© 2003, Kae Cheatham
From Chapter Five
after a confrontation with her mother
...Ellen listened to the solid whump of the door closing, and then the gentle click click of George stacking cans. She wiped at her eyes with shaky fingers and pinched her lips together. I'm an adult. I don't need her reassurance for something I can't even explain, she silently insisted. I can manage this! She turned her attention back to the ledger. Keep working. She inventoried jars of cream of tartar, vinegar, lead dippers, tins of soda crackers. I will get past this. I just need time. She rubbed her fingers along the soft blue scarf. ("That horrid blue scarf," her mother had said.)
Ellen shook her head. Just a little more time, she thought. And some answers, came a nagging. If only I could talk with the Hargroves! She wondered if they would ever answer her letters.
Shaking herself from the distressing thoughts, she studied the ledger, noticing the edge of loose paper. Pulling it free, she recognized her notes on the murder. She frowned, recalling how Reed Carter had picked up this paper--had studied it, or so it seemed. The room had been dim with dust moats swirling. He had handed her the paper and then headed for the back door, barely making mention. With all the questions he'd previously had for her, his lack of comment seemed odd.
She re-read the brief notes she had made, and penned a new line. People at the settlement. Claytons, Mercys, Misters Fykes and Blankenship. She paused, wondering again where Nancy and Rose had been, and Mr. Winslow. It was raining, she remembered. They had probably been in their dry tents and felt no need to venture into the damp weather. Then Reed Carter had come down--ridden down on his horse. She recalled the steam rising from the animal. Where had he come from? she wondered. Certainly not just from his camp site.
She twiddled the pen between her fingers, feeling perturbed. She had just started to think nicely of the gambler. Had enjoyed their banter on the porch before the cattle drive arrived. His pleasant, dimpled smile came to mind. And then his haste to leave the store after he handed her this paper. Scowling, she shook her head. She'd have to ask Lutecia about him. She looked again at the page and wrote, Reed Carter????
"Boom!" George exclaimed, pushing over part of the wall of cans he had made.
"Oh, George, you startled me." Ellen put her hand to her throat, amazed by how preoccupied she had become.
"Boom!" George pushed the rest over and held up his hands, laughing. Air tights rolled against Ellen's feet and George scrambled after them.
"Here now, I have to put those up," she told the youngster who crawled around her skirt hem. After scooping him into one arm, she made her way to the far end of the counter, kicking a few cans as she went. "You play with these awhile." She sat him on the floor and handed him a burlap sack filled with smaller bags.
"I wanna see," George declared, instantly mesmerized. He burrowed into the bag, intent on finding something unique.
Once the boy was settled, Ellen capped the ink jar, slid the paper back into the ledger and started picking up disarray of air tights filled with fruits and vegetables. As she placed them on the shelf, she heard someone on the porch and turned. She cocked her head and squinted, because a blur seemed to hide the features of whoever was there. "Yes?" she said. A strange noise came to her and she saw a squirming black and white puppy suspended in front of the darkness.
"It was whining outside the door. I hope you don't mind my bringing it in," said a deep male voice.
He had a smooth southern accent, this man--this blur. She frowned, still unable to make out his features.
"Woofer!" George cried, running around the counter.
"Here you go." The man bent to George, gave him the puppy, and then stood up.
There! He had a face. Ellen drew a sharp breath. She jerked her attention back to the cans she held.
"Fykes up at the livery told me what you did," the man said. "That was quite good of you to bring poor Francis back to civilization."
She had to look at him. It was only polite, but--. "Only common decency, sir." Dark brown hair waving over his shirt collar, lean face, eyes deep brown-deep set. Her hand shook as she set down the cans.
He studied her without smiling. "I'm James Montgomery. Stone's partner in the cattle company."
Ellen nodded, refusing to extend her hand to this man--this murderer! She gripped the edge of the counter, swallowing down that incredible thought.
"It was quite a shock when I rode in this morning and learned Francis was gone. And so brutally, too. Damn Indians. Did you actually see them out there?"
George and the puppy scurried behind her, tipping a sack of middling flour. She grabbed the sack, grateful it wasn't open. George kicked at the puppy. It yipped. Ellen picked up the boy, glad to feel his warmth against her. She licked her lips and reprimanded her thoughts. Just because this man's face was hovering in the death dream doesn't mean he killed Mr. Stone.
"It was quite a shock," she managed to get out. She dared another glance at James Montgomery while bouncing George in her arms to keep him from wriggling down.
"Did you see any Indians?" Montgomery asked again.
"No. No, Indians. I didn't see any. Not anyone at all," she stammered.
"I've heard your family is on good terms with the locals." Montgomery glanced at the new display of combs, toothbrushes and razors in the glass-fronted cabinet. He bent closer to study the knives Tim had for sale. In a cavalry-style belt, he wore a gun--a thong loop over the hammer. Beside that, strapped tightly along his left hip, was a long, knife sheath. The scrimshaw handle of the weapon touched the edge of his short leather vest.
Ellen stood George on the floor, shocked by the weapon. Mr. Stone's mutilated hand, his slit throat, came unbidden to her mind.
Montgomery straightened. "Well, I just came to thank you again for your decency," Montgomery drawled--a different sound from Luke Clayton's Arkansas twang or Reed Carter's inflections--lazier, Ellen decided; from deeper south. He smiled and touched his fingers to the flat brim of his low crown hat. "And I'm sorry to have disturbed you with unpleasantries." He looked at her a brief moment, or at least Ellen thought he did. She couldn't be sure because his face was again oddly obscured. She heard him say, "Afternoon, Ma'am." She watched the blur move away from the counter, heard his steps on the porch.
Ellen's breath came shakily after the man left. She wanted to close the door, but the day was already too warm for that. She couldn't rid her thoughts of how that man had at first seemed only a dark blur, then became a face--the face. Hard cruel eyes, then a blur again. James Montgomery. She bit her lip as shock and fear filled her. She had seen the actual person from her horrible dream! He was real. He was here! She took up the cup of water her mother had poured for her and sipped the tepid liquid while forcing her trembling to subside.
The room held a strange quiet. Ellen set down the cup. George was missing. "George?" she called. Silence. She scanned the store, then looked outside. Not seeing him, she began a thorough perusal of the store, and after a few minutes found George asleep under the table of overalls, his arm across the fat puppy. She smiled and shook her head at his ease of repose. She put a folded apron under his head for a pillow, wishing she could become as oblivious to her surroundings.
Woofer squirmed loose and started prancing around her feet. Ellen set the puppy outside, forcing herself not to look up the hill. Yet as she finished the inventory, she knew exactly where James Montgomery was. She could look through the window and see that man-sized column of darkness often at the cattle company tent, then once by the livery. The sun climbed near its apex, increasing the heat. She stood in the doorway to get a breeze and noticed the dark blur moving from the little tents behind the hotel toward Reed Carter's place. "James Montgomery," she muttered, correcting her perception. "A man, not a dark blur."...