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Cassie Lowell's Future MAG
The coming of the train was always a big event in the town of Larger Harperville. Today, it was especially exciting. The entire adult population and most of the children were standing around the station to see who would get off, and those who weren't standing – mostly the children – were lying on roofs and tree limbs and clinging to light posts to get a better look. Even Bush Harper and his gang weren't quite able to look bored and contemptuous at all the hustle. Indeed, Bush looked more angry than anything.
The reason for his expression was clearly visible. Standing next to the sheriff (and two inches taller than him), her peach-colored dress unable to make her tanned skin look pale, was Cassandra Lowell. Her blue eyes were slits as she watched the cloud of smoke grow nearer. She was perfectly aware that anyone who wasn't watching the train was watching her. And why not? The grandson of her grandmother's best friend from school was on this train. Coming especially to improve the town. And to marry her.
Keeping her voice low, she murmured, “Pa, do I ….”
“There's no place for an unmarried girl out here. No respectable place, at least. Lester's a nice young man. I met him when he was 12, before we came out West. You'll be fine with him.”
“I'm already fine.” Her jaw tightened. She was beautiful, in a way, but with her firm jaw and heavy eyebrows she sometimes looked more like a young man than a woman. She looked especially unlovely now, with her jaw jutting and her eyebrows drawn close together.
“Would you like to teach after I'm gone? Or marry one of the local fellows? Don't think I haven't heard how that gambler keeps givin' you money. Sure, it's his honest winnings, I think, but still, givin' it to you ….”
Cassie turned hastily back to the train to disguise a slow flush creeping up her neck. Probably she would like this Lester after all. She stepped back from the cloud of steam, dust, and litter as the train slowed to a stop. The doors opened and the crowd edged closer.
A few people, all more or less dusty, staggered off the train. A gasp ran through the crowd and Cassie spun around. One passenger, at least, had taken the time to neaten himself up. There was hardly a speck of dust on the young man's suit, his cheeks were freshly shaved, and his dark brown hair lay neatly across his forehead. He swung his suitcase and a small bag down and looked around, evidently searching for someone. For a second, no one moved. Those in the front, including Cassie, were stupefied; those in the back hadn't seen him but froze because everyone else had.
Cassie's father – who, as sheriff, must have seen more shocking sights – stepped out of the crowd. “Hello there, young man. You Lester Throckleby?”
“Yes, I am. I am honored to renew our acquaintance, sir.” They shook hands and Cassie saw Lester wince. His tone of voice changed slightly, polite annoyance marring the respect. “I must admit that transportation still leaves something to be desired, but the journey was no worse than I should have expected. And this town …” he scanned it, though he couldn't see much above the crowd. “Charming. Charming. So much potential. A few businesses, some ranches, perhaps a factory, later on-”
Bush Harper – Cassie would have known his voice anywhere – let out a derisive yell that broke Lester's monologue. He was quickly shushed, but Lester seemed to recall the first intention of his visit.
“I- forgive me if I am too blunt, and if this is not the time to discuss it, please tell me.” As no one knew what he was talking about, Lester hurried on. “I was informed that you have a daughter.”
“Yes. This is Cassandra. Cassie, this is Lester Throckleby.”
Cassie held out her hand to shake, but Lester pounced on it and kissed it. She stifled an impulse to jerk it away, wondering how her scarred, rough hand compared with those he was used to kissing. Someone whistled. She could feel her cheeks burning. “So you're Lester? Or should I call you Mr. Throckleby?”
“Lester, please. I am honored to meet you, Cassandra.”
“Come, you must be tired, and I expect you'll want a change.”
“Oh, these are not the clothes I traveled in. I wanted to make a good first impression, but I would indeed welcome some refreshment.”
“Good.” She took him by the wrist and led him down Main Street. Standing stiff and proud, she was almost five inches taller than he. They were halfway down the street before Bush Harper caught up with them.
Bush, for once, was looking very friendly. He surveyed the newcomer and then shook his hand. “Welcome to our town, Mr. Thockelee. I'm Bush Harper. The town's named after me, did ja know? Me an' my family. So I reckon I'm the right one to invite you to our entertainment. Down at the saloon there's good drinks and better gamblin', and a pretty daughter too, though I wouldn' cross words with her. What d'you say?”
Lester looked at Cassie, who shrugged. “It might be fun. We don't have many fights. And the gambling's good, 'specially if you end up with Silence.” He stared at her and she clarified. “There're a lot of good players. Silence is one of the better 'uns. Nobody cheats much, and it's exciting both to watch and to play and … what're you lookin' like that for?”
“Forgive me, madam. I was surprised … you, a lady …”
“Oh.” She could feel herself turning red again. “I don't play much. But I'm real good friends with the barkeeper's daughter, and she'll join in a hand or two. And she tells me a lot. So do the men. I've got a lot of pals here.”
“You associate with a waitress?”
“Who else is there? Come. Bush, either carry his case or scat, would ya?”
Bush, who would not have minded working for Cassie but wouldn't do a lick of work to help her prospective husband, left.
Barely ten minutes later, though, Bush and Mr. Throckleby met again in the saloon. Throckleby, apparently embarrassed by Cassie's treatment of Bush, had insisted on going there at once. He had also insisted that Cassie stop leading him around; it was demeaning. She was hanging so heavily on his arm that his suitcase dragged along the floor as they entered the bar.
She settled him down next to Tom, a cowboy who wandered through town every few months and would have died or killed for Cassie, but was also honest enough to keep a stranger out of trouble. Then she headed to the back room. Tom explained to her annoyed fiancé that Cassie hardly ever stayed to watch the gambling. She didn't care for the smoke and the rough men, and she preferred to stay with Sara or the other waitresses.
Throckleby obviously disapproved, which might have been why Tom proceeded to mercilessly describe how much Cassie liked talking with the lower classes, until someone smacked him lightly.
“Don't you go talkin' that way or he'll be on the first train home! Listen, Cassie's all right. You've just gotta accept, Mr. Throckleby” – the girl sounded out every syllable of the name in a way that was more contemptuous than Bush's mispronunciation – “that there's no room for snobs here. There ain't no classes left; we have friends where we can find 'em.”
Lester hardly seemed to have heard what she was saying. The speaker was a girl of 16, beautiful in a delicate way that contrasted glaringly with Cassie's hard features. She tossed her long gold hair as she saw his glazed expression.
“I'm Sara. Cassie's pal … a bar girl.” Her blue eyes raked him and then she said to Tom, loud enough for everyone in the vicinity to hear, “Reckon he's seriously considerin' my advice, Tom? Can't you just see him decidin' that associatin' with the lower classes might not be so bad after all?” Tom grinned.
Throckleby was turning red and drawing himself up when there was a slight disturbance at the door. A man dressed in black had come in and was surveying everything from under a black cowboy hat. His face, shadowed by his hat, was square-jawed but lean. His skin looked pale in comparison to his shirt.
Bush raised a hand. “Hey, Silence.”
Lester looked surprised. “What was his name?”
The man – from his thin frame he looked to be young – slouched over to lean against the bar. His eyes glinted as he looked Throckleby up and down, but he didn't speak.
Tom took charge. “Silence, this is Lester Throckleby. Lester, this is Silas, but we call him Silence. He don't mind the nickname.” Silence shook his head slightly. Tom continued, “He's the best gambler around. Don't talk much, though.”
Silence nodded and continued to inspect the newcomer. He accepted a handshake and was already glancing longingly toward the card tables when Bush got a strange smile on his face. “Say, Lester, d'you like gambling?”
“Well, I did engage in some card games while I was back East. I would not want to offend anyone if I did too well …” He paused as Silence let out a small snort, and then continued, “but I have no objection to being sociable.”
Bush seized on his remark. “Silence, would you mind teachin' this Easterner the ropes?”
Tom butted in. “We could start him out gentler.”
“Silence doesn't win everythin', do you, Silence?”
Silence shook his head slightly, but there was the faintest smile on his lips. Everyone knew that Silence could beat Bush at any card game.
Throckleby was looking undecided, and Silence seemed quite willing to let him decide. But Bush had one shot left. Lowering his voice, he added to Silence, “He's Cassie's fiancé.”
The gambler gave Bush a long inquiring look, head cocked slightly. Bush sighed and dropped his voice still lower. “Look, I know you an' me don't get along about her. But surely you'll agree that, well, we could work together on this 'n?”
Silence met his suggestion with a long contemptuous look and turned toward the card table, jerking his head in a somewhat inviting manner. Lester, his self-confidence evidently recovered, followed.
Silence shuffled the cards and dealt with his usual lack of conversation. Lester appeared to find this worrying. “I certainly enjoyed my first impressions of the town.”
Silence tossed down a few chips, jerking his head slightly.
“Of course, there is room for improvement.” He studied his cards, pushed forward some chips, and looked up to find Silence staring at him, head slightly cocked and one eyebrow raised. From the way Bush was snickering, Silence had been like this ever since Lester's remark.
Throckleby hastily clarified. “I mean, you have a local store, but you could get many of those things from mail-order. Keep a few necessities on hand, but move to a smaller building and use the space for other things.”
Silence cocked his head again and Throckleby explained. “Like factories. You could bring immigrants out here, start them in factories, and then they could work their way to owning farms. And the farms – if you fenced the range, you could have huge ranches.”
Tom spoke up defensively. “Hard on the cattle. And the cattlemen.”
“But you see, the benefit to all … oh.” He studied the cards on the table. “Well, I'll have better luck next time. Anyway, the benefit to all is worth the cost to a few.” He tossed his cards to Silence. “If we applied this principle to everything, we could have much more efficiency. I mean, it's an extreme example, but back East, marriages are often arranged. An alliance between wealthy families can be cemented by such a match. And love frequently does arise.”
Silence spoke for the first time, making everyone jump. His voice was low and breathy, almost as if he were whispering, though the words were perfectly audible. “That's why you're here, for Cassie?”
Lester looked alarmed and lost another ten dollars to his distraction. “Well, I prefer to regard it as a mutual favor. I will gain a chance to make my fortune in a new place and to make a reputation for myself, and I will also gain a lovely … well …” Silence made a noise between a snort and a growl, and Lester hurried on, “and she'll gain a husband, security, prosperity after a while.”
“What if she don't want one?”
“A husband? But what else is there for her? An educated girl, alone here – how could she survive?”
Tom took up the conversation, since Silence had relapsed into concentration on his cards. “She's a crack shot, and handy with a knife too. And you should see her ride. I think she wants to be a sheriff, like her daddy. She's smart and determined. I reckon she'll find a way to live just like she wants.”
Silence nodded, smiling, and swept in another five dollars. Throckleby hadn't won a single hand. The corners of Silence's mouth lifted. “Perhaps you should quit talking and start concentratin', sir.”
“What? Oh, yes.” But Lester apparently needed to talk, if only to distract himself from the fact that he was as out of place as a snake in a hen's nest. He chatted on about his plans for the West, and Cassie, and the town. “You say there is a Smaller Harperville? But it has more people? Then shouldn't this be-” Bush half-rose, but Silence laid an authoritative hand on his arm, and Lester was quiet. Finally, Silence threw down his cards and stood up. Lester gave him a hurt look until Silence shrugged.
“You've got no money left.”
“Oh. I … well …”
“I don't play on credit. Once you're out, you're done.” He swept the remainder of the money off the table and looked at Lester. The gambler's eyebrows drew together; he seemed a bit troubled. “Come on. I'll walk you out.” He picked up Lester's suitcase.
The evening was turning cool. In a few minutes, the last train would be pulling up to the depot. Silence led the way down the street, away from the bar. Lester trotted to catch up with the man's long strides. “Give me back my suitcase!”
Silence stopped and handed it back. “Now, listen. You have good ideas, I'll grant you that. But you need experience, and more skill with people, and a little less arrogance 'fore they'll come to anythin'.”
“I'll thank you to-”
“Yeah, I reckon you will. It's good advice. You'll find it real hard to live out here with no money. And I know that's my fault, which is why I'm talking to you. Go back East; get some more schooling in dealin' with people, not just theories, and then come back if you want.”
“This-this is about Cassandra, isn't it?”
A long, cool look from under the hat. “Partly. Partly it's the town. Partly it's her. She has freedom out here your Eastern ladies'll never know.”
“You just want her for yourself!”
“Cassandra Lowell will never marry me.” The words were soft, still almost a whisper, and a bit wistful. Silence let the pause become tense and then clapped Lester on the shoulder. “You two would be miserable together. I know Cassie, and I think I know you, and you'd clash.”
“It's Cassie's business too. I reckon you'd better catch your train.”
“Does she know what you've-”
Lester stepped back. “She knew this would happen?”
“She's that desperate to get rid of me.”
“Like I said, it's nothing personal. But your Eastern ladies, I reckon they haven't got much of a life 'til they're widows. Cassie don't deserve that.” His voice grew a little higher-pitched – he must still be quite young. Hastily, Silence handed over Lester's smaller traveling bag. The setting sun glanced off the long scar running diagonally across the back of his right hand.
Lester seemed suddenly riveted on the scar. Silence pulled his hand back. “Bush Harper got a bit overexcited one game. Pulled a knife an' struck before I was ready. We understand each other better now.” There was a hint of laughter.
“I see.” Lester wrenched his eyes from the scarred hand. Silence was watching him closely. It was impossible to tell if he was contemptuous of the man's shock or anxious to see his reaction. Lester licked his lips as the train whistle sounded. “Yes. I think I had better go. I don't think … now that I've had some time, I rather doubt Cassie and I would have gotten along after all.”
In the back room of the tavern, Cassandra Lowell was changing out of the clothes she was wearing when she last met her former fiancé. Sara was sitting on the bed, comforting Cassie unnecessarily about Lester's abrupt departure. Sara evidently didn't miss him at all. “And the way he kept looking at me! He couldn't talk of anything except himself! His plans, his family, his brilliance … I swear he called this his town once! It was disgustin'.”
“Hah. You have nothing to complain about. You only had to listen to him when he wanted another drink.” Cassie hopped around on one foot, trying to get her boot off.
“I don't reckon he'd have been happy here,” Cassie continued. “Not once he found out he couldn't reform the town. Call it Smaller Harperville, indeed!” She laughed and then sobered. “But I'm glad he got his money back. Stuck it in his second bag … what'd he call it? A valise? He'll find it there 'fore long. But I don't reckon he'll be back. Silence taught him a lesson.” She pulled on her skirt and started running her fingers through her hair.
“I should hope so! The way he talked about your looks.”
“Ah, come on, Sara. Don't criticize 'em. So far my eyebrows and jaw have brought me more money than all the tips fer your blue-eyed angelic-ness.” She brought her hands down from her hair and then paused, running her left index finger along the back of her right hand, tracing a scar running diagonally from knuckle to wrist. “I just hope … The way he looked at me that last time … and he did kiss my hand.”
She shrugged, tossing off the worries. Sara was already rolling the black clothes up so they would fit into their hiding place under the floorboards.
Cassie shook her hair down, making sure it showed no signs of the pins. She'd given back this day's winnings, but she still had enough in the bank from Silence's games to buy herself a better gun. Her pistol shot straight enough that she could send a bullet close to Bush's left ear even with her hand cut open; but a rifle was what a sheriff needed. And she'd need to buy more clothes so she could ride and run and chase. And then, once she was ready, she probably could persuade her father to let her be the first female sheriff west (or east) of the Mississippi.
Cassandra Lowell smiled at Sara, straightened her dress, and left the room with a firm stride.