Episode 41: A Challenge | Scryer's Gulch
Being late to an event always proved a good tactic, thought Jed. It gave matters a chance to solidify, for patterns to become evident. It served as a reminder of who was in charge. And it angered Charity no end. He chuckled to himself as the piston inside her brassy head compressed her fury down and down. There would be a big bang tonight, but not before their guests had retired--he had that much control over his wife. More than she reckoned he did. He'd let her explode upstairs, and he'd take her in hand as he always did. Let her use up all that anger in his bed, wear her out. Then he'd promise her a trip to Frisco or some such. Not till spring, though. He doled himself out some kind of roast beef from the tray the greenhorn presented.
Apparently he took too much. The greenhorn cleared his throat; to his left, Cherry widened her eyes and jerked her head toward the tray. He ignored them and took a bite out of both pieces. His wife deliberately turned her back and steamed a great cloud of charm in Tony's direction.
Cherry's forceful attempts to make him jealous amused Jed no end. What had he to fear from Tony? The greater part of Tony's wealth was still tied to his own, and however well his second son had done by himself in some of his independent investing, he still couldn't top his father's annuity.
As for the Sheriff: Handsome man, in a flinty sort of way. A tad too incorruptible as yet, but water wore down stone and Jed was as patient and sneaky as any river. Runnels wasn't the type for a fling, Jed's suspicions about Annabelle Duniway notwithstanding. And more than a fling Cherry would not be contemplating; Runnels had no money, and Jed had no illusions about Cherry's interest in him.
He suspicioned she had no illusions about his interest in her. He always bought the best, though, and Cherry was still the most comely woman he'd ever seen. She dressed real well, too. Look at that get-up with the feathers. Must have cost him a fortune, but the plumage fit the bird. A man does appreciate variety, though. A beefsteak every night grew tiresome in short order. That's why he kept the Palace--a restorative baker's dozen spring chickens, not counting Mamzelle. He kept it for the variety. And the money. And to give Mamzelle something to do that'd bring her down a notch or two. Ten thousand years old and not a lick of sense, that demon.
He returned his attention to the Duniway girl seated on his right.
Now here was a fine piece of the Divine's work, through the intercession of the Prophet or the beneficence of the Mother. Take your pick. As fine as Cherry--a little finer in her way, he admitted, though she dressed too drab for his taste. He hated to see a girl in black. Reminded him of Lillian's death. The hair and eyes were like Lillian's, too. He wondered if he could somehow contrive to acquire the schoolteacher some finery that she would accept. What would the Duniway girl look like done up in a red rig like the one Mamzelle'd had before Cherry got to it? He hooded his eyes and looked Annabelle over, slow and appreciative.
Those cornflower eyes met his: disinterested, analytical, neither coy nor blushing. Almost challenging. A fine emergency gear seemed to engage in her head; at the speedy turning of the key, she dropped her gaze to her plate before she took up conversation with Tony.
Oh ho! There were unplumbed depths to this Duniway. He didn't intimidate her in the least, despite her prior retiring manner in his presence. No demure little chit she, but he'd already ascertained that from the tail of men she dragged behind her, whether of a purpose or of an accident. You don't attract that many fish without some kind of bait. Perhaps she was one of those independent, overly-educated women--what did they call them--bluestockings. No, too pretty for that. Then again...
He surveyed her again. He would ask Mamzelle for an opinion on the quality of her clothes, for instance, talk with Mayor Prake about her background. He hadn't paid much attention when they'd discussed hiring her. She might be a challenge after all instead of the more easily swayed--by inexperience or money--girl he expected.
That suited him fine.
The meal ended; brandy for the men, and coffee and petit fours for everyone was served in the front parlor; the horrible little party broke up. Tony helped Annabelle on with her cloak. He and John were about to repeat their sullen parade behind her to Hopewell's, when Jedediah Bonham called, "Stay, son, I have some business to discuss with you." Annabelle was left with John to escort her alone.
They walked in silence until well out from under the mansion's immediate environs. "That was perfectly dreadful," Annabelle finally said.
"That's a fact," said John with a low laugh. "Fair food, though. Good soup. I must ask Mrs Smith to assay a duchess soup more often."
"Ralph's cooking is surprisingly wholesome, but I did welcome the change," she smiled.
Silence reigned again, an awkward tension building. "Miss Duniway," John began, "do you think you might come to dinner at our house? I know Minnie--Mrs Smith--would enjoy the chance to meet you. She's more a member of the family than a housekeeper, you know, and eats with us--something of a chaperone, so it'd be proper."
The brim of her black silk bonnet with the gray trim concealed all of the camp from her gaze but for John, and she saw what he might have looked like before Mrs Runnels died and left him a widower. The tense lines around his jaw were softer, his eyes hopeful. She saw Jamie's bashfulness, Rabbit's sense of humor, and a tiny fluff of ostrich feather on his shoulder.
Annabelle plucked the purple remnant from his shoulder. "Mrs Bonham leaves more behind than impressions."
"You leave nothing but. Will you come tomorrow? Minnie puts on quite the spread after church."
She should say no, Misi would advise her to say no. She'd cleared him of potential wrongdoing, but she should still say no. "Yes, I would love to," she smiled. "But now we must speak of something less enjoyable."
John tensed, the cords in his jaw forming again. "Oh?"
"Yes. I think Simon Prake is our man."