erudite lady like yourself? Classified ad, perhaps? No, no, I shouldn't think so. Why, Miss Duniway, it is a stroke of good fortune, a miracle not far removed from that of the Prophet of the Method and His Delivery of the Good Woman of Persia from the Fiery Furnaces of Indecency, that you have sojourned to our offices today. Yes, Miss Duniway, let me assure you that I have longed this month to approach you for the purpose of acquainting my audience with the details of your life, one of education and perspicacity I am sure, a saga that would be a most edifying one for our readers."
"Come again?" said Annabelle.
"I'd like to interview you," said Lockson.
"Oh!" she said, appearing flustered. "I can easily be found, Mr Lockson, at the Hopewell--no miracles needed. Actually, I came here to interview you myself, Mr Lockson."
"Interview a simple newspaperman like myself? Why, Miss Duniway, I am surprised and gratified you would think anything I have to impart to your students would be of any utility whatsoever. Perhaps I might convey my advice on clarity in writing? As a newspaperman, I am in constant employment of whatever writing talent the Method has seen fit to bestow upon me, but while raw talent is of great use, practice, technique and study are of far more use. I would be happy to speak to your students."
"In point of fact, sir," said Miss Duniway, "I was hoping you might tell me a little about the history of the town, though it be short. I think my students would like to know."
"Oh," said the deflated Lockson.
"I cannot imagine anyone knowing more about Scryer's Gulch than you, you see."
"Oh!" he said, puffing back up again. "Well, my dear Miss Duniway, that is correctness in itself, I assure you! You have heard the saying, perhaps, that journalism is the first draft of history? I take this charge with the utmost sincerity, ma'am. I have only been in business here for six months, and yet I have made the town's abbreviated history my passion, my vocation, as it were. With what facets of our town's past may I make you acquainted?"
"What would you like to know?" he said. "And, please, please sit down. May I offer you coffee?"
As Miss Duniway perched on the office chair and sipped the execrable coffee that had been sitting on the Voice's woodstove this past five hours, Lockson filled her ears with a not-at-all abbreviated version of the main events of the town's past. Had he been paying attention, Lockson would have sensed a fit of the fidgets coming over his listener, until he got through the geologic formation of the area, the history, or rather the non-history, of the Natives of these parts, and the first year of the hermetauxite strike and white settlement, to the events of two years past. "We knew we were prospering as a metropolis when the New Valley Printing Ethergraph Company saw fit to send Mr Prake the younger to town with Mr Morton to open the town's first ethergraph office two years ago."
Lockson stopped for breath, and Miss Duniway interjected, "The ethergraph office opened two years ago? You mean Simon Prake, I take it. Who is Mr Morton?"
"Oh, Cole Morton was young Mr Prake's business partner. They opened up the ethergraph office, and to support their endeavors until such time as the office could support them, they opened up Morton and Prake, the second but certainly the best hardware store in town. At that time, the ethergraph office resided within the hardware store, but business grew much faster than either supposed, and the rest of the Prake family followed within the year. Mr Morton packed up and left not long after that--I do believe it was about six months ago."
"Indeed," blinked Miss Duniway. "And where did he go?"
"I believe he went back to Jackson. Perhaps you might enquire of Mr Prake the younger. Now, on the heels of the ethergraph office inaugural, Parson William Billson founded the Methodic Church, a much-needed regulator on the town's more coarse nature..."
In all, Annabelle sat through two hours of Scryer's Gulch history, and still Lockson only made it up to the first year and a half of the settlement. She frowned to herself as she walked back through the town to the Hopewell, avoiding the mangy dogs slinking around corners, and doing her best to keep the hem of her dress from the muck. It didn't look good for Simon Prake's innocence, and the name "Cole Morton" nagged at her. She frowned further as she sat in her room, poring over her code book as she wrote up an ethergram to Daniel Howman. But she smiled as she handed it over to Simon late in the afternoon to send to Washington DC.
"How are you this Saturday, Miss Duniway? Enjoying a day off?" said Simon.
"I spent a most...edifying, I think might be the word, morning with Mr Lockson, learning more about the history of the town," she answered. "I'm hoping to relate its history to that of the nation, and perhaps use it in spelling lessons and the like."
"Very resourceful, ma'am," said Simon. A minute or more of small talk, she paid her fee, and left. Simon wondered for the first time how a schoolteacher could afford so many ethergrams. Perhaps, he thought as he tapped out the message, that's why Sheriff Runnels was so interested in her communications. He sighed, folded the message in thirds, and slipped it into an envelope to give to Runnels that night.