Episode 24: On Fair Authority | Scryer's Gulch
Sunday evening it rained, the first of the chill drenchings that usually began in late autumn and lasted until it turned to snow around Thanksgiving. "You sure you wanna go out in this, brother?" said Rabbit, toasting his feet on the parlor woodstove fender.
Mrs Smith clicked her darning needle against the wooden egg inside the stocking she was mending. "Take your oilskin, Mr John," she murmured.
"I'm only going next door, Minnie," he said affectionately, then turned to his son. "I wish to speak with you particularly when I return, Jamie."
Jamie looked up from his tin soldiers. "What for?"
"I think you know," said John as he headed out the door. Jamie scowled and killed a regiment with the back of his hand.
John shook his head as he walked to the Prakes' house. Jamie worried him. The boy was understandably upset about his mother, but John had been hoping the pain would wear off in a year or so. Not that he himself no longer felt it, he allowed. This ore thing had to be addressed; he had to get Miss Duniway to tell him everything. If he believed in blessings, he'd say it was one that the jail was empty tonight. Lots to take care of at home.
Amelia Prake answered his knock. "Oh, you're not here to arrest Georgie again, are you?" she exclaimed, her eyes wide.
"No," said John. "I'm here to talk to your pa. Will you go see if he's home to company?"
"I forget my manners," said Amelia, recovering herself and adding formally, "Good evening, Sheriff Runnels, how d'ya do."
"Good evening, Miss Amelia, and I do well, thank you," he answered in kind, taking off his hat with a slight inclination.
She giggled, forgot her manners again and rushed off, hollering, "Papa! Mama! Sheriff's at the door!"
Her mother bustled into the front hall. "This isn't a madhouse, Amelia, hush. Sheriff, do come in, don't stand there in the cold. Please, come warm yourself in the back parlor. I'm afraid we haven't a fire in the front one, but if you don't mind taking pot-luck..." She ushered him into the warmth of the back parlor, where Anatole Prake sat by the stove in a once majestic, now homey and broken-in armchair, reading Henderson's Monthly Magazine aloud to his family. Simon looked up from carving a little toy horse, and nodded. Georgie was hanging over his brother's shoulder, but at the sight of the Sheriff, his face turned flannel red and he dashed out of the room. "Oh, now, Georgie," murmured his mother.
"Well, now, Runnels, out on a night like this!" said Mayor Prake, rising from his chair. "Is there cause for alarm? Amelia, fill the kettle please, perhaps the Sheriff might like some tea. Perhaps a wee bit of bourbon in the cup?" he added in an undertone.
Amelia lugged the kettle in, put it on the stove, and took her reluctant leave. "I'm not sleepy!" she insisted as her mother shooed her up the stairs.
Once they were alone, John settled back in his chair, a comfortable shot of bourbon in his tea. "No cause for immediate alarm, Anatole, though things are stranger than usual in this town. To begin with, I believe Georgie is innocent. You should let him go back to school."
"Innocent!" exclaimed Prake. "Why, his own brother believes he did it! You amaze me. What did Miss Duniway say to convince you?"
"Miss Duniway? How did you know we'd spoken?"
"Oh, she stopped me on the street not long ago, said Georgie was innocent. I said I'd believe it when I heard it from you, and here you are."
"I did speak with her this morning, after church let out. Did you know she was Enthusiast when you hired her?"
"Oh, yes," nodded Prake. "I myself believe in the Method, but I also believe that we all come to the truth in our own way. If that's Miss Duniway's way, well, then, good for her. Just make sure they build their church out of earshot, is all I ask. Besides, there's a nasty strain of anti-immigrant bias in prejudice against Enthusiasm, and I don't cotton to it."
"Church is all the same to me, Anatole," said John. "This"--he gestured with his cup--"is about as close to the Mother or the Prophet as I'll ever get. But yes, we spoke after church, and she argued very convincingly in favor of Georgie's innocence. Made me promise to get him back in school."
Prake appraised John over his teacup, then took a leisurely pull from it. "She's an...unusual young woman. I can tell you think it." John flattened his lips and said nothing. Prake continued in his steady voice, "What do you think her game is, John? Do we need to be concerned? I worry about that snake Bonham getting up to something, calling in people of his own. She's not a Brinkerton, is she?"
"No, no, I don't think so. She's not the type, she's not acting like a Brinkie girl." He contemplated his teacup as the contents sent a warm golden brown all the way through him, and thought about Annabelle. He was beginning to narrow down what she might be in a number of ways, some of them pleasant. He woolgathered, sipping at the tea. Woolgathering more than he realized: Prake started him out of his thoughts with a half-heard question. "I'm sorry, sir?"
Prake smiled. "I said, do you have any idea what she is?"
"Law-abiding, I'm fairly sure, and I do believe she cares a great deal for the children. Our conversation convinced me of it, for if she's more than she seems, she told me a great deal more than she should have, and all for Georgie's sake."
"Are you saying she is our vandal? Or that she's been protecting him?"
John flushed; in a way, she had been protecting Jamie, but then, what was he doing? "She's not the vandal, but neither is Georgie. I'm still unsure who the vandal is, but I have it on fair authority that whoever he is, he is unaware of his actions."
"'Fair authority,'" chuckled Anatole. "And how did the fair authority convince you of this? John, I never counted you among those men dazzled by winsome dimples."
John drained his cup. "I like to think I'm not."
"How could this man, or boy, not know what he was doing?"
"That's the part that frightens me, Anatole." John stood up. "Come by the jail in the morning. When we're more alone," he said, cocking his head at the sound of a little boy on the stairs trying hard not to breathe, "I'll finish the story. For now, I ask you to allow Georgie to go back to school tomorrow. It's the right thing to do. We're all presumed innocent until proven guilty, aren't we?"
"So we are," said Anatole.