In which former soldier and stagecoach driver Bobby Brown comes to the rescue of an embattled widow and runs into unusual complications.
“I tell you fer the last time, Grant Saunders, that this farm ain’t for sale,” snapped Elsie Rawlins, “and if you ain’t off my property by the time I count to ten, I won’t be responsible for the consequences!”
The woman was tall and thin with a bunch of chestnut hair pinned up behind her head. Few would have described her as pretty exactly, but there was something admirable about the determined thrust of her chin and the flash of her steel-blue eyes that suggested an inner strength. A small eight year old girl was clutching at her mother’s skirts and peering anxiously at the three men sitting their horses in the farmyard.
“Now look’ee here, Mrs. Rawlins, I made you a generous offer,” replied Saunders in a wheedling tone. “Sell up and you kin buy ‘nother place twice the size o’ this’un.”
“I like it right here, Saunders,” said Elsie through clenched teeth.
“You better change yo’ mind, Mrs. Rawlins,” continued Saunders with a frown. “I ain’t ‘customed to bein’ turned down!”
Saunders’ two companions edged their horses in closer towards the porch. The little girl, Lucie, sensed their menace, and let out a whimper.
“You’se scairing my daughter!” exclaimed Elsie angrily. “Back off now!”
“You heerd what the lady said!” A fresh voice was suddenly added to the exchange. It came from right behind Saunders.
Saunders whirled in his saddle. A man was standing in the yard, a pistol in his hand.
One of Saunders’ men began to reach for his gun.
“I wouldn’t touch that mister if’n I was you,” warned the newcomer. “I’m purty handy with this pistol. I kin put a bullet through your shoulder afore you clear leather.”
Saunders’ man gingerly moved his hand back to rest on his saddle bow.
“Now the lady’s tellin’ you to move along,” said the man with the pistol. “I suggest you git!”
Saunders wheeled his horse, and turned a malignant stare on the newcomer.
“We’ll see you agin, stranger,” he hissed.
“I kin hardly wait,” said his adversary calmly, gesturing with the barrel of his pistol, “but for now, on yer way!”
With a clatter of hooves and a swirl of dust the three horsemen galloped out of the yard and off down the dusty country road.
The newcomer stared after them a moment, a frown on his face, and then he uncocked his pistol, and thrust it back into the pocket of his dust-covered coat. He then removed his hat to reveal a head of unruly brown hair flecked with grey. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand, and with a sigh of relief addressed the woman on the porch.
“I’d surely appreciate a drink o’ cool water on this hot afternoon, ma’am.”
“Of course,” said Elsie. “Help yerself.”
She pointed to a bucket with a dipper that sat on a table near the porch.
“My daughter and I are mighty grateful fer yer help,” continued Elsie.
“Glad to be of service, ma’am,” said the stranger. “My name’s Bobby Brown.”
“Elsie Rawlins,” replied the widow. “This is my daughter, Lucie. Say hello to Mr. Brown, Lucie.”
The little girl slid out from behind her mother’s skirts, and shot a winsome glance at Bobby.
“Hello,” she murmured.
Bobby smiled, and gave the girl a friendly wave.
“Say, who wuz that feller, if’n you don’t mind me askin’, ma’am?” asked Bobby. “He looked kinda familiar.”
“Grant Saunders,” answered Elsie scornfully. “He’s bin tryin’ to get his hands on my farm for months.”
“How come?” asked Bobby.
“Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad has big plans to bring the line from Strong City through here on its way to Superior, Nebraska,” said Elsie. “Saunders bin buying up all the land that sets by the track. He reckons he’s gonna make a big killing when they come thru! He needs my place to complete his collection.”
“I get the picture,” remarked Bobby.
“I don’t know what to do,” continued Elsie, spreading her arms in frustration. “To be honest he scares me. I cain’t be sure what he might do to force me out. I’m half tempted to take his offer, but…”
She paused and gazed off into the distance.
“But what, ma’am?” prompted Bobby.
“My husband worked his fingers to the bone getting’ this place goin’,” said Elsie. “He built this house of ours, every plank and nail. He cleared the land. He dug ditches to water our vegetable fields. Then ‘bout a year ago, he fell sick to the fever, n’ it took him…”
There was a catch in her voice, and Bobby glimpsed tears forming at the corners of her eyes.
“I’m sure sorry, ma’am,” she said. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“That’s awright,” replied Elsie, wiping her eyes on her apron. “Jest when I think I’m over it, it hits me all over agin that he’s gone. Anyways,” she continued defiantly, “he built this farm fer us, and I ain’t about to give it up fer nobody!”
“I admire you fer that, ma’am,” said Bobby quietly.
“Pardon me fer goin’ on like that,” said Elsie apologetically. “You must be plumb tuckered out. Why’nt you come up in the house and set awhile? In fact, you should stay fer dinner. I got some right tasty stew on the stove.”
“I’d be lyin’ if I didn’t admit I could eat a steer, hooves ‘n all,” said Bobby with a quick laugh.
The little girl was staring at Bobby as if she couldn’t quite make him out.
He sure is the strangest-lookin’ feller I ever saw, she thought. He ain’t big like my paw wuz, but he looks kinda strong in his arms and his legs. But he don’t have no hair on his face like Papa did. It’s real smooth. He’s sure funny-lookin’, but I like him.
She watched curiously as Bobby followed her mother through the door.
“That was might good stew, Mrs. Rawlins,” said Bobby, pushing his plate aside. “I’ve eaten so much I cain’t rightly move!”
“It’s nice to have a man around to feed again,” said Elsie, smiling.
If you only knew, thought Bobby to herself.
“Listen,” continued Elsie, “I don’t know if yer lookin’ fer work, but we could surely use some help round the farm fer a while. I cain’t pay you nuthun’ till we get the vegetables to market, but I kin give you three square meals a day and a roof over yer head. ‘Sides I’d feel a lot safer with a man about the place, what with Saunders and his boys hangin’ around.”
Bobby thought for a moment, and then she said:
“Reckon I kin stay fer a spell. Cain’t promise fer how long. I get itchy feet after a while, but I’d never leave you in the lurch.”
“Well, good,” said Elsie warmly. “That’s settled then!”
Bobby got up from the table.
“If you’d kindly give me a couple o’ blankets, Missis Rawlins,” she said. “I’ll bed down out back in that barn o’ yours. Ain’t too cold of a night, I’ll be snug as a bug.”
“Nonsense!” snapped Elsie briskly. “We ain’t puttin’ a guest in the barn like an animal. You’ll have Lucie’s room. She kin come sleep in the big bed with me. Right, Lucie?”
“Sure, momma,” said Lucie meekly.
“I don’t wanna put you out o’ yer place, Lucie,” said Bobby.
“’S okay,” the little girl replied. “Jest as long as I kin take my Annie with me.”
“That’s her rag doll,” explained Elsie. “She cain’t fall asleep without she’s huggin that dolly o’ hers.”
“Well, I reckon we all need someone to love,” said Bobby.
Elsie caught the wistful tone in Bobby’s voice, and glanced at her.
He’s sure one strange-lookin’ feller, she thought, but I’m sure glad he happened along.
“Momma, why don’t Mr. Brown take his shirt off when he’s hoein’ the beans?” asked Lucie. “Poppa always did.”
Elsie looked up from the kitchen table where she was kneading the dough for some bread.
“Everybody’s different, child,” she said absently.
“But it’s hotter ‘n an oven out there, ma,” said the little girl. “Look! I even took raggedy Ann’s dress off! She’s real hot!”
“Go on with you,” chided her Mom. “It’s time you went out, and collected those eggs. I told you to do that an hour ago!”
“Okay, Momma,” said Lucie grudgingly.
Elsie watched her daughter shuffle off to do her chore, and then she crossed to the front door herself, and stared out across the field. She watched the graceful wiry body of her new hand hoeing rhythmically, pausing occasionally to straighten up a bean plant or to mop his brow.
‘Tis strange, she thought. Any man I know would have his shirt off by now, enjoyin’ the warm sun on his back. Oh well, takes all kinds!
It was because she’d opened the window to let some cool night air into the narrow stuffy confines of Lucie’s bedroom that Bobby was able to catch the rustling shuffling sounds out in the yard, and then some moments later to catch the acrid smell of burning. She was wide awake in a moment, pulling on her boots, and throwing a leg over the window.
She caught sight of a couple of shadowy figures over by the barn, and pulled back inside to grab her pistol. Aiming quickly she fired twice hoping to scare away the intruders. She heard muffled oaths, followed by the sound of footsteps running away in the darkness.
“Bobby, what’s happening?” called Elsie from outside the door.
“Barn’s afire,” shouted Bobby, dragging a blanket from her bed.
She opened the bedroom door to see Elsie standing in her nightgown, a lantern in her hand.
“I heerd shots!” said the widow.
“That was me,” replied Bobby. “I think I scairt them! I’m gonna wet this blanket in the trough, see if I can douse the fire. Stay in the house!”
“No,” said Elsie. “I need to help you!”
“Take care o’ yer daughter,” ordered Bobby. “If the fire’s real bad, I’ll come git you.”
Bobby took off through the front door and sprinted around the house. Flames were already licking through the open barn door. She could hear old Barney, Elsie Rawlin’s horse, whinnying, and kicking at his stall.
I’ll git you outa there, old feller, thought Bobby as she plunged the blanket into the cold water in the trough.
She sprinted across the yard and began to slap the blanket down over the flames by the door. It looked as if she’d surprised the arsonists before the fire had really got going because the flames were still confined to the hay strewn across the floor. The timbers of the walls and stalls were yet to catch fire.
Gotta move fast, Bobby thought.
All of a sudden she felt a presence behind her, and whirled to see Elsie wielding a soaked blanket.
“You keep workin’ on the fire,” shouted Bobby. “I’m goin’ to git that horse outa there!”
“Be careful!” warned Elsie.
Bobby dashed back to the trough, and soaked her bandanna before tying it securely over her nose and mouth. Then she returned to the barn, leaping beyond the flames and making her way towards Barney’s stall.
She saw the fear in the horse’s eyes, and instantly began to speak calmly to the animal.
“Easy, boy,” she said. “Don’t you be scairt now. I’m gonna git you out.”
She reached up to touch the horse’s neck, but the animal shied away in fear, kicking out against the stall with his back legs. Gotta be careful, thought Bobby, don’t wanna get hurt!
Talking to Barney in a soft calming voice, she was at last able to get next to the animal. Slipping a bridle over his nose, she coaxed him slowly out of his stall. When the horse caught sight of the flames, he backed off sharply, almost treading on Bobby’s feet.
“There’s a small door in back o’ the barn,” called Elsie. Try to take her out that way!”
Bobby turned the horse’s head, and eased him towards the rear of the barn. The door was small, barely big enough to get the animal through, and it was jammed, but a sharp shove of Bobby’s shoulder burst it open, and the horse lumbered through.
She tethered the trembling animal to the branch of a tree well clear of the barn, and dashed around the building to check on the progress of the fire.
It took them almost an hour, but at last the fire was out, and Bobby and Elsie stood wearily, gazing at the blackened walls and doorway of the barn and at the smoldering hay scattered across the floor.
“Guess it coulda bin much worse,” remarked Bobby as she surveyed the damage. “By the way where’s Lucie?”
“You won’t niver believe it, but she slept through the whole thing,” replied Elsie wonderingly. “Even those shots o’ yourn. Did you hit anybody?”
“Doubt it,” said Bobby. “It wuz pitch dark, and I wuz really jest tryin’ to scare ‘em.”
“No prizes fer guessin’ who’s behind this!” remarked Elsie. “That ruffian’s gonna try everythin’ to force me outa here!”
Bobby laid a calming hand on Elsie’s arm.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Rawlins,” she said. “I ain’t gonna let him do that!”
Elsie stared at him. “Don’t know where you sprung from, Bobby, but I’m sure glad you’re here!” she said gratefully.
“Where are you from, Mr. Brown?” asked Lucie shyly.
“Why, what do you mean, little one?” said Bobby.
“I mean like where wuz you born?” continued Lucie, an earnest expression on her face. “Where d’you live when you wuz little like me?”
The two were sitting together outside the farmhouse on the stoop, enjoying the afternoon sunshine. Elsie had taken the buckboard into town for supplies.
“I grew up on a farm just like this one up north in Minnesota,” said Bobby after a moment, “but my pa din’t treat me good, so I ran away when I wuz thirteen.”
“Yer paw must’ve bin a bad man,” declared Lucie solemnly.
“Guess he loved me in his own way,” mused Bobby. “Taught me to hunt an’ fish ‘n such-like, but he wuz jest too quick to lay his hand on me, too keen to take his belt to my hide!”
“My momma’s real strict,” remarked Lucie primly, “but she wun’t never beat on me.”
“I’m sure she wouldn’t.” Bobby said with a smile.
“What you bin doin’ since you runned away?” asked Lucie. “That wuz a long time ago cuz now you’s all growed up ‘n old.”
Bobby grinned at Lucie’s designation of her as old. Landsakes, child, she thought, I’m only three or four and thirty! Still I guess I look mighty old to you!
“Well now, fust I joined the army when I was ‘bout fourteen,” she replied. “I wuz a soldier in the war between the states. Me and my friend, Sean, we seen some mighty fierce fightin’.”
Bobby remembered her young friend with fondness. I missed him so bad fer a long time, she thought, but time heals so much, and I kin talk ‘bout him now without tearin’ up!
“My Daddy wuz in that war,” interrupted Lucie. “He tole me all ‘bout it. He had a nice blue soldier’s coat. It’s still hangin’ in Ma’s bedroom. Wuz yer uniform blue, Mr. Brown?”
“It sure wuz, Lucie,” replied her companion. “Me and your Daddy wuz on the same side. And you kin call me Bobby if you like.”
“Gee, thanks,” said Lucie warmly. “What’d you do after the war, Bobby?”
“The army sent me out west to fight Injuns,” continued Bobby, “but I din’t cotton to the way they treated ‘em. Called ‘em savages, and kilt them fer no good reason. They’s people same as you and me! Just got different ways o’ livin’ is all. Anyways, when my stint wuz up, I quit the army, and got me a job punchin’ cows down in the Texas Panhandle.”
“Gosh awmighty!” exclaimed Lucie, wide-eyed with concern. “Ain’t that cruel punchin cows in the face?”
“Heck no, little girl,” she chuckled, “no-one’s aksherly punchin’ no cows. We wuz catchin’ ‘em and brandin’ ‘em and drivin’ ‘em to market! I did that fer a spell, and then I got my itchy feet agin and headed out west to California to drive a stagecoach.”
“That musta been real excitin’,” declared Lucie. “Gosh, Bobby, you had lotsa adventures. Did anybody ever try to rob yer stagecoach?”
“Jest the one time,” answered Bobby.
“What happened?” enquired Lucie eagerly.
Bobby leaned forward toward the little girl, and said in a hushed tone:
“It wuz a real bad robber named ‘Black Bart’! He came ridin’ out o’ the bushes with a flour sack over his head, and tole me to throw down the strongbox.”
“And did you?” asked Lucie breathlessly.
“Nope,” said Bobby. “I pulled my pistol, and shot ‘im in the shoulder. He was so surprised he jest turned round and rode away!”
“Golly gee!” exclaimed Lucie. “You must be real brave!”
“Naw, jest lucky,” acknowledged Bobby.
All of a sudden Lucie leaped to her feet, and bounded across the yard.
“Here comes Momma!” she shrieked in a shrill voice of excitement.
Sure enough, a few moments later the buckboard pulled into the yard. The horse looked shot as if it had been driven hard. It was panting and its sides were flecked with foam. Elsie Rawlins was perched on the seat, her bonnet awry.
“Somethin’ wrong, Mrs. Rawlins?” asked Bobby in a voice tinged with concern.
Elsie didn’t answer right off, but accepted Bobby’s outstretched arm to climb down from the buckboard.
“Me and Bobby’s bin havin’ a swell talk, Momma,” piped up Lucie. “He’s bin tellin’ me all ‘bout his adventures!”
“That’s real nice, sweetie,” said Elsie with an obvious effort at gaiety. “Listen honey here’s a stick o’ licorice from Mr. Hardy’s store, you know, the kind you like. Why’n’t you go play a while afore supper while Bobby helps me carry in the groceries?”
“Okay, ma,” said Lucie happily, as she accepted the proffered stick and skipped away.
“But don’t you go strayin’ too far from the house, you hear,” Elsie called after her.
Bobby took several packages from the back of the buckboard, and followed Elsie inside the house. The widow pulled off her bonnet, and sat down at the table.
“Would you pour me a cup of coffee, Bobby?” she asked wearily.
Bobby set the cup down in front of Elsie, and then took a chair opposite, taking in at a glance the lines of care scored across her friend’s worn features.
“Saunders botherin’ you agin?” she asked.
Elsie nodded ruefully.
“He come up behind me when I wuz loadin’ the buckboard,” she replied. “Made me jump. Said he thought I’d best take his offer fer the farm afore somethin’ bad happened!”
“Wuz his two sidekicks with him?” asked Bobby.
“They sure were!” answered Elsie. “Large as life and twice as ugly! One of ‘em sporting a bandaged arm!”
“I guess one o’ my shots musta winged him the other night,” speculated Bobby.
“Guess so,” echoed Elsie morosely.
She stared at the table for a moment, and then looking up, she said in a voice filled with pain, “I got no right draggin’ you into this, Bobby. No right loadin’ you with my problems. I surely ‘preciate what you done fer us, standin’ ‘em off like you did and puttin’ out that fire an’ all, but I cain’t ask you to stick around. I don’t want you gittin’ hurt. They’ll not harm me and the kid, jest scare us some, but you’re a man. They might up n’ kill you, n’ I couldn’t hardly stand that!”
Elsie sank her head on her hands on the table and began to weep, her shoulders shaking uncontrollably. Bobby sat opposite, frozen, unsure how to react.
After a few moments she stood up and walked around the table, laying a soothing hand on the widow’s shoulders.
“Easy now, ma’am,” said Bobby. “There’s no cause to take on so. I kin take care o’ meself. Don’t you fret! But I ain’t about to desert two damsels in distress.”
Elsie looked up, her tear-stained face twisting into a half-smile.
All of a sudden she glided to her feet, threw her arms around Bobby’s neck, and kissed her firmly on the mouth.
Corn, thought Bobby, that’s really torn it!
Stunned as she was, Bobby felt no inclination to disengage from Elsie’s arms. A strong feeling was aroused within her such as she’d never felt since she’d been drawn to Sean so many years before. She felt a real and bewildering attraction to this lonely widow.
Lord, this is confusin’, thought Bobby. We’s both wimmin! I gotta tell her the truth afore this goes too far, but how can I do it right?
Ever so carefully and gently Bobby disengaged herself from Elsie’s arms.
“We’d better git that supper ready, Mrs. Rawlins,” she said evenly. “Your little girl, she’ll be gittin’ hungry. She’ll be comin’ back soon.”
Elsie was still gazing at Bobby with appealing eyes.
“Don’t fret now, Mrs Rawlins, ma’am,” continued Bobby. “I ain’t goin’ no place ‘til we’s sorted things out with that Saunders feller. You can depend on that!”
This seemed to satisfy Elsie, whose tear-stained face broke into a sudden bright smile.
“Holy Cow, Bobby,” she said brightly, “I sure wish you’d quit with this ‘Mrs. Rawlins’ and ‘ma’am’ bizness! You make me feel like some old lady! From now on call me ‘Elsie’, okay?”
“Okay,” agreed Bobby, turning to the stove.
I know that feller from somewhere, thought Bobby. I’ve seen his face before.
She pictured the heavy features of Grant Saunders, the bushy eyebrows above the dark deep-set eyes, the prominent nose, the pencil-thin black moustache, the crooked smile that revealed a missing tooth on the left side.
Saunders had just passed her by on the main street of the nearby town of Keystone without any sign of recognition. But Bobby had remembered him vividly from their brief but tense encounter in Elsie’s yard, and now she was sure she had seen him before.
As she drove the buckboard back to the farm, in her mind Bobby ran through all the towns where she had lived and worked in the past ten years, trying to place him, but to no avail. She could remember no Grant Saunders, but yet…
Wait a minute, she thought all of a sudden, maybe that ain’t his real name, and maybe I seen his face in a picture someplace – a wanted poster or in the newspaper!
She steered the buckboard deftly around a pot-hole as she continued to rack her brains.
“I got it!” she exclaimed aloud in a tone of triumph. “I got it by jiminy!” she repeated in a much louder voice.
A flock of starlings, alarmed by the sudden racket, rose into the air, flapping their wings furiously.
“Twas that time I was stuck in that cabin down Topeka way,” continued Bobby as if addressing an imaginary passenger, sitting next to her in the buckboard. “That blizzard come down ‘n shut me in fer a week. All I had to read wuz some old newspapers. Must’ve read ‘em cover to cover ten times over. I’m sure his picture wuz in one of ‘em. I jest gotta remember which one!”
She uttered a whoop of triumph, and a startled jack-rabbit hurtled across the road.
“When did Grant Saunders arrive in town?” Bobby asked Elsie that evening as they sat drinking cups of after dinner coffee.
“’Bout five years ago, I guess,” answered Elsie. “At first nobody really noticed him. He wuz dealing faro in the saloon, but then he started buyin’ up land outside o’ town. Just one or two small farms at first, and then more and more.”
“Any idea where the money was comin’ from?” said Bobby.
“Folks thought he must be winnin’ at the poker table,” said Elsie, “but I don’t reckon that’d be enough for all that land he got his hands on! He must’ve brung some money with him and had it stashed away. He niver flashed it around, but he always seemed to have enough when he needed it! Why you askin’ all these questions, Bobby?”
“I reckon I seen his picture in a newspaper someplace,” replied Bobby thoughtfully. “Listen, Elsie, kin you and Lucie get on without me fer a couple o’ days?”
“Where you goin’, honey?” asked Elsie softly.
Bobby stiffened and came alert at the word ‘honey’, but she tried hard not to show her alarm.
“I’m gonna take the train to Kansas City to the newspaper office, and see if I kin find that picture I was talkin’ ‘bout. I reckon Mr. Grant Saunders got a shady past. Mebbe he come by that money o’ his dishonestly. If I kin find out ‘bout it, I kin mebbe lean on him, make him leave you folks alone.”
“Oh, Bobby, that’d be wunnerful,” said Elsie, looking at her longingly.
She rose to her feet, and stepped towards Bobby.
Bobby glanced around like a trapped animal, but there was nowhere to go.
God help me, she breathed, as Elsie stopped in front of her.
They were about the same height, and Bobby found herself staring straight into a pair of soft brown eyes.
“Hold me, Bobby,” said Elsie.
Gingerly Bobby placed her arms around the widow in a chaste embrace.
“You’re a shy one, honey,” said Elsie, reaching up to stroke her hair.
I gotta tell her, thought Bobbie. But she didn’t move. Something about the nearness and warmth of the woman’s body stopped her.
Just at that moment a small trembling voice behind them said:
“Momma, I cain’t sleep. I had a bad dream. I’m scairt!”
As Elsie released her from the embrace, Bobby uttered a deep sigh of relief.
“You got some place where you keep back copies o’ yer newspaper?” asked Bobby.
The clerk in the office of The Kansas Evening Star nodded.
“Down the basement,” he said laconically.
“How kin I find a particular copy?” enquired Bobby.
The clerk removed a toothpick from the corner of his mouth.
“They’se in boxes, marked by month ‘n year,” he declared.
“I kin jest go down there ‘n look?” continued Bobby.
“Help yerself!” replied the clerk. “Knock yerself out!”
Bobby nodded her thanks, and descended to the basement which was tightly packed with stacks of cardboard boxes containing back-copies of The Evening Star stretching back some twenty years. The boxes were covered in a thick layer of dust. It took Bobby almost half an hour to find the month and year she was seeking. She carried the heavy box over to a rickety table by the basement door, and commenced her search.
About ten minutes later Bobby had located the edition that she had read all those years before in the cabin, and she began to turn the pages, scanning them for the familiar photograph. All of a sudden she let out a gasp of surprise. There he was, Grant Saunders, large as life, but under a different name!
Five minutes later Bobby was standing in front of the clerk’s desk once more. In her hand were two copies of the newspaper she had just examined.
“I see you got five copies o’ this here newspaper downstairs,” she said. “I’d sure like to buy these two copies.”
The clerk raised his eyebrows.
“Guess it’s okay,” he muttered. “They’se jest gatherin’ dust down there!”
Moments later Bobby emerged from the office, the two newspapers secure under his arm and a determined expression on his face.
“I think Mr. Saunders is gonna want to see me,” insisted Bobby.
“He’s busy!” said the man with the bandaged arm pugnaciously.
“Jest tell him it’s about Widow Rawlins’ farm,” said Bobby with a smile.
Moments later the door of the inner room was opened, and Saunders stuck out his head.
“Come on in, friend,” he said ingratiatingly.
He waved Bobby to a chair, a self-satisfied grin on his face.
“I’m hopin’ you’s here to tell me that Mrs. Rawlins finally seen sense, and wants to sell up and move on,” remarked Saunders.
“I’m afraid the only one who’ll be leavin’ town is you,” said Bobby coolly.
“You bin drinkin’, my friend?” said Saunders, baring his teeth. “I ain’t got time fer no jokin’ around!”
“I ain’t yer friend, Mr. Saunders,” said Bobby. “Or should I say, Corporal Simpson?”
Saunders mouth fell open, and he jerked upright in his chair.
“What you… talkin’ about… mister?” he managed to croak.
Bobby tossed a scrap of newspaper onto the desk in front of Saunders.
“I knew I seen your ugly face someplace before,” she said. “So I did some checkin’. Yer real name’s George Simpson. You’s an army deserter from Fort Willis. Five years ago you lifted a payroll, and shot a guard dead while you wuz escapin’. That’s how you got all the money to buy up the land ‘long the railroad route. You bin sittin’ purty up here in Keystone, but now it’s all over.”
As she was speaking, Bobby noticed Saunders reaching ever so slowly for a half-open drawer on the other side of the desk.
“I wun’t reach fer that shooter if I wuz you,” she snapped. “I gave a sealed package to a lawyer in Kansas City this mornin’. He’s got instructions to hand that package over to the law if’n anythin’ bad happens to me or Widow Rawlins. The package contains this newspaper story, your new name and where to find you.”
Saunders hand froze inches from the drawer.
“Now, Mr. Saunders or Corporal Simpson or whoever the blazes you really are,” continued Bobby, “I ain’t mean like you is, so I’m givin’ you a chance. Get out of town tonight, and don’t ever come back agin, and I’ll fergit I iver set eyes on you. But if you’s still here tomorrow, I’m goin’ to see the marshal!”
Saunders face was white as a sheet, and he forced his words out through bloodless lips.
“What about my property?” he muttered.
“You bought it with stolen money,” said Bobby. “I don’t reckon it rightly belongs to you. Anyways you better hightail it outa here right quick, and don’t fergit to stay away from the widow and her daughter or else…”
With these parting words Bobby rose to her feet and left Saunders sitting dumbstruck at his desk.
“Bobby! Bobby!” called Elsie, unable to contain her excitement. “Have you heard? Saunders left town! He’s plumb disappeared along with his two buddies. Bin gone now fer a week!”
“I think you’ll find he ain’t comin’ back,” said Bobby.
“How d’you know that, Bobby Brown?” asked Elsie suspiciously. “You got sumpin’ to do with his sudden de-parture?”
“Mebbe,” replied Bobby laconically.
“Aw, come on now, Bobby!” begged Elsie. “Please tell me. You must’ve found out sumpin’ in Kansas City!”
So Bobby told the whole story about Saunders being an army deserter who had stolen a payroll and used his ill-gotten gains to buy the land around Keystone. She also described her confrontation with Saunders and the ultimatum she had given him.
“He ain’t niver comin’ back,” concluded Bobby, “and he won’t niver bother you, Elsie. Not ever agin!”
“Oh, Bobby!” exclaimed Elsie with delight. “How kin I ever thank you? You’ve saved my daughter and me, and you’ve saved the farm. I cain’t niver pay you back!”
“Corn! It ain’t nothin’,” said Bobby awkwardly.
Elsie regarded her with a misty look in her eyes.
“You know I’ve gotten awful fond of you in a short time,” continued Elsie. “Ever since you come to my rescue like Sir Galahad in that book I wuz readin’ to Lucie! I sure missed havin’ a man around. It’s bin awful lonely. I wish you’d stay with us. I know Lucie really loves you, and I…”
“Elsie, stop!” interrupted Bobby. “There’s somepin’ I gotta tell you!”
She paused, her mouth dry, unsure what to say.
“There ain’t no easy way to tell you this,” she continued after some moments. “I look like a man, I dress like a man, I act like a man, but landsakes I ain’t no man! I’m a woman! My real name’s Roberta Walczynski! When I ran aways from my father’s home, I knew I din’t niver want to be tied down to some husband, cleanin’ n’ cookin’ n’ bearin’ his chillen. I seen my own Momma leadin’ a life o’ drudgery and care till she just got wore out n’ died. I din’t want none o’ that! I wanted to see the wide world and taste me some adventures. So I made up my mind I wuz goin’ to live as a man cuz only men get to do those things!”
She paused again for breath, glancing at Elsie, expecting to see shock or pain in the widow’s eyes, but she saw only sympathy.
“I’ve lived that way these twenty years or more,” Bobby went on. “It ain’t bin easy. Couldn’t get close to nobody for fear they’d find me out as a woman. At times I bin so lonely I wept. But still I seen this land of ours, had my fill of adventures, and I ain’t beholden to no man! I’m sure sorry that I deceived you, and hurt your feelings this way.”
Elsie leaned across the table, and took Bobby’s hand in her own, squeezing it affectionately.
“That wuz quite a speech,” she said softly. “You ain’t got nuthin’ to be sorry ‘bout. I had a sense that you wasn’t ‘xactly what you ‘peared to be. There was sumpin’ ‘bout the way you held me that time. I thought you wuz nervous or scairt or sumpin’, but now I kin see why you held back from me.”
The two women sat there in silence for some moments, gazing into each other’s eyes. At last Elsie said:
“Look, Bobby, I don’t care if you’se a man or a woman. I’ll love you jest the same. I love you fer your goodness and your courage not, fer the way you look or the way you dress. What you just tole me don’t alter my feelings one bit, and long as you stick around, I’ll keep your secret. For my sake and Lucie’s sake, I hope you’ll stay. I reckon we cud make a go of it, the three of us.”
“I dunno, Elsie,” said Bobby doubtfully. “Keystone’s a small town. Everybody knows their neighbor’s business. After a spell people’d start to talk. They’d think it was wrong fer a single man (that’s what they think I am!) to be livin’ out here on the farm with a wider woman. They’d expect us to mek it legal, and you know we cain’t do that!”
Bobby felt Elsie’s soft brown eyes on her as she spoke.
“I don’t care what people think,” said Elsie firmly. “We’s two lonely people, n’ we care for each other. There’s so much we can give each other. If we cain’t be lovers, we can sure be good friends. Listen Bobby, at least sleep on it. If you need more time to decide, I reckon you could stay on fer a week without tongues startin’ to wag.”
Bobby looked at the handsome, dignified woman across the table.
I could love her, she thought. I could risk a new strange adventure if I have the courage.
“Alright, Elsie,” she said, “let’s give it a week, and then we’ll talk agin.”
At these words a warm and radiant smile spread across Elsie’s face, and Bobby felt her own heart beat just a shade faster.