“Stop that, both of you.” Abigail Bailey stood on the porch of the home she once shared with the man she promised to love until death. Death had done its part, aided by a war only fools and Yankees wanted. “So help me, Calvin and Devon, I’m going to blister your backsides if you two don’t stop this instant.”
Both Calvin Meyers and Devon Peters halted a less than well-aimed punch.
“He called my pa a traitor,” Calvin said and shoved Devon.
Devon returned the favor. “He was. He was a low-down, dirty Reb.”
With those words, the fight was on again.
Abigail realized the futility of shouting at the pint-sized combatants. She marched down the stairs, avoiding the broken step.
Broken roads. Broken town. Broken lives. Broken hearts. Broken dreams. The litany of all that was broken ticked off with each step she took.
Calvin’s back was nearest, and Abigail seized his collar, pulling him away from Devon. Devon’s nape drew her other hand. Once she had a firm grip on both boys, Abigail allowed some of her frustration and anger to vent by giving them a solid shake.
“More than half the men in this town were what you called a ‘low-down, dirty Reb.’ Do you wish to call my husband, Sam, a traitor, Devon Isaiah Peters?” She punctuated the question with another hard shake. “Or perhaps there’s something else you’d like to call those men who wore the grey?”
“No, ma’am.” Devon had the good graces to appear contrite.
“At least my pa ain’t ever gonna be a scalawag or a carpetbagger.” The smug self-righteousness in Calvin’s voice mimicked the same tone she’d heard from many adults in town.
Add broken children to the litany.
Abigail didn’t spare Calvin the same treatment she administered to Devon. “For your information, young man, I come from a family of Yankees. Do I look like a carpetbagger or scalawag to you?”
Calvin shook his head, as chagrinned as Devon.
“I didn’t think so. Now, both of you, shake hands, apologize, and stop fighting.”
Neither child looked at the other. They also didn’t offer to shake hands. Abigail added another shake to their scruffs. “Shake hands and apologize.”
“Ain’t gonna shake with no scalawag.”
“Won’t apologize to no Reb.”
“Lord have mercy!” Abigail increased the pressure of her fingers. The two boys didn’t need a scolding. These two simply repeated the angry and ugly words they heard from those who should know better. Instead, several adults warranted a good tongue-lashing. Equally as dismaying to her was how thin the little combatants felt under her hands. She knew boys their age often spurted in growth, leaving them slender, but this went beyond that. “Either you two shake hands and stop fighting a war that ended almost two years ago or I’ll tell Sheriff Victoria to arrest the both of you. Won’t that look grand, your mothers having to get the both of you out of jail?”
“What you gonna have us arrested for?” Devon’s contrition vanished as fully as hope for Southern independence had in a little town somewhere in Virginia.
“Being incorrigible delinquents.”
“In…in…incorri…what’s that word mean?” Calvin squirmed in an attempt to break free.
“It means you’re beyond correcting.” Abigail glanced up the main street. A knot twisted in her chest and tightened. Victoria gestured wildly at Martin Davis. Davis, for his part, backed farther and farther away from the de facto sheriff of Brokken, Texas. “There’s Sheriff Victoria. Do I need to call her over here or are you two going to shake hands and stop fighting with one another?”
The appearance of Victoria brought about Abigail’s desired result.
Devon spit into his palm and thrust his dirty hand out to Calvin. “I promise I won’t call your pa a traitor no more.”
Calvin hesitated, then cleared his throat, spit into his palm and shook hands with Devon. “I won’t call you no scalawag, either.”
Abigail released both boys. “Don’t let me catch either of you fighting again.”
“No, ma’am.” As if their shirt-tails had caught fire, the boys ran from her, down the dusty main street. Their pace quickened as they passed Martin Davis and Victoria.
She shook her head. Whatever Victoria was saying to Davis, he was having none of it. For every step backwards he managed, Victoria advanced. It was one of two things the sheriff—heaven help them all, Brokken had a female sheriff because so many men had never returned—was haranguing Davis for. Either Victoria was trying to wheedle information from Davis the man didn’t have, or—No, only one thing got Victoria that worked up.
Abigail lifted her skirts. She loved Victoria, but there were times tact was not her best friend’s strong suit. Victoria had a habit of shooting first—often from the hip—and asking questions later. Her persistent questioning of Davis about her late husband, Jonathan, was just another manner of Victoria’s shooting, using words as a weapon.
Victoria wheeled to her, the revolver she always wore drawing Abigail’s gaze. The tin star pinned to her blouse wasn’t so disconcerting as that heavy revolver. Sam would have said it wasn’t exactly a pea-shooter. Her heart ached with the bittersweet memory of Sam’s deep voice remarking on Victoria’s talent with both revolver and rifle, and while the skill was impressive, only a man like Jonathan could have kept Victoria in check. Tight reins and sharp spurs had been his exact words.
“What is it?” The curtness to her friend’s words caused Abigail’s heart to sink. Victoria had been interrogating Martin again. The man obviously didn’t have any information about Jonathan, and yet she persisted. Her friend’s lack of knowledge increased the sharpness of her tone. Not knowing how or when her husband died—if he even had or if he was one of the men who just chose for whatever reason to never return--gnawed at Victoria’s insides and emerged with mounting frustration, as Abigail well knew.
“Calvin and Devon got into another fight. Maybe, it’s time for you to have a talk with them.”
“Because you’re the sheriff, and if you threaten to toss them in jail, they might think twice before they start throwing punches at one another.” Abigail spared Davis a smile and nodded a greeting to him. She caught Victoria’s elbow, forestalling the sheriff’s escape.
Davis touched the brim of his stained slouch hat. “If you’ll excuse me, I gotta be on my way.”
“Of course, Mr. Davis.” The man always fidgeted when Abigail was near him, twitching and jerking as if he was a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. “Would you please give my regards to Jane? I missed seeing her in church.”
The man looked to the dusty road at their feet. “She wasn’t feeling good. Ain’t never seen a woman be this sick just from being in a delicate condition.”
The knots in Abigail’s chest tightened. “If you don’t object, I’ll come out later today. I have a few tinctures that will help with that.”
Davis scuffed a worn boot toe in the road. He stared up the road, across the street, and back to the yellow dust. Anywhere but at her. Victoria jabbed her elbow at Abigail, and she responded with a tightening of her hand on her friend’s arm. In the strained stillness, a mourning dove softly cooed. Sam called them rain crows because often their cooing meant rain was coming. Heaven knew, they needed the rain. The winter had been drier than anyone could remember. Finally, Davis broke the silence. “That backwoods witchcraft of yours ...”
“They’re the same tinctures Sam would have offered her if he were still with us.” Abigail forced a smile and carefully enunciated each word, ruthlessly quelling any trace of her backwoods accent. “I don’t use any medicines that Sam didn’t approve of.”
“Do what you want.” Davis offered a curt nod and walked away.
After he was out of earshot, Abigail turned to Victoria. “You were interrogating him again, weren’t you?”
The stubborn thrust of Victoria’s chin provided all the answer she needed. Anger wouldn’t help. It seldom did with Victoria. Abigail opted for a softer approach, though her first instinct was to rail at her friend. “Vic, the war’s been over for more than a year. If Jonathan was coming home—”
“Don’t you say it.” Victoria wrenched her arm loose. “Don’t you say Jonathan isn’t coming home. He said he’d be back.”
Just as Sam had promised he would stay safe and return. Broken promises could be added to her continuing litany. “I won’t say that. But, Vic, you have to accept that Mr. Davis doesn’t know anything about Jonathan, other than what he’s told you. Continuing to question him won’t give you the answers you need.”
Victoria’s lips thinned, and she craned her head over her shoulder. “I’m not going to threaten to throw those two boys in the jail for fighting. Making them stop is Millie and Laura’s job. They’re their mothers.”
“That’s ripe, Victoria English.” Abigail tugged on the tin star pinned to her friend’s blouse. She duly noted her friend’s less than artful attempt to change the subject but willingly allowed Victoria to steer away from the painful matter of Jonathan’s failure to return to Brokken. “Those boys are insisting on continuing a war that should have never been fought and you won’t use this badge to try to bring peace to this town.”
Victoria slapped her hand away. “Don’t you tell me how to do my job.”
“It’s not your job.” Abigail took a step closer to her friend, so she was nose to nose with her. “That’s part of the problem in this town. We’re all doing jobs none of us ever wanted to do and some of us aren’t qualified to do.”
“Are you saying I’m not qualified to be this town’s sheriff?”
The sudden chill had nothing to do with the breeze stirring small dust devils in the road. In for a penny, in for a pound, Abigail reasoned. “Capable with a revolver or a rifle, you’re more than qualified. But you have a tendency to fly off the handle. The only time you really keep a firm grip on that hot-headedness is when you’re proving to someone you can outshoot them.”
Victoria leaned in and Abigail’s spine stiffened. She was not going to let Victoria intimidate her.
“If you want to talk about being qualified to do a job that some of us shouldn’t be doing, at least I can read the writing on a wanted poster. Your schooling fell a little short to be a doctor, didn’t it?”
Other than Sam, Victoria was the only person who knew her ability to read had been dwarfed by the youngest of students when she first arrived in Brokken. The nights spent sitting next to Sam, struggling to read anything beyond a first primer, seared through Abigail’s memory. He’d been so patient, so gentle, and even knew exactly when to tease her or not as she stumbled over a word. For Victoria to throw that former shortcoming in her face felt as painful and stunning as a hard slap. She swallowed the large lump blocking her throat and stumbled several steps backward. “I’ve never claimed to be a doctor. Can you say you’ve never claimed to be the sheriff?”