Episode 20: Ethergrams and Homilies | Scryer's Gulch
As it came to pass, Simon did not get over to the Runnels house that night. He stood outside for a fair piece looking up at the door, but couldn't bring himself to walk up the steps, knock, and hand over Miss Duniway's ethergram; revealing someone's private correspondence went against everything he believed in as an ethergraph engineer.
But in the morning, a reply came through first thing, a reply that seemed so nonsensical for such a quick turnaround that he started wondering about Miss Duniway himself. He delivered the ethergram to Annabelle, and ended up at the jail as soon as his office closed for the rest of the day, it being Sunday; back then everything closed for church, and an afternoon of either quiet reflection or wailing, depending on your denomination.
"This is everything?" said John, looking up from his desk.
Simon stood before him, trying and failing not to fidget. "I still don't like this."
"I know you don't, but there's something strange about these ethergrams."
"It is odd she can send so many on a teacher's salary," Simon admitted.
"She told me your father pays her very well. Surprised me she said it."
"Between our share and Bonham's, she makes triple what the average schoolteacher makes. Hazard pay, I'd call it," Simon smiled.
"And I'm obliged to your father for making my share of her salary part of my pay."
"Yes, well, it's not enough to be sending ethergrams to her Cousin Daniel once or twice a week. I tell you, though, Sheriff," he said, his face lighting up, "if this new encoding of mine works, everyone everywhere will be able to get an ethergram whenever they want, at a low cost with no engineers involved--"
"I'll be mighty amazed if I see such a thing in my lifetime, Mr Prake, or Jamie's, but don't wind yourself up, now. I'm not likely to understand what you're on about."
"Beg pardon," Simon said wryly. "I do get carried away, and I have so few to talk with who understand high-level encoding here."
John tilted himself back in his chair. "Well, now, I'd think you're busy enough at the office to call for a second engineer, aren't you? Any chance New Valley would send you a man to help? Then you'd have someone to talk with as well."
"I'd be surprised," said Simon. "They say I'm doing fine on my own. Which translates to: we don't want to pay a second man."
John chuckled. "How did you and Morton manage to talk them into it?"
"Oh," said Simon, suddenly subdued. "We each were on half-pay. The work wasn't there yet. And we had the hardware store, of course..."
John sensed a sore spot, and retreated. "Well, Mr Prake, thank you for overcoming your objections and bringing these to me. I appreciate it, and they won't go beyond me."
"I hope you find they're innocent after all, and I can stop this," said Simon. "And on that note, I'm off to church. Perhaps Pastor Billson's sermon will give me the solace I need."
Once he was through the door, a voice in the corner cell said, "All Pastor Bill's jaw-flappin'll do is put him clean to sleep!"
"Shut up, Aloysius, I'm thinking," said John.
"Jest an observation," grumbled the ghost before subsiding.
John read the ethergrams again. Why in the world did Annabelle feel it necessary to ethergram her cousin such banal news as how well lessons were going, an oblique reference to his own son Jamie that puzzled him, inquiries into the health of their grandfather, and a business venture, something about watches. The cousin's equally banal reply: the grandfather's business venture went well, and he desired her to save money on ethergrams; she should hold onto Jamie's penknife until she felt comfortable in her mind; and her cousin was proud of her accomplishments, and missed her.
He took a pull on his over-boiled coffee, made a face, and reached for the last piece of sugar. A genteelly shabby childhood always rebelled against wasting sugar in coffee. But it was the cheap brown kind after all, and they could afford it now. He made a note to set Jamie and Mrs Smith to breaking more little chunks off the loaf to replenish the office bowl, and went back to the ethergraphs.
Why did she mention his son? What interest could her cousin possibly have in Jamie? They were written in some form of cipher, he felt sure, and went over what he remembered from his military days. Troop movement reports and the like were often encoded, but his ciphering abilities didn't go too deep. He ran over what he knew--look at the first letters of words, count in certain patterns to find letters to make up words, and so on--but found nothing. The best plan of attack was to inquire after his son's penknife.
Rabbit would be in after church, and John decided to leave early for a little walk. He stood up and stretched his long form, then slapped on his hat and took a quick survey of the tidy cells, currently unoccupied but for Aloysius. The wet-brained near-murderer had died in the night, and the town would miss its hanging. Many several men were bothered by this, but they all knew soon enough there'd be another fight, another dead man, and another murderer to string up. John didn't look forward to it, but then he'd never been one to enjoy a good hanging.
Pastor Billson ran him over as he stepped from the jail; in the collision, both men lost their hats. John retrieved them, dusted off the preacher's first, and handed it over the the shorter man before brushing his own. "Pastor Billson, I'm surprised to see you out of your church at this hour."
"Oh, I had that burial to attend to, the unfortunate man who died last night," said the Pastor in his high, melodious voice. "Devout Methodic. Came to church every Sunday, though I'm afraid he sat in the back and stank a good deal of the whiskey he'd drunk the night before. I often preached temperance just for his benefit, but sadly... Will you ever join your family at services, Sheriff Runnels?"
"I gave up the Method when my wife died," he replied brusquely.
Pastor Billson shook his head. "The Method can school us to face life's sorrows, Sheriff."
"At the risk of rudeness, Pastor, I believe we both have places to be. Good morning, sir," said John, walking toward home.
Pastor Billson shook his head again, tugged at the waistcoat creeping up over his stomach, and continued up the street toward the Methodic Church, where his little flock was surely waiting for him. He passed the Hopewell Hotel; in the window of its still-crowded restaurant, he saw the neat straw bonnet of that schoolteacher, Miss Duniway. What a pity she was an Enthusiast! It surprised him greatly that Mayor Prake, himself the most prominent Methodic in town and the Pastor's great supporter, would hire an Enthusiast to teach the children, though she certainly didn't look like one--neither Irish nor Italian, and "Duniway" sounded like a good Methodic name to him. Was she a convert? That would be especially shocking.
Just like an Enthusiast to eat before church, he thought as Annabelle wiped her mouth. Scandalous to breakfast before church. Even as the thought occurred to him, he remembered the smell of the apple pie his Chinese cook took out of the oven early that morning. How hard it had been to leave that pie unmolested! It would be waiting for him in three hours, a chunk of good cheddar and a pound of bacon beside it, plenty of coffee with cream and sugar, maybe even fried green tomatoes seeing as how his kitchen garden wasn't likely to produce much more this season. He sighed, patted his grumbling if reverend stomach, and walked in the side door of the church.
Meanwhile, happily breakfasted, Annabelle took a short walk round the encampment to settle Ralph's cooking, then headed for the Church of Our Lady of the Great Hullaballoo. An hour of Enthusiasm awaited.