Published on Tuesday, April 17, 2012
A Woman Of Certain Age
By Sierra Mackenzie
A woman of certain age stepped from the stagecoach at Cave Creek Station and stood wiping her brow with a damp handkerchief. It was hot as Hades and she felt feint. The driver climbed won, and getting her bags from the rear bucket of the coach, brought them around to where she stood.
"This here is the hotel, ma'm, and if you be staying here I'll take your bags in for ya." He was a whiskered man covered with trail dust, but having brought her all the way from Yuma he felt obligated to assist her in locating a room.
"That will be fine," she said with a tired smile.
The coach driver called up to the man riding shotgun, "Take the stage to the depot and rest the horses. I'll catch up to ya." He carried the bags into the hotel and held the door for the woman. People began gathering in curiosity since it wasn't often that a woman of certain age arrived in town wearing lamb-of-mutton sleeves, a lace collar about her neck and a mighty fancy bustle behind.
The desk clerk smiled broadly and nodded his satisfaction as she approached the desk.
"I need a room," she said.
"Will you be staying long?" he asked shoving the register toward her.
"As long as need be," she replied, and signed her name in a most feminine hand.
"You can have room three, just up the stairs and to your left. It has a nice window overlooking the street."
The coach driver headed up the stairs with the woman's bags and located room three. He opened the door and set the bags inside the room. Then taking off his wide brimmed hat he almost bowed as he smiled and nodded for her to enter.
"Thank you," she said. "You've been most kind."
"Anything for a lady," he said, and almost clicked his boot heels together in gaiety as he trotted down the stairs.
No sooner had this woman of a certain age seated herself on the bed and removed her hat than there came a rap at the door.
"Who is it?" she called.
"The sheriff. I want to introduce myself." The voice was husky and very masculine.
"Come in then," she said.
The door opened and there stood the tallest man she had ever laid eyes on. He had to bend his head to enter the room, and he carried his hat in his hands in an embarrassed fashion.
"I came to greet you for the town. Are you staying long? Have you plans for work? We don't like women of a certain age keeping company with townsfolk if they ain't working legal like. That is, I mean to say, you look respectable enough, but, Ma'm we don't want any more trouble here in Cave Creek than we already got. You understand don't you?"
"Of course I understand. And I won't be any trouble to you, Sheriff, if you aren't any trouble to me. I have a job, and its quite respectable."
"Aw! That's good, Ma'm. And what is it you were hired to do here in Cave Creek?"
By this time a boy of about ten years or so had run up the stairs and fell flat on his stomach to gaze between the legs of the sheriff. He cupped his chin in his hands and stared boldly at the woman of a certain age.
"Alexander," came a harsh voice, and a rather plain, but dimpled woman came up the stairs behind the boy and the sheriff. "Alexander, I done told you not to be bothering this woman." She grabbed the boy by the seat of his pants and hoisted him to his feet.
"Excuse us, Sheriff Martin, but he done left his manners at home, I guess. Staring at a person like he never saw a lady before."
The sheriff grinned, and Alexander twisted free of his maw's grasp and stood inside the room boldly.
"I reckon," he said, "that you be the new school marm."
"That's right," said the woman. "And I reckon that your name is Alexander. Will I be seeing you in school?"
"You sure will," he said cocking his head and teetering on his heels.
"Oh, then you're Miss Alice Beechcroft," said Alexander's maw. "I'm Elizabeth Hendricks, and I'd love to invite you to dinner this evening. That is if you like chicken and dumplings. You're invited too, Sheriff. Lets make it a real welcome dinner."
"I'd like that," said Alice Beechcroft.
The sheriff backed out of the room and slid the hat back on his head. "Mrs. Hendricks, I'll take you up on that invite. I do enjoy a good plate of chicken and dumplings."
"Fine then. I'll see you two at seven this evening."
Alexander ran to the stairs and slid down the banister. On the main floor he ran out the hotel door crowing like a rooster.
The sun sets late in Cave Creek. Hot August days draw the sweat from a body and leave people weary without lifting a finger or indulging in physical labor. People simply lie around until the sun sets, then they get active and begin walking about town, exchanging stories and niceties. At seven o'clock the sun was low in the sky painting it red and orange like fire, its reflection winking from windowpanes up and down the street.
Alice Beechcroft had by this time opened the window overlooking the street and stood admiring her new surroundings. She had rinsed the dust from her face and arms and had changed into a simple blouse and ankle length skirt.
So this is it, she mused to herself. The place I will call home. I hope I don't disappoint the students or their families, because this is my last hope of freedom. She stooped down and rubbed her ankle where the marks of a chain still laid claim to her.
A horse and wagon came up the street and stopped below her window. A man got out and entered the hotel. Presently he knocked on Alice's door and announced that he was Mr. Hendricks, came to take her to dinner. Before she left the window, she noted the sheriff mount his horse and ride out of town in the direction from which the wagon had come.
The meal was a delight, with pleasant conversation and laughter. Alexander had three brothers and a sister, all of whom would be attending the one room schoolhouse where Alice would teach. When the Hendricks invited their guests to sit on the porch and sip cool tea, it was a welcome relief from the indoor heat. Mrs. Hendricks sat in a rocking chair, snapping orders to the children, while her husband puffed away on a home crafted pipe.
"Mind if I smoke?" asked the sheriff, and he withdrew a tin of tobacco and a package of cigarette papers from his vest pockets.
"Not at all," said Alice. She sat on the top step of the porch and wrapped her arms around her legs. Her skirt was modestly long, but the way she sat it did not completely cover the chain marking on her ankles.
Now Sheriff Martin, having been a lawman for a long bit of years, took notice of the strange marks on Alice's ankles, and he knew immediately what they represented. His mind went to whirling about how such a lovely young woman of certain age could have been incarcerated and what her crime might be. When it was late and the children had been sent to bed, Sheriff Martin offered to take Alice, the schoolteacher, back to town. He drove the Hendricks' wagon with his horse tied behind.
"It's a lovely evening, isn't it?" Alice sighed as a full moon glowed overhead. It lit the road like near daylight, and the horse hardly needed any guiding at all. It simply picked its way slowly down the road in the direction of town.
"Yes, it is," said the sheriff. "Some things can bother a person though," he said.
"Like what things," asked Alice.
"Like how you got those chain gang marks on your ankles."
"So you noticed."
"Yes. But I'm sure the Hendricks didn't see them. How'd you get them?"
"How do you suppose? I was in prison. Chained and kept in prison so I couldn't run. I killed a man."
"That don't seem to fit the picture you're flaunting around town. Don't they hang people for murder?"
"I didn't say murder."
"So you killed someone, spent time in Territorial Prison, and now you're the school marm. How did you get out?"
"After a year the judge said if I can read and write, and can teach reading and writing, he would get me a job that would give me time off for good behavior. So here I am. But don't think I'm any ordinary school marm. I can ride and shoot and I won't hesitate to kill again if it 'come necessary."
Sheriff Martin whistled under his breath.
"I could use a deputy," he said with a probing look in his eye.
"Undercover?" she asked.
"Something like that."
What better way to keep tabs on a convicted killer than to hire her as an undercover deputy? And who would suspect a woman of certain age to be collaborating with the sheriff?
Two days later when Alice entered the hotel, the desk clerk held out a telegram and announced her daughter was arriving. Alice snatched the telegram from the man's hand recognizing that by now the entire town knew she had a daughter. She read the message: Rosalin arriving by stage. Stop. Needs her mother. Stop.
"When is the next stage arriving in town," she asked the desk clerk.
Not bothering to thank the man, she hurried to her room. What was she going to do? How could she keep a young girl in a small hotel room? She would have sent for Rosalin, but not until she was settled and had established herself in the community. Now she was faced with a situation she feared the town folk would not accept. She may be forced to move on, or worse, return to prison if her job here failed.
By two o'clock the next afternoon, the townsfolk had begun gathering around the hotel in anticipation. Alice knew it wasn't for her daughter's first appearance in town, because others were arriving, the mail was arriving, and some folks were leaving. Word of the telegram had spread, and standing at the window of her room Alice could see the sheriff watching her from the street below. In the gathering crowd was the Hendricks family. When a cloud of dust on the horizon indicated the stagecoach approaching at breakneck speed, Alice took a deep breath and stepped from her room.
She descended the stairs slowly, breathing deeply in anticipation of seeing her daughter for the first time since having left Yuma Territorial Prison. The banister, worn smooth by many hotel residents, felt unusually coarse and forbidding. At the bottom step she paused and gazed at the people standing outside. How will they react, she thought. Then holding her head high, she strode briskly out to meet the stage.
The six-horse team pulled to a stop in front of the hotel. The driver set the brake and climbed down. One of the townsfolk opened the stagecoach door and raised his hand to assist a young woman to disembark. Then he stepped away and stood staring as a young girl stepped down on her own power. One small foot was clad in leather. She held her skirt aloft from the dust and looked about in wonder. Her black hair hung in long braids beneath the fashionable bonnet she wore.
One word resounded throughout the crowd, Apache!
There was no mistaking the Apache blood. Men shook their heads and spat in the dirt. Women shrieked and grabbed for little ones. The sheriff stepped forward as Alice reached to embrace her daughter. She wondered if she would be asked to leave.
"This your daughter, m'am?" he asked.
"Yes, sheriff. And if you'll join me at the Hendrick's place this evening I'll explain everything."
Upstairs with her daughter, Alice Beechcroft couldn't help laughing. What a jolt she gave the townsfolk. Rosalin was a beauty from her high cheekbones and jet-black hair, to her rich coloring and smooth skin. Her brown eyes danced, and she couldn't stop talking about the journey all the while Alice helped her to bathe and change into clean clothes. But once they left the hotel and were headed for the Hendicks' by wagon, Rosalin fell into her usual quiet demeanor.
The welcoming at the Hendricks' was cool. The children walked around staring at Rosalin and asking questions.
"Is she real Apache?"
"Is she wild?"
"Can she talk?"
Mrs. Hendricks did not know how to react, while Mr. Hendricks chewed his pipe and bit the stem with clenched teeth.
Finally, after Sheriff Martin arrived, Mrs. Hendricks ventured to speak up.
"Well, come inside then," she turned abruptly and entered the house.
When all the adults were gathered around the table Mrs. Hendricks suggested the children take Rosalin outside and show her the new calf. Sheriff Martin cleared his throat and nodded to Alice. It was his idea that a woman of certain age should open the conversation by laying all her cards on the table. And she did.
"I realize its not everyday that this town welcomes an Apache Indian, but I am asking all of you to do so. Years ago my husband was killed during an Indian raid on our farm. I continued to run the farm by managing a small garden and keeping such livestock as you all have just to keep myself fed. There were a lot of raids on farms, and there were wars between the Apache and cavalry, so both sides suffered. Then one day the preacher's wife brought a baby for me to raise. It was Apache, and none of the church members would take it in. No one knew where it had come from, whether its parents had been killed or if it had gotten lost in the shuffle as Indian families were placed on reservations.
"I took the little tyke in and raised it as my own. When she came of school age I sent her to school but the locals rejected that idea saying they would not have their kids attending the same school as some renegade. She was mistreated and cruelly treated because of her heritage, so I took her out of school and taught her at home. I taught her everything she knows, how to read and write, how to add figures, and how to pray to God.
"When Rosalin turned ten, two strangers visited the farm. I fed them a meal and said they could sleep in the barn that night. In the morning I heard Roslin screaming and I ran to the barn with a gun. The strangers had raped her and I shot them both. Roslin was crying and I took her into the house, but she was too embarrassed and scared to let me go for the doctor. I took my gun and walked back to the barn. That's when I learned one of the men was dead, and the other was sitting up, leaning against the wall and bleeding badly. I told him to get on his horse and get out or I would shoot him again.
"At the trial the man that survived lied. He said they never touched Rosalin and that I had shot them without reason. I went to prison, and Roselin spent that time with the preacher's family. Now I'm asking that even if you don't believe my story and you refuse to have me teaching your children, do not hold anything against my daughter. She is an innocent victim and I'll do anything to protect her."
Mrs. Hendricks wiped away a tear, reached across the table and patted the hand of the woman telling this tale.
"I am one woman who is here to tell you, Alice, that your daughter deserves the same treatment as my own kids. I certainly want to see her in school with other children her age, and I am going to insist that the ladies in town also accept her."
Mr. Hendricks pondered the situation, laid down his pipe and rubbed the palms of his hands on his trousers.
"I feel the same as my wife. No kid should be cursed and abused. I'd like to be like the papa she never had."
"And you, Sheriff Martin?" asked Alice turning to the lawman. "What are your own feelings toward my daughter?"
"I just up-keep the law. I don't mind kids of any blood. She's welcome here by me and I'm here to protect her as a citizen of this town. Both she and you are under my protection."
He reached to remove Mrs. Hendrick's hand and covered Alice's hand with his own. It was then that a woman of certain age felt her blood heat and she blushed.
Sierra Mackenzie writes from Eufaula Lake in Oklahoma where she lives with her husband, two dogs and two cats. She is best known for her non-fiction articles on personal finance and back to basics living that have appeared in national magazines and on the web.